There are always two ways to view Japan’s culture and surroundings: one, as a transient visitor; and the other, as a long-time resident. Since I fall under the second category, I often see things differently from what excited tourists experience when they come for their taste of green tea and robotic technology. Living in Tokyo, especially, may not offer one the best and most authentic picture of Japan’s truest colors, for Tokyo has transformed from the once mega-political center of Japan, into an ultra-cosmopolitan capital that is now swarmed with “cafés”, “boulangeries”, “patisseries”, “boutiques”… a potpourri of imported ideas and behaviors to camouflage the old traditions in order to raise a “more” modern and sophisticated “global” superpower culture that will always be admired by all foreigners across the world.
When you feel you have had too much injection of Japanese high technology and intense sophistication, then, you know it is time to head west to Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo’s congested highways and tall, concrete buildings, Kyoto’s surrounding mountains and rivers make any season of the year relaxing and peaceful. Autumn in Kyoto, especially, is romantic poetry. Its “koyo” (autumn leaves) season in November attracts thousands of tourists to this niche of rustic beauty, beautifully landscaped old villages, and vibrant reds and golds of maple trees that light up its hundreds of temples and shrines.
The first place you want to stop at is the Kamogawa River between Shijo and Sanjo Dori. Be awed by the restaurants with yuka wooden verandas on stilts and their hanging orange-lit lanterns, flanking the riverbank. Experiencing a lovely dinner in any of these restaurants, overlooking the Kamogawa River, is a Kyoto memory to treasure. There are no benches around so that people can sit directly on the bank and look out to the river. You can see people reading, writing, chatting, sleeping, or lovers cooing. Someone may be playing a drum, saxophone or guitar, or practicing her ballet pirouettes without hesitance.
From Kamogawa River, try to walk down Sanjo Dori and Kiyamachi Dori, and amuse yourself with the sight of small traditional shops selling old-fashioned o-sembe crackers, bamboo combs, old brushes, kimonos, pottery, pink-white-green o-dango (skewered small mochi balls), o-tsukemono (Japanese pickles), mizu-yokan (thick, jellied dessert), and lots and lots of cafés displaying matcha (green tea)-flavored parfaits, ice cream, and pastries.
Pontocho-Dori is the unique narrow alley stretching from Sanjo Dori to Shijo Dori. This alley was flanked by many ochaya teahouses and was a prominent Geisha district since the 1500s. Now, you find bars, jazz clubs, restaurants and exclusive dining places serving kaiseki ryori (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner), known for riverside dining. The inu yarai bamboo screens against the walls of bars and restaurants are still intact since the 17th century. These are protective structures against mud and dirt and dogs peeing on the walls. The ochaya may not necessarily mean a teahouse but an exclusive private dinner-Geisha entertainment-dining place usually by invitation. If you are lucky enough to enter an ochaya, be prepared to cash out 500,000-800,000 Yen (5000-8000 Euros) for a night. If not, you can simply appreciate its architecture of bengara goshi wooden latticed windows, sudare reed screens, and the noren curtains on the doors that keep these ochaya very private and hidden. You can also see many more ochaya in the Gion district.
Kyoto is such a pleasant walking city, where you can move from one area to another with ease and leisure — such contrast from the buzz and rush of hurrying Tokyoites on subways. The mix of old and new does not come as close as in Kyoto, and it is in seeing the old that makes one feel relieved that, yes, you are truly in Japan. The sight of temples, shrines, narrow alleys and traditional houses projects Japan’s true auspicious colors, which can be a rarity in bustling Tokyo. In autumn, treat yourself to the best array of crimson reds and elegant yellows of Kyoto’s koyo. Everywhere, temples and shrines are lit at night so the maple leaves glitter against the dark skies. Do not miss a trip to Arashiyama, Ohara and Hiei-san. And, after a tiring day of picture-taking and walking, stop by a traditional Kyoto udon-ya noodle shop, have a sip of shochu (Japanese distilled spirit) in one of the bars facing the river, then return to your ryokan (Japanese inn), slip into your yukata (summer kimono) and feel the fine tatami mat under your skin while your dreams take you away to your next Kyoto romanza.