Numerous people had mentioned that Japan can be challenging to navigate, partly because it has not just its own language, but also three different alphabets. Nonetheless, it was still a shock jumping off the plane, now travelling solo and very keen for lunch, but not being able to understand a single menu or food label at the airport. Something as simple as finding soy milk and cereal bars in the supermarket took at least five times longer than it would have in Australia/the UK, until a friend recommended a language translation app where you can take a photo of words in another language and the app will translate it for you. Magic! So, with soy milk and cereal bars in hand, I jumped on the Shinkansen bullet train and headed to my first stop: a temple stay in Nara. This is when I first encountered the famous Japanese hospitality. The guy next to me on the train, who was from Japan, wrote to me via an online translation website and asked me how I was and where I was from. We continued to converse via this online translator for the next hour, during which he warned me to drink lots of water due to the hot weather and helped me work out how to get to my destination from the train station. All very civilised, particularly compared to the start of my previous trip to The Philippines, which you can read about in my previous blog post.
I’ve recently developed an interest in Zen Buddhism, and there is no better place to learn more about this topic than Japan. In a bid to experience as an authentic temple stay as possible, I found around 20 temples on Google and phoned them individually to ask if they would accept me as a guest. I eventually found a small temple in Nara that was willing to host a foreign visitor, and stayed with a Nanyoji Priest and his family for a few days at their house with an adjoining temple. There are different ways of practicing Buddhism, and the way in which this Nanyoji Priest practised was not as strict as some. Some Buddhist monks do not have families, given they are depicted as a source of attachment, which Buddhists aim to relinquish, as attachment is equated with suffering. However, one of the reasons I’m interested in Zen Buddhism, more so than other types, is that it can more easily be incorporated into every day Western life, thus it was interesting to see how this family did so.
Following some Zen meditation in the temple on my first evening, I joined a Japanese dinner party that the family was hosting, at which, quite understandably, no one spoke any English. As usual, I had read up on the language basics (hi, bye, thank you, etc), but could in no way hold any sort of conversation beyond those very simple terms. It was slightly uncomfortable, yet strangely soothing to be surrounded by a group of people with whom verbal communication was just not an option. I spent the next few days participating in the twice daily Zen meditation practices, practicing caligraphy and visiting Japanese families with the Nanyoji Priest. It is somewhat of a daily ritual for him to visit families that live close by. They all had small shrines within their homes, and we would sit in front of them chanting Buddhist sutras. All of the Japanese families that I met were extremely warm and welcoming. It was interesting to see Buddhism in practice, and how Japanese families outside of the major cities live.
I then headed to Kyoto and Osaka. Both cities are known for their good food. I had a load of great ramen, soba noodles and rice-based dishes. All delicious, but who cares about real food…Let’s get to the good stuff: breakfast and anything that contains at least 70% sugar. One of Japan’s best known foods is matcha, which is is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. I love it and before leaving London last year, I made a point of trying as many matcha soft serve ice cream parlours as possible, so being in Japan was heaven for me in terms of matcha-based cuisine. On my first day in Kyoto, I ate matcha soba noodles, matcha tea, an iced matcha latte, matcha cake and matcha ice cream. Having tried quite a few matcha ice cream places in Kyoto, they all tasted similarly amazing. You can’t really go wrong.
After having eaten a traditional Japanese breakfast every day during the temple stay, I was craving a smoothie bowl. ‘Ah,’ I hear you say. ‘She finally ate something that didn’t contain matcha.’ Wrong. I discovered Cocolo Kyoto, which served one of the best things ever to exist: a matcha smoothie bowl. How they have managed to produce such a perfect specimen of a smoothie bowl is beyond me. The base was thick and gloopy, and the granola was, without a doubt, the best granola I have ever tasted. You can choose from eight different flavours of granola. The only foods that could compete for first place in the sweet Japanese food stakes were a fruit and cream-filled matcha crepe from Nishiki Ichiha and matcha nama yatsuhashi. If you have a sweet tooth, my top tip for Kyoto would be to visit the smart food section of the Porta mall by Kyoto station. If you wander around the stalls, they give you free samples, so you make an informed decision about which goodies to stock up on. This is how I discovered nama yatsuhashi, which Kyoto is known for, and is a soft, doughy parcel of sugary goodness filled with sweet red bean paste. I know. It doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but give it a chance. You’ll be glad you did.
I was in Kyoto during the recent infamous heatwave, which saw unprecedented temperatures in a number of areas in Japan and was declared a natural disaster. I didn’t realise quite how much of a big deal it was until I started receiving concerned messages from friends. I mean, sure, I could tell it was hot. Like really, really, hot. But I thought it was normal for that time of year in Japan. Anyway, not being one to let something like 40°C+ temperatures ruin my fun, I did what any normal person would do and shifted my day forward three hours to wake up at 5am. Ok, so maybe this wasn’t “normal”, judging by the lack of people on the streets at that time…But I’m convinced it was the most logical course of action. It was a good 10°C cooler at 5am than 5pm.
Kyoto was an interesting mixture of old and new. There are many, many temples to see, but there are also pockets of newer architecture. My favourite things to do were seeing the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, visiting the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and just wandering around Gion. From Kyoto, it is possible to do a day trip to Osaka, which is Japan’s third largest city, but if you have the time I would recommend spending at least a couple of nights there. Dotonburi, famous for its neon lights, was particularly fun to walk around at night. On the way to Osaka from Kyoto, you can stop off at Hirakata T-Site, which is home to beautiful giant walls of books. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon reading, and there are a load of great places to eat on the lower levels.
After a week and a half of Zen meditation, practically becoming nocturnal in a bid to avoid the extreme daytime heat and eating my body weight in matcha, it was time for a week of skyline views in Tokyo and, well, continuing to eat my bodyweight in matcha.