“Where is your favorite place in all of Japan?”
I just realized nobody asked me this question nearly enough, for I have never thought of a possible answer through and through. Kyoto, I might reply off the top of my head. Perhaps some island in Okinawa? But then again, no, not really. You see, the problem is that I don’t feel like I’ve travelled nearly enough in Japan to know really where is my favorite place in this alluring archipelago, filled to the brim with breathtaking and inspiring sceneries. If I’m being honest, I’m certain that I’ve only seen a teeny tiny fraction of what all of Japan has to offer. The thing is, when you come to Japan to live and stay for the long run and not as a short term tourist, you often find yourself drowning in daily tasks and responsibilities until you forget everything you dreamed about, and then you end up not travelling as much as you’d like. However, like many others I’m sure, I did have in mind to explore more in 2020; I got it all planned out to make everything I dreamed about finally happen that year. My husband and I, we had so many trips lined up both overseas and within Japan, but as the pandemic slowly unfolded before our eyes and completely wrecked our lives, each and every one of our plans collapsed one by one, leaving us stuck in this ongoing hellish situation with what seems like no hope whatsoever for the near future. And if this horrid tendency continues, I’m afraid I’ll soon have to say that I stayed in Japan longer while under quarantine than the other way around, and this is truly an appalling thought.
Anyway, if you came up to me one fine day and asked me “where is your favorite place in all of Japan?” or “Which is the best place in Japan ?”, I probably wouldn’t be able to answer you simply. I don’t know where my favorite place is in all of Japan or the best spots the country has to offer. Probably someplace I haven’t even visited yet. Nevertheless, if you were to tweak that question a little bit and if you asked me instead about the place I preferred so far, then perhaps I could give a more satisfying answer, weighing the good and the not so good memories, the flavors, the atmosphere, the level of happiness I felt at that time. Come to think of it, it would be an entirely personal answer. You probably wouldn’t even agree the slightest bit with me.
After pondering over this question for a while, I think I would finally answer that the place I enjoyed the most during my last three years in Japan was Kyoto, Gion and the surrounding temples and shrines, specifically during my trip of spring 2018. Tokashiki Island in Okinawa last summer would come at a close second spot for the absolutely dreamy day I had collecting seashells and swimming with the sea turtles without a care in the world, but that’s a story for the near future, maybe.
However, the memories I have of Kyoto with my mom, they are so unbeatable they still linger in my brain like the sweet aftertaste of a matcha parfait on that perfect sunday afternoon. They are the ones I replay in my head every single day when I’m out and about to keep my spirits high. All of Kyoto, to be fair, is an absolute dream, an astonishing experience worth reliving over and over again. This city is overly filled with tourists all year long for a reason after all. While the amount of tourists might discourage you at first, especially during the cherry blossoms season in March, and while the buses used to be so packed you could barely even breathe before the pandemic happened, I would go back in a heartbeat if I could and if it weren’t for this recent worldwide events tying us down like seagulls stuck in that black spilled oil. I’m lucky enough to have visited three times already, I wouldn’t mind going there for the fourth, fifth or even sixth time. I feel like it is a city that always will have something to give and still has so many secrets to uncover, if you dare go off the beaten path of tourists.
The first time I travelled to Kyoto I was in complete awe with the countless shrines and temples sprinkled here and there all over a city who is also heavy with historical architecture. At every corner, I felt as if the gates of a different temple would greet me and welcome me inside an unique page of Japanese history and traditions. I fell head over heels with the capital in a matter of seconds. At that time, I had already been living for a few months in Tokyo, but Kyoto felt vastly different from what I’ve grown used to over the course of the first few months of my life in Japan. The air and the atmosphere tasted different, too. While Tokyo on one hand always felt like a modern, super busy city bustling with life, I could feel in Kyoto the slow pace of an old city still deeply and proudly rooted in traditions. But maybe History and traditions have always been in the center of my life, which could explain my natural attraction and the heart stirring emotions I feel towards old cities and aged artifacts . After all, I was raised in a century-old house, later shared a passion with my parents for the 50s and old cars, then went on to specialize in Japanese history and culture in university. I have been completely in love with old Japanese culture since then, something about the smell of creaky old wood and the straw of tatami mats just pulls on my heartstrings everytime. Call it nostalgia, maybe. When I see an old poster from the middle of the Shōwa era or when I stare dreamily at my cup of piping hot matcha tea, I start daydreaming and I imagine myself reminiscing about a time and a place in which I never even existed.
Kyoto and its green tea on the old main street, the intricate details carved in the wood doors of that very shrine, the peculiar temple with so many friendly cats, they all can give me that warm, precious feeling. And when I eat those local Yatsuhashi sweets made of sugary red bean paste and glutinous rice flour, I experience my very own Marcel Proust moment with his madeleines, even though I’m not the one who personally lived those soft memories. But in that moment when I smell the cinnamon and the sweet red beans, it’s just as if it used to be me not so many decades ago.
Therefore, it is for this perhaps whimsical reason that I have to admit that Kyoto is hands down the best place I’ve ever been in Japan. I long for the day I can finally return and enjoy it on an even deeper level. Go explore and see the city through the eyes of the locals, find my very own secrets in the hidden corners, revel in the unique smell of matcha and bask in the serene atmosphere of smaller, more secluded shrines.
So, if you ever came up to me and asked “Where is your favorite in all of Japan?”, I’d surely have to answer somewhat like this : someplace steeped with History and stories like Kyoto. Somewhere I somehow belong.
– Lisa Poirier
✥ Maple & Sakura ✥
Disclaimer: All the pictures used are mine.