Travel in Japan
Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.
Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things.
There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen (natural hot spring bath). You can feel the muscles in your back relax and the ‘ahhh’that you emit is just a simple way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running earby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.
If you think of the Japanese as sober, staid and serious people, join them under a cherry tree laden with blossoms in the springtime. It’s as if the cherries release a kind of narcotic that reduces inhibitions. They’ll drench you in sake and beer, stuff you with snacks, pull out portable karaoke and perhaps even get up and dance. Japan is a happy place when the cherry blossoms are out, and you’re more than welcome to join the party. Two of the best places to join in the fun are Tokyo’s Ueno-kōen and Kyoto’s Maruyama-kōe.
Kyoto Temples & Gardens
With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji. Kinkaku-ji.
Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or Hikone.
Oku-no-in at Kōya-san
Riding the funicular up to the sacred Buddhist monastic complex of Kōya-san, you almost feel like you’re ascending to another world. The place is permeated with a kind of august spiritual grandeur, and nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the vast Oku-no-in cemetery. Trails weave their way among towering cryptomeria trees and by the time you arrive at the main hall, the sudden appearance of a Buddha would seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove
Western Kyoto is home to one of the most magical places in all of Japan: the famed bamboo grove in Arashiyama. The visual effect of the seemingly infinite stalks of bamboo is quite different from any forest we’ve ever encountered – there’s a palpable presence to the place that is utterly impossible to capture in pictures, but don’t let that stop you from trying. If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ll have some idea of what this place is about.
Kyoto’s Geisha Dances
It can’t be stressed enough: if you find yourself in Kyoto when the geisha dances are on – usually in the spring – do everything in your power to see one. It’s hard to think of a more colourful, charming and diverting stage spectacle. You might find that the whole thing takes on the appearance of a particularly vivid dream. When the curtain falls after the final burst of colour and song, the geisha might continue to dance in your mind for hours afterwards.
Shopping in Tokyo
If you want to see some incredible shops, you’ve got to come to a country that’s been running a multibillion-dollar trade surplus for the last several decades. If it’s available to humanity, you can buy it in Japan. Whether it’s ¥10,000 (US$100) melons or curios from ¥100 shops (where everything goes for about US$1), you’ll be amazed at the sheer variety of the goods on offer in Tokyo. No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest of its kind in the world.
This Pacific island chain, located some 1000km south of Tokyo, is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. Inhabited only within the last 180 years, these subtropical islands boast white-sand beaches, warm blue waters and dozens of rare plant and animal species. Divers and snorkellers can swim with dolphins, mantas and sea turtles. Hiking, kayaking, stargazing, and whale-watching and are also on the bill. The catch? The most accessible main island of Chichi-jima is a 25½-hour ferry ride from Tokyo.
Seeing the city’s leafy boulevards, it’s hard to picture Hiroshima as the devastated victim of an atomic bomb. It’s not until you walk through the Peace Memorial Museum that the terrible reality becomes clear – the displays of battered personal effects say it all. But outside the quiet of the Peace Memorial Park, energetic Hiroshima rolls on. A visit here is a heartbreaking, important history lesson, but the modern city and its people ensure that’s not the only memory you leave with.
Even from a distance Mt Fuji will take your breath away. Close up, the perfectly symmetrical cone of Japan’s highest peak is nothing short of awesome. Dawn from the summit? Pure magic. Fuji-san is Japan’s most revered and timeless attraction. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up this sacred volcano. Those who’d rather search for picture-perfect views from the less daunting peaks nearby can follow in the steps of Japan’s most famous painters and poets.
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