Chill out in Kyoto

by Stuart.George

Kyoto is Japan’s prettiest city and an ideal base for exploring central Japan

After four nights in Tokyo, it was time to hit the road. I originally planned to stop in Nagoya but instead pushed on to Kyoto, where I spent three very pleasant nights at a youth hostel. I dropped off my bags when I arrived and went off to explore Kyoto for the day. When I returned my bags had disappeared. 'Where’s my luggage?’ I growled at the friendly Japanese man at reception. ‘I’ve put them upstairs in your room, and made your bed also,’ he replied sheepishly. I explained to him that I wasn’t really used to such impeccable service in youth hostels and had instead assumed that my bags had been stolen.
My hosts’ English was largely fluent, but they didn’t quite translate everything accurately. In the Japanese style living room, complete with tatami floor and shoji screens, there was a spoon specifically for stirring coffee – a ‘ mixed up spoon’ in fact.  And if you weren’t acclimatising well to the Japanese way of life, ‘Those who don’t like to observe the above rules will be rejected to use the facilities’. On a Shinkansen train there is a choice between a ‘Japanese style’ and a ‘Western style’ toilet. For those unused to a ‘Western style’ loo, there are written and pictorial instructions. No translation needed.
Despite the intensely cold weather during my stay, Kyoto is undoubtedly the most pleasant city in Japan. Although it has suffered in the name of modernisation, like virtually every other Japanese city, it emerged unscathed from World War II, a remarkable escape considering that it was on the list of potential targets for the Atom Bomb.
The city centre is largely modern and sterile, but the Gion district to the east is quite lovely, with traditional wooden houses and cobbled lanes set against woodland covered hills dotted with temples. The 740-year-old Sanjusangen-do temple hall contains 1001 gilded statues that protect the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Kannon. At first glance they all appear to be identical, but each statue has subtle differences in its face, clothes or jewellery. It is a truly awe-inspiring spectacle to see these 1001 golden statues lined up inside the 123-metre long hall. 
The 67 tonne Daisho-ro bell – Japan’s largest – inside the Chion-in temple complex is also an impressive sight. It requires 17 priests to ring the bell on New Year’s Eve. Gion is also home to the majority of Japan’s enigmatic geisha. I was intending to stroll around Gion one evening to try and spot one of these elusive creatures but I’m afraid that the cold weather defeated me.
From my base in Kyoto, I was also able to visit  Osaka – Japan’s third largest city and yet another ugly metropolis, but an immensely wealthy one at that: its Gross Domestic Product exceeds that of Australia. The castle Osaka-Jo somehow survived the heavy bombing inflicted upon the city during the war, although it had already been rebuilt once before in 1931, and it now has an elevator inside its main tower. The castle walls are very impressive, however, with a single 130-tonne rock in the wall at the Sakura-mon gate. And the blossoming plum trees in the castle grounds were a wonderful sight, with hordes of tourists - yes, they get Japanese tourists here too – taking photographs. I also saw the Kirin Plaza, featured in Ridley Scott’s film Black Rain.          
I visited Kobe briefly, which has recovered from the 1995 earthquake in a remarkably short space of time, and also went to Nara, home to a huge 15-metre-tall Buddha statue, parts of which are an extraordinary 1300 years old. The statue here is housed inside an immense hall that is the world’s largest wooden building.
The temple is surrounded by a park filled with tame deer that are relentless in their pursuit of food from well-fed tourists. I escaped harassment from the deer but was ambushed instead by a group of schoolchildren who insisted on practising their English and then having their photograph taken with me. Somewhere in Japan is a picture of a rather bemused Englishman in his beloved Aston Villa hat, surrounded by students doing the typically Japanese ‘V’ sign. I was ambushed again on the train back to Kyoto, this time by a gentleman who told me that he was 70. Young or old, the Japanese are invariably friendly.