The Land of the Rising Sun

By SARA MANOBLA
May 30, 2010 05:33

Japan is neither easy nor cheap, but it’s well worth the trip.




Geishas

Geishas 311. (photo credit: Sara Manobla)

TOKYO – Cherry blossoms, sushi, geisha girls, Mount Fuji – the not-to-be-missed icons when visiting Japan. All indeed worth seeing (though Fuji eluded us), but the unexpected experiences are what remain in the mind long after a visit to Japan.

Our itinerary began and ended in Tokyo and included four days in Kyoto. We travelled everywhere by train, on a Japan Rail pass, a bargain and a great convenience. The overseas visitor must purchase this abroad. The rail service lives up to its reputation.

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Trains arrive and depart on the dot, spotlessly clean. The main line bullet trains are awesome, with comfortable reclining plane seats, reaching speeds that rival air travel. The branch line trains are slower, allowing you to view the passing scenery. Within the cities we used bus, tram or taxi.

As we moved from place to place, we took advantage of the efficient luggage forwarding service, which for a small fee will transport your bag to your next hotel, leaving you free to break your journey and explore places of interest en route.

Travelling independently, not in a group, with no knowledge of Japanese, my friend and I nevertheless managed to get around without much difficulty. The basic infrastructure of public transport and accommodation is often well above Western standards.

The Japanese are obsessed with cleanliness, wearing face masks against air pollution, providing moist warm towels at every eating place. Plumbing is impeccable and tap water everywhere is drinkable.

Where else would you find the computerized toilet-cum-bidet, with controls for warming the seat? No litter. In the towns the waiter or taxi driver usually knows a few words of English, but good speakers are few and far between. Signs in English can be found in the main centers but not in outlying areas.

We timed our visit to catch the cherry blossom. In early April the weather was still cool, with occasional light showers. Blossom everywhere, huge trees laden with white, pink or red flowers, the ground carpeted with petals.

Surprisingly – no fruit. In the parks groups gather under the trees – families, a workplace outing, perhaps a sports team – sitting on blue tarpaulin sheets, celebrating the blossoms with cheerful noisy picnics of rice, pickles and sashimi raw fish and seafood, misu soup, green tea and quantities of sake. At night, lanterns hanging from the trees add magic to the scene.

To keep within our budget, we stayed mainly in guest houses called ryokan. These are small establishments, catering mainly to Japanese travelers, but offering a warm welcome to the overseas visitor and providing an insight into the traditional Japanese way of life.

After removing your shoes and slipping into the slippers provided, you are shown your room – a sanctuary of elegance and calm. Each has its tokonoma, an alcove containing an object of beauty, be it a hanging scroll, a sculpture, a plant or a rock.

The floor is covered with tatami reed matting, the rice-paper window opens onto a balcony or small Zen garden, and the walls are lined with screens, often decorated with paintings of storks, or bamboo, or kimono clad ladies.

The only visible furniture is a low table and cushions for sitting on the floor. If you’re in luck there might be a legless chair or two. Breakfast and the evening meal are brought into the room on numerous trays. A small heating device on the table in front of you, powered by a candle, warms a pot of broth in which you cook raw meat and vegetables.

Sometimes the breakfast menu has photos, allowing you to choose between a “Western” or Japanese meal. But no dinner menu – you take what you’re given. Very often we had no idea what we were eating, but invariably it was freshly cooked, beautifully presented and delicious.

Time to turn in. Not a bed in sight. A servant enters, clears the table and pushes it aside, opens the wall screen concealing a cupboard, pulls out futon mattresses and bedding and transforms the space into a bedroom. Comfortable enough, though constantly getting up and down from floor level for sitting and sleeping takes some getting used to.

Bathing in an onsen, a hot-spring mineral water communal bath, is a special Japanese experience, with a ritual of its own. The tub, deep and steamy, is for soaking, not washing. Before getting in you strip and scrub, thoroughly, at nearby shower points, soap and shampoo provided.

Often with your towel you will be handed a yukata, a freshly laundered cotton robe for snuggling into after the soak. The large public onsen is as much about socializing as about cleanliness. In a ryokan the onsen will be small, only for guests, and you can probably lock the door and have the place to yourself. Rest assured: These days bathing is gender segregated.

