Osaka was plastered with giant posters of pretty boys. Androgynous teenagers with pouting lips and expensive choppy hair, all looking like rather attractive lesbians at a glance. At first, we thought it was a boy band. Maybe several boy bands. Maybe hundreds of boy bands? But no, it seems the local bars – host bars – specialise in providing pretty boys to chat with and act as your waiter for the night for older Japanese women (and, presumably, men, though it’s not a very out society). And their role – much like a geisha – is to provide entertaining conversation and pour drinks, rather than anything more physical. But, for a refreshing change, there were no similar posters of women. It is relatively common to stay single and a virgin for years here, being entirely consumed by work – a quarter of under 40s are virgins, apparently, and Japanese men tend to be quite shy about approaching women. So I guess that there are enough wealthy women willing to pay for the company and services so it’s more common than in the West.
We didn’t see much of Osaka, other than the pretty boys (posters) – just an overnight pause on the way to Kyoto. Coincidentally, V had messaged an old friend and colleague while we were on our way there – and he happened to be visiting Japan from London, and was in Osaka with his family. So dinner with them – okonomiyaki, a kind of savoury pancake – was delightful, especially as his wife was Japanese and able to patiently answer many questions, and point out the latest faux-pas which we’d committed.
Continuing the coincidence, they were going to Kyoto the next day – as were we. So we met Anthony again the next evening, while his family were out. To my eternal shame, we went to an Irish bar – it was the only pub around for a long way, and it was a bitterly cold night, and… a whole bunch of excuses. But the beer was good; various different IPAs and lagers in stock, making a difference to the Kirin / Asahi choice which was the limit of every other place so far. Japan is just beginning in the craft beer world – as with China, the general preference is for very cold, flavourless beer, usually served in frozen glasses so ice forms on the top. Which is great, usually, but IPA made a nice change. They’re also got a lot of ‘fake’ beer in Japan – basically, the government adds a whopping tax to anything with malt over a certain percentage. So the brewers have come up with ingenious ways of making beer with lower and lower malt percentages but the same alcohol level, as the government keeps lowering the level. These beers are made with rice, soy and a bunch of other things – but they actually all taste pretty ok, very close to regular lagers, while selling for under half the price of ‘regular’ beers.
Anyway, there’s a bit more to Kyoto than pubs. It’s the ancient traditional and spiritual centre of Japan, was the capital for 1000 years from the 8th century; they created a lot of Japan’s most elaborate (obsessive?) traditions: the many intricate ceremonies (kodo, kado and chado – incense, flower arranging and tea – the ‘arts of refinement’). They have over 1000 temples and 17 Unesco World Heritage sights. Which is a lot more temples than we can handle, so we settled for an abbreviated view of things.
This was fabulous. Hideously crowded with tourists – the train carriage was packed with westerners, including a whole Canadian school tour (lucky buggers. I think we got as far as Dublin Zoo one glorious year for our school tour). But after the first irritating kilometer, with people almost (not quite, this is Japan) shoving each other to get the best shot and shuffling along en masse – the crowds thinned down to nothing as the paths split in many directions and wound their way around the hill. The vermilion (well, more orange, TBH) torii shrine gates were stacked end to end next to each other everywhere through the few kilometers of walking, with stone foxes (the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals) standing guard over many of the small shrines. This is the head shrine for all 40,000 Inari shrines in the country, and it seems as if every small business or prosperous person in Japan has dedicated a torii gate here.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
This was beautiful too, but similarly hellishly busy with tourists. And on reflection, I’m not quite sure why it’s so famous – the country is full of bamboo groves, though this is indeed a nice one and in a beautiful area, full of temples and shrines and parklands which were much emptier of tourists. So we wandered there instead. They were planting out a new area – this was described as ensuring it would look beautiful in all seasons. To them, this seems to involve envisioning how the whole pallette will work throughout the year in several decades time – thinking about where needs a splodge more of pleasing white, or delicate pink, or vivid red. Do any other nations do that? In Ireland and the UK, they seem to plonk a single sapling into place, or – if having to cover a large area – boring rows of identical trees as dull as the suburbs.
Speaking of which – of course, we wanted to see the cherry trees. They were slightly past their best, having flowered somewhat earlier than usual in this warm year (you can keep tabs on the flowering and get detailed reports for all areas of Japan in this sakura weather news site – of course). But they were still lovely in Kyoto Imperial Palace Park and the Philosopher’s Path (a particularly lovely cherry-tree lined path beside a beautiful stream, where famous philosopher Nishida Kitaro used to walk to university. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but he had impeccable taste in walking routes)
Rest of Kyoto
And so we wandered on. The riverside area was beautiful, full of ravens and black kites – who did not like each other. The kites kept swooping down low to torment the ravens feeding on scraps from picnicking families – terrifying for little children, who were a bit smaller than them, as you can see in this video.
And the back streets around the area were lovely too: Gion and Pontocho Alley are famously the traditional geisha haunts. I can’t tell a real geisha from a tourist made up as a geisha, being uncivilised and a foreigner, but it made for an enjoyable wander down the narrow streets of traditional wooden buildings.
Yasui-kompira-gu is a shrine to relationships, covered in paper wishes where people have written their relationship wish – whether to bind closer, or break up. You crawl through one direction to bind, the other direction to sever, then glue your wish to what looks like a strange hairy monster.
We finished in Kyoto with ancient and traditional style all-you-can-eat barbecue – bargain at about £20 for whatever you could manage in 80 minutes: don’t think they’d anticipated Vanessa, who can eat her own bodyweight in beef. In seconds. And did: we polished off twenty two plates of meat. I suspect they’ve changed their pricing structure since.