No matter how far you travel you can never get away from yourself.”
Haruki Murakami, The Unvisited
Whenever I talked to anyone who’d been to Japan I heard words like ‘incredible’, amazing’ and ‘beautiful’, so my expectations were high. I wasn’t disappointed. With the language barrier being pretty impenetrable and with every sign, menu and advertising poster written in an alien script, it could have felt like an isolating place. Nothing could have been further from our experience.
The people we came into contact with were unfailingly polite, kind and dignified. The culture of courtesy and respect was soothing to experience – even the smallest transaction in a shop, for instance, involved a two-handed return of our payment card with a smile and a bow. We soon got into doing the same and it felt like a very calming way to behave, somehow bringing us into the moment in a way you just don’t get in your local Tesco. The baby globetrotter attracted a lot of positive attention, which she basked in. She soon developed the habit of indulging in an endearing game of peek-a-boo with strangers she encountered, to their mutual delight. And we grew very accustomed to being greeted by giggling cries of kaweii (cute) wherever we went.
Everything was pristine, well-organised, convenient. And yes, incredible, amazing and beautiful! In planning our trip we thought we’d been quite conservative with our itinerary. In practice, it proved very tiring, and we could easily have spent twice as long as we did in all the places we visited. From the frantically famous road crossing of Shibuya and the glossy shop malls of Tokyo to the park filled with beguilingly friendly deer and stunning ancient temples of Japan’s old capital, Nara, our senses were constantly enchanted by new and different sights, sounds and tastes. We revelled in the views of the glowing Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji temple) and bounced our baby buggy up the steps to drink in the atmosphere of the embracing orange archways of the tori at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
We were lucky enough to be staying in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto, so we emerged straight into the streets of traditional wooden merchant houses. Many of these are now shops selling confectionery, often laid out in exquisite displays. These are phenomenally popular in Japan, with stores filled with tempting sweet goodies everywhere. There was even a Starbucks, the quaintest and most subtle branch I’ve ever come across. We were minutes away from the tranquil temple complex of Kodaiji, where crunchy gravel pathways led up through bamboo groves on the hillside, gifting views of pagodas with upturned tips to their roofs, a pond with rounded stone bridges and a minimalist Zen garden where an expanse of raked gravel represented the ocean. Despite its beauty, Kodaiji seemed relatively little visited. Not so Kiyomizudera Temple, a UNESCO listed world heritage site founded in AD 780 on the site of the Otawa waterfall in the wooded hills on the eastern edge of the city. Like so many of the sights we visited it was oozing with exuberant yet well-behaved school groups. Perched above the steep streets of Higashiyama, and crowded with history, I still found the views of the cherry and maple trees and the city itself, snuggled quietly below, very restful. Or maybe that was because I’d left the baby globetrotter with her daddy for an hour …!
We also took in the neon buzz and culinary delights of Osaka, the laidback seaside vibe of Onomichi-Shi, gateway to the Shimanami Kaido, a 70 km cycle route crossing six islands in the Seto Inland Sea and even fitted in a visit to an exhilarating digital art display in Tokyo at the futuristic Mori Building’s Digital Art Museum. The coastal town of Kanazawa felt like a hidden gem, despite being well-visited. For us it was a tranquil place to spend a few days at a relatively slower place. The Castle and its gardens were joyful to wander through and we loved the soothing minimalist simplicity of the D.T. Suzuki Museum.
Hiroshima felt like a must on our first visit to Japan. The memorials and museums of the Peace Memorial Park were subtle, poignant and moving and it felt right that the somewhat controversial Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku) had been preserved as a grim reminder of the annihilating power of nuclear weapons. Like many popular sights we went to, the park was full of large groups of school children on educational outings. Here, watching the groups assemble in orderly turns at the Children’s Memorial, with class representatives coming forward to deliver readings and recitations and to hang chains of colourful origami paper cranes, followed by the whole class singing together was touching in the extreme.