Central Japan is heavily industrialized and densely populated. Factories and high-rise apartment buildings are erected with little regard for conservation or town planning, and old districts and houses often fall victim to modern development. The main historic buildings, however, are well preserved, and public parks and gardens provide a retreat from the bustle of city life. At weekends Japanese families turn out in great numbers to enjoy them.

Kyoto, the former imperial capital, has much to offer, with a magnificent collection of temples, palaces, shrines, museums and gardens. The Gion entertainment district comes to life in the evening. Here kimono-clad geisha girls (called geiko in Kyoto) can be seen tip-toeing into tea houses, accompanied by dark-suited companions. To get a taste of the traditional arts for which Kyoto is famous we went to a show combining Bunraku puppet theater, traditional music played on the koto harp, Kyoto style dance, flower arranging and Kyogen comic theater, ending with a tea ceremony conducted by trainee geishas, in which the audience participated.

After Kyoto we toured Shikoku, an island that until recently was isolated from the rest of Japan and reached only by ferry. Our train took us across the Seto Ohashi bridge which has transformed the island since it opened in 1989. But Shikoku remains a major pilgrimage destination with 88 Buddhist temples visited by the faithful.

Devout pilgrims complete the prescribed circuit of 1,400 kilometers on foot, others do it the easy way by bus or train or even driving cars. You see them everywhere with their conical hats and short white cotton jackets with slogans painted on the back, carrying wooden staffs with brass bells. We climbed with them up to the shrine of Kompira-san, more than 900 steps, and were rewarded with the tranquility of the temple and a magnificent view of the Inland Sea and the bridge.

At Koya-san, a major Buddhist center, we entered more deeply into the world of the monk and pilgrim. A complex of more than 100 monasteries clustered on a mountain peak, the small town is reached by a dramatic ride on a cable car. The monasteries provide temple lodging, simpler than the ryokan, for pilgrims and tourists.

Here we were served and looked after by novice monks, in a warm atmosphere of acceptance, calm and tranquility. At 800 meters above sea level it was cold at night, and we were grateful for the heating provided.

At 5:30 a.m., shivering, we made our way to the temple for the dawn service of prayer, chanting and meditation.

We left Shikoku by ferry and hurtled back to Tokyo on the bullet train. Here the contrasts and anomalies that characterize Japan are most in evidence.

In the subway, kimono dressed women alongside chicks with hair dyed green or orange, wearing outrageous dresses and crazy shoes; the pilgrims and crowds burning incense, inscribing votive tablets, making obeisance at the shrines, just across the road from the trendy clubs, restaurants and swish department stores; the pop culture of manga and anime (comics, cartoons, animated film) providing a modern alternative to traditional folk crafts, scroll paintings and landscape prints.

Homegrown films, often controversial, have a huge following, while the traditional Kabuki and No theaters of Tokyo are still sold out every night. The concept of the cruel violent Japanese warrior, with a penchant for suicide by disembowelment, is at odds with the courtesy and politeness we encountered everywhere. People don’t stare, though Western faces are rare. Queuing manners are exemplary – no pushing, no hassling. No need to argue with the taxi driver: He switches on the meter without being asked. No tipping. And nobody cheats!

PRACTICALITIES: We booked through Inside Japan, a specialist British firm. After studying its brochure, we planned our itinerary, chose our accommodation and followed its advice regarding travel arrangements. Its representative met us at Tokyo airport, helped us exchange vouchers for Japan Rail passes and put us on the train for central Tokyo. After that we were on our own. At the hotel a package awaited us with vouchers, timetables, maps and information regarding travel and sightseeing.

COST: Inside Japan’s price for our custom-designed tour was £2,688 ($3870) per person for 19 nights B&B in double room, 10 dinners, all rail/ferry transport, travel card for Tokyo subway, private guided tours in Tokyo and Kyoto, group bus tour in Shikoku and sushi breakfast in Tokyo fish market. Money in your pocket for other daily items – midday meal, bus fares, taxis, drinks, entrance fees, etc. – goes quickly. Japan is not cheap.


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