I finally saw Mazinger Z‘s birthplace.
For my day trip to Kyoto, I booked right-hand side tickets on the 6:00 AM bullet train (my first ride ever!) and hoped for a clear morning to see Mount Fuji—Japan’s highest mountain and unmistakable cultural icon.
I realized my expectations of a quaint village were wildly off when, two hours later, we arrived at the massive and futurist-looking Kyoto Station. Tokyo’s signature combination of traditional and modern extends into Kyoto and beyond.
A case in point is the Kyoto Tower, which welcomes visitors across from the busy transportation hub. Erected for the 1964 Olympics, the steel structure topped by a needle-shaped spire faced initial opposition for looking too modern for the old imperial capital.
It eventually became a symbol in its own right, as much as the ancient Nijo Castle. The palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s until the Meiji Restoration, is one of the city’s various UNESCO World Heritages Sites where history comes alive.
In the palace’s exquisite tatami rooms, purposely-built squeaky (“singing”) floors alerted of ninjas trying to break in. Kano School paintings of soothing landscapes or scary creatures welcomed or intimidated friends or foes, respectively.
Outside, a beautiful traditional Japanese garden—where Prince Charles and Princess Diana partook in a tea ceremony once—completes this national treasure.
Another medieval jewel: Kinkaku-ji, or The Golden Pavilion, sits at the center of a Chinese-influenced Zen temple housing the sacred relics of the Buddha himself. Its reflection in the contiguous lake on a bright autumn day, such as the one I was lucky to experience, evokes paradise on earth as, indeed, is intended by design.
Contemplating the Togetsukyo Bridge in the Arashiyama district, one understands why Emperor Kameyaba dubbed it “Moon Crossing Bridge” while he navigated the Katsura River at night. Just as breathtaking in the middle of this bright fall day, it gleamed against the magnificent hills in the background.
The bridge leads to Arashiyama’s main street, packed with trendy restaurants, clothing stores and ice cream parlors to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Bamboo Forest. The giant timber bamboo pathway filters the sun’s rays into a green, otherwordly realm. It is quite a religious experience.
Geisha district Gion is another idyllic part of town with a broad canal, narrow streets and charming quarters where maiko and geiko live, shop and entertain as their sister ancestors did centuries ago. I was lucky to spot one of them. She was a vision. That moment alone was worth the whole trip.
The Higashiyama District regaled me with another vision just as striking: the Yasaka Pagoda. The five-story tower is the last remaining structure of the 6th-century Hōkan-ji Temple. It’s survived fires, earthquakes and wars to become one of Japan’s many icons of beauty and resilience.
Back in New York, I saw an Instagram video of Japanese fans cleaning up the stadium after one of the FIFA World Cup games. I remember learning about tidiness as a powerful Zen technique to achieve fulfillment. And, like that, many of the beautiful things I saw during my ten dream-like days in Japan made absolute sense.