A fortnight before we’re due to leave for cherry blossom season in Kyoto, we get the news that global warming might have claimed yet another victim. Because of the unseasonal warmth, the trees are blooming earlier than expected and, with non-refundable tickets and hotel bookings, there’s little else to do but pray that the blossoms will wait for us.
Clearly, someone up there loves us. By the time we leave Delhi for Tokyo to catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, the trees are close to full bloom. As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Japan will tell you, there are two perfect seasons during which to visit Kyoto: in late September when the leaves turn red and in March/April during the sakura or cherry blossom season. Celebrated as hanami, or flower-viewing time, this is when hordes of Japanese congregate at the many cherry blossom-lined parks to ooh and aah over their beauty, take photographs on their Nikons, contemplate the transient nature of beauty and life and — I suspect, most important — consume vast quantities of sake.
The sakura season coincides with April 1 — the day when hundreds of thousands of freshly minted graduates begin their careers with various Japanese corporations, jobs they are likely to hold until their retirement at 60. The number of recruits is down this year. Still, many of the lucky ones who have been hired now await their first official assignment: to stake out a vantage spot beneath one of the cherry blossom trees for the annual outdoor office party later in the evening. All over Kyoto, eager-eyed graduates in their new black suits and fresh haircuts lug crates of Asahi beer to be laid out neatly on identikit blue plastic mats under one of the hundreds of flowering trees.
Life is beautiful. Kyoto lies at the heart of the Kansai region. The imperial capital between 794 and 1868 (before Tokyo), it’s often compared to Paris, London or Rome. My trusty Lonely Planet guide ranks it as “one of those cities that everyone should see at least once in their lives”. This is advice that is taken seriously; according to some estimates 100,000 tourists — mainly Japanese — visit every day.
But Japan is nothing if not a country of contradictions, where a highly developed aesthetic sensibility can happily co-exist with the bizarre kitsch of Hello Kitty and where a rapidly ageing population seems permanently fixated on ‘cute’.
The contradictions abound in Kyoto too and my first glimpse from the railway station is, in a word, disappointing. But Kyoto’s beauty is not always apparent; it reveals itself in stolen, unexpected glimpses. Our taxi whizzes past depressingly plastic department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya, and then, out of nowhere, we pass by the wooden structure of a torii gate and get a fleeting, heart-stopping glimpse into the exquisite garden of a small shrine.
Yuji Osaki, an old friend, is our personal guide, philosopher and friend during our time in Kyoto. He’s been here-done that, several times over. Now he tells us that our best chance of spotting a geisha — the real McCoy — is right here in Kyoto. In the local dialect, however, they are referred to as geikos. Apparently there are only 80 or so geikos left in Japan, most of them in Kyoto. To spend an evening in the company of one of these fair women could set you back by $3,000 — for which privilege you can expect to hear a few ballads, a musical instrument or two, and have them light your cigarette.
I find it hard to spot a woman in a kimono, much less a true-blue geiko, not even when Osaki takes us to Ponto-cho, a tiny lane studded with all manner of restaurants in traditional wooden houses. Ponto-cho is the site for the biannual traditional geiko dance held in spring and autumn. But on the night that we are there, the only kimono-clad woman we see is the one who serves us dinner, stirring thin strips of beef and vegetables in a simmering broth (which we will later drink as soup) for a few seconds before placing them on our plates to dip in various sauces. The photographs of the menu placed outside the restaurant come with a statutory warning: “These are samples. Please understand.” The names of meals have haiku-like dimensions; there’s tsuki-akari (image of moonlight), which translates into a considerably more prosaic boiled vegetables, tofu, sashimi and miso soup.
Kyoto’s cuisine is clearly a highlight. Japan Airlines serves it as its showcase Japanese meal on the flight in. But if there’s only one meal you’re going to eat in Kyoto, let it be kaiseki — an art of cuisine that is as renowned for its presentation as its taste. Kaiseki isn’t cheap, but — here’s a handy tip — lunch is significantly less expensive than dinner, with none of the quality compromised. My nine-course kaiseki lunch at a traditional Japanese restaurant overlooking an enclosed garden began with a broad bean dumpling in bean curd skin cream, progressed via three kinds of seasonal sashimi and grilled crab, shiitake mushroom, gingko nut and gluten soy bean to end simply with steamed rice, miso soup and pickles. Each course came in a different porcelain platter more beautiful than the last. And the meal was so light that, two hours later, I was ready to eat again.
