Big in Japan (Part II)

Kyoto station is out of this world. It is an attraction eleven stories high, packed with shops, bars and quality restaurants with views over the city. It has a very futuristic design with a curvy metal roof and “sky walkways“. You can walk slowly up there and enjoy the stunning night view of Kyoto. Underneath is another endless underground mall with its own ‘restaurant street’. I have never seen a train station that is a fun place to hang out. And people do: they go to the station to have a romantic dinner. Kyoto made what is in many cities a magnet for street crime into a popular local hotspot. It says a lot about how the Japanese manage their society: planning, design, cleanliness, quality.

Kyoto is a more compact city than Tokyo. It has a relaxed atmosphere and people seem less stressed and hurried. It is a perfect place to cycle as it is mostly flat with reasonable traffic. In Tokyo, cyclists were going on side walks which was always confusing to me.

It was the beginning of the blossom season in Kyoto and I was lucky to see blossoming trees around the colorful shrines and temples I visited. There are hundreds of them, so again get the Lonely Planet and pick what you want to see. Before leaving the city, I stopped at Fushimi Inari Taisha, a series of orange arcades that make up a shrine on a mountain. One temple and one shrine, that was it for me. I walked around Nishiki, the city’s public market where I tried a variety of exotic pickles, fish, meat and sweets. Rain was my excuse to spend long hours there and taste all I can eat.

In the evening, I strolled down Gion, the geisha district, hoping I see one. I managed to get a glimpse of two who vanished quickly behind closed doors. A geisha is a traditional female entertainer (not prostitute) for men. Her work includes talking about arts, music, poetry, politics and also dancing. Not too far from this quarter are many nice bars in alleys – most of them with a cover charge. 

At the base of Kyoto’s mountains to the west is the Arashiyama Bamboo forest, reached by walking through a temple. It is a perfect place for photos, with the rays of light falling through the very tall bamboo trees. I gave it up soon enough though, as it turned out to be impossible not to have a tourist taking a selfie in the picture. Next to the forest is an amazing Japanese garden, built by a famous Japanese samurai-actor in the sixties. It is endless perfection, with plants manicured and positioned to flank the most beautiful views of Kyoto while you make your way on a meandering garden path. The amount of work that must be put into keeping it neat and pretty is unbelievable. 

On my last sunny day in the city, I joined a group of Japanese who were having a short getaway in Kyoto. We took a three-hour boat trip gazing at the beautiful scenery in the valley, watching trains passing on bridges above the river; trees covering the mountains on both sides – it reminded me a bit of Nahr Ibrahim in Lebanon – until we arrived back to Kyoto.

Four days later, it was time to go. While waiting for the subway to catch a bullet train to Osaka, a couple of 7 or 8 year old kids in their school uniforms were taking the bustling subway by themselves. I looked around, there were no adults with them. I was almost tempted to ask them if they were lost or looking for their parents. Then I understood that it is common (and safe) for very young children to meet their parents everyday after school. 

Thirty minutes in the Shinkansen and here I was in Osaka (about 55 Km away). It is amazing how much distance doesn’t matter when you have a functioning transportation system. This reminded me painfully of all the hours I wasted in traffic jams in Beirut. At Christmas it took me up to two hours to get from Hamra to Ashrafieh (7 km) by car – totally insane.

More on Osaka and other places in my next post!

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