IT'S quitting time in Japan and I am facing a great wave of humanity determinedly descending the train station steps at Kyoto. So many people come at me over the next few minutes, it proves impossible to turn against the crowd to get just metres away to my own platform. What a welcome.
The crowds should not have been too surprising, though. Bustling and historic Kyoto is Japan's seventh largest city, on the central island of Honshu, and offers many fascinating places to visit. Twenty per cent of the nation's treasures are found here.
Around and about
Navigating my way around the streets the next day by hired bike, it occurs to me that a great deal of these treasures must be the well-looked-after temples I am passing. The ultra-efficient trains offer a speedy means of getting to and fro for commuters (the commercial centre of Osaka is just half an hour away) but biking is a great way for tourists to cover a lot of ground at leisure. Given that Kyoto appears to be dead flat, the terrain accommodates even the laziest or unfit of riders.
Trendiness does not seem to matter too much here, either; expect practical baskets up front and, refreshingly for us Kiwis, helmets are optional.
Whizzing through the back streets and observing daily life, our guide takes us through Gion, the city's centuries-old Geiko (geisha) district.
She points out the open front doors of tiny traditional teahouses and we try to look as respectful as possible while gawking at Maiko (young trainees) in full costume. We later have a crash course on the seemingly anachronistic, but still seemingly highly sought-after, position of geisha.
After dodging traffic and scores of other cyclists, it's onwards to a major Shinto temple, where today just happens to be a special day of celebration for children aged 3, 5 and 7 (a sobering reminder that reaching that age was not always a certainty in days of old). The air is filled with happy chatter as we stop to take photos of cute youngsters dressed in their finest kimonos celebrating with their parents.
Eat like a local
If you want to know more about a nation and its people, look to their food. The bustling Nishiki Koji Market - a seemingly endless stall-lined mall - is on the cycle tour and proves great fun.
Stashing our bikes we wander at leisure, pointing at sights such as baby octopus on sticks sold like lollipop treats, and trying to guess what on earth goes into the gritty brown slop seemingly marinating each meat or fish catch on display. This is the place to go if you want food raw, fresh or cooked, touristy knick-knacks such as fans or the ubiquitous Hello Kitty merchandise, or simply to absorb the atmosphere. The huge evening crowds picking up ingredients for their dinners can't all be wrong.
Restaurants abound in the city, of course. You can try everything from Fear Factor-style traditional meals to more recognisable dishes. Throughout my week-long stay I prove unexpectedly brave and sample everything placed before me - until gluten balls (think Play-Doh) prove my Waterloo. Thankfully, realistic plastic meal mock-ups seem to be on display in most eateries' front windows or illustrated on menus, greatly assisting a hungry foreigner.
I'm famous in my family for my lack of culinary skills so attending a Japanese cooking class seemed more than a little naff (if not downright optimistic). How wrong could I be? Tossing a few mushroom shavings into a boiling pot and mashing sticky rice proved to be great fun. Done in the confines of Wak Japan's small home kitchen, with a charming hostess as my teacher, I was an enthusiastic student. My sushi rolls might have looked, let's say, creative, but I wasn't complaining as I proudly ate them later in the adjoining traditional dining room.
Western-style accommodation is the province of the big hotel chains but for a new experience there's the increasingly popular "cabin" hotel. Relatively cheap (about $85 for one night), they're separated into dormitories for men and women. Each cubicle is about 2m square and separated by curtains rather than walls. The cabins are comfortable, clean and security-conscious - although you do have to share a communal bathroom and keep as quiet as the grave to not disturb other clients.
Follow the pilgrims
Jumping into a hot pool with naked strangers wasn't quite what I had in mind when I thought I'd be stepping out of my comfort zone in Japan.
Luckily for me - and certainly them - pilgrims happen to be thin on the ground when I visit Koyasan, the small and sacred alpine village that is the last of 88 stops for the nation's esoteric Buddhist pilgrims.
You have to be determined to get here. From Kyoto, it takes four trains (including the bullet, although that's just 13 minutes), a bus and steep cable car to get to the top of this peaceful mountain retreat 867m above sea level, where temples and shrines reign supreme.
It should have been too early in the season to be rewarded with brilliant autumnal displays, but fate was on my side in November (considered the best month to visit Kyoto and Osaka).
Scarlet maples and golden ginko trees were just coming into display amid the stark greys and blacks of centuries-old temples and surrounding forest.
I stayed at the Soujin-in monastery which, like most here, doubles as accommodation for pilgrims and visitors. Expect to sleep traditional-style on the floors in your room, get up early for that aforementioned ritual cleansing dip, followed by prayers and later exquisitely prepared traditional vegetarian meals.
Most of the time though can be spent exploring yes, yet more temples. One boasted delicate centuries-old wildlife paintings that should have caught my imagination, but instead I was mesmerised by the guide's gruesome tale of a prince who hid here during a brief coup and famously botched his ritual suicide.
And then there is the strange-but-true cemetery of Okunoin, just 20 minutes walk away, believed to hold 250,000 graves.
The older part of the cemetery accommodates centuries-old family plots and markers and is shaded by giant cedar trees, making it feel like we've wandered on to a spooky scene from Lord of the Rings.
In the newer section, big businesses have sponsored "mine is bigger than yours" stone memorials to their workers. These prove laughably grandiose in size and subject (space rockets and giant dogs are just some of the bizarre sculptures on display).
Turns out there's even an apologist memorial by a pest control company to the millions of insects they have exterminated over the years, proving once again that travel broadens the mind.
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