From traditional to trendy, Japan has it all

By: David Tykol
This article appears on page 6 of the April 2018 issue.

The bronze Great Buddha at Kotoku-in Temple in Kamakura was one of many stops worth a picture on a week-long tour of Japan. Photo by David Tykol

I was standing at the top of a staircase leading to the 364-year-old mausoleum of Japan’s third Tokugawa Shogun. Surrounded by 70-foot-tall Japanese cedars, this forest setting in Nikkō was quiet, sunny and cool, and I was trying to figure out how they used to light the 6-foot-tall metal and stone lanterns standing like sentries along the walkways.

Only a couple of days later I was in Osaka, worming my way through throngs of people in what seemed like a mile-long indoor mall lined with department stores, trendy outlets and purveyors of high-end jewelry and watches.

Experiencing these two extremes left me with one main thought on my June 2017 trip to Japan: ‘This country can offer any experience a visitor could want!’

Tokyo to Toshogu Shrine

I had been invited to spend a week traveling in Japan as a guest of Flo Tours (Lake Mary, FL; 800/417-3880, www.flotours.com), a company that was adding that country to its list of tour destinations. I joined another couple for a taste of what’s in store for tour members.

We made our way around by train, city bus, van and taxi. At a station platform one afternoon in Odawara, we watched bullet trains whooshing by in a blur at 150 miles per hour (with barely a clatter!) every 15 minutes until ours showed up, slowing to a stop.

On all the trains and city buses, signs were posted and announcements were made in both Japanese and English (“Thank you for traveling with JR Central”) and, sometimes, Mandarin. Once you understand the system and how to purchase tickets from the machines, it should be fairly easy to get to any place in Japan. And though English is not widely used, you will see it here and there.

We started our tour in Tokyo, traveling north by express train and continuing on a private line to Tobu-Nikkō  station in order to visit the Toshogu Shrine complex, scores of buildings constructed around 1636 by Iemitsu in honor of his grandfather, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of a shogunate that ruled Japan for more than 250 years.

Situated among 125 acres of green forest, stone paths and moss-covered rocks, the shrines, prayer halls, mausoleums, storehouses, etc., displayed both Shinto and Buddhist architectural elements. Buddhist visitors bowed before passing through the huge torii (shrine gate) leading to the main temple, turning and bowing again upon leaving the complex.

With ceramic-tile roofs and curved-up eaves, the temples and mausoleums were, every inch, covered in brightly painted and lacquered carvings — intricate geometric designs, scenes of nature and human figures. So many stories to tell.

Crowds of tourists and uniformed schoolchildren posed for pictures in front of one structure, all placing their shoes in racks before entering to hear a brief narration (in Japanese) on its history.

Our guide, pulling us away from the commotion, escorted us a few hundred yards to flights of steps that led up to another torii and the mausoleum of Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. These structures, too, were intricately carved and painted in red, green, gold and blue.

After walking around the mausoleum and before descending the sweep of concrete steps, I just wanted to sit there and look out at the surrounding giant cedars and maple trees. Only a few people had bothered to walk to this magical spot. ‘They don’t know what they’re missing,’ I thought.

We were told that later in the summer the heat can be oppressive, and in autumn the maples turn bright red.

Eating well

I had been to Japan once before, and one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to go again was that I liked the food so much.

I’ve always thought someone should open a chain of hors d’oeuvres shops with display cases full of dozens of choices of enticing, bite-sized items from which customers could pick and choose. Well, that’s what a typical meal is like in a lot of restaurants in Japan, as numerous tasty morsels are placed before you in compartmentalized trays (bento boxes) and on small plates, the seafood, meat, tofu and vegetable items all creatively and attractively presented. It’s fun dining — a little bit of everything — and you never leave hungry.

A breakfast buffet usually started the day. Of the morning buffets at our hotels, my favorite was the Glass Court (Super Buffet) in the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo. With both Western and several types of Asian dishes, including desserts, the selection seemed endless, and the quality was superior. Breakfast cost ¥3,000 (near $28).

My second choice was that of Le Temps at Hotel Granvia Kyoto.

Of the whole trip, however, my favorite meal was at a restaurant in Takayama with a homey atmosphere: Suzuya (24, Hanakawamachi, Takayama-shi, Gifu Prefecture; phone +81 577 32 2484, suzuya takayama.ec-net.jp). 

Four of us sat in a booth, and the waitress brought each of us a ceramic cooker box about the size of a small loaf of bread, on top of which were large hoba (magnolia) leaves covered with, in my case, uncooked beef strips and onions. (The others had chicken.) She then lit a sterno flame inside each box. 

Using chopsticks, we occasionally rearranged the strips of meat, and when they were sizzling hot, they were ready to eat. So good!

Including soup and rice, the “Hoba miso beef steak” cost ¥1,944 or ¥2,737 ($18 or $26), depending on portion size. Be sure to reserve a table in advance.

