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Kyoto: Zen and the art of an ancient city

From the Hello Kitty Haruka Express to Heian Jingu Shrine, Gemma Fullam explores one of Japan's most fascinating cities

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Kinkakuji's paradise gardens, which include a flying crane lake and a tortoise island, were designed for strolling and meditating, as Buddha once did

Kinkakuji's paradise gardens, which include a flying crane lake and a tortoise island, were designed for strolling and meditating, as Buddha once did

The Hello Kitty Haruka Express, the shuttle service from Osaka airport to Kyoto's JR station

The Hello Kitty Haruka Express, the shuttle service from Osaka airport to Kyoto's JR station

Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower

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Kinkakuji's paradise gardens, which include a flying crane lake and a tortoise island, were designed for strolling and meditating, as Buddha once did

You know you've arrived in Japan when the airport shuttle is the Hello Kitty Haruka Express, a pristine white loco bedecked with decals of the too-cute anime cat.

It's a 76-minute journey - in true Japanese style, accurate to the second - from Osaka's Kansai airport to the Hiroshi Hara-designed Kyoto Station, a colossal architectural symphony to modernism and Buddhism. (The Japanese say, 'Born Shinto, die Buddhist'. Shinto, the indigenous religion - although, in truth, it's more of a belief system - concerns itself with the material world, while Buddhism, which came to Japan in the sixth century, is about unattachment to same.)

I was in Japan to walk the Nakasendo Way, an ancient route used by samurai and feudal lords that originated in Kyoto at Sanjo-ohashi and ended in Tokyo, at Nihonbashi, and had opted to spend a couple of days, prior to setting off, to acclimatise and explore Kyoto, a city of almost 1.5 million people, and reputed to contain 20pc of Japan's national treasures.

At my hotel, the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Ekimae, part of a chain built to cater for the World Cup influx, I encounter my first all-singing, all-dancing Japanese toilet. These ubiquitous high-tech gadgets have, at a minimum, heated seats, tinkling music to preserve your modesty, water jets for front and rear, and an inbuilt blow-dryer for your bottom. There is a national obsession with hygiene, and most establishments provide a variety of indoor slippers which must be worn in designated areas; it is quite a faux pas to wear one's toilet slippers outside of the loo.

The next morning, having breakfasted on miso soup and hard-boiled eggs, I head for the 7-Eleven's ATM to get some cash (surprisingly, despite its tech-y image, Japan is a cash-driven society, and yen are a must-have in rural areas), then to the station's Karasuma Exit to board a Sky Hop bus. A two-day, hop-on hop-off pass is ¥6,000 (€49), and while it's an ideal way to get an overview of the city and its sights, I am dismayed to discover there's no AC, and the staff insist I sit upstairs, where the open-top roof leaves me at the mercy of the blazing sun and fierce humidity that is typical of September.

The heat proves bearable once the bus gets moving, and having admired from my top-deck perch To-ji Shingon Buddhist temple of Shinsen-en, recognised as having the oldest record of cherry-blossom viewing; and Kyoto Imperial Palace, home of the Imperial Family until they moved to the new capital of Tokyo, I disembark at the Heian Jingu Shrine.

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The vermillion gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine

The vermillion gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine

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The vermillion gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine

The entrance is marked by a 24m-high vermilion torii (shrine) gate, one of the country's largest. (In the mountains of southern Kyoto, you'll find the ultimate torii experience of Fushimi Inari Shrine, a hiking trail of thousands of the orange-red torii, dedicated to the god of rice.) Built in 1895 to mark 1,100 years since Kyoto was made the ancient capital of Heian-Kyo, Heian Jingu's gorgeous garden - designed by Ogawa Jihei, who created the first iterations of the modern Japanese garden - is particularly famous for its cherry blossom (sakura). Enshrined here are two emperors, Kanmu, the 50th emperor, who oversaw the establishment of Kyoto in 794; and Komei, the last emperor to rule from Kyoto before the capital moved to Tokyo.

I ramble on to my next destination, taking shade when I can on the sakura-lined Philosopher's Path to Kyoto's famed Ginkaku-ji temple (Silver Pavilion), which nestles within Zen gardens. A highlight is the mesmerising, and oh-so Japanese 'Sea of Silver Sand', a dry-sand garden with a sand-mountain 'moon-viewing platform' which symbolises Mount Fuji, and is intended to accentuate the beauty of the autumn moon.

Ginkaku-ji embodies the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the art of finding beauty in imperfection, as the temple was never covered with the silver foiling intended by Yoshimasa, the art-obsessed shogun (military commander) who ordered its construction.

Yoshimasa is notable for furthering Higashiyama culture, much of which is recognised today as traditional Japanese culture: tea ceremony, poetry, flower and garden design, and architecture. After the shogun's death, Ginkaku-ji became a Zen Buddhist temple.

The day's heat had me wilting, and I sought refuge in a nearby cafe. One invigorating ice-cold glass of wine and some egg-fried rice later, I ventured on, getting pleasantly lost on the way back to my hotel, passing homeward-bound groups of giggling schoolchildren (even tots seem to walk to school), and ending up, by happy accident in wonderfully atmospheric Gion, famous for being one of the last geisha districts in Japan.

I pass many men and women in traditional dress, but they are not geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) or maiko (apprentices); rather they are visitors to Kyoto, enjoying the experience of wearing a (rented) yukata - summer kimono - as they tour the city's sights. Genuine geisha are elusive, and unless one visits an ochaya, one of the highly exclusive tea houses where they ply their trade of witty conversation, music and dance, the best time to spot one is at dusk, as they click-clack their way to the next appointment.

