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Published: November 20th 2019
As we disembark from the bullet train after a remarkably comfortable and smooth 2 hour journey speeding across the 400km from Hakone, we finally set foot in Kyoto - our last stop in Japan. Kyoto used to be the old seat of Japan’s Imperial Court; it is home to ancient emperors, the mysterious world of the Geisha, numerous breathtakingly beautiful temples and shrines and is known as the cultural capital of Japan as well as an internationally renowned center for higher learning.
We step into this dazzlingly historical and culturally rich city and into the beautiful sunshine...
“Looks like Calais,” says Charlie.
“Smells like it too.”
As we strolled through the Kyoto streets and along the river Charlie was forced to admit that his first impressions were wrong, but it’s fair to say that Kyoto is a different world from the regimented, modern, gleaming streets of Tokyo. It is slower, more relaxed and, yes, a little shabbier. But, with it, more charming and much more forgiving. In Tokyo you feel constantly in the way; in Kyoto you get the impression that there’s nowhere you need to be but ambling along at your own pace and enjoying life.
And enjoy it we have. The autumnal colours and the vast number of Japanese tourists dressed in rented kimonos (and posing for intensive photo shoots where their friends/boyfriends crouch on the floor and take endless pictures of them looking pensively away from the camera) provide very Japanese-looking photo opportunities. My thought is that if they’re going to dress up and pose in tourist-heavy spots then they’re fair game for a photo, but Charlie says that sneaking photos of strangers is creepy; we all know that his opinions are misinformed, though.
A real highlight of our whole trip thus far was the cooking class we attended on our first morning in Kyoto. We learned to make dashi, a special Japanese stock made from Bonito (fish) flakes and seaweed, and used as the base for soups and ramen and to season and cook all sorts of other dishes. With this we made our own tofu (ridiculously easy and actually really tasty, even Charlie agreed), Japanese rolled omelette, sushi and shabu-shabu hot pot with thin slices of beef and packed with veg. This vast quantity of food was cooked from 10 to 12 am, with the expectation that we would eat
it as we went along. Additionally our lovely hosts and teachers were incredibly proud to show us their Soju collection (traditional Japanese alcohol distilled from various different grains and vegetables, around 35-40% ABV) and very eager for us to try a selection. The end result was a wildly competitive and delicious morning, and the two of us staggering away full and half cut before midday.
Our other food experiences in Kyoto have been just as tasty. On our first, and only, rainy evening in Japan we went in search of a highly reviewed Gyoza restaurant and took a wrong turn; by the time we realized that we were in the wrong establishment it was too late, as it was just us and the two chefs and Charlie had already managed to drip water onto their beautifully handwritten menu, leaving a big splotch in the pristine black ink. Being the awkward brits we are, we felt far too embarrassed to leave and thank goodness we didn’t; with no English menu (and no intact Japanese one either, after Charlie’s faux pas) we went with whatever they recommended and were faced with a feast including gorgeously fresh sashimi, barbecued “fugu” or puffer
fish (“isn’t this stuff poisonous?” I asked. “No no, he is very careful when he prepares it,” was the reply - gesturing to the chef who had, only minutes before, proudly told us that he has already drank an entire bottle of Shoju that evening) and steamed whole oysters. They were an affable pair and were shocked to find out we are both doctors “on tv English doctors are very big and strong” they said, looking accusingly at our clearly disappointing physiques.
It’s amazing that with all this eating, drinking and strolling we had time for anything else, but we did manage to squeeze in visiting some temples and shrines. A walk around two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara, a 50 minute train ride from Kyoto, was suitably impressive with numerous ancient Buddhist and Shinto shrines. Within the Nara Park there are wild deer roaming free, as they are seen traditionally as messengers from the Gods; back in samurai time harming or killing one of the deer was a beheading offense and they are still a protected species in Japan. You can buy special deer crackers to feed them and we were sternly warned not to give them
any human food. Apparently eating human food (which is very bad for them) just once will give them a taste for it, and they then cause huge problems going into shops and stealing it. If a deer is caught eating human food it is taken to “deer prison” and a tag is put on its foot, before being released on a final warning. If it becomes a repeat offended then that’s it- back to deer prison. With this in mind you can imagine our horror when we saw a Spanish lady feeding a group of deer some cake and essentially condemning them to a life in prison. Clearly once you try snacks you never go back.
Writing this in the car on the way to the airport, following a last minute sake tasting (which will hopefully make the time on the plane pass a little quicker), I can’t quite believe that the first leg of our trip is over. We are heading off to destination number 2: New Zealand. Japan has been such an exciting, fascinating, thrilling, extraordinary experience and one that we will certainly always cherish.
There seems to be only one appropriate sentiment to conclude it
all: goodbye, and thanks for all the fish.
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