A tea house on one of the beautiful Japanese gardens.
The questions everyone asks you when you come back from a trip to Japan are "How did you manage with the language?" and "Isn't it prohibitively expensive?"
While the fact that almost all of the signs are in Japanese and make one feel a little insecure, the spoken language is much less of a problem, as many of the people in the tourist areas speak some English. The second question is more complicated. On the one hand, there is no problem spending $1,000 per night on your hotel room, $500 for dinner, and $200 more for a taxi back to your hotel. On the other hand, on my last trip there, we traveled for three weeks seeing most of the highlights in the central part of the island of Honshu, the largest of the many islands that make up Japan, and did it on a budget that would definitely not have been sufficient for a European trip. The secret to saving money is firstly to plan one's itinerary well, as one of the bigger expenses is transport. Secondly, eating costs can be reduced without much effort. All hotels have boiling water for your use, so bringing tea or coffee from home is a good idea. This together with a bag of pastries from the 7/11 takes care of breakfast. At lunch time almost all restaurants have a business menu, which means that for $10 one can have a full Japanese lunch in a nice restaurant. Supper for us was usually some kind of Japanese fast food, like the local noodle bar, moving sushi bars or okynomiyaki (a kind of Japanese pizza). All tasty and cheap. Now all that remains is to find a reasonable hotel . Except for one night when we stayed in a monastery, we spent around $70 a night for a double room. Not luxurious and sometimes without a private bathroom but always quiet, clean and centrally located. Another $30 to $50, will allow one to stay in a business class hotel with a private bathroom or in a decent Japanese Inn. Finally, entrance fees for parks, museums, etc., are exceptionally reasonable, and are about half or less than they are in Europe or the States. So start planning that long dreamed about trip to the land of the rising sun, where people seem to have no problem believing in Shintoism and Buddhism at the same time and also throw in a bit of Christianity for good measure.
A geisha on the way to work.
Tokyo is one of the great cities of the world, with its ultra modern architecture in the area of Odaiba, on the one hand, and Kabuki theater and Sumo wrestling on the other. The view from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku is spectacular, and on a clear day one can see as far as Mount Fuji. Come here in the late afternoon when it is still light and watch as the sun goes down and the lights and neon signs below gradually light up the streets. The labeling in the museums is both in Japanese and English and The Museum of Emerging Science (in Odaiba) is one of the most fascinating museums I have seen. The Edo Tokyo Museum is definitely worth a visit and nearby is the main Sumo stadium, allowing one to see these human mountains in the flesh (and there is plenty of it) or maybe even to see one of the matches. Walking around Shinjuku or Shibuja in the evening with all the people, shops and restaurants, with the love hotels where a room can be rented by the hour (but where after 11pm one can spend the night for the equivalent of a cheap hotel) and with the giant department stores , where the food department is in the basement, and where melons cost $100 each but where various delicacies (how about Belgian chocolates or grasshoppers in barbecue sauce) are handed out free for tasting. The Tokyo fish market is the biggest in the world, but it means getting up really early and the small streets around the market sell anything and everything and make for fascinating browsing after your visit to the fish market. From the nearby boat terminal one can catch a boat up the river, getting off near the famous Sensoji temple in Asakusa, with its smoke, incense and believers coming to make offerings, choose "a fortune stick" or pray for some special request. Take the subway to Harajuku to see Tokyo's most important Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu Shrine, and if you are there on a Sunday from noon onwards, then go to the bridge over the train lines to see the not-so-conforming teenagers dressed in weird and wonderful costumes.
Tokyo is wonderful and I would be happy to carry on sharing with you the many more sights it has to offer but time is pressing and we must move on, so we will catch an early morning train to Niko, using our Japan Rail Pass for the first time. The rail pass can be bought for a period of one, two or three weeks and allows unlimited travel on almost all trains throughout Japan.
Niko, with its magnificent shrine complex, can be visited as a day trip from Tokyo and is one of the no-to-be missed sights in Japan. The shrine was built in the 17th century and the carved wood and gold leaf make it the most opulent shrine in Japan. It was built in honor of Tokugawa, the shogun who united Japan in the 1600s.
