When we traveled across Asia, Japan somehow eluded us, but it always remained high on our wish list. After so many near visits, we finally fulfilled that wish by spending two weeks on the Discover Japan tour. Japan left us wide-eyed and fascinated with its culture of respect and harmony, a dichotomy of tradition and pop culture, and an appreciation of beautiful design and piles of raw fish, massaged beef and pickled vegetables.
Our journey took us from big city Tokyo to the sleepy mountain town of Takayama, through castles and Japanese gardens in Kanazawa to Hiroshima, a place that experienced incredible pain and destruction yet exudes an unassailable feeling of peace and hope today. In Kyoto we stumbled upon temples at every turn, and then continued to Mount Fuji to wake up to mind-boggling views of the mountain and finish our day with Japanese steam baths and multi-course kaiseki dinners.
We share a few of the memories we carry with us – from temples and ceremonies to climbing Mount Fuji to incredible meals to the people we met along the way who shared a bit of modern Japan with us.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto
In Kyoto, visiting all the temples is something of lifetime achievement, so you pick and choose. One of the must-see temples: the Golden Pavilion.
We visited in late spring, as a few blossoms remained and trees came into full green. Reflection, tranquility in nature, beauty and serenity. As you attempt to absorb it all, you realize it’s all very much Japanese.
Japanese School Kids
Japanese people are known for being reserved, but that does not make them any less engaging. We learned this lesson by traveling across Japan during spring break, when whole classes of school kids were taking field trips of their own.
Japanese school kids greeted us everywhere we went in Japan and were a constant source of smiles. They would approach us, hoping to exercise a few words of English. We’d help them complete their English language field trip assignments, and they often gave us handmade gifts to thank us. One of the people on our tour — just after he received a lesson in how to make Japanese tea and had his photo taken with a group of high school kids learning English — captured it best: “This was brilliant!”
Some of life’s most beautiful human moments are unplanned.
Climbing Mount Fuji
Yes, this was our final morning at Mt. Fuji, one of life’s greatest visual wake-up calls from the deck of our room in a traditional Japanese inn. If it looks almost too perfect to be real, it wasn’t.
To appreciate Mt.Fuji from afar was one thing, but to climb it and feel it up close was another. We began our climb at the base of the mountain, at Fujiyoshida Shinto shrine, a place of profound, unusual positive energy. It’s a shame that most people today don’t take the time to visit, since most head by bus to the fifth station on a beeline to the summit. Our approach felt like part of a bigger story, as we imagined religious pilgrims from centuries past beginning their climb with a prayer and long walk through the forest.
We were able to trek to the fifth station (2,300 meters) as it was too early to get to the top (summit is only possible in July & August), and were rewarded with even more great views from there.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Just outside Kyoto’s center, Fushimi Inari Shrine features over 10,000 vermillion gates (torii) that snake their way up the mountainside. The result is something spectacular, stunning and, depending on what time of day you go, a light-bending design tour de force. Each torii is purchased by a businessperson or company, as a way to give thanks for success and fortune. As sunlight peeks through, the result: an otherworldly tunnel of vermillion.
Japanese Tea Ceremony, Kyoto
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony goes back more than 500 years to when samurai trained in the process and practiced this fine art as a sort of meditation. Every movement in a Japanese tea ceremony is deliberate and carries special meaning. Nothing is left to chance, and everything is left open to conversation, including the source of each utensil.
To appreciate Japanese demeanor, culture, history from yesterday and today, seek out a tea ceremony with a host who can explain the process and meaning.
Daisho-in Buddhist Temple, Miyajima
Dating back to 806, Daisho-in Buddhist Temple is one of the most famous and important Shingon Buddhist temples in Japan. It was one of our favorites, too. We spent hours wandering the grounds and finding statues and details at every turn. All the while, devotees made prayers and offerings and Buddhist monks performed blessings and ceremonies in the various temple halls.
Be sure to allow lots of time to explore and take photos.
Sushi, Sashimi and all things Raw Fish
One of the things that drew us to Japan: the thought of sushi for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We were not disappointed. From the don bowls (rice topped with sashimi) for breakfast at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market to conveyor belt sushi restaurants to everything in between, we ate sushi at all hours of the day.
And if fish isn’t your thing, don’t despair. Japan knows all manner of meat, as well, among them the famous massage Kobe and Hida beef.
Finally, a note to our vegetarian friends, don’t despair – you too will be well taken care of by noodles and a dazzling array of greens and marinated and pickled vegetables.
Sake Tasting, Takayama
It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of rice in Japan. It’s essential, symbolic, metaphorical. So it’s no surprise that the Japanese alcohol of choice would be distilled from it.
Everywhere you go in Japan you find sake, a Japanese alcohol made from fermented rice. We’d sampled sake at Japanese restaurants and sushi joints at home, but those experiences pale in comparison to sake tasting in Takayama. In a matter of less than an hour, you can sample over a dozen varieties; understand the taste difference between sweet and dry, and even sample chunky and cloudy sake varieties.
Hint: Take your newfound sake knowledge and find that it’s perfect served with grilled oysters on Miyajima or with a plate of sashimi in Tokyo!
Even amidst a sea of fancy department store food shops, grocery stores, and konbini convenience stores, the tradition of fresh markets in Japan remains alive and well.
For travelers, Japan’s fresh markets offer an active education in Japanese cuisine and all of its colorful and flavorful components. Bring your curiosity, a sense of food adventure and a smile for the vendors and you won’t be disappointed. Vendors are happy to share information and samples of their wares and will make sure you are well educated, and well fed.
Big City Tokyo
Nothing says Tokyo than diving into the Shinjuku subway station at rush hour and facing a sea of thousands of people moving every direction, yet somehow in an organized fashion. Tokyo is the city of skyscrapers, lights, and modernity, yet there is also a neighborhood feel to it. Go up to the observation deck on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Municipality Building to survey this great world city from above.
Our recommendation to people taking the Discover Japan tour: stay a few more days in Tokyo after your tour ends to explore. Regardless of the time you spend there, Tokyo will always leave you feeling like you need more. But a little extra time in the city will allow all those Japan highlights to set in, before you head back home.
And all this is only the beginning, for every dimension of Japan – its people, its food, its culture, its religion, its tradition, its modernity – forks in fascinating ways. This is what makes Japan so cool.