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Gemma at the gold-leaf-clad temple, which is the most famous landmark of Kyoto

Gemma at the gold-leaf-clad temple, which is the most famous landmark of Kyoto

Gemma at the gold-leaf-clad temple, which is the most famous landmark of Kyoto

My evening is spent exploring 400-year-old Nishiki Market, 'Kyoto's kitchen' a narrow road with culinary delights at every turn, from eel skewers to chocolate croquettes. A wander through one of the many pharmacies underscores the nation's obsession with skin: there is a dizzying array of masks, blemish-removing creams, along with bizarre items like 'shower paper'. Indeed, the many doll-like women I spot are testament to the efficacy of Japanese beauty routines: their skin is glass-like in its smoothness, and their beauty has a hyper-real quality. I stock up with a hopeful spirit, and make my way through the back streets to my hotel: Japanese culture favours conformity for the common good, making it one of the safest countries on the planet for a female tourist.

The next morning, I rejoin the Sky Hop bus to visit the Golden Pavilion, aka Kinkakuji temple, one of the city's most iconic sights. The gorgeous gold-leaf-clad structure was the retirement villa of the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and became a Zen temple after his death in 1408. It was also the inspiration for his grandson Yoshimasa's Silver Pavilion a few decades later. It's breathtaking, but the heaving crowds make me loath to linger.

So it's back on the bus and to Higashiyama district, to visit Kiyomizu-dera (pure water) temple, a structure constructed entirely without nails. In the Edo period, many dived off the Kiyomizu-dera stage in the hope their wish would be granted - apparently 82pc survived the leap. The stage affords a magnificent view of the fall-breaking maple and cherry forest below and the city of Kyoto beyond. My wanderings are unexpectedly curtailed by the arrival of a massive thunderstorm; I leg it back to the bus, and retreat to my hotel.

Dried off and rested, I head to the lobby to meet Venice-born Japan expert Giorgio, my Nakasendo Way tour leader; and my walking companions. Introductions complete, we set off to a Japanese restaurant, traversing the Pontocho district, a labyrinth of tiny, buzzing streets replete with jazz bars and eateries. Giorgio's chosen restaurant, Gion Hanamai, is an insider spot, and its interior resembles a tea room, with tatami mats and sunken seating.

Once seated, and having spoken the traditional blessing, itadakimasu (I humbly receive), dish upon dish of exquisite, unusual flavours arrive, each one in a custom-made bowl or plate designed to enhance the picture-perfect contents. There is an audible collective groan when Giorgio informs us that in Japan, the final course is always rice, and it alone is considered the meal - the preceding dishes are merely appetisers; it is the height of rudeness not to accept or eat the rice.

We find room for a bowl of the sticky white stuff somehow, and then excitedly accompany Giorgio through the warren-like streets to Gion, catching a fleeting glimpse of a hurrying geisha, for all the world like a fluttering butterfly, en route to our destination: the Sanjo-ohashi, a bridge built by samurai warlord and ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the 16th century. The bridge is the beginning (or end, depending on your direction of travel) of the Nakasendo (way through the mountains), and the Tokaido (eastern sea route), two of the famous five routes that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo period of 1603 to 1868.

At the bridge's southwest corner, we encounter the statues of Kita and Yaji, central characters of famous comic novel Shank's Mare, whose fictional adventures along the Tokaido, one of the five routes, was penned by Ikku Jippensha, the Dickens of Japan. He concludes the book's preface with the words, "Now we will start on our journey".

Indeed. The Nakasendo beckons.

* Next Week: Gemma walks the Nakasendo Way

Take Two: Top attractions

Kyoto Tower

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Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower

Kyoto Tower

The white, red and blue 131m Kyoto Tower is visible from most vantage points. Built in 1964, it symbolises a Japanese candle shining down on the traditional, but its detractors have called it "a stake through the heart of the city". Regardless, there's an incredible 360° view from the viewing platform, all the way to Osaka.

Kawaii

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The Hello Kitty Haruka Express, the shuttle service from Osaka airport to Kyoto's JR station

The Hello Kitty Haruka Express, the shuttle service from Osaka airport to Kyoto's JR station

The Hello Kitty Haruka Express, the shuttle service from Osaka airport to Kyoto's JR station

Japanese people love things that are kawaii, 'cute', and 'cuteness culture' is to be found everywhere, from food to clothes to packaging and transport, above. You'll find yourself saying 'Aww' a million times a day!

Getting there

* Kyoto Tour: See walkjapan.com/tour/kyoto-tour. Prices start from £328 (€381) fully guided including Walk Japan tour leader, two lunches, Chado tea ceremony experience and entrance fees. Flight and accommodation excluded. Kyoto Tour routes run throughout November 2019, March, April, May, June, September, October and November 2020.

* Nakasendo Way: see walkjapan.com/tour/nakasendo-way Prices start from £3,484 (€4,033) fully guided including Walk Japan tour leader, 10 nights' accommodation, most meals, luggage transfers and entrance fees. Flight excluded. Nakasendo Way routes run throughout November 2019, March, April, May, June, September, October and November 2020. The company offers an array of tours spread across Japan, ranging from gentle walking to mountain walking and focus on the country's little-known and less-visited regions allowing travellers to discover more about the culture of Japan.

* Gemma explored Kyoto on her own.

NB: This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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