From here in Osaka, so many places are just a quick hop, skip and jump - or train ride in the case of last week's expedition to Kyoto. Thanks to Japan's marvellous train system, Kyoto is less than an hour from Osaka and seems a whole different world away.
'Kyoto is to Japan, what Japan is to the world.' This expression couldn't be more true and stuck in my head the whole time as we ventured in and around Kyoto. It also echoes the sentiment of another Japanese friend who said that for young people nowadays most of Japanese culture is just as exotic for them as it is for foreign tourists.
Kyoto is Japan's ancient Imperial capital, for more than a thousand years this was the centre of the country in almost the literal physical centre of the four main islands comprising Japan. Kyoto is temple and shrines galore, where Koreans (and plenty of young Japanese folk and even the odd foreigner) visit to dress in kimonos and visit historic sites to snap selfies as if to prove they've had the true Japan experience.
In Kyoto, you'll find the more 'Japan'-looking narrow alleyways with steep staircases and small passageways leading to establishments that resemble what might have once been here all those thousands of years ago. Now though, all the 'inu-yarai' (a curved split bamboo gutter cover) and curtained doorways are just a facade, concealing restaurants that serve Western food with prices to match. If you ignore these aspects though, it's possible to be temporarily transported to a different time and place, and imagine ancient Japan. If those alleyways could talk, I'm sure they would have some memories and secrets to share. Maybe it's Hollywood's slow infiltration of my brain in understanding culture, but I can't help but imagine samurai wandering around while geisha (or 'geiko' as I've learned they prefer to be called) shuffle between entertaining engagements...
For me, though, Kyoto's magic comes from stumbling upon countless shrines and temples wherever you walk. I still find both of Japan's major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, very exotic. There's something in the rituals of lighting incense, praying and clapping that are very different from religion as I've experienced it - cold churches, hard pews, long sermons, latin. Even if you get lost while wandering in Kyoto you're sure to stumble upon more than a couple of shrines and temples that might not have been on your list.
For us, the Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple was one of those, and we discovered it is the largest wooden structure in the world. Just the pillars themselves are astounding - again my brain tries to skip centuries to imagine this place under construction with probably only humble humans to lift and manipulate the huge wooden beams. The white paint details on the dark wooden eaves deliver a striking contrast, the painting of which reflects a dedication and commitment you might need to be religious, but which I've never quite found in myself.
We also visited the Nijo Castle, which we had on good word was worth the ¥600 entry. This castle was built in 1603 and was home to the Yokugawa Shoguns - the last of the feudal lords before Imperial rule was restored. One of the palaces - Ninomaru Palace - features extravagant gold leaf artworks and a nightingale floor, which served as an ancient alarm system. The floor is designed to 'chirp' as you walk on it, meaning that if the shoguns heard chirps in the middle of the night they might expect an unexpected assassin.
Unfortunately for Kyoto, it seems at first glance that this city might be falling ill to tourism in a way that makes me question the authenticity of 'preserved' ancient areas such as Gion and the supposed uplifting spirituality of visiting the Fushimi Inari shrine and walking through its 10,000 bright orange torii. Maybe I expected too much and that has been my undoing, so maybe I'll make another trip or two to Kyoto before I pass my final judgement.