The Real Ja­pan

Twelve days of magic with Stuff Es­capes

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE -

Imag­ine the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the North Is­land in one place at one time. Wel­come to Tokyo’s Shin­juku sta­tion. An av­er­age of 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple – lo­cals and tourists – wan­der through this labyrinth each day.

All around us there are white shirt­clad men on their way to work, busi­ness­women pre­car­i­ously bal­anced on their stilet­tos, uni­formed school kids, and be­wil­dered tourists fran­ti­cally swap­ping be­tween Google Maps and trans­late apps on their smart­phones.

Sound chaotic? It is. And it isn’t. There’s an or­der to this chaos. Queues are or­derly, com­muters are po­lite, trains leave on time, and ev­ery­thing runs like clock­work. I find my­self bow­ing in apol­ogy as I clum­sily walk head­first into an­other com­muter. It was my fault, but the pro­fuse apol­ogy is mu­tual.

Three stops later and we’re at Shibuya Cross­ing, where more than 1000 peo­ple seam­lessly ne­go­ti­ate a pedes­trian cross­ing in all di­rec­tions at once. All the while tex­ting, pos­ing for photos, or wan­der­ing slack-jawed and over­whelmed.

The next day, train sta­tion bento box in hand, we speed across Ja­pan in a bul­let train, or shinkansen, headed to Ky­oto. There, we wan­der the an­cient geisha quar­ter in Gion, and jump on a bus to spend the day at Arashiyama – famed for its oth­er­worldly bam­boo for­est – and marvel at the bril­liantly or­ange torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

That night we stum­ble upon a lo­cal ra­men joint where we try our best to de­ci­pher the Ja­panese-only menu. We clum­sily or­der by point­ing at photos, mut­ter Honto ni gomen ne (I am so sorry), and cross our fin­gers. We then de­vour the steam­ing bowls of noo­dles steeped in rich, savoury tonkotsu broth.

Ja­pan is a bit of a para­dox – tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced and yet steeped in an­cient tra­di­tion. As Stuff travel writer Lorna Thorn­ber put it, ‘‘if Ja­pan were a per­son she’d be a very tough cookie to cat­e­gorise – mild-man­nered and su­per po­lite among strangers, but some­thing of a wild child among friends’’.

Ja­pan is al­ready a firm favourite with Kiwi trav­ellers but with the rise of ski­ing hol­i­days and culi­nary travel, and next year’s Rugby World Cup, there’s re­newed in­ter­est in the coun­try.

It’s with great plea­sure that I in­vite Stuff read­ers on an ex­clu­sive tour of Ja­pan. In part­ner­ship with travel ex­perts Wendy Wu, we’ve cre­ated the itin­er­ary of a life­time. You’ll ex­plore the coun­try with our guest ex­perts – top chef Nic Watt, rugby ex­pert An­drew McCormick, and Stuff Edi­torin-Chief News­rooms Ber­nadette Court­ney.

Days 1-2: New Zealand to Tokyo

Fly overnight to Tokyo. Ex­pe­ri­ence a cap­i­tal hurtling into the fu­ture while main­tain­ing its links with the tra­di­tions of an­cient an­ces­tors. It’s a city of con­trasts, fa­mous for its neon­lit land­scape, tow­er­ing sky­scrapers, peace­ful shrines, and lov­ingly tended gar­dens. Although it’s long been the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cen­tre of Ja­pan, Tokyo be­came the of­fi­cial cap­i­tal when the Meiji Em­peror moved it there in 1867.

Day 3: Ex­plore Tokyo

On the former site of Edo cas­tle, view the Im­pe­rial Palace, which is sur­rounded by moats and mas­sive stone walls in the heart of Tokyo. As it is home to Ja­pan’s Im­pe­rial Fam­ily, the in­ner grounds are not open to the pub­lic, ex­cept on De­cem­ber 23, the Em­peror’s birth­day.

Visit the Tokyo Skytree, a new tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ing tower and land­mark of Tokyo. With a height of 634m, it is the tallest build­ing in Ja­pan and the sec­ond tallest struc­ture in the world at the time of its com­ple­tion.