In Takayama’s Old Town, we spent some time exploring Sanmachi Suji, the old merchant district, comprising three streets with traditional wooden houses built during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868).

These old buildings now hold craft shops, antique shops, cafés and, most notably, a couple of sake breweries. You can spot the breweries by the beach-ball-size sphere — made of cedar branches tightly tied together at the center — that hangs over the entrance to each. Visitors are allowed free samples of sake (up to a limit).

Sanmachi Street in Takayama — large balls of cedar boughs can be seen above the entrances to sake breweries. Green when tied, when the sake is first made, by the time the boughs are dried out, the sake should be ready to drink.

Scenes in green

On our train trips from Tokyo to Nikkō, from Hakone (through mountain passes) to Takayama and from Kanazawa to Kyoto, the landscape feature I saw most often was fields of newly planted rice. Sometimes there were vast expanses of rice fields with only a couple of houses and maybe a walled-off cemetery crowded with Buddhist and Shinto gravestones. But even in the suburbs, there would often be a rice paddy nearby.

When, on the fourth day, I saw some graffiti scrawled on the base of a bridge, I realized that I hadn’t noticed any graffiti until then, and that, in fact, there had been no trash littering the roadsides anywhere either. Though constantly used, the trains were clean as well, as were the city buses and the rail and bus stations.

On a van trip heading southwest from Tokyo toward Kamakura, we stopped along the way at the Moso Bamboo Gardens (entry, ¥200). While small in acreage, this well-tended garden was a relaxing place, with a very narrow stone path leading visitors through a grove of 2,000 moso bamboo plants towering about 50 feet overhead.

The plants were not densely packed, but there were spots where all you could see was big bamboo, which created nice shade, with greenery and moss all around. A singing nightingale added a pleasant touch. We would have paused in the teahouse there, but our schedule didn’t allow it.

Kamakura’s Great Buddha

Kamakura is a city that I wanted to linger in, a seaside place both quiet and exciting.

At one point, we were walking down a busy street on our way to the Great Buddha statue, and on the sidewalk outside a home’s front gate, in view of all the cars going past and in reach of the hundreds of people who would walk by, there sat a package that had been delivered to the home owner. 

Our guide did not think it was unusual, but, to me, it said a lot for the integrity of the society and how safe a visitor could feel in that city.

Kamakura Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, located on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple, was worth the walk. The figure, sitting cross-legged and measuring nearly 37½ feet tall (not including its 6½-foot base), is made of bronze. Cast in 1252, it has survived several typhoons and two historic floods that washed away each temple hall that had been built to house it until 1495, when efforts to rebuild were abandoned.

Again, groups of children in school uniforms were scampering around among other visitors taking selfies. For 20 yen, you can go inside the statue, via a short but narrow spiral staircase. Inside, plaques (in Japanese and English) tell how the statue was constructed. Our guide said that when outside temperatures rise, it can be stiflingly hot inside.

Shirakawa-gō

Gasshō-zukuri-style homes in Shirakawa-gō, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One day we drove from Takayama to the Shirakawa-gō region, where we made our way to the Shiroyama Viewpoint at one end of the Shogawa River Valley. Spread out below us was Shirakawa-gō, a village of more than a dozen houses of the gasshō-zukuri style that had been moved to that spot to create an open-air museum. Some of the thatch-roofed A-frame homes are more than 250 years old. 

With rice paddies here and there and rocky mountains in the distance, it made for a nice picture. 

Rather than drive to the village, we took a very pleasant 15-minute walk down a paved road, with wildflowers lining the roadsides and vistas of the valley visible through the trees. We continued past rice paddies toward the smattering of old homes.

We walked through the largest house in town (entry, ¥300), first removing our shoes. Now a museum, it was once the home of the Wada family, who grew wealthy producing silk and gunpowder. We looked at the items on display and climbed ladder-stairs to the top floor for more exhibits (including silkworm cocoons) plus views from the windows.

Our lunch took place in a restaurant in another of these traditional buildings.

Kanazawa’s idyllic gardens

I was very happy that we got to spend time in Kanazawa at the hilltop Kenrokuen Garden (¥310, adult), 28 acres of all kinds of meticulously kept trees and plants plus paths curving past ponds holding croaking frogs. When we were there, pink azaleas were in bloom. (You’ll find cherry and plum blossoms in the spring.) It made for a truly lovely hour’s stroll, though there were few places to sit.

Many parts of Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa are picture-postcard perfect.

In Kanazawa’s Nagamachi Samurai District, a section of town with historic homes of samurai, we toured the restored Edo-era home of the Nomura family. 

Seeing how people used to live there was interesting (little insulation in those walls!), but what I found most special about this house was its garden and its relationship to it. The yard wasn’t very big, but the arrangement of trees, plants, rocks and koi pond would give new inspiration to any gardener.

