Your idea of a romantic holiday destination in Asia might be a beautiful beach in Phuket, a boat trip down the backwaters of Kerala or perhaps a mountainous walk in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Think of Tokyo, however, and your mind skips to crowded subway trains, neon lights and karaoke – images that fail to leave you quite so starry-eyed. So, when my partner and I chose the Land of the Rising Sun as the destination for our first ever two-week holiday together, the last thing I expected was to come back with a ring.
The trip did not begin with the most amorous chain of events. Being chased by monkeys, ending up at the end of the train line in the dark with nowhere to go, spending the night in a bunk bed surrounded by spiders and sitting naked with strangers in an onsen (natural hot bath) all made for sensory overload, but it was hardly what you’d call romantic. Instead, our magical moment took place in Kyoto, a city that encompasses all of the factors that make for a much more traditional view of Japan – lanternlit alleys, traditional temples and glimpses of geishas.
Having done the chivalrous thing and slyly rung my father a few days earlier, my boyfriend chose his moment. On our last night in Kyoto’s renowned Hatanaka Ryokan hotel, he deftly steered me round the corner to a deserted alley leading up to the stunning Yasaka shrine, lined by trees and perfectly lit by the moon. He was behaving a little strangely and my insistence that we were going the wrong way wasn’t helping his nerves. Something was definitely up.
When he made an impromptu walk to the side of the road and pulled out a previously hidden single red rose, it suddenly clicked. Now, with what I would like to boast as a laidback personality, I could never have predicted the contorted face and bodywracking hysterical sobs I managed to produce. The poor boy wasn’t sure if I was happy or if there was a man with an axe standing behind him. At some point he remembered to go down on one knee, and eventually after a speech I recall not one word of, the question was popped. ‘Of course,’ I stuttered, whereupon he placed a wooden ring from the famous craft town of Takayama on my fi nger, and ever the provider, went back to the bush where he deftly pulled out another stashed item – a bottle of sake (he knows me too well).
Our legs soon gave way and we sank down to drink our sake on the cobblestone. At that amazingly blurred moment (which only got hazier with each sip), dwarfed by huge trees and without another person in sight, that street in Kyoto was the most perfectly beautiful, deadly silent and memorable place in the world. After necking the sake and savouring the moment for a few more minutes, reality started to set in and we replayed the scene only to realise three things. First, in his nervousness he’d smacked his knee by bending down too quickly, and would be struggling for the remainder of the trip. Second, the ‘rose’ was actually a carnation (bought from a petrol station). Third, while Christmas and Valentine’s Day are the most popular days to get engaged, our ‘special moment’ had just taken place on that well-known lovers’ holiday – Halloween.
We spent the next half-hour taking in the enormity of it while walking (or limping) around Kyoto’s Gion district, past the autumnal light-up at the stunning Kodai-ji temple and down the Hanami-koji street, where we saw the magical sight of a geisha being escorted into a restaurant. Finally, we ended up at the trusty guidebook’s recommendation of the Senmonten – a famed gyoza (Chinese dumpling) bar about the size of a telephone box that simply sold gyoza, beer, sake and pickles. It was here that we settled in to down bottle after bottle of sake (for me) and beer after beer (for him) amid a flurry of phone calls to break the news to the family.
So as it turns out, Japan is a romantic country to visit: not in your Eiffel Tower, champagne-and-bubble-bath kind of way, more an ancient temple, rice-wine-and-hot-springs-withstrangers way. You’ll want to grab the person you’re with at every turn to point, laugh, stare and marvel at the insanities on every corner: a 100m-long line of vending machines? Check. Girls dressed up like French maids? Check. Magical samurai castles? Check. Hundreds of commuters bustling through Shinjuku station? Check. And there we have it, my perfect proposal on an autumnal Japanese street – nothing clichéd, nothing predictable and nothing going to plan. Just a wooden ring, a husband-to-be and a hangover to boot.
How to get there
Singapore Airlines flies the A380 to Tokyo; take the 140-minute train ride to Kyoto.
How to travel
It is essential to purchase a Rail Pass prior to the trip. Be sure to shop around as the prices change daily. Check with the JNTO for a list of travel agents that provide passes.
Where to stay
Accommodation at Kyoto’s Hatanaka Ryokan starts from JPY24,000 (S$382) per night; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Where to eat
Senmonten (Tel: + 075 531 2733). What to see Kodai-ji temple is open from 9am to 4pm, with a JPY600 (S$10) entrance fee.