Japan: Kyoto's garlands and pathways
From the Daimonjiyama hilltop overlooking the city, Kyoto in the sunset has the dimly lit charm of a spotlit rock garden. The carpet of rooftops reflects like quartzite with patches of hill breaking it up, cutting the city into quiet neighbourhood pools.
We had taken a bus to the north-eastern city suburb of Higashiyama and walked a leg of the 2km Philosopher's Path. Lined with gushing cherry blossom at this springtime of year, this canal-bank footpath was named in honour of the great Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who would do his best thinking while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. Tucked in behind quiet leafy laneways of ornamental residential calm, we find the trail and climb, passing students, hillwalking clubs and other day-to-day Kyotoites enjoying their city.
It's my second time in Kyoto and my return finds the city's charms no less potent. Like New York or Seville, it just feels like one of those places that you want to experience life in, even just for a fleeting couple of months, before you die.
More than any other city in Japan, Kyoto is the one that sings to something deeper inside. It is the one that has best preserved its old architecture and customs in a century where post-war Japan has been utterly obsessed with tearing down the remnants of its older days and erecting a shiny and fiercely modern identity. Still you find the tea houses, the babbling fountains in small Shinto shrines and the clacking wooden sandals of scurrying geisha. Here, these things ring that bit brighter than they do anywhere else. The bowing spirits of Japan, of Hokusai and Kurosawa, live on just a little more persistently in Kyoto.
To be here during the cherry blossom season amplifies these effects to another degree altogether, almost jarringly so. It is the reason that the city finds itself so besieged during these heady weeks in the calendar when simple splodges of floral pink from the national tree light up the nation like a birthday cake.
On my last visit five years previously, I stumbled upon an effortlessly cool conveyor-belt sushi joint called Musashi that played Miles Davis and served cold beer with its sumptuous wares. We arrive there on a Thursday evening and find a queue out the door that is thronged with sakura tourists who have caught on. We are eventually seated at the counter and stacks of small empty plates immediately start to grow like bamboo as eyes and bellies run amok.
Because you're in Japan, there are almost too many options available when it comes to filling a stomach. In between the international high-street shop fronts are the lengthy city centre market halls of Teramachi Dori. Here, you won't find quite the same epicurean bonanza of Osaka but you will find enough to cause a heated argument with your significant and equally peckish other. Ramen joints for something quick and easy, barbecue restaurants for meaty decadence, family-run izakayas that greet you with the sight of tipsy salarymen taking the edge off after a long Tuesday. You can, however, loosen wallet and belt and go for something altogether extraordinary.
Stroll over to the riverside Ritz-Carlton Kyoto and you're met with water, rock and polished marble assembled with stunning taste and cleanliness into one of the most incredible hotel environments ever dreamt up by an architect. Our lunch here in their flagship restaurant Kaiseki Mizuki, a simple philosophy holds - five flavours, five colours, five cooking methods.
You've left behind a world where food is a thing that goes in and delivers a bit of nutrition and a nice flavour to your palette. This is artistry without pretension that makes you question what you really know about food. We love to think we have a good grasp of what is out there, what goes together, where in your homeland does the best this or that and how to rustle up something above average. A lot of this goes out the window in establishments such as these as your mouth happily negotiates combinations of texture and flavour that you never imagined could work so well.
Wasabi with strawberries, cherry blossom tempura and lotus root, soy milk skin and conger eel, clam and egg yolk are just some examples. Each of our seven flamboyant plates arrives like a mini event, but with that typical Japanese sweetness underlining the service. Our wine glasses, meanwhile, are filled with a selection of chilled green teas, each displaying different complementary characteristics and fragrances.
The plan the following morning is to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace that lies in the verdant city centre parklands. If we get up early, however, we can beat the tourist rush and get down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, also known as the Fox Temple. Here, framing every metre of a large hillside circuit of pathways, are thousands of bold vermilion "torii" gates. Fox imagery is used throughout to reference the spirit messengers of the Shinto god Inari.
We get there just as dawn is breaking and have only one or two other early risers to share the Fox Temple's otherworldy ambience with. We climb and descend on undulating pathways straddled by gate upon gate. Together, they create a hypnotic corridor that feels like a portal, and yet you're ever aware that each individual gate, donated by a family or business, has a story.
By the time we leave, the sun is up and the droves are arriving. We push through and make for the Imperial Palace and the crisp splendour of those landscape gardens, precisely raked gravel courtyards and swooping eaves and gables.
For 1,200 years, these magnificent grounds at the heart of Kyoto and the collection of buildings crouched in the middle of them was the seat of Japanese imperial power. Then, in 1868, the Emperor relocated to Tokyo which, of course, is still the capital to this day. With our departure from the city soundtracked by talk of a return visit, our only conclusion is that he really should have stayed where he was.
Hilary flew with Turkish Airlines, which has a daily service to Tokyo Narita from Dublin via Istanbul (connections are usually no longer than three hours). Prices for round-trip economy class Dublin-Istanbul-Narita begin at €596 (including taxes). Business class travel prices for the same route start at €1,932 (including taxes). See turkishairlines.com.
From Tokyo to Kyoto: Purchase the JR Railpass online or through your travel agent before arrival. This covers most rail travel in Japan and will save you a fortune.
The Kaiseki Mizuki restaurant is located at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto. For more information on menus and accommodation rates, see ritzcarlton.com/kyoto.
Sunday Indo Living