Kyoto’s traditional market

Central Kyoto held what, for me, was a highlight of the trip: Nishiki Market. The largest traditional food market in town, it’s in an arcade stretching through buildings over five blocks, with vendors selling fresh (including live) fish and shellfish plus spices, pickled items, produce and ready-to-eat fare. 

Though this place was crowded, the atmosphere was friendly. The vendors I motioned to indicated that they were fine with my taking their picture, which made me feel welcome.

Perhaps the most intriguing item I saw was candied octopus on a stick, a whole tiny, shiny, bright-red octopus with a quail egg inside. 

There also were souvenir, clothing and cutlery shops — all together a hundred shops and restaurants.

Meeting a maiko

Maiko Fukukana demonstrating how to debone a fish.

For one of our two evenings in Kyoto, our host had arranged a surprise for us. During dinner in our small private room at a GANKO restaurant, a popular restaurant chain, we were joined for an hour by a maiko, a young woman in training to be one of the country’s few remaining geishas (called geikos in Kyoto). This noble profession requires skills in art, music and dancing, and, make no mistake, there is nothing illicit involved.

Wearing a colorful kimono, with white foundation on her face and meticulously applied red lipstick and black eye liner, her hair intricately arranged, Maiko Fukukana first performed a traditional dance to recorded music. She stepped and turned slowly, gently bending her knees and rising again as she moved her hands in precise motions, expressing elements of (we later learned) a love story. 

In close quarters, it felt awkward watching the private performance, which lasted for a couple of songs, but afterward she joined us for conversation, inviting us to ask any questions, and her charm relaxed us all.

With our guide translating, we found out that when Maiko Fukukana left home and moved to the city two years before at the age of 15, she was one of 20 girls beginning their training. Ten girls remained from her original group, but seven more had joined.

They live in a teahouse, five to a room, rising at 8 each morning and not getting to bed until midnight, their days fully structured. 

When in full costume, she cannot go out in public to, say, run an errand. She gets one or two days off each month and sees her family only once or twice a year. When she turns 20, she can become a geiko and freelance, making much more money. 

Through Flo Tours, tour members can arrange for a similar evening of entertainment. Dinner for two with one maiko, one geiko and one shamisen (a stringed instrument) player costs $1,000 to $1,500 (or more), depending on the restaurant and the drinks consumed.

Osaka sights

Our trip wrapped up in Osaka, where we paid a visit to the Umeda Sky Building, designed by Hiroshi Hara, who also designed Kyoto’s striking rail station complex, which is immense.

Modernist design outside the entrance to the rail station in Kanazawa.

After taking an elevator, we got on an extremely long escalator that carried us up a translucent (but not-so-clear) tube to the top circular deck that connects the two towers of the Sky Building. At a height of 550 feet, it offers 360-degree views of the city and bay. 

I loved riding up and down the escalators and felt this building was a “must” landmark to visit, though the admission fee was rather steep at ¥1,000 ($9.50) per adult.

Remember that high-end shopping arcade I mentioned at the beginning? It was the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, located by Dōtonbori, an entertainment hub of restaurants, theaters and amusement facilities along the Dōtonbori-gawa Canal in southern Osaka.

In this area, huge billboards are crammed together on the façades of most of the buildings, including some with music playing and digital images constantly in motion. I couldn’t help but feel I was in the center of the action, and we weren’t even there at night, when the whole place is lit up in neon.

Making your way there

To get to Japan, I took a China Eastern Airlines flight 14 hours from Los Angeles to Shanghai, China. After a 3-hour layover, I continued the 2¾ hours to Tokyo (Narita International). My return flight was out of Osaka, via Shanghai again, though the Shanghai-Los Angeles leg took only 12 hours on the way home.

On all the flights, I felt the food wasn’t bad. (On the Shanghai-Tokyo leg, my non-English-speaking neighbor and I shared a laugh as we each tried to eat delicious spaghetti in meat sauce with a spork.)

The only downside was that, on the longer flights, the entire economy section had only two restrooms, located in the rear. However, I never waited more than 10 minutes, and they were always clean and stocked.

Gasshō-zukuri-style homes in Shirakawa-gō, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Flo Tours announced its first tour to Japan (4-16 members) just this January. Land only, the 10-day, 9-night “Discover Japan” tour visits Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Okayama and Osaka and costs $3,495 per person, double occupancy (single supplement, $995), including breakfast and one lunch. 

A 14-night “Best of Japan” tour has also been added. Priced at $6,595-$7,595 (single supplement, $1,595-$1,995), depending on departure date, it visits Tokyo, Nikkō, Kamakura, Hakone, Mt. Fuji, Matsumoto, Jigokudani, Nagano, Nagoya, Takayama, Shirakawa-gō, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Kurashiki, Himeji and Kobe.

Of course, Flo Tours can also craft customized itineraries.

A visitor to Japan will find comfortable accommodations, excellent food, efficient and spotless transport and, whether looking for a peaceful setting for contemplation or a popular hot spot, contentment.