The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Kyoto Nights

I spent a week in Japan in 2011. As I was told at the time, it wasn’t long enough. It’s also the only time that I’ve spent in Japan to date, despite my desire and plans to return (blame an eclipse for that). In my defence, I was planning the trip on the run, aware that I was eventually going to run into funding and timing issues. So I figured that spending a week crossing the centre of Japan from west to east would do for a taster.

It wasn’t enough, as the desire to return should make clear. But it was an experience that was endlessly entrancing. For the seven days that I was there, the moments of rest that I had saw me soaking in a culture entirely unfamiliar to me, and the time I spent wandering until my feet ached felt as refreshing as a soak in a deep Japanese bath.

A birthday view of sunrise over Japan.

The Japan section of the trip was dreamlike from the start. I woke up on my birthday and, along with those of the travelling group still on board ship, went up above decks to watch the sunrise. As presents go, the perfect sunrise over the Land of the Rising Sun was a close to perfect as you could ask for. I felt frazzled and exhausted after about a month of travelling, but from that moment I hit a groove that would last most of the rest of the trip.

Landfall was accomplished at Sakaiminato, a small port town set amid gorgeous forests hills, and farewells were said by the few of us who’d shared the past few days on board. As with much of my travels of the previous few weeks, my communication abilities were restricted to saying thank you and please, but that proved enough (along with my multiple ticket and booking printouts) to get me on a train through landscape of fairytale beauty, until I got arrived at a Shinkansen station to take me the rest of the way.

The view from the slow train from Sakaiminato.

There was a bit of a hiccup with regard to ticket prices (my Japan rail card didn’t cover the fastest versions of the Shinkansen bullet trains) but that was quickly smoothed over and I was set on my way at speeds that sent my dodgy camera equipment into a tailspin. Everything looked slanted in the pictures, and while the ride was perfectly smooth, I felt like I ought to be leaning into the speed.

Time dilation effects aside, I’d arrived in Sakaiminato early in the morning, and it was no later than lunchtime when I got off the Shinkansen in Kyoto. The gaps in my forward planning got the better of me again, as the hotel I’d planned to stay in was booked up, but a helpful tourist advice staffer set me up in a nearby ryokan, just south of Kyoto’s city centre and just across the river from the temple district.

Ryokan living. Not pictured—the deep soaking bath in the next room, which I grew to love.

As an introduction to traditional(ish) Japanese hostelry, this turned out better than I could have hoped. Drop the shoes at the door, shuffle into a pair of slippers, shower yourself clean and soak in the deep bath for an hour or so, then sit on the tatami mat in your kimono and watch sumo. That works, doesn’t it?

Once settled, I went a-wandering, getting my first look at the hillside full of temples that sits to the east of the city, as well as the Tokyo-lite neon wonderland of the city centre. If there’s a reason to recommend Kyoto over the other cities I visited, it’s this: you get both sides of Japan living cheek by jowl. There are temples and palaces aplenty, but the city stays alive deep into the night, with pockets of fun to be found if you’re willing to look.

First meal in Japan: herring noodles and my namesake beer.

This hungry traveller fed himself at a Lonely Planet-recommended traditional restaurant that was mostly empty when I ventured in. For the first night at least, I was very much out-of-sync with local sleep-wake scheduling. Fed and beered, I wandered a little more, but my steps spiralled in on my ryokan, where my futon bed and tatami mats awaited me, to be followed by a brief period of unconsciousness, and then followed by an even more welcome breakfast of thick-cut toast and orange juice.

If Kyoto and Japan had been welcoming to the confused traveller the day before, they were now about to entrance me completely. I set out to wander the temples of the city and the hillsides that they sat on, and I proceeded to do so for until sunset caught me with aching feet, far from home. I experienced temples, palaces, and spider webs stretched across entire paths. Bamboo groves and overgrown canals. I got a haircut despite the language barrier, and I sampled many different flavours of ice cream. I fell entirely under Kyoto’s spell, as I suspect many have before me.

The Kinkaku-Ji golden temple, where my day of wandering came to an end.

While my body was refreshed by a soak in the bath on returning to the ryokan, my mind was still fizzing with new experiences, and I ventured out again for a beer in one of the pubs I’d spotted during my earlier explorations. This kicked off several more hours of adventures, as I fell in with a Tokyo-based musician from Louisiana and his local friend, who brought me to a tiny rock bar, around a quarter of the volume of which was taken up with speakers, which proceeded to play Irish music for the rest of the evening as soon as they learned where I was from.

The next day wasn’t quite so Kyoto based. I headed south on a slow train to Uji, site of the Tale of Genji museum. Based around a classic of Japanese literature, this was perfect for a day trip and a dive into the history of Japan, which I’d mostly neglected in favour of immediate experience while in Kyoto. Again, I enjoyed simply roaming this place on the fringes of the greater Kyoto urban area, getting a feel for Japan (and a taste for yet more flavours of ice cream).

Green Tea ice cream. Well worth giving a go.

I couldn’t stay too long though. I’d stuffed my bags into a locker at the train station, for I had plans to continue further south along the line, this time to another ancient capital of Japan, Nara. But that can wait until the next post.

My introduction to Japan had been dreamlike and unceasing, and in Nara I would get a chance to slow the pace a bit and adjust properly. But I had no complaints about my few days in Kyoto. The people had been wonderful, the culture a constant delight, the food and drink next to perfect, and every step brought me something new. I’d already made my first plans to return, and I mean to stick to them.