Symphony World Travel - Kingswood
Japan – The Enchanting East
Open a world map and you will see the extensive Asia-Pacific region. Almost at the very centre you will see the Japanese archipelago stretching north to south along the edge of the Asian continent. Japan has lured untold number of adventurers since Marco Polo first introduced it to the world back in the 13th century as “Zipangu- the Land of Gold”.
Though the Japan of today may not be a land of gold, the “Neo Zipangu” does possess powerful and magnet-like attractions: great cultural variety, colourful and inspiring natural attractions beautifully interwoven by four distinct seasonal changes, not to mention the overflowing hospitality of its people. As such Japan has recovered from the natural disasters of 2011 and is vigorously gaining in popularity as a tourist destination again which anyone can enjoy on a reasonable budget and with a sense of complete security.
This is where the past literally greets the future. This is where they both mingle. Japan has a long history of absorbing advanced cultures from ancient times through the middle ages. Later it began to assimilate elements of western civilisation from the latter half of the 19th century. Though these influences, the country has added rich new dimensions and depth to its indigenous culture. This marvellous harmony between the refinements of everything ‘Oriental’ blended with leading edge technology and the urban lifestyle you find in Japan today is truly proof of its long and eloquent history.
No other country has the contrasting seasons that Japan enjoys. If you are undecided when to visit Japan, spring is spectacular with the plum and cherry blossom trees bursting into bloom – from the first days of February when the plum blossoms debut in Okinawa to the last days of May when the last cherry blossoms fall from the trees of northern Japan. Spring is a time of rebirth in the name of nature and human celebration throughout the land with numerous flower festivals being held everywhere. Spring is one of the most popular times to travel and planning and booking early is imperative.
Summer is playtime in the land of nature, a season of rice planting and total greenery, summer is a season for visiting Mt Fuji, enjoying the fireworks almost every night and the large-scale festivals that will linger through into September, but by October Japan is enjoying the crisp cooler days of its distinct autumn.
Autumn brings swirls of changing leaves, vivid hues of crimson, gold, bronze and yellow that paint the hills and mountainsides in carpets of colour, a wonderful time to visit. The Momiji maple tree turning a blazing red (above) is not to be missed.
Winter offers not only snowfall a skier’s paradise but sunshine and blue skies as well as cheaper prices and a quieter time to travel.
I start my journey in Tokyo, the most exciting metropolis in Asia, where traditions from centuries past exist side by side with the ever-moving elements of the latest in urban culture that radiate their own special heat and energy. Most of the clichés are true. Tokyo is neon-wrapped, a hectic playground where trains are never late, vending machines are everywhere and food doesn’t always lie still on your plate, but amid the bright signs and adverts there is also a Zen-like calm, often just a few steps away from the chaos. There is no real centre to Tokyo rather it has sub-centres, connected by the circular Yamanote train line.
It takes under 3 hours on the 200mph bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, an area spared from the air raids of WW2. On the journey, you can visit Hakone an area of natural beauty and UNESCO site and then Mt Fuji, Japan’s spiritual home, since the mountain is covered in snow most of the year, the official climbing season is limited to July and August. The climb is worthwhile but not easy; a saying goes there are two kinds of fools – those that never climb Fuji and those that climb it twice.
Arriving in the ancient capital, Kyoto has numerous shrines, temples, palaces and villas, repositories of Japan’s long history, while up in the low mountains that enclose the city small villages huddle under forested slopes, offering fascinating glimpses of rural life. You will still find geishas in the old Gion district, kimono weavers, sake breweries and numerous craftsmen and storekeepers who carefully maintain the old ways and keep alive the flame of Japan’s traditional culture.
From Kyoto, you can visit Nara for its parks, temples and museums, while travelling you will feel safe, women can walk safely alone almost anywhere and it’s not unusual to see children riding the subway alone whilst sleeping on trains seems to be a national pastime. Many belongings have been lost only to found them returned intact the very next day.
As I travel further south I now find myself in Hiroshima, a city remerged from the atomic bombing, the peace flame burns in front of the memorial cenotaph, never to be extinguished until all nuclear weapons are abolished. A short distance from Hiroshima is the beautiful island of Miyajima, home to the Itsukushima shrine a must see for all standing alone in the sea. The Shinto shrine is a world heritage site as is known as one of the ‘three views of Japan’.
Miyajima island is a romantic place, best enjoyed staying overnight at one of the islands Ryokans a traditional Japanese Inn. Numerous superb hot spring resorts, known as ‘onsens’ are in fact ryokans built on the site of a hot spring.
There are some 55,000 ryokans in Japan; a room in a ryokan will usually contain an undivided room floored with tatami matting, while sleeping on a ‘futon’ bedding laid out by maids and a traditional evening meal and breakfast.
My final stop is the beautiful island of Okinawa a chance to relax on a beautiful beach, sub-tropical, coral reefs, emerald seas, sunny skies and tropical vegetation abound. There are more than 150 islands stretching a chain of 250 miles. There is no litter and no bins either this is always taken home. This is an example of the remarkable social cohesion that Japan enjoys intertwined with its heart-warming hospitality makes it such a pleasant place to live and to visit. Japan awaits you