There are two words which come to mind when considering a vacation in Japan: culture and contrasts. The richness and diversity of life in Japan is matched only by its enthusiasm for its own cultural heritage, and whether you stay a week, two weeks or many months, you will always find it astonishingly easy to feel at one and the same time, both very much at home, yet transported to a world that seems uniquely set apart from anywhere else.
Tokyo is one of the better known cities for many people to choose to visit. This is not only because of the 13 million inhabitants who help to create a city to call home, but because of the fact that it has become ever more popularized through Hollywood, with the James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice’ being filmed here, as well as ‘My Geisha’ and ‘Lost In Translation’.
The skyline, dominated by the snow peaked mountains in the distance, is a testament to modern architecture, with glass and steel entwined towards the skies; a remarkable feat, but don’t spend too long staring up at the heavens, because on the ground is the real Tokyo, with everything from exquisite sushi bars to trendy shopping experiences. If you enjoy modern, vibrant shopping, then you must make time to see the Harajuku on your Japanese vacation, often referred to as Tokyo’s Champs Elysees.
Or perhaps you might like to leave behind the bustling streets of Tokyo’s city centre and visit the breathtaking Meiji Jingu Shrine. The original shrine was erected in the early twentieth century, created from Japanese cypress and copper; sadly this was destroyed in World War II, but rebuilt in the fifties to create a magnificent modern masterpiece which very much captures the spirit with which the original was constructed. The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is based here, and it is well worth spending time to admire the beautiful murals which depict the life of the Emperor Meiji and his wife.
When it comes to dining in and around Tokyo during your vacation in Japan, as with much of Japan, the culture is one dominated by fish; indeed, the very symbol of Tokyo itself is a fish. It is well worth rousing yourself a little earlier than usual and heading towards the Tsukiji Fish Market , known more commonly as the Tokyo Metropolitan Wholesale Market.
The fish here is often so fresh it’s still moving! The sale of fish is frenetic and absorbing, and afterwards it is highly recommended that you enjoy the best of Japanese fish with an exquisite sushi breakfast. If you’ve never tried this, you really don’t know what you’re missing. Japan is full of contrasts, and to enjoy these at their best, it is worth diving in and participating in the traditional customs.
Before you leave Tokyo, another aspect of Japanese culture which you must experience, and which contrasts very much with the throb and hum of the city centre is the Hamarikyu Gardens. No vacation in Japan would be complete without seeing these beautiful gardens, occupying nearly a quarter of a million square meters. They provide a tranquil resting place, through which you can enjoy a pleasant walk, perhaps enjoying a traditional tea ceremony at the teashop in Nakashima, in the centre of the gardens. The flowers here are fabulous, with peony gardens and a plum tree grove just two examples of the areas which appeal, whatever the season. Depending on when you visit, there are a number of displays and exhibitions which demonstrate more of Japanese culture, such as Japanese goshawk hunting.
Many people today associate Kyoto with the international climate agreement (or disagreement!) but this former imperial capital of Japan holds many fascinating opportunities to explore the culture of Japan, and offers many contrasts with the city of Tokyo, despite both names being an anagram of each other. Situated within a beautiful, lush valley, harbored by the mountains of the Tamba highlands, the city of Kyoto offers the chance to experience Japanese customs, such as the art of calligraphy.
Of all written languages in the world, Chinese and Japanese symbols are perhaps the most artistic and decorative. Although Chinese sounds very different from Japanese, they use all of the same letter shapes, and it is well worth experiencing this for yourself. A true master can help anyone to feel the beauty of creating these exquisite shapes. If you’re interested in learning new things, then perhaps rather than taking part in a tea ceremony, you should indulge yourself in learning more about it, and experts in Kyoto will be more than willing to teach you this ancient tradition.
But for a real taste of Japanese culture and tradition during your Japanese vacation, there is one opportunity hidden away in Kyoto which is hard to find, yet well worth it if you know who to ask. The secrets of the Geisha have long been known, yet rarely understood; rarer still is to experience it for yourself, and even the Japanese consider it a great honor.
However, it is possible for westerners to experience the song and dance ceremonies of the Geisha, and nowhere else are the contrasts with modern western cultures more noticeable than amongst the culture and heritage of Japan’s Kyoto region. But be warned, you may well find yourself tearing up your return tickets once you have embraced the culture of a vacation in Japan.