The next day requires an early start once again, as it's a good few hours on the bullet train the Hiroshima. We visit this area in order to see two main sights: the museum and park related to the atomic bomb and, secondly, the island of Miyajima with its famous red shrine gates which stand in the waters of the Inland sea and welcome you the this most picturesque shrine. In addition to the shrine, the island has a cable car which allows a wonderful panoramic view from the top of the mountain and also many other smaller, less famous but not less beautiful shrines and temples.
From Hiroshima we begin to slowly make our way to Kyoto, stopping on the way in Okayama to see one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, Korakuen, and its adjacent castle. The garden is beautifully laid out and perfectly maintained and one cannot be unaffected by the peace and tranquility that it exudes. Then, a little further on we stop again at Himeji to see one of the most famous and surely the most beautiful of Japanese castles. Just as there is a castle next to Okayama's garden, so is there a garden next to Himeji's castle. In both towns, both are worth seeing.
On to Kyoto, Japan's capital until 1868 and the highlight of any trip to Japan. Here, more than anywhere else, traditional Japan is still alive and kicking. A never-ending list of temples, each one unique and fascinating, will keep your camera shutter clicking. (Not to be missed are the Kinkakuji temple, with its golden pavilion, the Ginkakuji temple and the Kiyomizu temple). Here, on the one hand, one can see temples whose priests, dressed in the most elaborate costumes, take part in complex religious ceremonies, while on the other hand, the train station is the epitome of modern architecture. In Kyoto one can eat at a restaurant being attended by a Maiko (an apprentice Geisha and this, of course, being dependent on your having a few thousand dollars spare), and where, more than anywhere else, one will see dainty Japanese women dressed in beautiful kimonos; where at night one can watch traditional cormorant fishing or just stroll around the Gion district, with its "old Japan" houses and see wealthy Japanese businessmen being entertained by exorbitantly expensive Geishas.
If you still have time, take a couple of days to visit Mount Koya, reached by a cog railway and which has more than 50 temples on it. Make sure you spend the night at one of the temple guesthouses, where the priests will serve you a delicious vegetarian meal while you sit on the floor around a small low table. Tuck your legs under the table, which has a red bulb burning under it and which is covered with a sort of eiderdown instead of a tablecloth, and this in order to keep the heat generated by the electric bulb under the table and thus warm you. Here you can experience a traditional Japanese bath and take part in the morning prayers together with the temple priests. Then go for a walk through the gigantic cemetery, where Buddhist leader Kobo Daishi is buried, and where all the biggest Japanese companies have plots for their most senior employees.
On the way back from Koyasan, stop off in Nara to see the giant Buddha sitting in one of the biggest wooden buildings in the world, and enjoy wandering around the beautiful park that the temple stands in. If at this stage you are missing home, there is a falafel kiosk in the middle of town owned by an Israeli guy who is married to a Japanese woman.
Plan your trip in April, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. This is when the Japanese have picnics under the blossoming trees and where just hanging around and being friendly will get you an invitation to join them, allowing one to taste various Japanese delicacies, like dried octopus or sake.
If you can, rent a car and spend a few days in the area around Takayama, once again trying to plan your time there to coincide with its biannual festival, when giant portable shrines are carried through the town streets and the local people dress up in traditional garb. Visit the outdoor museum where houses have been brought from the surrounding areas and rebuilt there and in which craftsmen sit, showing how their trades were once practiced. Or maybe pay a visit to the Mahikari-kyo's Main World Shrine and learn a little about this cult's anti-semitic beliefs.
From Takayama drive through the mountains to Matsumoto with its moat and castle. On the way, stop off at the small spa town of Hirayu Onsen for a hot mineral bath. You will probably be the only gijin (foreigner) but many wealthy Japanese wander around the town in their bathrobes and wooden clogs on the way back to their hotel, after a visit to the hot springs. Drive along the two fascinating valleys of Shokawa and Kiso where you will be giant six storey high family houses with their unique meter-thick thatched roofs, and quaint villages kept in the old style and to which hordes of Japanese tourists flock in order to see what their country once looked like.
Finally, if by the end of your trip, you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing a Japanese bath or spa, haven't played pachinko, haven't taken part in or at least seen a traditional tea ceremony, haven't traveled on the bullet train, or haven't seen Mount Fuji, then postpone your flight for another day. You can't possibly go home yet.
** Dr. Brian Braude passed away on August 3rd, 2011