In Kyoto, the sakura blossom will be opening, a sure sign that spring has begun. In the Nagano highlands it is still winter. The mountains that ring Matsumoto stand out, white-capped, in glorious vista-vision against the pale blue sky. In the crisp morning air, they seem closer and more three-dimensional than ever. To the west are the Japanese Alps, soaring to a height of three thousand metres; to the east is a two thousand metre high tableland. A cold wind blows along the valleys of the Susuki and Metoba Rivers. In residential streets, in shady corners where the early April sun does not reach, lie small heaps of snow. It can take a while to melt. In Nagano Province, each household is responsible for clearing from the roadway adjacent to their property – and Nagano sees a lot of snow.
On the cool days, food is never far from your thoughts and, when it comes to meal times, the choice is wide. One option is the packed lunch, or bento, purchased in special shops with the slogan ‘quick, cheap, tasty.’ Quick and tasty they may be, but the better ones are far from cheap. Then there are the sushi parlours, many of which can only be described as Americanised. The small, family-run businesses are more expensive but worth the premium. Making the effort to understand and conform to the customs brings its own reward. Not only is the service exceptional, but a second visit may bring the proprietor to the table with a parting gift.
Better still, drive into the foothills, just beyond the city limits, where lie more exclusive restaurants. There, especially if you are lucky enough to be a guest of a Japanese friend, you can partake of a banquet of traditional fare and enjoy an ambience that only Japan can provide. Squatting is optional. However, the tatami is pristine and shoes are public enemy number one. Two pairs of slippers are provided, and woe betide the guest who confuses them. The first is to wear during the meal, the second for visiting the toilet, an unusual pleasure in itself especially if the premises are equipped with the latest Japanese technology – heated loo seats and piped music.
For a different kind of gastronomic experience, visit the wasabi farm. Wasabi is a kind of horseradish, a very hot, green spice used to flavour sashimi and other dishes. It is either grated fresh or made up into a paste for the self-service diners. In the country that gave us fugu, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that wasabi has other uses. For a real treat, why not try wasabi-flavoured sweets, or something the Japanese call wasabi-ai-su-ku-ri-mu. You figure it out!
The shinkansen will whisk you from Tokyo to Kyoto in under two and a half hours. And for the modest price you get club class comfort and service. The staff wear gloves and bow on entering and leaving the compartment. In Japan, politeness is everything. The fastest trains reach 300kph and shave about twenty minutes off the journey. At all costs, avoid the temptation to fall asleep in your comfortable armchair unless your destination is also a terminus. Arrival and departure times are finely tuned to the point of suicidal obsession. Ignore this warning and you may wake up in Osaka.
After the sheer hell of Tokyo, Kyoto seems peaceful. Its new railway station is a marvel of architecture and design – spacious arrival halls, shopping arcades paved with coloured tile, shiny escalators and twisting stairwells. Its roof is a soaring lattice of metalwork, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower but more subtle. There is something almost musical about its lines. However, do not be lulled into a false confidence. Despite the multiple information points with English-speaking staff, it is too easy to lose a sense of purpose and direction.
Getting lost is easy. First, count the floors. Kyoto New Station admits to two, labelled plainly 1F and 2F. What is wrong with that, you ask? Well, 1F is at street level; Japan has followed the custom of the USA and has abolished the ground floor. Moreover, there are not two floors but three or four, if you count the underground system. Find yourself there before you have purchased a map and the following steps no longer matter.
Look for somewhere to stow your luggage. There is no shortage of lockers – on the west, on the east, and in the central pedestrian walkway on 2F. Finding one that will accommodate a large suitcase and two bags is quite another matter and when you do, it is invariably taken. However, perseverance pays off; an extensive search along many kilometers of corridor will eventually yield a result.
The next stage is buying lunch. You are spoiled for choice! The Japanese take their eating seriously and, without stepping outside the boundaries of the eki, you will find sushi parlours, hamburger joints and cafeterias, as well as a selection of ‘proper’ restaurants. Alternatively, you can visit the railway company’s very own department store, the JR Isetan.
Lunch over, it is time to escape from the station and find your hotel. Well, one bank of lockers looks very much like another, even if you have correctly remembered which floor you are on, or, which of the many entrances to Isetan you used.
After that, Kyoto is easy – with a tiny smattering of the language. Japanese a problem? You’ve got to be kidding!