Japan is the subject of more gullible and misguided musings than perhaps any other place in the world: the best way to approach it is to discard your preconceptions. Somewhere between the elegant formality of Japanese manners and the candid, sometimes boisterous exchanges that take place over a few drinks, between the sanitized shopping malls and the unexpected rural festivals, everyone finds their own vision of Japan. Whether you end up taking photos of a reproduction Eiffel Tower, surfing an indoor wave, shacking up in a love hotel, you’ll do best to come with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.
The sheer level of energy is the most striking aspect of Japan’s capital city. It’s true the larger picture can be somewhat depressing – shoebox housing estates and office blocks traversed by overhead expressways crowded with traffic. But this is the Japanese success story in action. The average Tokyo suburb hasn’t fallen prey to supermarket culture though: streets are lined with tiny specialist shops and bustling restaurants, most of which stay open late into the night. Close to the soaring office blocks exist pockets of another Tokyo – an old wooden house, a kimono shop, a Japanese inn, an old lady in a kimono sweeping the pavement outside her home with a straw broom. More than anything else, Tokyo is a place where the urgent rhythms of consumer culture collide with the quieter moments that linger from older traditions. It’s a living city and you’ll never run out of things to explore. Tokyo is a vast conurbation spreading out across the Kanto Plain from Tokyo-wan Bay. Almost completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1923 and again after US air raids in W.W.II, Tokyo has literally risen from the ashes. It’s roughly split into the flashy commercial and business districts west of the central Ginza shopping precinct, and the more down-to-earth residential neighborhoods to the east. For visitors, nearly everything of interest lies either on or within the JR Yamanote line, the rail loop that circles central Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace
The Japanese emperor and the imperial family still call the Imperial Palace home, so unless you get a royal invite to tea tourists are restricted to the outskirts and the gardens. New Year’s Day (2 January) and 23 December (the Emperor’s birthday) are the only exceptions to this rule.
The biggest drawcard of the Imperial Palace, both literally and metaphorically, is Edo-jo castle. From the 17th century until the Meiji Restoration, it was used as the impregnable fortress of the ruling shogunate. Over the years the castle was upgraded, added to, renovated and built onto with all the force of a rabid renovator. For a while it was the largest castle in the world but all the building came to an abrupt end when large portions of it were destroyed in the transfer of power from shogun back to emperor during the Meiji Restoration. The Imperial East Garden is entered through one of three gates although the most popular is the Ote-mon, which was once the principle gate of Edo-jo. The garden is an oasis of quiet after the bustle of Tokyo, and characteristically Japanese; a horizon of clear lines, an attention to detail and the religious placement of objects within the landscape.
Despite its disaster-ridden history and propensity for shape-changing, Ginza has become synonymous with conspicuous consumption and excessive shopping. At the end of the 19th century, after fire razed it to the ground, it was resurrected in a London-cum-faux-Parisian style with brick buildings and wide boulevards that mimicked the Champs Elysses. Since then, earthquakes and W.W.II carpet-bombing has seen it gradually transform from continental chic to trans-Atlantic functional, but it still pulls the crowds.
There are some shopping districts that have tried to wrestle the crown from Ginza – they’re more crowded, more opulent and hipper – but the grande old dame of ostentatious spending stills retains her imperious snob value. Serious shoppers don’t leave town without swinging through the doors of Matsuya, Mitsukoshi and Wako department stores. The Ginza strip is where you can purchase novelty items whose fetishistic value far outweigh its functional value, and indulge in a spot of retail therapy. Window shopping is free, though, and the window displays in the department stores are works of installation art in themselves.
Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple, dating from A.D. 628. Destroyed during an air raid in 1945, it was rebuilt in 1958. According to popular lore, the temple was erected to enshrine a tiny golden stature of Kannon that was fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. Kannon is the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness, and is empowered with the ability to release humans from suffering. Although the statue is still housed in Sensoji Temple, it is never shown to the public.
Main gate of Sensoji Temple. This is a representative building in the Asakusa district. It is formally called “Fujin-Raijin Gate” (gate of god of wind and god of thunder).
Sensoji Temple with its beautiful colors and elegant Japanese architecture. Worshippers flock here to seek favors of Kannon and to shop at the traditional shops and souvenir stalls.
