The first time I emerged from the belly of Kyoto station, making my way through the underground corridors of boutique shops and noodle bars, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The postcard image of Kyoto is wooden temples and geisha scuttling by under painted umbrellas. These exist — the city has more than 1,600 temples in all — but Kyoto is also a modern city. Once out on street level, my children gazed around at the high-rise buildings, and at the little green and white taxis zipping everywhere.
“Look, they all have hearts on their roofs,” my seven-year-old daughter pointed out. It was the first sign of this city’s kookiness: the heart-shaped taxi signs. When a car stopped for us, the doors swung open automatically to reveal lace-covered seats and a driver in a crisp uniform and white gloves.
We’d moved to Japan for six months so that I could write about the country’s obsessive long-distance runners, and we ended up in the suburbs of Kyoto, in a small cul-de-sac of identikit Lego houses. Conurbations sprawl across most of the lowlands of Japan’s main island, Honshu, merging one into the other from Tokyo in the east, to Hiroshima 500 miles away. Our little neighbourhood was pretty much bang in the middle.
Functionality rules Japan’s suburban landscape. In order to fit in the country’s 127 million people, the houses are packed in side by side with no gardens. Every square metre of land is utilised — for growing food, or parking cars. Balconies are not for sitting in and sipping cool drinks on a warm evening — they’re for drying clothes and airing futons.
Elsewhere, taking the train in Japan is like watching a great orchestra perform. Everything is perfectly timed. The slow trains pull off into sidings at the exact moment the faster trains fly by. If you need to make a connection, you almost always find yourself stepping off one train, crossing the platform to where the next one is ready and waiting. In the whole six months, I didn’t have a single late train.
One of my favourite hang-outs was Arashiyama, an old neighbourhood in the far west of the city. We’d hire bicycles and saunter along the lanes lined like a maze with walls of bamboo. High up on the hill is a sanctuary where macaque monkeys wander around, their young tumbling over each other and clinging to the tiny branches of the trees. If you want to feed them, you have to climb inside a cage.
On every corner in the city you’ll find some quirkiness to excite a five-year-old, from road signs sprouting from the mouths of concrete monsters to sword shops. Even the manhole covers in Japan are so beautifully made you’ll want to start an Instagram page.
Of course, we visited the temples — they have a dignity and calm grandeur that stills the soul — but my children soon developed temple fatigue.
“Not more temples,” they’d wail.
Although friendly and polite to foreigners, much of what makes Kyoto so fascinating can be tantalisingly elusive. Down tangled back streets are doors marked with simple Japanese writing, people ducking in and out, the windows draped in cloth. You can’t help but wonder, what’s in there?
At times, we’d find ourselves inside. It was like lifting the painted veneer and crouching under to discover the real Kyoto trundling along below the surface, from restaurants with low tables and waiters who bowed so low their heads touched the floor to steaming baths full of lounging men, like tired seals.
One afternoon we ended up walking through a sweet shop to a lift at the back. On the third floor we emerged into a calm, empty room with a small table and soft red stools. We sat down and a man came over with a beautifully presented menu of hand-made sweets, all fashioned from aduki beans. We placed our order and sat back, letting the calmness of the room seep into us.
When the sweets arrived, they were like tiny sculptures, each one almost too beautiful to eat. We were given little wooden sticks to eat them with and, with appropriate care and awe, we did.
Afterwards, back out in the street, the taxis raced by, their little hearts glowing. Yes, we were getting to like this city, I thought, back on the train, my son standing on tiptoes peering out the front. This, I was sure, would be his abiding memory, flying rickety over the rooftops in his magical carriage.
The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, by Adharanand Finn, is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99).
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)