Category Archives: Japan

Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul

The Japanese tea ceremony might seem like a simple thing, but as with most things Japanese, it is anything but. In fact, developed to free the mind and soul of worry and thought, it’s a highly choreographed ritual that takes years to learn. Samurai used it to clear their minds during long war campaigns. Aristocracy used it as a form of relaxation. Housewives learn it to round out their education. Businessmen take it up as a way to escape the rigors of business. Simply put, the Japanese tea ceremony soothes the soul, but it also demands patience, discipline and dedication. One of my first experiences with the seemingly simple procedure occurred years ago, when a woman I met at a budget Japanese inn asked whether she could serve me tea as a way to practice what she’d learned. As she went through the many steps, apologizing for being such an amateur, I asked how long she’d been studying. Only seven years, she replied. As far as she was concerned, she had much to learn.

Nothing is left to chance in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way the charcoal is lit, the placement of the tea utensils, the selection of the tea bowl based on the seasons, even the vocabulary–all is strictly proscribed. With time, the movements and the ceremony become fluid, allowing thoughts to flow freely from one step to the next.

Read more about how the Japanese Tea Ceremony soothes the soul in my article, Bucket List: Japanese Tea Ceremony, published July 2017 in Global Traveler.

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Ise-Shima Famous for Shrines, Pearls and Female Divers

Ise Shima National Park2Ise-Shima National Park is home to Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, making it a must-see destination for the Japanese for centuries. Its ragged coastline and many islands also make it a natural for the cultivation of pearls and as a habitat for many sea creatures. Women living in fishing villages have been free-diving for edibles for centuries; some have opened rustic restaurants for visitors wishing to learn more about their lives. Easily reached from Osaka or Nagoya, Ise-Shima is worth getting off the beaten track for its beauty, history and attractions geared toward families.

Ise Shima Grand Shrine

The Kaguraden, one of many buildings at the Ise Jingu Grand Shrines

The Ise Jingu Grand Shrines date back some 2,000 years, founded to honor the sun goddess, considered the legendary ancestress of the Imperial family. Remarkably, it’s torn down and reconstructed every twenty years. Also remarkable is the fact that its inner sanctuary is off limits. Yet that hasn’t stopped this being one of Japan’s most important pilgrimages through the ages. Nearby is Oharai-machi, once the main footpath leading to the shrine for worshippers during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and now lined with restaurants and souvenir shops catering to today’s visitors.

Ise Shima famous for pearls

This Liberty Bell replica, made for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and now on display on Mikimoto Pearl Island, contains 12,250 pearls

Ise-Shima’s other claim to fame is its pearls. It was here, in 1893, that Kokichi Mikimoto finally succeeded after five years of failure to induce an oyster to create a pearl by artificially inducing an irritant. Female divers (called ama in Japanese) were employed to maintain the oyster rafts floating in Ise-Shima’s many bays, not surprising that they were already experts in diving for Ise lobster, seaweed and other edibles from the sea.

One of the most unique things to do in Ise-Shima is to have lunch at one of the rustic ama huts, where women grill and serve seafood they fetched themselves and talk about their lifestyle, fast disappearing because of more options now open to younger Japanese women.

For more about Ise-Shima, see my report and photos published by frommers.com called The Undiscovered Delights of Japan’s Ise-Shima National Park.

Ise-Shima's Ama prepare lunch in their hut

Ise-Shima’s Ama prepare lunch in their hut

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Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Every first-timer to Japan should see Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to explore. From the beaches of Okinawa to the rugged mountains of Hokkaido’s national parks, Japan has enough to keep travelers busy for a lifetime. I myself have been traveling around Japan for more than 30 years and have been to more than 60 cities and towns, mostly while writing and updating Frommer’s Japan. But there are countless places I haven’t yet seen.

I have, however, visited all the destinations cited in this advertorial I wrote on Japan that appeared in the March issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Even so, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Conde Nast Advertorial

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JNTO offering a Free Trip to Japan: The Winner chooses a World Heritage Site

Shirakawa-go in the Japan Alps

Shirakawa-go in the Japan Alps

I haven’t been to all of Japan’s World Heritage sites, but they’re on my list. Kyoto, of course, is king, with an astounding 17 locations that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site, including Kiyomizu Temple, Nijo Castle and the Saihoji Moss Garden.

But this competition, offered by the Japan National Tourism Organization, strives to get travelers off the well-beaten path by offering the chance of a free trip to one of six lesser-known World Heritage Sites. These include Shirakawa-go, a village with thatched-roof farmhouses; the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine from the Edo Period, which I discovered to be much more fascinating than I’d imagined; and the ancient ruins of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which once ruled over Okinawa. Of course, there are plenty of other things to do once you’re there. Scuba diving in Okinawa, anyone?

And by the way, I wrote the description for each of the six sites. Just writing about them made me want to go to every single one, even those I’ve already seen.

http://us.jnto.go.jp/morejapan/

 

 

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John Lennon in Karuizawa

Karuizawa's main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa’s main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa, nestled in wooded hills only an hour’s ride away from Tokyo, has a reputation as a destination for the wealthy, many of whom have summer homes and come to escape the capital’s sweltering heat. So during my trip there a few months ago, I was surprised to find Karuizawa laid back and rather unpretentious. There’s money there, of course, but in the same low-key way that there’s also money in Aspen or the Hamptons.

In any case, there was something about Karuizawa that attracted John Lennon, together

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon's favorite cafe

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon’s favorite cafe

with Yoko Ono and their son Sean, back year after year. Indeed, they spent the last four summers of John’s life in Karuizawa, ensconced in the historic but modest Mampei Hotel. I like to think he could spend his days like any other visitor, riding his bike to his favorite bakery, joining friends in Mampei’s bar, walking down Karuizawa’s main street unencumbered by adoring fans. Of course, just being a Westerner–and a tall one at that–would have made him hard to miss. But moneyed Japanese would have respected his privacy even if they knew who he was, just as they did with the many politicians, members of the Imperial family and other celebs in town.

