Kyoto is the city that I most dearly wanted to visit, while in Japan.
Ancient imperial capital and now UNESCO world heritage site, it is said to be the city where you are most likely to see the Japan of your imagination and if you think of Japan as bamboo groves, pebbled gardens, shrines, temples and hidden interiors, Kyoto is where you will meet your fantasy.
Kyoto was, however, not on my work-trip agenda, and for the majority of my week in Japan, the only images of the city for me were the ones I would conjure up reading my Lonely Planet Japan. So I couldn’t believe my luck when my guide made me an offer: would I like to spend the Saturday with her, in Kyoto? Her week with me had officially come to an end, but she thought I’d really enjoy it and therefore offered to me her free time.
Maybe it would have been polite of me to decline, but I couldn’t resist and in no time we were on the train connecting Osaka to Kyoto.
We got to Kyoto reasonably early in the morning, along with the big crowd of Saturday tourist hoping, like us, to get a glimpse of this incredible city. We joined the river of people heading towards the ancient part of town and, leaving behind the neon lights and shops of the station district, we soon found ourselves in the Kyoto of the history books.
The houses, the temples, even the river reminded me of the many books I had read set in Japan (I was reading Murakami at the time) and the incredible foliage of mid-November added to the magic of the place.
I don’t know Japan enough to gauge how authentic Kyoto still is, but I thought it was beautiful, evocative and, to me, a taste of a kind of Japan I hadn’t encountered yet in the high rise offices of the modern cities.
Kyoto is full of temples: it counts over 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 shinto shrines and when you walk down its streets you immediately realise how big this number really is.
Temples, shrines and religious buildings are everywhere:
Along with statues, rivers and gardens:
Walking among the many religious buildings I noticed that many tourists were carrying out acts that, it seemed to be, had ritual meaning. One of them in particular had to do with fountains: I noticed that in the precinct of many temples there were fountains equipped with wooden buckets that people would fill and pour with a certain sequence of gestures. Both Japanese and foreigners seemed to take part and I wondered if the Japanese would consider this offensive: growing up in a catholic country, I was always told religious gestures should never be carried out by a non-believer, and I doubted the many foreigners armed with cameras and backpacks were followers of Shintoism.
But my guide told me I was wrong: she said that in Japan what is really important is the ritual and joining in is considered an act of respect. I didn’t need anything else and soon found myself pouring water in the beautiful surrounding of the religious garden.
My day in Kyoto drew to a close way too soon. The evening chill started creeping on us and we took refuge in one of the many food establishments to get warm with ramen noodles and tea, before heading back to Osaka.
My week in Japan was truly over: in the morning, the bullet train to Tokyo and then a plane to Seoul were expecting me. Kyoto brought to the close one of the most amazing trips I have ever experienced.