From the moment we tripped over an elderly lady as she got on a train, possibly breaking bones in her wrist, things improved markedly.
In fact, for the number of places we were dragging our three- and five-year-old girls per day, they were doing incredibly well. They were willing to try new foods – the sweeter the better. And if all else fails – there is always rice.
We had the luxury of ten nights in Kyoto, more time than I had ever previously spent travelling in the one city. And while two-and-a-half of those days were eaten up at a conference, in a chilled room to stop the participants from falling asleep, outside was the middle of Japan’s summer, with an average temperature of 33 degrees. Each day there was the threat of rain, but in this most humid of climates, it never eventuated, sitting over us like a damp cloth. There are concerns about water catchment areas falling to record low levels – and from our rainless week in the middle of the rainy season, it is entirely plausible why.
There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, and we had the good fortune to visit more than half of them. We started at Ginkaku-ji, otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion, and as our first stop, were totally blown away. This extraordinary Zen Temple has the stunning forested backdrop of the eastern hills of Kyoto. No words can do it justice, and photos can’t either. I thought I knew how to appreciate moss, but no one does moss like the Japanese. After this we walked along Tetsu-gatchu-no-michi, or the aptly named Philosopher’s Path, and spoke in deep and thoughtful tones about unicorns and rainbows – just an average day in the Nethercote household.
We became pros on public transport, both bus and train, only overshooting our designated stop every fourth trip. This had little impact, given the speed and efficiency of Japanese trains. The privatised network is highly efficient, requires few subsidies, and runs extremely punctually. And the cow jumped over the moon. The Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen runs an average of 54 seconds late per day, and in some years as low as 18 seconds per day. Eighteen seconds is the period of time for which I hyperventilate if a Victorian train arrives on time.
At Arashiyama, we caught the train one stop too far, walked across the walk bridge, and stepped immediately onto the train in the opposite direction. Five minutes later, we were walking through the famous and photogenic bamboo grove, and onto Tenryu-ji, with its magnificent outlook of loud Australian pre-schoolers. Next, we travelled to Ryoan-ji, the most famous Zen rock garden in all of Kyoto. By this stage it was again threatening to rain, was 36 degrees, and the third UNESCO site of the day, and the allure of still dry rocks amongst gravel was somewhat lost on me. The kids found it captivating, or perhaps that transfixed look was secondary to dehydration.
The following day, we got back on a bus, and headed out for the next stop, the Golden Pavilion. As we caught our now familiar bus number five, Suse turned to me.
“This place is so picturesque. This looks just like the Philsopher’s path.”
I looked at my map, and broke into a sweat.
“That is the Philosopher’s path,” I mumbled.
I took us back to Ginkaku-ji. Not Kinkaku-ji.” How stupid. To this day, I’m still not sure how I made such a silly mistake.
Still, it turned out to be a happy accident.
“Well, I had wanted to go to Hasukasonso,” Suse replied.
“It’s the house of Hashimoto Kansetsu, a famous artist.”
“Imagine – you wanting to look at an artist’s house?”
“Can you please look up how close we are?”
I searched on my phone.
“I don’t think we can do it.”
“Because it’s three hundred and sixty metres in that direction.”
Suse swooned the entire way through this house. It was everything she stands for – Zen, gardens, Zen gardens, still ponds, takami mats, stillness, tea houses, moss, and even more moss. Did I tell you they do good moss here?
After that, we headed to the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaji-ji – the place we’d been trying to see in the first place. The Mona Lisa of Kyoto’s Shrines, this shrine is entirely gold plated, and provides postcard perfect pictures. The subject of multiple arson attacks through the years, it was burnt to the ground as recently as 1950, before being built five years later. The thickness of the gold leaf used in the rebuild – five times the original – is a source of conjecture, and unsurprisingly, its ostentation makes it the least ‘Japanese’ of all Kyoto’s shrines.
We ventured to Ukyo-ku, for a river terrace dinner. This was a formal affair, with two real live Meiko – trainee Geishas – for us to meet in person. We were served a seven-course meal, with an assortment of raw products, including fish to eat in their entirety, head first. We bribed the children to stay still while the Meiko performed by offering them refined sugar, which of course had no ramifications on the bus ride home.
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I like to run in each town I visit, and try to pick a route along which I’m least likely to get lost. Waterways are always good, and this time I ran along the Kamo River. I managed to choose the hottest day of our trip, and by 9am, at 35 degrees, it was like a still day in Cairns with pollution. And yet, everyone still wore pants.
We travelled to the Municipal Museum of Art, where we were accosted by the solitary crazy man in all of Kyoto. We’ve seen the rare homeless person, but no evidence of crime. People will chase you two hundred metres down the road to hand back lost children’s detritus, from stuffed cats and rabbits, to bells and trinkets. We’ve heard of friends losing a wallet at a station, to return to find it in the exact same place. We’ve even had people insisting on handing objects to us that we never owned.
From here we travelled to the extraordinary Fushimi-Inari. Inari is the Shinto spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, sake and general success, and as such, is worthy of a hell of a shrine. It comprisese ten-thousand Tori gates, each donated by a Japanese business. It spans four kilometres in total, and sits at the base of a mountain, also called Inari. Each gate is pained red and black, and is infinitely more impressive than the Essendon football team. We found a single older gentleman who was carefully sanding back and repairing a single column. He was working slowly, and understandably looked very tired. I’m pretty sure he buys his paint in bulk.
From here, we poured through the Nishiki fish market, our children poking at squishy sea creatures, and getting away with it because of their blue eyes. People came from nowhere to take photos. We watched turtles on a bridge at the Heian Shrine gardens; strangers offered them bread to feed the turtles. We ate dinner at the Japanese equivalent of the Pancake Parlour; the attendant asked if they could hand out the bills to customers just for novelty. And when we saw blue green algae in the moat of Nijo castle; a crowd of school girls swooned like papparazzi.
Finally, we capped this trip to Kyoto with a return trip to Arashiyama, to a traditional Ryokan. We walked around in pyjamas all day, with matching kids’ sets. Again, we and our children were served a seven course meal – for dinner, and then breakfast the next morning.
“Oh no, Dad,” Harper said, “they’ve brought the raw food again. Can’t I just have toast?”
No, it seems is the answer.
And then, for good measure, we had a hot spring bath in the middle of summer.
After all, this is an extraordinary country of contradictions. The rubbish collectors and cleaners are all immaculate. There is an entrance fee for everything, and yet children are free. I’ve seen women in kimono wearing high heels. This most electronic society on the planet is a cash society, and often refuses credit cards. Along my run, I saw a man, in the Zen capital of the world, clapping at a harmless bird to shoo it away. And as everywhere in the world, young adults smoke, while preening openly in handheld mirrors, unaware of impermanence of beauty and youth.
Our luxurious time in Kyoto was coming to an end, and as a cultural junkie’s singular drug of choice, we felt sated. We had been witness to more exquisite shrines, more rich history, more cultural significance and reverence, in our opinion, than anywhere else on the planet.
But the one thing we didn’t see, the one remaining paradox, in this mecca of thousand year history, of hazy humidity and heat, was the place by the end we most wanted to visit, and which was surprisingly more rare in number than the UNESCO World Heritage Sites: a swimming pool.
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