A word of warning: Kyoto is one of the world’s most culturally rich cities with over 1,600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines (86 per cent of all Japanese follow both religions with no sense of contradiction: Shinto is Japan’s original religion with matters pertaining to this world and this life; Buddhism is for matters of the soul and the next world). Of these many shrines and temples, 17 have been designated Unesco World Heritage Sites.
The key to seeing these temples and shrines is judicious choosing. We zero in on four. The first is the Ryoanji temple with its famous rectangular Zen garden — no trees here, only 15 randomly located rocks placed on white gravel. The story goes that you can only see 14 of these rocks at any given point of time no matter from which angle you look at them; only the truly enlightened can see all 15 together.
So, I’m not enlightened. No matter, the walk to the temple around the pond comes close to nirvana. It helps that it’s drizzling, the trees are a fresh green and the sakura in perfect bloom.
For sheer razzle-dazzle there can be few temples to beat temple #2, which is the Golden Pavilion or Rokuonji temple, located bang in the middle of a lake. Once the villa of a powerful shogun who abdicated in 1394, this temple encompasses three types of architecture: the first floor is in a palace style; the second is in the style of a samurai house and the third floor is a Zen temple. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf on lacquer. As with the Ryoanji temple, the grounds and gardens are exquisite. But as I pass by the small offerings stalls, I can’t help but smile at the sweets wrapped in Hello Kitty boxes.
By the time we get to temple #3, Kiyomizu Dera, I suspect I’ve had my fill. It doesn’t help that it’s a Sunday morning and the narrow souvenir shop-filled road leading to the temple is packed with Japanese devotees dressed in their Sunday best (finally, a few kimonos in sight). The Buddhist temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous landmarks, located on a hill from where you can get as good a photograph as you’re going to get on your camera.
Temple #4, Sanjusangen-do, to my untrained eye is designed to impress with 1,001 statues (1,000 of them standing, the central one is seated) of the Buddhist deity Kannon. Remarkably, these 12th- and 13th-century statues made of Japanese cypress wood remain in pretty good condition.
Several centuries removed from the temples and the shrines is the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the first (and presently only) cultural manga facility in all of Japan. More library, less museum, it houses a collection of three lakh items, mainly comics, related to manga. The museum guide outlines the significant role of manga in Japanese culture. Manga, it says, are found in picture scrolls produced in the Heian period (794-1192) and it is “extremely meaningful that there is a manga museum in Kyoto, a town where traditional culture still thrives”.
Predominantly Japanese — look out for the small English collection on the middle shelf as you enter — the museum includes a manga studio where graduates of the Kyoto Seika University give manga drawing demonstrations.
Also removed from the serenity of Kyoto’s temples and gardens is the mad hustle of Nishiki market, where the old jungle saying goes: “There’s no kind of food that you can’t find at Nishiki.” As I wander around, I discover all kinds of fabulous (and frequently weird) food — from fugu fish skin and grilled sparrow to wagashi (Japanese sweets) and tofu skin milk doughnuts. I make my way through the crowd, stopping to buy fresh wasabi and nibble on such tiny snacks as grilled tuna throat.
Nishiki was established over 400 years ago when merchants would visit Kyoto’s Imperial Palace with local products, fish and game. To keep their products fresh, they used the freezing underground water beneath Nishiki, which even today guarantees the freshness of fish. My stroll through Nishiki ends with lunch at an oden stall. Oden is a seaweed-based stew filled with all sorts of wonderful things from octopus tentacles to deep-fried tofu. Washed down with hot sake, the lunch signals the end of my day.
Few places in Japan, writes Pico Iyer in The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, are as “self-consciously Japanese as Kyoto”. Even today it is preserved as a kind of shrine, ‘the country’s Greatest Living National Treasure’.
Tokyo and Osaka stand out as the great testaments to modern urbanity with impossibly high buildings all steel, chrome and glass, from the tops of which you can see endless lines of neon. Kyoto is slower, gentler. Its beauty creeps up on you in sudden flashes and time seems to have little meaning when you get into the flow of seasons and the changes they bring every year.
Even the language is different, slower, more feminine. There’s none of the guttural, male arigato (thank you) here. The word expressing thanks is okini, and if you’re a woman you stretch out the ‘o’. I try out the new word, but it comes out too fast. “No, no,” says my taxi driver-turned-translator, “This is Kyoto, say it slowly. Make it sexy.” I try again, stretching out the o and get it right, “O-o-o-kini.”
Outside on the street, Japanese mothers push babies in strollers and couples walk hand in hand. What could be more perfect than that?