Images of Japan often conjure up futuristic visions of a teeming, neon-lit metropolis, the sky pierced with gleaming high-rise towers, hotels run by robots and vending machines delivering dinner. But there is another, more ancient side to Japan, perfectly preserved in the city of Kyoto.
Actress and writer Miriam Margolyes travelled there for a two-part Christmas special of The Real Marigold Hotel, seeing how pensioners live in different parts of the world. To a generation who grew up in the 70s, her voice is instantly recognisable from her work dubbing Japanese TV series Monkey into English. “Many young men on film crews still know me from Monkey. It gives me a lot of kudos!” But until this year she’d never visited Japan.
Kyoto was the original imperial capital for a thousand years, home to the emperor until 1868. Largely unscathed by bombing during the Second World War, it has the second highest concentration of Unesco World Heritage Sites after Rome, among its 2,000 temples and shrines. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, and with a population only a tenth of the size of Tokyo, Kyoto is one of the most approachable Japanese cities for visitors, its grid-like streets easily navigable on foot or by bike.
Tō-ji is a Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect in Kyoto
Margolyes was smitten: “It is the most attractive city. Everything you look at has some thought and style put into it. Not a single thing is haphazard – there’s an incredible elegance.”
While there are modern hotels and guesthouses, Kyoto offers the chance to submerge yourself in the past, staying in one of the many machiya, traditional wooden townhouses preserved in the city. Homestays allow adventurous visitors to live with a Japanese family and get a taste of their culture and everyday life.
Margolyes and the Real Marigold cast stayed at the home of elderly twin sisters in Kita-Ku, the northern district of the city, close to the glittering Zen temple, the Golden Pavillion.
It gave her an intimate taste of Kyoto’s mix of historic and modern: “The house had traditional paper doors and tatami floors, but the toilet was the most frighteningly hi-tech thing I’ve ever seen. It had loads of buttons and looked like it would do everything, including making you a cup of tea!”
Japanese culture can seem a minefield of complicated etiquette to outsiders, from bowing to removing your shoes, but 75-year-old Margolyes found locals forgiving of any mistakes: “The Japanese were most welcoming, almost overwhelmingly so, giving us presents when they met us.
“I don’t use chopsticks but nobody minded at all when I asked for a fork. I slept in a bed rather than on a futon and didn’t sit on the floor. I quite enjoyed bowing, though – you’re offering yourself in a gentle way and it influences the way you behave.”
Miriam Margolyes and Bobby George tuck in; above, out on the town with Rosemary Shrager and Wayne Sleep (photos by Ros Edwards)
It would take years to tick off all the temples and gardens in Kyoto, but even a visit to one or two is a sensory overload, where intricate architecture is surrounded by carefully cultivated gardens and the ancient rituals of the Shinto religion are still practised.
The Marigold cast went to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, spectacularly set next to the Otowa waterfall in the lushly wooded eastern hills of Kyoto, with views of the city below. At the temple’s Jishu shrine, dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, there are two stones set 18 metres apart. Legend has it that if you can successfully navigate your way between the stones with your eyes closed, you will find true love.
Kyoto is also a foodie’s paradise, with restaurants specialising in kaiseki, multi-course haute cuisine, and vegetarian-friendly tofu dishes. The cast ate at Niken Chaya Nakamura-rou, a restaurant first opened in the 14th century, where they met a geiko (a novice geisha).
“I felt a real communion with her,” says Margolyes. “Their way of life is very regimented. They have to sleep on their back on a board. She told me that to be a geisha is not an unmitigated pleasure. It’s a hard life.”
Funaoka Onsen, Kyoto
The city also offers travellers all the usual pleasures of shopping or the chance to visit an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot bath spa. The water temperature can be a shock to first-timers. “The baths were extremely warm, but I came out glowing,” says Margolyes.
Despite the city’s ancient exoticism, Kyoto’s romantic riches are easy to access, only an hour and half by express train from the region’s main flight hub, Kansai International Airport.
Margolyes says it’s a journey she would love to repeat: “I fell in love with the place and long to go back. Kyoto was simply intoxicating. It wasn’t just a journey in miles – it was totally mind-opening.”
The Real Marigold on Tour is on Tuesday 27th and Friday 30th December on BBC2 9pm
Radio Times Travel holiday:
- See the famous sights of Tokyo – the Meiji shrine, Omotesando Street, fashion-setting Harajuku and the Akihabara electronic town
- Visit the stunning Nikko National Park, with its outstanding Shogun-era architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Take a scenic boat trip from Tokyo’s traditional Asakusa district to the luxury shops of Ginza
- Enjoy astonishing views of Mt. Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi and the hot-spring mountain spa resort of Hakone
- See the volcanic Owakudani ‘Boiling Valley’ by aerial gondola
- Travel at 189 mph on the incomparable bullet trains Reflect on the horrors of war at Hiroshima’s Peace Park and museum
- Experience the spectacular 300-foot Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, stunning examples of Japan’s world-renowned natural beauty
- Tour Kyoto, former Imperial capital and essence of traditional Japan with wooden houses, geishas, stunning temples and Zen gardens
- Guided tour of Nara, Japan’s first capital with its huge bronze Buddha
- Opportunity to stay the night in a ‘Ryokan’, a traditional Japanese Inn
- Opportunity to learn origami, traditional flower arranging or Japanese cooking