Then head to Asakusa, Tokyo’s old town, where you can soak up the at­mos­phere of what Tokyo must have been like hun­dreds of years ago. Visit Sen­soji, also known as Asakusa Kan­non and Tokyo’s old­est tem­ple.

The broad­way lead­ing up to the tem­ple is called Nakamise and this shop­ping street has been pro­vid­ing tem­ple vis­i­tors with tra­di­tional lo­cal snacks and sou­venirs for cen­turies.

Tonight, you will board a Tokyo Bay Din­ner Cruise to en­joy de­li­cious dishes while cruis­ing around Tokyo Bay.

Day 4: Tokyo’s sights

Ex­plore Tokyo on a sight­see­ing tour by pri­vate coach. Head to Tsuk­iji Mar­ket – Ja­pan’s ‘‘Food Town’’, where one can en­counter all kinds of Ja­panese tra­di­tional foods.

A mix of whole­sale and re­tail shops, along with nu­mer­ous restau­rants, line the streets, and new culi­nary trends are born here.

Next, you will have the chance to take part in a sushi-mak­ing class where you will learn how to make var­i­ous types of sushi.

Af­ter lunch, visit the fa­mous Shibuya dis­trict, Tokyo’s main cen­tre for youth fash­ion and cul­ture, whose streets are the birth­place of many of Ja­pan’s fash­ion and en­ter­tain­ment trends. It is also home to the fa­mous five-way ‘‘scram­ble cross­ing’’.

Your last stop of the day will be the Meiji Shrine – ded­i­cated to the de­i­fied spirit of Em­peror Meiji and a pop­u­lar place for tra­di­tional Ja­panese wed­dings.

Day 5: Tokyo to Hakone

Depart for the town of Hakone by pri­vate coach. Through­out the day you will have op­por­tu­ni­ties to glimpse Mt Fuji, how­ever please keep in mind that it is a no­to­ri­ously shy moun­tain so it needs to be a clear day for proper views.

First stop is Hakone shrine. This shinto shrine was very pop­u­lar among Sa­mu­rai dur­ing the 12th cen­tury and is hid­den in a dense for­est. In fact, the shrine is so well hid­den that it would be easy to miss were it not for its mag­nif­i­cent torii gates.

Next stop is Hakonemachi where you will board a Pi­rate Boat to take you to To­gendai. Both are ports on the shores of Lake Ashi, an enor­mous vol­canic crater cre­ated by an erup­tion 3000 years ago.

Af­ter To­gendai, we will con­tinue via Rope Way to­wards Owaku­dani.

The first thing you will no­tice in Owaku­dani is the smell of sul­fur from this ac­tive vol­cano.

There are walk­ing trails around Owaku­dani that lead to steam vents and bub­bling pools.

The eggs they sell in Owaku­dani are boiled in the vol­cano’s nat­u­ral hot springs and are said to pro­long life by seven years.

Tonight, you will stay in a Ja­panese style room with a de­li­cious meal and ac­cess to on­sen – baths that use min­eral wa­ter from the naturally heated springs.

Day 6: Hakone to Ky­oto

To­day you will board the fa­mous Shinkansen bul­let train, which

reaches speeds of up to 300kmh, to Ky­oto.

Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, which was used in the movie Me­moirs of a

Geisha. It is home to more than 10,000 red torii gates, which form a path up the moun­tain be­hind the tem­ple.

Af­ter vis­it­ing the shrine, quench your thirst at a sake brew­ery. Dur­ing a tour of the brew­ery you will learn about the tra­di­tional brew­ing process, then sam­ple its dif­fer­ent types of sake.

En­joy a spe­cial Maiko Din­ner at a lo­cal res­tau­rant. A maiko is an ap­pren­tice geisha in Ky­oto and western Ja­pan. Maiko per­form songs and dances, and play the shamisen or other tra­di­tional Ja­panese in­stru­ments for vis­i­tors.

Day 7: Ky­oto’s gems

Visit Nijo Cas­tle, built by the founder of the Toku­gawa Shogu­nate as the Ky­oto res­i­dence of the Shogun. It’s sur­rounded by stun­ning gar­dens.

The or­na­men­tal build­ing was com­pleted in 1603, and is well-known for its Mo­moyama ar­chi­tec­ture, dec­o­rated slid­ing doors, and ‘‘chirp­ing’’ nightin­gale floors.

