Almost exactly five years ago a friend and a younger, happier and more idealistic version of myself visited Japan, spending 10 days in Kyoto. I have since come back twice to the archipelago, but never to Kyoto. These are my memories, five years on.
The bottle was called Triangle. God knows what kind of firewater it was; suffice to say that it felt like gin, with a powerful hint of aftershave. I remember the bottle clearly, it looked like some kind of posh extra-virgin olive oil they sell in organic shops, but it clearly wasn’t anything you’d like to garnish your salad with.
Given its gin-like qualities we asked the mamasan for a lemonade. She, much to our surprise, didn’t bat an eyelid, cut a monstrous lemon and squeezed it entirely into a jug of soda. That sorted, we got down to business, which meant getting completely rat-arsed in a tiny izakaya just outside Ueno station in Tokyo, trains booming above us.
The following day is painfully bright: the skyscrapers gleam in the brilliant sunlight, and you’d be excused to think that you could see all the way down to Siberia, if you were high enough. But we, wobbling legs and jackhammers happily going about in our heads, we weren’t going up high. Rather the contrary, actually: waiting on a platform, after a painfully long negotiation with a ticket agent, we were about to catch our Nozomi espress service to Kyoto.
Much has been said about Shinkansens and their prodigious efficiency, so I won’t add my two cents of incredulity. In fairness, Europe has caught up and Germany, France, Spain and Italy all have good, reliable and quick high-speed trains, but none of them come close to Japan when it comes to frequencies. We had lost a train, but we didn’t have to wait more than 20′ to catch another one, and this was only one kind of service: there were another two plying the same Tokyo-Osaka route.
The views were somewhat limited due to the tunnels and ranged between cities and dense bamboo forests. Only once I glimpsed the view of a traditional Japanese hamlet, all wooden houses with curved roofs, but it was the briefest of encounters. As it happened, we arrived in Kyoto not quite knowing what to expect.
The hostel for our first night was called Gojo Annex, in the Gion neighbourhood. Getting there took some time and considerable swearing, so when we finally got in the room we didn’t quite had the time to savour where we were. The place was an old house, all parfumed wood and plenty of charm, and we had a tiny Western-style room with bunk beds. We were tired, sweaty, hungover and it was almost dusk: time to pop open the beers.
We sat on the beds and, finally, looked at our windows: they were facing west, filled with the rays of the dying sun. Everywhere we could see we could just see tiled, curved roofs, pagodas and tiny lantern. Somewhere a bell rang. We looked at each other, grabbed the beers and just rushed out: after a week in the concrete-and-neon lights of Tokyo, this was exactly what we wanted to see.