When you think of Greece, you think of the Parthenon. Egypt brings to mind the pyramids of Giza. France is the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. Japan is all about the details. This is a culture that pays close attention to beauty, right down to the smallest thing. Nothing is insignificant.
We’re about halfway through our whirlwind, 30-day tourist vacation in Japan. After just a couple of days in Tokyo, we fell in love with the country and the culture here. Of course, Japan has more than a fair share of the world’s UNESCO Heritage sites and we’re here to see those. But having seen a lot of ancient sites around the world, that isn’t the best part of Japan in our opinion. We love the people and watching daily life.
It’s the little things we love. How store clerks lay out your change in a tray with such care, fanning out each bill before handing you a receipt with both hands and a small bow. Or sweet little displays of cute figures in small corners, shop windows, and plants in doorways. Food is always thoughtfully presented, with attention given to the appearance, texture and flavour. Even the food from 7-Eleven is fantastic. And cheap. You can buy warm coffee and tea from vending machines on street corners and subway platforms. We even saw one in someone’s driveway. Kindness and respectful exchanges between people are valued here. Even in the heart of busy downtown Tokyo, we don’t feel the aggressive pushiness of the agitated citizens of Toronto, New York City, or Hong Kong, despite the fact that Tokyo is the world’s largest city.
We’ve made the top tourist sites a big priority for obvious reasons. We may never return here and how can you visit Japan and not visit some of its spectacular historical heritage sites? And a few of them would truly be a shame to miss, despite the hordes of tourists that these places are drowning in. Such is modern travel these days.
We left Tokyo after four days and took the train to Kamakura, about an hour or so south on the coast. Rather than stay in Kamakura proper, we opted for a place outside Kamakura that is very popular with domestic Japanese tourists, called Enoshima. It is right on the ocean, famous in Japan for surfing. Getting in to Kamakura to visit the ancient temples was easy, having two rail options to choose from – a monorail or electric railway.
Kamakura is lovely, and given we’re here in the cusp of Japan’s busiest tourism season, we saw few foreign tourists and the temples were not overly crowded. Especially early in the morning.
After four days in Kamakura, we made our way by train back to Tokyo Station to activate our 21-day Japan Rail Passes. Using those, we boarded a Shinkansen (Bullet) train bound for Kyoto. The Shinkansen are like airplanes on rails. Fast, smooth and modern, they move at up to 300 km/h on the faster Nozomi Shinkansen, but those aren’t covered by the Japan Railpass, so we had to settle for the slower Shinakansen. Ours only moves at 230 km/h. We traveled the 500 miles from Tokyo to Kyoto in a little over two hours.
Bullet train, view from the window
Karen working on the train
Famous train lunch boxes, they are beautiful, tasty and cheap
Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan and the ancient imperial capital. You wouldn’t think that on first arriving. There’s not much that feels ancient here. It’s a Swiss-clean and very urbanized modern city with wide boulevards and a lot of concrete. There’s not a lot of old Japan here aside from the cultural sites that spread across the city. But it’s a lovely place, and walkable for the most part. We’ve taken in the famous temples, but avoided some that have no spiritual value to them. The crowds here in Kyoto are legendary and this is the season for Sakura blossoms, the cherry trees. That means everywhere is jammed with visitors. In many ways, Japan has become the Europe of Asia. Family-safe and culturally sophisticated with dozens of historical wonders to gawk at, it’s no surprise that it has become a destination of choice for many westerners and Chinese tourists alike. Travel here is easy despite the language challenges. And this country has a rail transportation system that beggars belief. North Americans are living in the dark ages by comparison.
Together again…. Ania and Irek in Kyoto
We chose to stay almost two weeks in Kyoto using our rented apartment as a hub, taking day trips to nearby places like Nara and Osaka. We have friends, Ania and Irek, also visiting Japan. They happened to be in Kyoto at the same time so we had buddies to hang out with. It was nice to interact with other people. We even had them over for a dinner of steamed veggies, tuna sashimi, fried fish and mochi treats.
You see the ancient sites in Kyoto. You go to Osaka to eat. It’s the third largest city in Japan and the traditional port of entry for the country’s food imports. It has become ground zero for cuisine. The city is famous for street food, like okonomiyaki which is a kind of stuffed cabbage pancake, or takoyaki, a ball of cooked octopus, sometimes fried. Osaka has incredible ramen and udon soup. Fresh seafood, of course, is everywhere. Osaka is rougher around the edges than other places in Japan. It feels chilled out and a little seedy, we found an entire street that run for blocks lined with porn shops. Nightlife here is serious. And lots of fun. Even when you don’t drink. The famous Dotonbori district is a massive, sophisticated county fair. It’s a long (long) arcade-like street of food, crowds, and giant, attention-seeking animatronic chefs, crabs, and octopi. Crossing through it is something that looks like the world’s longest shopping mall. Walking around downtown Osaka was an adventure in sensory stimulus. Great fun.
Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for about 1100 years until the Shogunate moved the emperor to a new capital in Edo (Tokyo) in the 19th century. But Nara was the first imperial capital and was home to the imperial family for about a hundred years before being moved to Kyoto. Just an hour away by train from Kyoto, we did a day trip. There are eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Nara. We were interested in just one: the Tōdai-ji temple, a Buddhist complex built in 728 home to one of the world’s largest and oldest bronze Buddha statues. Nara is now hugely popular with tourists for the semi-domesticated feral deer that wander around the parks and temples. They hang around the many deer cracker-sellers who wait for tourists wanting deer selfies. That didn’t interest us much. Deer have ticks, don’t they? Modern Nara is a rather sweet city, clean and easy to walk in. But the most interesting place is the Tōdai -ji temple and museum.
We don’t often do crazy tourist vacations when we travel, preferring to settle in and hang out somewhere for a time. But Japan is different and our relatively short time here demands a busy sight-seeing schedule. As we’ve wandered around the famous sites among the crush of millions of other tourists, we’ve spared a few moments to think about life and reflect on what matters. We’ve been on the road now for ten months. We feel lucky. We came here partly because I have talked about Japan for most of the time Karen and I have been together. In the last couple of years, I’ve wanted to come and do photography. This country can be immensely photogenic, and street photography is particularly rewarding, even if the most famous sites are now overrun with photographers all seeking the same pictures. Most sites now ban tripods to manage the picture-taking crowds. Researching Kyoto photography, I recently saw a photo of tourist photographers waiting for a geisha to come put of a ryokan in Pontocho. It was kind of sad and invasive. There were about twenty of them all pouncing on a woman as she emerged from the restaurant. Like paparazzi.
My first explorations of meditation were based on Zazen in the Zen tradition. I found Zen Buddhism to be a bit too heavy on religious ritual and intellectual aesthetics for me. But I loved the cultural context and history of the religion and have been curious to visit Japan now for over two decades.
I am glad we decided to spend the time and money to come. We feel really lucky to be here. And it’s more than a little cool to be riding a bullet train from Tokyo on your way to meet old friends in Kyoto. Ania and Irek are also visiting Japan after they spent two months in Sri Lanka. We last saw them in London, saying goodbye at Heathrow airport as they boarded a plane for Poland and we waited for a flight to Vancouver. It was an unexpected and welcome bonus to spend a few days with them, like we’re all back in Toronto just having dinner together. Except we’re not. We’re in Japan!
Tomorrow we head to Hiroshima.