One cafe is infamous for having refused to serve John Lennon, with word on the street that it was probably because the musician’s long hair made him look like a hippie. But maybe he got a kick out of that, too, being so anonymous that a waiter wouldn’t serve him. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates has a summer home here, too.

I wrote Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko, published in www.gonomad.com

Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko

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A 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

 

Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu,Hiraizumi is a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. It was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote for BBC.com/travel, A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery, tells why.

 

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Kume & Kobe Refound

Kume Island

Kume Island

Thanks to the Internet, I keep finding magazine and newspaper articles I wrote before the Internet was either born or publications didn’t publish additionally online. That’s fun, because those old clippings are yellow and worn, slowly changing to dust.

Kobe Reborn, published in The Rotarian in 2003 in advance of the Rotarian convention in Osaka, describes how Kobe had changed and grown since its horrific 1995 earthquake in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives.

IMG_0076

Kobe is one of Japan’s oldest international ports and most cosmopolitan cities

Japanese Island is Beauty of the Sea, published in the Los Angeles Times July 14 1985, is about Kume in the Okinawa archipelago, which I had the chance to revisit in 2008 ago and found remarkably still unchanged and undeveloped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the photographs I took for the article, which would have been slides I sent via snail mail.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

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Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

A couple of months ago I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to stay in two new properties that had opened in 2016. One was contemporary and the other very Japanese. You stay in them for completely different reasons.

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya Tokyo is Tokyo’s most posh Japanese inn, a modest-looking low-rise amidst the office high-rises of Otemachi not far from Tokyo Station. But inside it’s an oasis of calm tranquility, with soothing traditional decor like tatami flooring and shoji paper screens. On the roof is a hot-spring bath, a rarity in downtown Tokyo, while on each guest floor is a lounge where attendants pour tea, answer questions and provide individualized service. My room was

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

gigantic, with a raised platform bed, a table and chairs (where my wonderful Japanese breakfast was served) and a resting area. But because I could plainly see people in surrounding offices, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was assured that even though I could see them, my windows prevented them from seeing me. A shy exhibitionist’s fantasy, perhaps, but I opted to keep my shoji closed. Still, whereas you used to have to leave Tokyo to have a Japanese inn experience of this caliber, the Hoshinoya Tokyo now means you can be pampered in true Japanese fashion without leaving town.

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

What a change, then, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in Akasaka! Here it’s all about the views, with expansive windows from the lobby, the bar, restaurants and my room providing dreamy panoramas of the capital. My room faced over Akasaka Palace toward Shinjuku, with a window-side sofa where I drank coffee every morning. Because of a glass-walled bathroom, I could have looked at Tokyo even from my tub (I haven’t a clue why this architectural design is so popular nowadays), but of course I didn’t, instead opting for the button that made those glass walls opaque.

You can read more about these hotels in my reviews published in Global Traveler here:

Hoshinoya Tokyo and Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

 

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Japan’s Koban–Public Relations Ambassadors

A Police Box in Ginza

A Police Box in Ginza

Because Japan’s crime rate is very low compared to most other countries, the police officers I see in Japan are not apprehending criminals or breaking up fights. Instead, their main duty seems to be giving directions to lost souls. I myself have been that lost soul on many occasions, but because of Japan’s complicated address system and twisting narrow streets, there are plenty of lost Japanese souls as well. What makes police officers so handy for providing directions is the Japanese system of placing tiny police boxes, called koban, in strategic locations in towns and cities throughout Japan. There are more than 800 koban in Tokyo alone, manned by officers who know their districts like the backs of their hand. It’s kind of like having a tourist office in every neighborhood.

Unlike in most cities in the United States where police officers generally roam the streets in police cars, which physically separates them from the general public, Japanese police officers patrol their neighborhood on foot or on bicycle, making them highly visible to the public. They often stop to chat with local residents. They know which shops have closed and which restaurants have newly opened. Just mention the name of your destination, and they’ll probably know exactly where it is. If not, they have maps on hand to send you on your way.

Police Box, Ueno Park

Police Box, Ueno Park

Most koban are very tiny, with only a front room equipped with a desk and a back room. Some are architecturally appealing, either because of historic features or because they were designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. I was able to see the interior of a koban—nope, I wasn’t arrested!—when I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. Among its many thatched farmhouses, traditional Japanese- and Western-style residences, shops and other structures dating from the mid-1800s to the 1940s was a brick koban from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that used to stand beside the Manseibashi Bridge in Kanda. An employee dressed in period police clothing was in the front room, presumably to give directions to lost souls on museum grounds. The back room contained a small tatami area so that police could rest in shifts.

I know that police officers must attend to duties like helping someone locate a lost pet, arbitrating a dispute, or taking down information regarding lost or stolen property, but most of the time they seem to be waiting just for you and to point you in the right direction.

And by the way, if you get lost looking for the Edo-Tokyo Open air Architectural Museum or the bus that will take you back to the station, you can get guidance on the main street near the museum’s entrance—at a koban, of course.

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

 

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A Face in the Crowd

My first morning in Japan took place more than three decades ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. My Japanese back then was limited to phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” so all I could manage was a polite arigato. But my guardian angel’s job wasn’t over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station, and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.

Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness I have to wonder whether it’s because people in Japan are so nice or whether it’s because I’m so inept (if I didn’t get lost so often, I wouldn’t need so much help!). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.

But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn’t know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land. Over the years, I’ve tried to pass it forward.

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