Nakamise is a temple shopping street about 300 meters long that stretches between the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates.
Nearby five-storied pagoda built by the 3rd Shogun. The city is littered with beautiful buildings such as this one.
I recently went to Tokyo for a family reunion in August 2009. Enjoy our family videos:
Kyoto is what I think of when I think of old Japan. Its a perfect city at the base of the tree covered mountains near a wide, clear river. Once the capital of the nation, Kyoto may have lost that title, but maintains it’s authority as one of Japan’s most beautiful, historical places. With its hundreds of temples and gardens, Kyoto was the imperial capital between 794 and 1868, and it continues to function as the major cultural center of Japan. Although business and industry are closing in on the traditional architecture, Kyoto still has the raked pebble gardens, the sensuous contours of a temple roof, and the latter-day geishas that western cliché-hunters long for. During my trips to Japan, Kyoto has always been my favorite place – so much beauty in one place, so many historical sites, and so much culture living on even today. It was in Kyoto that I first experienced the joy of staying in a ryokan, a Japanese inn. The pleasures of a ryokan are best left to the experience and I thoroughly recommend it!
When you walk through Kyoto, you are constantly reminded of the thousands who went before you, servants and noblemen, warriors and scholars. In Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), the floors are worn smooth by the thousands of tabi sock encased feet that have walked it’s halls. To think of the intrigue that went on here hundreds of years ago is amazing! Stroll the gentle winding road leading up to Kiyomizudera and browse the little shops on the way up. There are all kinds of things to buy, from common trinkets to handmade works of art (fans, tea sets, and much more). In the Gion area, you might catch a glimpse of maiko girls (girls in training to become geisha) hurrying through the streets. Geisha is still an art form in Kyoto, and the anachronism of seeing a geisha in a modern setting just adds to the charm of Kyoto.
Kinkakuji Temple (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)
This Temple was originally a villa of the Saionji family on the hills of Kitayama, but offered to the third Shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga in 1397. After his death, it was converted into a Zen-sect temple with the Zen master Muso Soseki as its first abbot. The Temple is known as an epitome of Kitayama Culture.
The Golden Pavilion, a gilded three-storied reliquary hall, is situated at the margin of a large pond named Kyokochi Pond. It is typical architecture of the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573). Definitely a must see and breathtaking example of Japanese architecture!
Ginkakuji Temple (Temple of the Silver Pavilion)
In contrast to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion founded by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the villa erected at the order of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa is referred to as Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion).
The temple is the epitome of the Higashiyama culture in the Muromachi Period (1450-1598). It is said that it originally had twelve buildings but there remain only three: the Kannon Hall (Silver Pavilion), Hondo (main hall) and Togudo.
This temple is the city’s largest wooden structure and has the country’s tallest pagoda nearby. The temple is the main temple of the Otani school (Jodo-Shin sect). Founded in 1602 by a former abbot of Honganji Temple, on land donated by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1st shogun of Edo period). Ieyasu sought to weaken the power of the original Honganji school by supporting a rival sect. The present buildings were completed in 1895, after the original structures were lost through fire.
The huge Founder’s Hall encloses an area equal to 927 tatami mats and is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Fifty ropes woven from hair contributed by women devotees were used to raise the huge beams. They are still preserved by the temple.
Heian Jingu Shrine
The Heian Jingu Shrine was built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the capital. It is a replica to three fifths of the size of the first imperial palace in the ancient capital Heiankyo. Behind it, there is a beautiful go-round style garden with a total area of 30,000 square meters which is well known for the beauty of its weeping cherry trees, Japanese iris, and waterlilies. Within the precincts there is a costume museum which exhibits the costumes used in the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), an annual spectacular procession.
In 1052 Fujiwara-no Yorimichi, the chief advisor to the Emperor of the time and a man of power, remodeled his father’s (Michinaga) villa into this temple. There used to be many halls and buildings and the precincts were so huge at that time but most of them were burnt down in the battle of Kusunoki vs Ashikaga in 1336.
Houou-do hall survived the battle and has been the highlight of this temple. This hall is an Amida hall built in 1053 and the only existing building of that time. “Houou” literally means a Chinese phoenix.
