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Hotel Mume 12 years later

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Not much has changed at Hotel Mume in Kyoto. It still feels like you have walked into the house of old friends, ready to help with lots of terrific suggestions for things to do and eat. This house has eight bedrooms (ie. rooms) and all comers are treated the same way, no matter how many times they have stayed, or whether it is the very first time. Hisako moves from group to group – with an “excuse me” as a new group arrives.

What has changed is Japan. It is faster – the Shinkanzen appears to go everywhere and as fast as ever. It is a fabulous service, but goes so fast, you arrive virtually before you have time to sit down and get organised. I do not suppose they have thought of slowing down these F1-type speedsters.

The big train stations seem to be producing even bigger waves of commuters than as remembered. Attempts to cross between these waves from right to left requires careful planning and then an “eyes shut” piece of daring. Companions need to hold hands or one or both could be swept away in the great human tide. I suppose nothing really new there, but the transition from memory (of the calmer days gone past) to actual experience is as challenging and bewildering as ever.

The transport system does have one enduring legacy – the professionalism of train staff, dressed impeccably in suits, ties and caps, and often with white gloves. As they leave a carriage on moving through a train as part of regular inspections, they bow to the customers in the carriage – mostly unnoticed but done without fail.

Honesty and decent behaviour also remain as enduring characteristics. Bikes are parked in the streets without locks and I assume are never (or hardly ever) stolen. The street is completely safe. Pickpockets? You would have to be joking. Muggings? Stabbings? Shootings? What have you been drinking? Rudeness? Never.

Restaurant bills are usually presented as a single number, often handwritten. It would be improper to query the bill. Just pay it. And there is no tipping, which is regarded as beneath the professionalism of the staff just doing their job.

There is today a lot more English in the street and a lot more fresh food. Coffee is still a problem – a real opening exists here for a coffee entrepreneur from the coffee capital of the world (Melbourne).

While there is the enduring politeness and deference, there is less bowing and the “thank yous” (“arigato zaimas”) in restaurants no longer come from the staff lined up at or near the door. It tends to be muffled (especially in the big cities), spoken with less upbeat “thank you” and more in a tone reflecting how the work day is sometimes getting too hard to manage. It is a “thank you” in a lower register and often spoken by one or two members of staff at best, as is the customary “welcome”(“irasshaimase”). Recent years have been challenging for Japan.

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One timeless feature of travel in Japan in early spring (early April) is one of the star attractions of Japan, the cherry blossom (“sakura” in Japanese). The ornamental cherry trees are everywhere. No fruit is intended (not a cherry in sight), but rather a stunning explosion of pure beauty, the timing of which is impossible to predict, and which lasts just a few days in full bloom and then disappears just as quickly. It is fleeting, unpredictable and very beautiful – it becomes easy not to notice much else for the few days that it is happening. And then there is a kind of snow effect as the petals blow away in the wind, forming piles of white/pink on the ground. Without their petals, the trees sprout green buds, and fight for attention with all the other newly budding trees. Their spectacular advantage gone for another year.

Outside the small lounge of Hotel Mume sits one such tree. It fills the window with its blossom. And just as quickly as it fills the window, it retreats, shedding its petals into the fast flowing canal below. All special advantage is gone.

Hiasako has got a bit older. So have we, but we still greet each other with a “you haven’t changed a bit”. There are a few more sighs from us and her. Running the best boutique hotel in travel-magnet Kyoto has its day-to-day challenges. But the essential point remains – it is not about the rooms or flashy décor. It is about contact and engagement – sitting down with the customers, and the problem we all otherwise face of what Hisako calls “the conveyer belt”. How good is her English! You would think that Japanese is her second language. She even speaks with indications of an English accent – a year in London, she explained. She also lived in France for a year, but says her French is poor (don’t believe her).

She claims she can remember how I dressed all of 12 years ago when we last stayed. White pants, high waisted? I don’t have white pants, and I don’t know what she is talking about.

The other staff buzz around under Hisakso’s watchful eye. She says she would love to go to a concert she recommends for us, but who would manage the front desk? We offer to take over for the evening – not accepted.

We will make it back to Kyoto again. It is the largest city in Japan not to be bombed in World War Two, and proudly shows its continuity. Come in the autumn, advises Hisako. The change of the season is spectacular, or it should be. The last couple of seasons have been a disappointment – global warming, Hisako explains. And picking the dates, well that is as difficult as picking the cherry blossom, but you can chance your luck.

Luck followed us this time, as we watched the early springtime trees become their best photogenic selves. The cameras were out. Smiles everywhere. Large blue plastic sheets found their way under the best trees for the obligatory picnic under a blossom tree, often placed early in the day with someone assigned to find the best place and stay put until everyone else would arrive. It was explained that this was the role of either the most junior person in a work team, or of someone who has retired from work but wished to stay in touch (or a grandparent in a family group). And no one broke off a petal. You would not think of it. Taking a branch? Inconceivable.

Sakura - a metaphor for a life well lived, albeit fleetingly? Ask Hisako.