Another place we were eager to visit was Itsukushima Shrine. We’d seen this on a National Geographic documentary and were excited to see the orange tori gate to this sacred Shinto place that at high tide appears to float magically on water. So after a touching and occasionally tearful morning in Hiroshima we took a long tram ride and a short ferry hop across to the island of Miyajima. There was something elemental about the temple’s position on the sea. It’s built on wooden platforms jutting out from the coast, so when the water’s in waves lap underneath. When we visited the tide was pulling out and the place was thronging with tourists but I resolved to return and stay on the island so I could experience this magical place in the quiet of dawn, with the swelling under the temple buildings, deer wandering the quiet streets and the forested hills rising up right behind the coast. Even writing this I can feel a throbbing pull to go back to this spiritual place.
Like our trip, this post feels as though it merely scrapes the surface. We skipped around, sampled a huge range of different things, were intrigued, beguiled, delighted, overwhelmed, exhausted in equal measures. If we thought our appetites had been whetted by that chance documentary we saw, our holiday had certainly confirmed our hunger! For more accounts on visiting Japan, including some helpful suggestions on itineraries, see the If you like this … section below.
Almost everything in Japan was such a new experience to us that just being there and wandering around was like being in one massive museum for two weeks! With the baby globetrotter in tow we didn’t go to many museums – the TeamBorderless exhibition and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum being two notable exceptions we’re glad we made the effort for. Small and simple, the Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa was a calming haven (and the baby globetrotter blessed us with a nap in her buggy while we were there, so we could fully absorb the tranquility!). Two things on my hit list that we didn’t get to do were visit an onsen (public bath) or stay in a ryokan (traditional guesthouse). We didn’t do a proper tea ceremony either. We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during a sumo tournament and it was an exciting (and baffling!) experience to watch not just the wrestling but the ritual surrounding it. We bought our tickets here.
A lot of our trip was city-based and the wonderful natural sights that I know the country has to offer went largely untapped. Over two thirds of Japan is swathed in forested mountains and hills. We caught a few glimpses as we whizzed by on the bullet trains (shinkansen) and a tempting taster on the island of Myajima. See this Japan Guide site for an overview of the well-known sights like Mount Fuji and some less-renowned but beautiful-looking places like the Kushiro marshlands.
We stayed mainly in apartments: one I’d like to give a particular shout out to is the lovely traditional house we based ourselves in during our stay in Kyoto, Rinn Yasaka Kodaiji. We also had fun at the Cycle Hotel Onomichi – well-designed, friendly, a little different and a fabulous onsite bakery – thanks Lisa for the tip!
Food & Drink
We were disappointingly timid with the cuisine, but came back with enthusiasm to learn more about Japanese cuisine and try it in an environment where we could find out a little more about what we were eating! Tokyo offered the surprisingly veggie-friendly Ysaiya-Mei in the upmarket Omotesando shopping centre. In Osaka, we tracked down the pork ramen noodles in Hanamaruken Namba Houzenji for my fiancé. We’d read about them on the trusty NeverEndingFootsteps blog (which had been invaluable in shaping our schedule) and judging by the satisfied slurps, they didn’t disappoint. The baby globetrotter liked them too! I gorged on sushi from the conveyor belts at Daiki Suisan in Osaka and we savoured a fantastic lunch at Itoh Dining in Kyoto (part of the Nobu stable). When we were craving familiar tastes we leapt on places like Mashi Mashi, an amazingly authentic French boulangerie in Kanazawa.
IF YOU LIKED THIS YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
• The NeverEnding Footsteps blog – we referred again and again to Lauren’s guide
• The Inside Kyoto website – stuffed full of information and ideas and lots of links to posts on other cities and places in Japan too
• Travelling with children in Japan guide from the Wanderlust Storytellers
• The Culture Trip guides, for example this guide to Tokyo
• My 100 countries overview