Our first bullet train journey took us from east coast Tokyo to west coast Kanazawa, home to the ancient Maeda clan, one of the most powerful samurai families. On our arrival at Kanazawa Station, the train travellers were met by a bowing robot, which greeted us in Japanese.
We visited the Kanazawa castle park with its 16th century castle and Kenroku-en garden (The Garden of Six Attributes). This garden was laid out in the 16th century and is one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
We experienced a night in a traditional Japanese guesthouse (a ryokan) on tatami mats on the floor. We shared the communal bath on the lower floor and had our first truly Japanese breakfast of pickles, seaweed and salad. It was here that from afar I began properly to appreciate the comforts of my western-style home. Surprisingly, my visit to the local supermarket brought the unexpected pleasure of being able to buy Chilean Chardonnay for the equivalent of €3 per bottle.
Our next bullet train brought us to the south of Honshu Island to the beautiful city of Kyoto, famous for its palaces, shrines and temples. Kyoto Station is the second largest station building in Japan and is overall one of the country’s largest buildings. In its 15 storeys and 238,000sqm, it incorporates a shopping mall, hotel, movie theatre, department store and several local government facilities, as well as bus, bullet train and rail stations.
Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion is cleverly set in a lake and appears to float on the water. The upper two storeys are coated in gold leaf. After the commercialism of the station, this pavilion was hauntingly beautiful.
The Ryoan-ji temple is an imperial mausoleum and the gravel of its dry landscape rock garden is raked every day. The 15 rocks are carefully sited so that only 14 may be seen from any vantage point, and all 15 will come into view only with the attainment of enlightenment.
Nearby is the sumptuous palace of Nijo, begun by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1601 as the Shogun residence in the Imperial capital. The castle has two concentric rings of fortifications and in 1994 was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Another bullet train took us to Hiroshima Bay where the famous torii (shrine gates) of Miyajima (Shrine Island) appear to float on the water. Deer roam freely through the streets on the island, and like pickpockets, they steal attractive belongings from the unsuspecting tourist.
Hiroshima is famous because it was completely destroyed on August 6, 1945 by the first atomic bomb to be used in wartime; 70,000 people died and a further 70,000 were fatally affected by radiation.
The ruined Genbaku Dome was the only structure left standing near the hypocentre of the blast and as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial was given world heritage status in December 1996 as a symbol of the aim to abolish nuclear weapons and to promote everlasting world peace.
Just outside Kobe is one of my favourite places, Himeji Castle. Its brilliant white walls and winged roof have justly earned it the epithet of the white egret. The sophisticated defensive systems include an impressive spiral maze leading to its principal gate, thick walls, loopholes, numerous gates, moats, blind alleys. These systems were never tested because the castle was never attacked. After our group’s last supper together, we found ourselves in a Karaoke Bar.
We were booked for only one hour and, taking advantage of relative anonymity, I made my debut with Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”. Only a few days previously we had experienced the peacefulness and precision of a Japanese Tea Ceremony with light-footed and kimono-clad women who taught us how to make and serve tea, Japanese style. Japan is a land of obvious contrast.
In Kyoto again, we visited the Shinto shrines and eight Buddhist temples at Nara, together with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. Nara was capital of Japan in the eighth century and day-trippers delight in feeding its free ranging deer, which are symbols of good luck to Japanese.
At Saga-Arashiyama, with its dark and whispering bamboo grove (the bamboos are over 20m tall), shrines and garden walks, we also visited the Togetsu-kyo ‘moon crossing’ bridge, which appears to be wooden but is made of reinforced concrete, only the parapets being of wood.
From our last bullet train back to Tokyo, we saw a snow-clad Mount Fuji in the distance, a thousand metres taller than the impressive Volcan Osorno in Chile.
We chose to spend our last day in Japan on the land reclaimed from the sea. Odaiba is a kind of Blackpool with a huge theme park, shopping and leisure area. It has a fake statue of Liberty, a huge Ferris wheel, dogs being pushed in prams and a Toyota exhibition area displaying their prototype cars which appeared to be colourful, sci-fi glassed-in oversize motorbikes.
I have realised my life-long dream of visiting Japan, a country of contrast, the kitschy modern alongside the hallowed and ancient, and I have come away impressed by the courtesy and helpfulness of Japanese people, and I liked their respectful bowing when they meet. I am no longer surprised by reports that some Japanese tourists in Europe are so upset by our general European lack of overt respect for others, that they have to go home again.
Thanks to Jackie Billings for her contribution to ‘Inside Japan’.
By Lynne Booker
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