Kinkakuji – also known as the Golden Pavil­ion – was orig­i­nally built as a re­tire­ment villa for the Shogun. Af­ter the death of Shogun Yoshim­itsu, it be­came a Bud­dhist Tem­ple at his re­quest, and is now one of Ky­oto’s most fa­mous tem­ples with its top two floors com­pletely cov­ered in gold-leaf.

Our first stop in Arashiyama is Ten­ryuji tem­ple. Ranked among Ky­oto’s five great Zen tem­ples, Ten­ryuji is the largest and most im­pres­sive tem­ple in Arashiyama.

Founded in 1339 at the start of the Muro­machi Pe­riod, the tem­ple is con­sid­ered im­por­tant cul­tural prop­erty and ranked by Unesco as a World Her­itage Site.

On the way to Nonomiya shrine, your path will lead you through Arashiyama’s fa­mous bam­boo groves, un­like any other place in Ja­pan.

The bam­boo has been used to man­u­fac­ture var­i­ous prod­ucts, such as bas­kets, cups, boxes, and mats at lo­cal work­shops for cen­turies.

Nonomiya shrine is a Shinto shrine where, in an­cient times, un­mar­ried im­pe­rial princesses stayed for at least a year to pu­rify them­selves. The shrine is ref­er­enced in nu­mer­ous works of lit­er­a­ture, most no­tably in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji.

Day 8: Ex­plore Ky­oto

Ko­daiji is an out­stand­ing tem­ple in

Ky­oto’s Hi­gashiyama Dis­trict. It was es­tab­lished in 1606 in mem­ory of Toy­otomi Hideyoshi – one of Ja­pan’s great­est his­tor­i­cal fig­ures – by Hideyoshi’s wife Nene, who is also en­shrined at the tem­ple.

You will then take part in a tra­di­tional Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony.

A tea mas­ter will demon­strate how to pre­pare for a tea cer­e­mony, how to con­duct as a host, and how to make a bowl of green tea.

Gion is the fa­mous geisha dis­trict, where, if lucky, you will be able to see them as the hurry to their ap­point­ments.

Day 9: Ky­oto to Hiroshima

Board a bul­let train bound for Hiroshima.

In the cen­tre of the city, Hiroshima’s Peace Me­mo­rial Park cov­ers more than 120,000 square me­tres and is ded­i­cated to the legacy of Hiroshima as the first city in his­tory to suf­fer a nu­clear at­tack.

Be­fore the atomic bomb, the area where the peace park now stands was the po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial heart of the city, and for this rea­son it was cho­sen as en­emy pi­lots’ tar­get dur­ing World War II. It was de­cided that the area was not to be re­de­vel­oped, but in­stead de­voted to peace me­mo­rial fa­cil­i­ties.

The park’s main at­trac­tion is the Peace Me­mo­rial Mu­seum.

The mu­seum cov­ers the his­tory of Hiroshima and the ad­vent of the nu­clear bomb.

It pro­vides vis­i­tors with an op­por­tu­nity to hear eye­wit­ness tes­ti­monies and learn about the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects the A-bomb had on the city of Hiroshima and its peo­ple.

Day 10: Hiroshima to Osaka

Miya­jima is a small sa­cred is­land on the In­land Sea. It has been a holy place of Shin­to­ism for cen­turies.

Here you will find per­haps the most pho­tographed site in Ja­pan: the Float­ing Torii Gate, which has been des­ig­nated a Unesco World Her­itage Site and is con­sid­ered one of Ja­pan’s ‘‘three most beau­ti­ful views’’.

Later to­day, head to Osaka.

Day 11: Ex­plore Osaka

Your whole day is free leisure time.

Day 12: Osaka de­par­ture

Depart Kan­sai Air­port for New Zealand.

Ja­pan’s maiko and geisha per­form songs, dances and play mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

The Float­ing Torii Gate, above, is per­haps the most pho­tographed site in Ja­pan.Take part in a tra­di­tional tea­mak­ing cer­e­mony, left.Be­low, Kinkakuji is one of Ky­oto’s most fa­mous tem­ples, with its top two floors com­pletely cov­ered in goldleaf.

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