Discovering the old and the new in Kyoto

Years ago, on a trip to Darwin, I remember reading a rather maudlin novella by Ian McEwan called ‘On Chesil Beach‘. The young couple in the story don’t come out of their honeymoon intact because the seaside trip brings up all kinds of problems and reveals the cracks in their new marriage. Thankfully, our relationship is made of far sterner stuff and although our honeymoon wasn’t quite the idyllic island holiday we had originally intended, the trip was very ‘us’. It was a total indulgence to have some time out from our busy lives and enjoy being together.

Cute cafe in Kyoto
Cute cafe in Kyoto we stopped in near Kiyomizu-dera

Since getting married a few months ago, we’ve barely had a chance to spend quality uninterrupted time just hanging out. Partly because of that, ‘Love letter to Japan‘ by The Bird and The Bee became one of the songs on the soundtrack of our honeymoon. Not just because it was about Japan, but the song itself also seemed to capture something about our relationship and being together alone for a little while at last.

Seikoro ryokan
Relaxing at the Seikoro Ryokan in Kyoto

After our first night in Narita, we caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. All the trains we caught, by the way, were NEVER late. Everyone had been generous at our wedding which meant we could splurge on fancy hotels and guesthouses, unlike our usual mode of travel. One of the nicest places we stayed in was the rather sumptuous Ryokan Seikoro. Upon arrival, we were served tea and some sweets, refreshing after the relatively long journey. We were able to relax with our shoes off and happi coats on. I can’t think of a time while travelling where I felt more spoiled than at that ryokan. The next morning, we marked Josh’s birthday with a very full Japanese breakfast.

Full Japanese breakfast
Full Japanese breakfast

Kyoto was a meeting of the old and the new. For example, we found an old restaurant that had been serving soba since the 1600s — and then in stark contrast, we had birthday drinks afterwards at two bars: a funny student/backpacker establishment called A-Bar, followed by a drink at Bar Dylan-II named in honour of Bob Dylan (one of Josh’s favourites artists). In my head, Kyoto was a traditional place, but coming back this time I realised it was a ridiculous impression to have – that whole bar district around the river was very lively and very ‘new’. Kyoto is a modern Japanese city, after all.

Write down your troubles
Write down your troubles

I retraced my steps in the Gion district, which is the well-preserved older area of the city. The streets are lined with temples, shrines and traditional homes, and it was lovely to stroll through on a hot afternoon. When I was there last time, I got up early one morning and walked around when no one was about — and remembering that, I couldn’t help reflect that that trip might as well have happened to someone else. It was six months before I met Josh and I wasn’t in a happy place back then.

At Kiyomizu-dera
At Kiyomizu-dera

We headed to the famous temple, Kiyomizu-dera, alongside scores of tourists. A lot of Japanese were there as well, including some in traditional dress.Last time in Japan, I had gotten a fortune from a temple in Tokyo that said something like ‘the one you are waiting for while arrive soon’. This time, at the temple in Kyoto, I got the ‘daikichi’ fortune, which is the luckiest one. Even though I don’t particularly believe in fortunes, I’ve almost never felt more carefree in my life, so it seemed right that that’s the one I got.

But the charm of the city for me wasn’t so much the well-trodden tourist path with the temples and wonderful shops; it was wandering along the backstreets in the evening. Just a few streets back from a major road, we found ourselves in a very quiet neighbourhood that had a real air of mystery about it. We passed by quiet restaurants and dwellings with bright white lanterns out front. I speculated that either the lanterns marked a particular kind of business, or else they were up in anticipation of the big Gion festival due to occur at the end of the week. In any case, few people were about; just a young woman walking along with her grandmother and later, a red taxi stopped near us with a geisha inside. Again, a bit of the old alongside the new.

On the streets of Kyoto
On the streets of Kyoto

3 thoughts on “Discovering the old and the new in Kyoto

  1. I also read the maudlin McEwen book so you’ve left me all in anticipation for the next chapter of the Josh and Sheila adventure.

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