The stunning cherry blossoms were just a part of the reason to be charmed by Japan; there is so much more. It is truly unique and so different from anywhere else I’ve ventured to. There is a wonderful melding of the past with the future and a great respect for both. Despite a population of 127 million in a country 26 times smaller than Canada, everything and everyone operates with a steady and efficient order and precision.
It is, without a doubt, the cleanest country I have ever visited. This is truly remarkable when considering the huge population and the small country. There are no waste bins anywhere. Everyone is asked to take their garbage home and dispose of it there…and they do. On coaches and trains, we were asked not to leave any garbage, but rather to take it back to our hotel to dispose of it.
People are friendly, quietly charming, very respectful and always accommodating. A greeting is given with a bow. A deeper, longer bow is a sign of respect and we received many of these.
Our visit began in Tokyo, the capital, a busy, thriving city steeped in old traditions and the latest modern innovations. From the lovely dining room in our Tokyo hotel, we could see Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Seems like a simple thing, but what a thrill to enjoy breakfast while gazing at such a magnificent sight way off in the distance. A quick elevator ride to the Observation Deck of the Skytree Tower offered fabulous views of the city and beyond. Buildings are jammed together as far as the eye can see; ancient and modern, tiny, old wooden structures next to towering skyscrapers.
We wandered the streets of the Ginza district, Tokyo’s most famous upscale shopping, dining and entertainment district. It is one of the most expensive real estate areas in Japan. Every famous designer is represented. A stroll through a department store was truly delightful. The lower level was the supermarket floor, but not like any supermarket I’ve ever seen. The Japanese have a wonderful way of packaging everything as though it is a gift, complete with a little box and pretty ribbon. Rows upon rows of skewered meats were individually wrapped in plastic wrap and stacked precisely side-by-side, row on row in glass cases. Boxes of candy were placed perfectly, with an open box on top to show what’s inside. This is the Japanese way. Everything everywhere is orderly, organized and exact.
The Shrines and Temples are all different and very interesting. The Kotoku-in Temple had a 40-foot high bronze Buddha towering in the open air outside the Temple. It was cast in 1252. The Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara has 3000 lanterns which are symbolic of the 3000 Kasuga shrines spread throughout Japan. Lanterns are a symbol of illumination, a guiding light. Walking through the entrance gate to the shrine, you are faced with a set of delightful shinto buildings that radiate serenity. Serenity seems a big part of Japanese culture. Deer roamed freely on pathways and through the woods here, nudging visitors for food, poking at handbags and sniffing in pockets.
Japan is famous for its gardens and our visits to two of them were highlights. What a delight to stroll the connected paths around the gardens, over bridges, past arbors, artistic stone features, pretty Japanese trees and plants and past ponds with large, colourful koi fish. What masters of creativity!
Heading north and through the Japanese Alps, remnants of a snowy winter and colder air was not a welcome sight after leaving Canada in late March. However, the sights were magnificent on our way to iconic Mt. Fuji, its summit deep in pristine, white snow. An overnight stay at an authentic Japanese country inn, called a ryokan, was one of many highlights. Here, we slept on comfy futons which were laid out on the tatami-matted bedroom floor by attentive and gracious staff. Bedrooms had sliding paper walls and some had a short-legged dining table in true Japanese style. Each room had two yakuta’s (Japanese komono’s) for our use. We wore them to dinner and felt, well, quite Japanese! Several took advantage of the ryokan’s steamy, bathing spa, one for men and one for women; no bathing suits allowed.
Our visit to Hiroshima was a very moving experience with visits to the Hiroshima Memorial and the Peace Memorial Museum. Seeing the remnants which still stand and the complete horror of that time was a stark awakening as to what unspeakable things man has inflicted on each other. In 1964 a Peace Bell was completed in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park with these words inscribed, “We dedicate this bell as a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration. Let all nuclear arms and wars be gone and the nations live in true peace!” We all had an opportunity to mount the steps and ring the bell, listening to its haunting echo ring out across the park. This was a sobering day, but an important one.
Japan’s castles were varied and laden with fascinating history and many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We attended a traditional tea ceremony and a delightful cultural show featuring a beautiful dancing geisha, a flower arranging demonstration, a comedy play and a puppet show. We learned to make washi paper and created our own postcards. Unique experiences wove themselves fabulously through this journey from start to finish.
Dining was an adventure and a unique experience! Our finesse with chopsticks improved vastly by the end of our tour. Food was always fresh, excellent quality, colourful and beautifully presented. Some meals were served at our table and others were buffet. At buffets, there were always choices of Japanese cuisine and western items. When served at our table, each course is served in little individual bowls and thank goodness for an excellent guide who described each one. Highlights were dinners where we were given individual hibachi-type bbq’s at our table, where we cooked chunks of sumptuous hida beef and a selection of delicious vegetables. Dining was always a surprise and in Japan it’s an authentic way to experience this delightful country.
Moving around the country was always an adventure as we travelled by coach, boat, cable cars, standard trains and a highlight….the famous, futuristic-looking bullet trains. Travelling at over 300 km per hour, the trains are very comfortable and the ride is smooth. Train stations are immaculate, as is everywhere in Japan. And trains are always on time. We had to be ready when they stopped and doors opened. In some cases, it was only one or two minutes from the time the train arrived to the time the doors closed and it was off again, charging down the tracks to the next stop.
In the train stations, malls and many other public places, there are yellow paths with slightly raised dots. These are for the visually impaired, so that they are able to walk safely along the path using their canes to feel the bumpy dots, knowing that as long as they stay on the path, they are safe from wandering into a dangerous area. At the train stations, the paths also guide them where to turn to embark and disembark the trains. The yellow paint reminds the public to keep this space free.
Japan is a proud modern country steeped in ancient traditions, holding onto the past but moving forward as a major world leader. This, together with the country’s natural beauty and those ever stunning cherry blossoms, made this journey a truly delightful one, not to be missed.
Discover Japan in 2020 with us, view details here!