The main hall has two corridors of the same shape on the opposite sides like a phoenix is spreading its wings. Besides, a pair of copper phoenixes are on the roof of the hall. This is why the hall is called “Houou-do”. This elegant hall reflects noblemen’s yearning to the paradise. Inside the hall the paradise is vividly expressed by pictures on the wall, images of Buddha and sculptures. They are all national treasures and priceless cultural arts in Japan.
The garden is also nice, especially the pond reflecting the hall is picturesque. The hall is drawn on the heads of 10 yen coin but not every Japanese knows this fact.
Nijo Castle was originally built in 1603 to be the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu and it was completed in 1626 by the third Shogun Iemitsu, who transferred some structures from Fushimi Castle, built in the Momoyama Period (1573-1614). Consequently, lavished and decorated Nijo Castle is representative of the height of Momoyama architecture. In its day, it served as a symbol of the power and authority of the Tokugawa military government.
Nijo Castle in its entirety has been designed a historic relic. The total area of the Castle is 275,000 square meters of which approximately 7,300 square meters are occupied by buildings. Definitely a must see on any visit to Kyoto!
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace served as the imperial palace until the end of the Edo Period. It was erected during the Namboku-cho Period in the 14th century. It underwent repeated improvements and extensions at the order of warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu before a big fire in 1788 burned it down. The present buildings are those reconstructed in the 19th century. On the palace grounds are the Shishinden (a hall for state ceremonies), Seiryoden, Kogosho (ceremonial hall) and Gogakumonsho (a place for scholarly study).
Here is a video of our trip to Kyoto in August 2009:
Nara is an ancient capital of Japan that abounds with archaeological sites and cultural heritage. Historical monuments in Nara were inscribed on the World Heritage List announced by UNESCO in 1998. The old Japanese word soramitsu was used in classical Japanese poetry as an epithet for Yamato, the old name of the Nara region. Because the Japanese word sora means sky and mi means viewing, Nihon-shoki, a history compiled in the 8th century, explained the derivation of the word soramitsu by the legend that a deity named Nigihayahi-no-Mikoto viewed Yamato from a flying ship and then landed there. This was definitely one of my favorite places in Japan and is an easy day-trip train ride from Kyoto. Deer run wild and the city is full of great temples and walking tours.
Todaiji Temple boasts of two of the world’s largest works of man. One is the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, the largest bronze statue on earth.
So overwhelming is its size – it weighs 450 tons and a thumb alone is 1.6 meters long – that it took four long years and about 437 tons of bronze, a large amount of charcoal, and gold, mercury, vegetable wax and other materials to complete the original statue in 749. The other large work is the Daibutsuden or the Hall of the Great Buddha, in which the Daibutsu, or Great Statue of Buddha, is enclosed. It is the largest wooden structure made by man in the world.
Kofukuji is a clan temple to the patron deity of the Fujiwaras, a powerful aristocratic clan which wielded enormous influence in Japan over a five-century period beginning in the 8th century. Its five-storied pagoda, which has become a symbol of Nara, has been ravaged by fire many times over the temple’s history; the current pagoda, rebuilt in the 15th century, recreates the magnificence of the Tempyo-period style of architecture.
Its image reflected in the calm waters of Sarusawanoike Pond is a beautiful and inspiring sight. The temple grounds are also studded with many other gems, including the Museum of National Treasures, which houses the three-faced, six-armed statue of Ashura, fascinating in its youthfulness, and the head of the Buddha statue from the now defunct Yamadadera Temple, the Tokondo (Eastern Main Hall), which houses the temple’s principal icon; the octagonal Hokuendo Hall, and Nan’endo Hall, and the area called the Hannya-no-Shiba, where “Firelight Noh” performances take place each May.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
This shrine was established in 768, but it is believed that its origins actually goes back to the beginning of the Nara period. Kasuga Taisha is well-known for events throughout the year when lanterns are hung along the corridors and the stone lanterns along the walkways are lit up. Its quite a trek up the hill so get your shoes ready!
This is one of the largest and most famous temples in the nation. Chion-in Temple is located at the north end of Maruyama Park in Nara. The temple serves as the headquarters of the important Jodo sect founded in 1234. The present buildings date mainly from 1619 to 1641. Unfortunately it was closed during my visit so an outside photo will have to do.