Konnichiwa—Hello! My recent travels took me to Japan, “The Land of the Rising Sun,” a name chosen more than 1,800 years ago because the country was so close to where the sun rises.
Japan is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean with dense cities, imperial palaces, mountainous national parks and thousands of shrines and temples. From contemporary art to ruins, relics and the surviving structures of ancient capitals, Japan has more than a thousand years of history and culture on display. It attracted 28.69 million international tourists in 2017 and is a hot destination for 2018.
This was a new adventure for a group of Warwick Travelers. Our journey began in Tokyo, Japan’s capital. We explored the famous Ginza district, where skyscrapers and neon lights meet high fashion. We later found ourselves at Traverse Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection in the world.
We visited Tokyo’s famous Meiji Shinto Shrine, resting amid a forest in the city’s shadow. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths for a relaxing stroll. Shinto, Japan’s native religion, remains its major religion alongside Buddhism and Christianity.
Our visit to the gardens of the Imperial Palace, the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family, found us surrounded by moats and massive stone walls. The residence sits amid large public gardens in the center of Tokyo.
We experienced a delightful tea ceremony, a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea called Matcha, together with Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea. The ceremony represents harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
On to Hakone, Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park west of Tokyo, a mountainous town known for its hot springs resorts and magnificent views of the iconic volcano, Mt. Fuji.
Our next day took us to the Kawaguchi “Five Lakes” area, where we climbed aboard the Kachi Kachi Ropeway ascending over 1,300 feet. Here we viewed the glorious Mt. Fuji and its surrounding lakes.
Our travels continued through the Japanese Alps on to Matsumoto and the picturesque town of Takayama, located in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture. Here we explored winding streets lined with traditional inns, houses and shops.
The next day we crossed the mountainous Shokawa Valley on our way to Shirakawa-go, a charming village with thatch-roofed houses. Our adventure continued to the scenic town of Kanazawa, where gold leaf-making began in the 16th century.
On to Kyoto by express train. Kyoto, once Japan’s capital, is a city on the island of Honshu. It is famous for numerous classical Buddhist temples as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It is also known for formal traditions such as Kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise Japanese traditional cuisine with Geisha—female entertainers often found in the Gion district. A visit to Kyoto is never complete without trying a Kaiseki meal.
Geisha girls, with their porcelain painted faces, scarlet red lips and exquisite kimonos, are the ultimate iconic symbol of Japan’s devotion to tradition, elegance and etiquette. Referred to as the “Flower and Willow World,” this almost secret society of the Geisha is one of the oldest yet most mysterious professions in Japan.
We visited the Nijo-Jo Castle with its beautiful gardens. It shows the power that the Shoguns wielded over the emperors throughout the Edo Period, 1603–1867. Later, we traveled to Kodai Yuzen-en Gallery for a lesson in the art of stenciling, followed by a wonderful view of Kyoto at Kiyomizu, a Buddhist temple high on a hillside.
At Fushimi Inari Taisha, we toured the shrine of Inari, the most impressive sight in Kyoto and the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.
The Shinkansen bullet train took us to Hiroshima, a modern city on Japan’s Honshu Island, largely destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorates the 1945 event. In the park are the ruins of Genbaku dome, one of the few buildings that remained standing near ground zero. Touring the museum was a moving experience.
After trying our first Japanese pizza, we boarded a ferry for the short ride to Miyajima Island, known as “Shrine Island,” to see the iconic Torii Gate, which appears to be floating on the water. The Torii is a traditional gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto Shrine. The Floating Torii of Itsukushima Shrine is one of Japan’s most iconic sights.
Traveling to Japan was an exciting adventure. With its stunning landscapes and strong cultural identity, Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime destination. Another “bucket” list trip checked off!