Tofu Soup Anyone?

Japan has always been on the list of places I would like to explore.  I have to say it was everything I imagined and more.  Like any destination it’s the local culture and the people that gives a destination its identity and Japan is a perfect example of this. The people are so welcoming, friendly and courteous.  We think of us Kiwis being great hosts to our tourists but the Japanese take it to a new level.

I flew on Singapore airlines via Singapore and into Osaka.  As usual Singapore airlines deliver fantastic service on board. 

We arrived in Osaka on the same afternoon that a cyclone had passed through but the debris had already been tidied up and business had resumed as usual.  A short drive, via the Asahi beer factory where we sampled the fine produce, to Kyoto which is a lovely city.  The temple of the gold pavilion and Heian Shrine were incredible and very tranquil.  While in Kyoto I tried my hand at local crafts such as the Yutzen technique of hand dying kimonos along with visiting a Japanese cooking school where we made our own Japanese delicacies.  We also took in a local theme park where many Japanese TV shows and Ninja movies are filmed.  It was fantastic, the ninja show was a highlight.  

Later in Kyoto we were lucky enough to have Geisha perform a traditional Japanese dance learning about the history and story behind it.  A walk around Gion, the famous Geisha district, showed us just how Japan tries to maintain traditions in today’s society.  It was an interesting mix of culture in a modern city. 

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On the road again we travelled into the Japanese alps to our next destination Takayama.  Wow, we experienced traffic big time.  It turns out the Bon Festival, which is celebrated in Japan every year, is happening while we are here.  The Bon festival is a Buddhist festival celebrating the spirits of family who have passed away and return to spend three days with the family.  People travel back to their hometown to spend time with their extended Family and the amily spirits before the spirits return to heaven.  Everyone travels so it is a big traffic day.  A really welcome break was visiting the stunning Shirakawa region.  Now a Unesco world heritage site this peaceful area set amongst the mountains has the most beautiful thatched houses unique to this area of Japan. 

Takayama is known for its natural hot springs and is a popular holiday resort for locals to enjoy the scenery and hot springs.  We enjoyed the jinbei (Japanese style casual clothes), the sake breweries and of course another Japanese favourite – Karaoke!  Luckily we had the Karaoke place to ourselves because I think our singing efforts would have scared most people away.

Takayama Jinya a former government office during the Edo period 1692-1868 was another amazing insight to Japanese culture and history.  The buildings were incredible and showed how the area would have been governed.  Everything from tax in the form of rice to the punishments handed down to criminals.  The torture room was a real eye opener.  I would not have wanted to be a prisoner in those days that’s for sure!

Time to hit the road again and join the traffic jams.  Goodbye Takayama and hello Mt Fuji.  On the way we visited the famous Matsumoto Castle set as a gateway to the Alps.  Its stunning gardens and architecture complete with its own moat stands proudly in the middle of town. It is a hugely popular castle for visitors. 

The iconic Mt Fuji was showing off all its beauty when we arrived late in the afternoon.  This was a good thing as the next day it was covered in mist and fog.  We travelled partially up the mountain and took in a cable car but due to the fog and cloud cover we could not view the mountain.  We did however try the local delicacy Kuro-tamago hardboiled eggs in the local hot springs.  The sulphur turns the egg shell black so they are not much to look at but taste beautiful.  Lake Ashi at the base of the mountains was beautiful but a bit rough for the lake cruise to operate so we took in an open air Picasso museum which was set in beautiful gardens and surrounds.

Right enough of the peaceful surrounds – on to Tokyo!  By this stage we had wised up to the traffic so a bullet train meant we were in Tokyo in 40 mins.  Our bus arrived about 5 hours later so needless to say that was the right choice.  The bullet trains are incredibly efficient, comfortable and a cheap way to travel.

Tokyo has got to be one of the most vibrant, totally unique and fascinating cities in the world.  The sheer size of it alone can be overwhelming but I was really surprised by how easy it is to travel around Tokyo.  Don’t shy away from the local trains.  They are cheap and  great way to take in the highlights of Tokyo.  A dinner cruise on the Sumida river is a great way of seeing the city from a different perspective and the city lights at night are spectacular.      

If you want something completely different to do while in Japan take in a dinner at a local robot restaurant.  This is like nothing you will ever experience.  The building itself is an explosion of lights and the robot show lasts over an hour and is the most bizarre, crazy and hilarious show I have ever seen.  I hardly touched my dinner I was so completely engrossed at the craziness of what was unfolding in front of us.

The next day we set off early to travel to a local sumo school.  The privilege of visiting the school really only hit me when we arrived and were told that no tourists had ever been allowed to visit a training facility like this.  The owner was an ex national champion and he and his wife have started their own sumo school where the sumo live.  The strictness of their sport is portrayed in their daily routine which starts every day of the week at 5am with training for 2 hours every morning before they eat breakfast.  The training we observed was incredibly intense and I have a huge amount of respect for the sumo and their incredible fitness. Not only are they huge but they show incredible agility, stamina and discipline.

Two of the sumo joined us for lunch where we could talk to them about their training as well as their lifestyle.  They are incredibly driven and focused but like all Japanese very courteous and welcoming.

The shopping in Tokyo is incredible.  My tip if you are looking for electronics is to head to Akihabara electric City where you can get everything. 

Tokyo was such a highlight and a fantastic close to my trip to Japan. The land showcased such a rich history and a unique culture which prevails today mixed amongst the westernised cities.  

So what will I miss about Japan?  The people, the madness of Tokyo and the heat complimented with an ice cold Asahi beer, and Kyoko our amazing tour leader. 

 What won’t I miss?  The tofu soup!