Touring Japan in 2002 was a life-long dream come true from working as a travel agent for American Orient Travel in San Francisco at age 21.
Japan is a shoppers' paradise and Tokyo, of course, is no exception.
We've never seen such chic designs and styles anywhere in the world; even the high-end shopping streets of New York, Hong Kong or London are no match for Tokyo's au courant styling and because most Japanese people are thin, they tend to look good in anything they put together.
The first time we ever saw a GPS tracker in a car was in Tokyo. This was quite a few years ago, American autos did not yet have them installed, but it is extremely difficult to get around in Tokyo without them. Cab drivers used them to make their way through Tokyo's streets, which were intentionally NOT build in any type of grid as winding streets help stave off invasions and during the decades of samurai and civil wars, Japan's cities had many invasions requiring military tactics . . . thus castle moats and winding streets.
Classic Japan . . .
Known as the cradle of Japan's cultural heritage, Kyoto was Japan's capital and the emperor's residence from 794 until 1868. It is now the country's seventh largest city, with a population of 1.4 million people and a modern face, though it remains Japan's most traditional city.
Japan's Ise Peninsula is sufficiently remote that even few Japanese visit the area. However, it is an easy and pleasant high-speed train ride from Tokyo or Kyoto with a transfer at Nagoya. Ago Bay is home to Japan’s pearl farming industry where Kokichi Mikimoto created the world’s first cultured pearl in 1905; they are now recognized as the finest in the world. History is preserved through demonstrations at Mikimoto’s pearl farm where white-clad ama dive for abalone.
Three Female Mikimoto Pearl Divers
Divers go down 20 feet without air.
What you can’t see in these images are spawning jellyfish stinging the divers, all of whom are women and all of whom have been trained for years.
The Ise Peninsula is also home to Japan’s most sacred Shinto Shrines and Meoto Iwa, the “Wedded Rocks.”
Our accommodations on the Ise Peninsula were reached by a small boat owned by the lodge. We called from a shore side telephone, they picked us up and we cruised through old pearl beds to the dock. Our upstairs room overlooked the bay and fishing boats plying the waters throughout the day checking nets and the floating docks holding the oysters.
There is so much to write about Japan. Every hour of every day opened our eyes to new beauty and elegant structures. Again, even if you have even remotely considered visiting Japan, do. Japan is surprisingly easy to navigate. Not only are the people the most helpful I've ever come across in years of travel (and my worldly brother said that also when we finally convinced him to go), the public transportation systems are amazing. I'm sure you have heard of the Japanese Bullet Trains, but all other transportation is also exception. In addition, because the Japanese spent so many years on foot, many of the towns are like San Francisco in that they are very "walkable." In Tokyo and Kyoto, for example, we walked almost everywhere.
If your time is so limited that you must stay near Tokyo Airport, consider taking the train into the little town of Narita. It is about a half-hour ride from the airport; we started and ended our trip in Narita . . . and we actually finalized our shopping for gifts to take home in Narita. Prices were reasonable; sure many of the items we bought could be found in San Francisco, which is near where we live, but that's not the same as having something actually from Japan. Flight crew often stay in Narita as it is convenient, and it has retained the feeling of old Japan with its small shops and family-run restaurants.
We happened to be in Narita during the “Gion-e”, which is an event of Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Naritasan Shinshoji Temple is the main temple of the Shingon Sect of Chizan-ha Buddhism. Founded by Archbishop Kancho in the third year of Tenkei (940), the temple is dedicated to Fudo Myouou, the god of fire; the image of which was carved and consecrated by Saint Kobo Daishi. Since its foundation, Shinshoji has attracted many followers of the Fudo faith, and is visited by about ten million people a year.
The Narita Gion Festival is one of the greatest festivals in Japan and held in Narita for three days in early July every year. During the period, neighborhoods build shrines and carry them through the streets in a contest.
Narita is a perfect walking city; everything is within strolling distance, including beautiful Naritasan Park (above) with its Calligraphy Museum which houses many modern calligraphy masterworks. Nearby is Ryushouin (Namerigawa Kannon), said to have been founded by Jikaku Daishi in the fifth year of Showa (838). The main building of the temple, built in the 11th year of Genroku (1698), is a magnificent structure. It is designated as Chiba Prefecture’s tangible cultural property. The Niou gate at the entrance of the temple grounds, built at the end of the Muromachi era, is an important cultural property designated by the National Government.
Nikko has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for centuries. It is a beautiful day trip from Tokyo and well worth your time and an easy tour from Tokyo. A highlight is the Toshogu Shrine, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543), the first Tokugawa Shogun featuring the superb craftsmanship of Japan's 17th-century artisans. Look out for the famous carving of the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys.
His grandson Iemitsu’s mausoleum is also housed within the temple. Toshogu, along with Futarasan and Rinnoji is now a world heritage site and is one of the places in Japan where you will see a lot of foreign tourists – perhaps even more than in central Tokyo.
After viewing the 351-foot (100-meter) Kegon Waterfall, one of the three finest falls in Japan, follow the Irohazaka zigzag driveway back down the mountains, following a different route with 28 bends.
Nikko and the area around Lake Chuzenji are well known for their beautiful fall foliage (koyo). The best times to view the rust-colored leaves is usually mid-October for Lake Chuzenji and early to mid-November for central Nikko.
Japan's Bullet Trains
During our first tour out of the United States, which was to Jamaica, we were amused at signs in the train stations: "Train arrives about . . . " with no number in the "about section."
On the other hand, trains in Japan arrive on the second: 8:43:22. And if you don't catch it during the minute or so it is stopped at the station, well just catch the next one which will be along at 8:47:15 or some such.
Their system is quite amazing and second to none. Immaculate, fast, reliable. Food on board is served in . . . as you would expect . . . neat little boxes.
I mistakenly travelled with a new camera (a Canon Rebel) and new film (Fuji) without testing either/both substantially prior to leaving. After two months on the road and a $1,500 bill for film processing, I was stuck with hundreds of poor images. However, the journey was so special that the images are priceless to our family. The only way to "save" them is to paint them . . . the next project.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan
- Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993)
- Himeji-jo (1993) Shirakami-Sanchi (1993) Yakushima (1993)
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) (1994)
- Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
- Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998)
- Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)
- Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000)
- Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
- Shiretoko (2005)
- Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)