The sweet scent of Cherry filled the air as we marched across the bridge and up to the giant gate of Osaka Castle. Hundreds of trees were dressed in an explosion of brilliant white and pink blossoms. The warm sun bathed the wandering gardens where several brides in traditional Uchikake kimonos were being photographed. This was such a fitting end to our tour of Japan.
Our group tour had begun two weeks prior in Tokyo. Here, amid the rising steel and concrete we began to discover a contrast of antiquity and modernity along with a tradition-rich culture based on pride and respect. As we walked through the open park leading to the Imperial Palace, we couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a single piece of litter anywhere. It was a theme that continued wherever we went despite the fact that there are almost no garbage cans to be seen in the country! We marvelled at bus drivers who immediately started to polish their vehicles after we were delivered to each destination.
All of us had read or seen pictures of the crowded trains but it wasn’t until we were on our way to Kamakura that we had a chance to be a part of the experience. In Japan, all trains leave on time. Exactly on time! As our train pulled in we noticed that the car was absolutely packed and when the whistle blew to indicate that the doors were closing, we still had eight members on the platform ! With the help of our local guide and some frantic pushing and pulling we somehow managed to get everyone in. For the next three stops none of us were able to turn or move our arms from our sides. Gradually the crowded car emptied and eventually there were even seats available. When we arrived in Kamakura, all agreed that it had been a great life experience they would not have wanted to miss.
There is nothing quite like the sight of snow-capped Mount Fuji on a brilliantly sunny day with a flawless blue sky. The perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone rises majestically above the rolling hills below. Our first chance to photograph this icon was from the top of a nearby Mount Komagatake after a cable-car ride up almost 2,000 feet. We then drove up Mount Fuji to the 4th Station where everyone had a chance to walk on the huge snow accumulation.
From there we headed to Lake Suwa for one of the most memorable experiences of the tour. There is no better way to appreciate the warm hospitality of Japan’s beautiful countryside, its exquisite cuisine and openhearted people, than to enjoy a stay in a traditional inn or ryokan. With its sliding paper walls, tatami straw mats and generous futons, the rooms bestow a quiet calming influence. Here we encountered the freshest local fare prepared to the highest culinary standards, all tastefully arranged in many small bowls and dishes of delightfully crafted tableware. Dressed in our house kimonos and slippers, we then made our way to the intriguing communal baths. After a seated wash by bucket and shower, we slipped into the steaming hot spring-water. More than a cleansing, the whole experience is meant to encourage harmony and relaxation.
The next day we headed through the mountains where we encountered small villages and towns on our way to see one of the oldest castles in the country. Built in the 1500’s, Matsumoto Castle is listed as a National Treasure. The impressive six story black and white exterior stands out boldly against the magnificent backdrop of the Japanese Alps. In the mountain village of Takayama we were treated to a living museum of rural homes at the Hida Folk Village. The next day was spent exploring the old streets and shops before making our way to a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony.
On the road to Kanazawa we had a chance to wander through the centuries old village of Shirakawago. This World Heritage Site boasts an amazing collection of thatched-roofed homes and barns. Later, we all participated in a traditional paper making process called “washi”. We all selected tiny coloured leaves to imbed in the soupy mixture of mulberry fibres and hollyhock, then used small screens to sift and settle the mixture. After the paper was dried on hot plates, we were all able to take our lovely creations with us.
Our walk through Kenroku-en Garden was highlighted by the dazzling dark pink plum blossoms that filled the lower section of the park. Next on the tour was the fully restored Kanazawa Castle with its angular wooden beam construction. Boarding the express train we made the two hour journey to Kyoto, the magnificent former capital of Japan. The next several days were spent touring this city which was the centre of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. Countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures are to be found here. One of the most beautiful is the famed Kinkaku-ji or 'Golden Pavilion', with its brilliant gold leaf shining above the tranquil reflecting pond. At the Todaiji Temple we entered the largest wooden building in the world to see a giant bronze Buddha before making our way to Heian Jingu Shrine where hundreds of blossoming cherry trees lined both sides of the canal.
Sadly, we were at the end of another great Craig Travel tour. It was time to take the bullet train back to Tokyo for our homeward flight. Everyone had enjoyed the early spring weather and the rich and varied experiences in the food, culture and history of Japan. There is no mistaking the fact that this was the best time of year to visit the region. The gorgeous burst of flowering colour was matched only by the contented smiles of an appreciative group.
Our 2022 Japan journey is coming soon! In the meantime, be inspired by all things Japan by visiting our destination page here.