FIRST-TIME EXPERIENCES are often the best. And JAPAN, I’d been told, was the perfect place for a first-time experience. So, one fine Monday in March, my wife and I and some Mad Midlife friends left the Land of the Long White Cloud and flew up the map to the Land of the Rising Sun …
Just a couple of days – that’s all it took – and we were seduced! Exquisite, colourful, surprising Japan turned out to be unlike any other place we’d ever been to! I mean, where else can you find feudal histories riding bullet-trains … ancient cultures selling hi-tech marvels … Buddhist retreats off rush-hour city streets … mouth-watering sashimi on the menu with sumo-wrestling … and austere traditions cheek-to-cheek with geisha girls?
Take TOKYO, for example – home to a mere 40 million – a jungle of tower-blocks and temples, super-highways and shrines, plus wave after wave of courteous, smiling, mostly-young Japanese.
Before we could mumble “jetlag” we had ticked off Ueno Park (popular with cherry-blossom picnickers) … Asakusa Sensogi Temple (founded 628AD by local fishermen) … Akihabara Electronic Town (crammed with the hottest gadgets) … Tsukiji Seafood Market (where they market seafood) … Ginza Mitsukoshi (the world’s most expensive department store) … plus we’d gone up Tokyo Tower (13 metres taller than Eiffel) for some birds-eye views.
Somewhere on the way we’d sat down in a sushi school, where a quietly-spoken sushi-master dressed us in white smocks and taught us how to make ‘eat-your-own sushi’. Yum!
A day or two later, we escaped into the countryside and plunged into Japanese history. The town of NIKKO was a centre of Shinto-Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries, and final resting place of Some Pretty Impressive Shoguns.
We stayed that night (and the one after) in a ‘ryokan’ – a small, traditional Japanese inn, where we swapped our shoes for traditional Japanese slippers … our Western-style clothes for traditional Japanese kimonos … our beds (if we chose) for traditional Japanese ‘tatami’ mats woven from rushes … and our normal meals for traditional Japanese cuisine.
The bolder amongst us also joined locals in a traditional Japanese ‘onsen’ – a steaming rock pool fed by thermal springs, men one side, women the other, and not a stitch of clothing allowed!
Come the weekend, we braved hairpin-bends and snow-splashed mountains in search of apes that enjoy hot baths. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to large groups of Japanese Macaques – or Snow Monkeys – that regularly soak themselves (and their oh-so-cute babies) in the steaming natural spa-pools.
Sunday saw us doing something none of us had ever done before. We visited a wasabi farm where, once we’d seen how they grow these ugly roots and make this potent green mustard, we tasted wasabi paste, wasabi pickles, wasabi noodles, wasabi crackers, wasabi peanuts, wasabi ice-cream and wasabi chocolate! (Umm? Different …)
We later headed for Matsumoto Castle, the oldest surviving wooden Samurai fortress in Japan (1504) … then on to scenic Lake Kawaguchi for a crash-course in Tsujigahana silk dyeing. It was here we caught our first (hazy) sighting of Japan’s highest and most worshipped mountain: Mt Fuji.
On Monday, we rode the Hakone Ropeway (cable-car) up Mt Owakudani, gliding over rumbling, steaming sulphurous vents. According to Japanese legend, if you eat a hard-boiled egg cooked in these volcanic hot springs (their shells turned black by the sulphur), you’ll add seven years to your life – so, of course, most of us had to try. (And I’m already seeing signs of improved longevity!)
Not sure if you’re into cherry blossoms, but we couldn’t possibly have timed this trip better. Spring had come to Japan, and the nation’s iconic ‘sakura’ (cherry-blossom trees) had “erupted in a magical blaze of pink-and-white” (to quote one website), “blanketing town and country in soft, colourful splendour.”
There are zillions of these beautiful trees throughout Japan – we’d seen them at each place we stopped. And their glorious blossoms seemed extra-glorious in OSAKA (population a modest 10 million). We got an eyeful next morning on a river-cruise – mile after mile of cherry trees lining both banks, their blossom falling like snow.
Sadly, words and photos don’t do it justice! There are some things you’ve gotta see for yourself …