My First Autumn in Japan
It was in September of 2006 that I first came to live in Japan. At that time, I started working in Eastern Tokyo and Western Chiba Prefecture for a local English Conversation School. As anyone who works for one of these eikaiwa schools will tell you, holidays, especially in the first 6-9 months of your contract are at a premium, and it isn’t easy to find the time to do all the travelling around your new homeland that you want to.
So, I was grateful when November came around and I found myself with a 3 day break, due to a combination of national holidays and my regular days off falling on a weekday. This was made doubly delightful by the fact that it also coincided with my birthday, which is November 21st by the way if any of you are feeling generous!
It was about 6 weeks previously that I had met my first Japanese girlfriend. Eager to make the most of our time off, and get to know each other better, we decided to take a trip down to Kyoto.
Again, having a Japanese partner came in handy here. She was able to source a really nice hotel in the very centrally located Karasuma district for our 2 night stay. Including Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and back again, we paid a total of 30,000 yen. Good luck finding anything close to that that price these days!
Anyone who has ever been to Kyoto will tell you that, without a doubt, November is the best time to visit this wonderful city. The main reason for this, is the changing colour of the leaves on the trees.
In summer and into early autumn, Kyoto’s many tree-lined streets, parks and temples are a sea of green. Whilst in many countries these would give way to a common pattern of various shades of brown as we move towards winter, this is not the case in Kyoto.
Such is the make-up and biodiversity of the flora and fauna in this region that as autumn draws to a close, and winter approaches, the once green leaves give way to a vast cornucopia of colour. Yellows, reds, purples, browns, even golds can be found amongst the trees. It is an absolutely stunning sight.
I will be honest, upon arriving and settling into our hotel on that first day, I had absolutely no idea what Kyoto had to offer. All I knew was that it had “A few big temples, and some nice views.”
Thankfully my companion soon educated me. As we looked through the various brochures and travel guides the hotel provided, she picked out a few different options. In the years ahead these were places I would come to visit more and more and grow to love deeply. The likes of Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine, The Kinkakuji (Golden Temple) and the beautiful but often overlooked Ryoan-Ji gardens.
For my partner, Ryoan-Ji had some special significance. For those who don’t know the place, Ryoan-ji has a unique garden containing 15 stones of varying sizes. At first this may seem unremarkable, until you understand the story behind it. The stones are aligned geometrically, so that no matter where you sit in the garden, you will never be able to see more than 14 of the stones from any single vantage point. This was a Buddhist principle, the idea being that in order to view the final stone, one would have to attain enlightenment and ascend to a higher level of consciousness. For my then girlfriend, this was a special place that she had visited dozens of times since she was a small child, her favourite place in Kyoto, and since that first visit, one of mine too.
A day of touring the various sites of Kyoto City had left us both feeling somewhat tired as we returned to our hotel in the early evening. However, this was a holiday, our time was limited and the show must go on, as they say. Having showered, changed and freshened up, we headed out for dinner.
If you are looking for a romantic place to have your dinner in the Autumn, then I really can’t think of anywhere better than one of the traditional Japanese washoku restaurants along the bank of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto’s Gion district. From the elevated balcony of our restaurant, we enjoyed some of the finest traditional Kyoto dishes as well as some fine sake.
I still remember what has in the intertwining years become a common sight for me when I am on dates in Japan: that ridiculously cute reddish pink glow that came to my partner’s cheeks as she sipped her drink slowly. Most Japanese women become acutely embarrassed the moment you mention this to them, but I always have and always will find this particular reaction they have to alcohol both charming and adorable.
Our second day in Kyoto brought what was for me, the highlight of the trip. I should add at this point that I am not a good swimmer, so the idea of being in water has always made me a bit uneasy. So when my girlfriend proposed taking a boat trip, I was, naturally, somewhat apprehensive.
However, this was no ordinary boat trip. This was a cruise through the mountains, with some stunning views on route.
We got up early and headed out to Shiga prefecture, approximately 20 minutes away from Kyoto by train. From there, we got into our boat. It was a small wooden gondola type ship, with seating for about 15 people. Again, I wasn’t exactly keen, until we started travelling, that is.
Upon leaving our port and heading along our mountain trail, that would eventually finish up in the beautiful surroundings of Arashiyama, some 2 hours later, we were treated to some of the most beautiful and stunning landscapes I have ever seen. The walls of red, yellow, purple and almost every other colour in between emanated from the forests as we passed idly by. The colourful mountain railway proved an enchanting contrast against the grey, rocky, mountains and the crystal clear waters beneath.
It was beautiful, it was romantic, and it is a memory that will never leave me.
I returned to Tokyo the following morning full of energy, full of vigour and ready to make the best of my time in Japan.
Of course a lot can change in 9 years. Since then, my former girlfriend and I have gone our separate ways. These days she lives in the US and has a family of her own. I made a small detour via 3 years in Hong Kong before finding my way back to Japan, where I still remain in hopeful pursuit of my other half.
For all the challenges I have faced in those 9 years and all the challenges I will no doubt face in the years to come, perfect moments like those I experienced in Kyoto in the Autumn of 2006 will always make life’s daily trials and tribulations seem worthwhile.