Chicago Addick living in Bermuda
Wednesday 5 December 2007
  Kyoto 京都市 The bullet train (Shinkansen) is a magnificent example of a country investing in it's infrastructure. Opened in time for the 1964 Olympics, Japan Railways (JR) were privatised in 1987. Central to the reform at the time was that the new private companies were profitable and unlike Britain, the operating companies also own the lines, trains, stations and so on ensuring total responsibility is taken by one company. This does mean high ticket prices but the Japan's success with their railways proves people will pay for efficiency, quality, safety and speed.

In 40 years the Shinkansen has carried 6 billion passengers and in that time there has never been a passenger fatality due to derailments or collisions (including earthquakes and typhoons) and only once did a train actually derail, during the 2004 Chūetsu Earthquake. No one was injured.

Trains run regularly at 190mph and in 2003 a JR bullet train recorded a world speed record of 361 mph. My favourite stat though is that the Shinkansen's average arrival time is within six seconds of the scheduled time! And if the train is more than a few minutes late, Japan Rail employees greet passengers with notices apologising for the delay, so they can pass them onto their bosses. Love that.

We got the train from Odawara, not far from Mt Fuji, to Kyoto. Kyoto station is the countries 2nd largest train station and the huge building is like a city in itself and includes a tourist office which was our first stop. Our first couple of nights in Kyoto we stayed in the east of the city at The Miyako Westin hotel. The books call it the grande dame of Kyoto hotels, I would call it a grande dump.

In complete contrast, on our last night in Kyoto we stayed at a ryokan and what an amazing experience that was. Ryokan's are imbued with the traditional culture of Japan. These inn's date from the Edo period and feature multi-purpose rooms measured by tatami's (mats). Doors slide, there is lots of cedar wood and stonework, all extremely minimalistic and we were looked after as if kings by our very own personal nakai. Upon arrival we removed our shoes and were served tea. A very hot bath was run for us, using extremely hot water from a nearby hot spring (onsen) and then after a good dip we slipped into our traditional yukata and relaxed.

Dinner was phenomenal, 12 or so heaveningly tasting and beautifully presented dishes, called kaiseki, plus sake all served to us by the wonderfully attentive Keiko. The meal and total experience was nothing like I had known before. Then after dinner our dining room was completely cleared away with the minimum of fuss and a bedroom was created ready for an early night of peace and tranquility with a rather full stomach.

Then at 7am we were woken by Keiko and once the room was re-arranged again we were treated to another full-blown banquet for breakfast. I was rather kicking myself for given it the biggun' when we checked in and asking for a traditional Japanese breakfast (raw fish, pickled vegetables and tofu) and forgoing the muffins, coffee and eggs!

The simple elegance and impeccable service was absolutely top quality. People know I like to have a good old moan about hotels and their service but honestly this place was amazing. We only stayed the one night because a) it was not cheap and b) I don't know how you could possibly be pampered and eat so much food two nights running!

As a home to artisans shopping in Kyoto for more traditional items is much better than in Tokyo. We were recommended a road called Kawaramachi Dori by our hotel to seek gifts, which we did. The areas around Shinmonzen Dori, Shijo Dori and Sanjo Dori are also excellent for browsing but if you want a one-stop-shop then visit the Kyoto Craft Centre, you won't be disappointed.

Take a walk through the eye-popping Nishiki Market (right) to watch the locals buy their week's provisions. Goods of all descriptions and some I couldn't possibly decribe fall out onto the street. There are samples aplenty but if you are picky be careful, as often you won't know what you've just eaten.

I adored Kyoto, whereas Tokyo was very obviously culturally different, it was after all a huge and busy city, like many others on the planet. Kyoto hasn't escaped the modern world but this is also the centre of the Japan's heritage and you can see it everywhere.

Kyoto was Japan's capital for more than 1,000 years from 794 to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when it went to Tokyo. Originally known as Heian-kyo, the city was and still is, laid out in a grid pattern borrowed from the Chinese with streets running north, south, east, and west. And there I was thinking the American's thought of that! The city is historically very significent and was spared during World War II. You cannot turn a street corner without seeing a beautiful temple, shrine, traditional wooden homes called machiya or an imperial palace.

Ginkakuji (The Temple of the Silver Pavilion) by the pretty canalside Walk of Philosophy, Nanzenji built in 1264 with its beautiful gardens and fabulous buddhist restaurant (go for another wonderful experience) Kenninji, which was the first Zen temple to be established in Japan, and Chionin, with it's 80ft gate, were just four temples we spent some time at - there are over 2,000 altogether!

History smiles at you from every corner, there are 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto and walking around places such as Gion, Arashiyama with it's lake and Gion with it's canals transport you not only to another era but a different world.

At night the areas of Shinmonzen and Gion are alive with activity. Gion Corner is a touristy but easy way to see Kyoto's various arts. Tiny bars and cafes sit next to lavish restaurants, tea houses (ochaya) and some less than salubrious joints where I believe Japanese men find their fun before heading off to the capsule for the night.

My lasting memory of Kyoto though was mooching around the cobbled streets of Hanami-koji and by the Shirakara Canal at night and seeing the geisha girls or geiko as they are called here. Immaculate and beautiful, doll-like, with their faces 'painted' white, they shuffled along the streets between appointments, hefty wooden sandals covering little feet. I grappled for my camera but just stood and watched as they hurried past. Fantastic. Kyoto, memories of a geisha indeed. 

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After living in Chicago for four and a half years, I moved to the beautiful if bewildering island of Bermuda in July 2008. This blog is about being an exiled and depressed Charlton Athletic fan and whatever else the day brings.
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