As we approach the end of 2020, let me take you on a delightful journey through my winter vacation in the enchanting cities of Kyoto and Kobe. Join me as I explore historic temples, make new friends, and embrace the beauty of these captivating destinations.

I recently went on a hike with a wise elderly man called Nishihata-sensei (西畑先生). He is extremely passionate about the Kumano Kodo, and his home prefecture — Wakayama Prefecture. Our hike started deep within the Kumano Kodo and landed us all the way to Hongu's Grand Shrine. The tall wooden torii gate took my breath away, and I left inspired by the entire region and the deep spiritual history it holds.

A week later, Inspiration struck me abruptly as I stumbled upon a book titled "Kyoto Gardens," a gift from an ex-lover on my 21st birthday. It ignited a curiosity that had been brewing within me for years. With the freedom of winter vacation and a strong desire to unravel the mysteries of Kyoto, I hastily packed my mini suitcase, grabbed my backpack, and embarked on an adventure to Japan's ancient capital.

Initially, I planned to make the journey in my reliable Mazda AZ Wagon, but the allure of the Kuroshio Express train beckoned me. Japan's extensive rail network never ceases to amaze me, and I decided to bask in the convenience and comfort it offered. Parking in Kyoto is also ridiculously expensive. Add in toll fees and fuel, and it easily becomes uneconomical to go alone by car.

As I arrived in Kyoto, I was greeted by a chilly winter breeze that reminded me of the city's valley location. Check-in was a breeze, and I prepared myself for the days of exploration that lay ahead. Little did I know that this trip would introduce me to fascinating characters and create lasting memories.

I spent a few days in the ancient capital getting to know a new acquaintance — Kenji, and his girlfriend Amanda. I went to the studio they work at — Monodzukuri Ventures (a hardware startup venture capital firm). Upon arriving and never having met Amanda, I saw one of her artworks and bought it immediately as I enjoyed its quirkiness.

Kenji, a native of Fushimi, showed me his hometown with pride. We drove past his dad by chance and indulged in a hearty bowl of authentic ramen at his favourite spot. The flavours lingered, filling me up for the entire day. The portions were also ridiculously massive. For the brave kind of ramen eater, the place is called Daikoku Ramen (大黒ラーメン). You will get your money's worth. Our adventure continued as we visited Kiyomizudera Temple, one of Kyoto's magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites. With closed borders limiting the usual crowds, we were able to freely explore the temple grounds and immerse ourselves in its history. We strolled down the hill, relishing in delightful conversations, and paused at a charming dessert shop for a sweet treat and refreshing green tea.

The nights in Kyoto were equally enchanting. A chance encounter at Hub British Pub led me to Scott, an interesting Australian guy, and we ventured to an Iranian bar where a mix of foreign patrons mingled. The bar's owner, full of wisdom and humour, shared tips on navigating the city's charming complexities. I was captivated by Kyoto's charm, its cleanliness, and the rich tapestry of its history.

My adventure didn't end there. I journeyed to Kobe City, specifically Sannomiya, on Christmas Day. This vibrant city immediately captured my heart. Its perfect blend of urban delights and picturesque beauty made it an ideal place to call home. With the guidance of a South African acquaintance who studies and lives there, I explored the city's museums on Rokko Island, sipped evening tea at the Sheraton on Kobe Bay, and savoured a delectable dinner at her favourite yakitori eatery. It was a Christmas celebration filled with warmth, culture, and new discoveries.

As I embarked on the last train back to Kyoto, a wave of gratitude washed over me. The trip had been a delightful mixture of old and new, rich with unforgettable moments. I indulged in window shopping, stumbling upon the most exquisite crystal store, and shared one final Italian dinner with Amanda and Kenji, cherishing the deepening bond of our friendship.

As I bid farewell to Kyoto, I knew in my heart that I would return. There is an endless tapestry of beauty and experiences waiting to be explored. Kyoto and Kobe have carved a special place in my heart, and their allure continues to beckon me.

Join me on my future adventures as we uncover the hidden gems of Japan and beyond. Until then, may your hearts be filled with wanderlust and the promise of new discoveries.