Japan is one of my favorite travel destinations. The unique mix of east and west in this culturally rich country continues to fascinate me. I am sharing my 25 favorite Japanese experiences in photos to inspire your next trip to this amazing country.
I just returned from another two week trip to Japan. I have been very fortunate in that this has been my third trip to this Asian country in the past two years. I have experienced their hot and humid summer, a not quite so cold January, and now a very colorful autumn. I will write more detailed stories from my trips once I have some time to digest my new experiences and organize the thousands of photos. To help gather up my thoughts I have pulled together 25 Japanese experiences in images that capture some of the essence of what I find fascinating about Japan.
The Two Faces of Tokyo
For me these are the two faces of Tokyo – centuries of unchanging tradition in contrast with cutting edge modern technology. I am continuously fascinated at how the Japanese incorporate western aspects while still maintaining their ancient traditions. Senso-ji Temple is the oldest and most popular temple in Tokyo. The first temple was founded here in 645 AD, and the current temple is a popular destinations for Japanese visitors as well as tourists. Within sight of this ancient site is the Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest tower in the world and the second tallest structure in the world. The Tokyo Sky Tree is primarily a broadcasting tower but also has restaurants and observation decks on floors 350 and 450.
English Language Homework
On our first visit to Tokyo in August, 2015, my husband and I were stopped numerous times at the various tourist sites we were visiting, to be interviewed by students clearly doing English language homework for school. Even though it was mid summer, these kids were in their school uniforms, asking questions and diligently writing down our answers. “Where are you from?” – USA. “What is your favorite food?” – Pizza. “What do you like most about Japan” – how friendly the people are. And so on.
If it lives in the ocean and is edible, you can probably find it being packaged up or for sale at Tsujiki market. Tourists are tolerated here, but it’s your responsibility to stay out of the way of the fast moving cart drivers and trucks. The market is like a small city with narrow, wet passages and islands of work areas. Walking up and down the endless aisles I saw frozen slabs of tuna being sliced by large band saws or unfrozen tuna being sliced with extremely sharp two foot long specialized knives. There were bins with shellfish that were as big as my hand and bins filled with wriggling and swimming species that I had no clue as to what they were. And of course, there were the buckets of fish heads, fins and miscellaneous other unidentifiable debris.
The Freshest Sushi
In Tsujiki’s outer market area are a variety of vendors and small little sushi restaurants. The restaurants are barely wider than their front door and have just enough room for a counter with less than a dozen stools and space for the chef to prepare his specialties with the latest catch. We patiently waited in line outside until two seats opened up and then enjoyed the chef’s daily sushi special, prepared on a plate of ice with intense concentration and delicate artistry.
Tokyo’s Department Store Food Floors
No-this is not Paris or Vienna, this is still Tokyo. The basement levels of the large department stores in the Ginza area are all about food and drink. There is the expected Japanese array and variety, but also a dizzying selection of western foods – cheeses, meats, breads, pre-prepared foods, wine and alcohols, and deserts. Always artfully displayed and always beautifully wrapped to take away. And always delicious.
The Japanese Aesthetic
Aesthetics and attention to detail – always. Whether it’s a gourmet dish in a fancy Tokyo restaurant, a small plate in a side street cafe with three tables, or the hotel breakfast buffet, the food is always presented beautifully. And it always tastes good too.
Girls Just Want to Wear Yukatas
East meets West. It was not a surprise to see many Starbucks coffee shops throughout Tokyo. It was also not unusual to see young women dressed in the traditional cotton dress that look like kimonos but are called yukatas. I often saw small groups of young women dressed in this traditional garb when they were “out on the town”. Interestingly, I only saw the young men dressed in the male equivalent if they were accompanying their date and she was dressed in a yukata.
The Japanese Wedding Dress
As I walked form my hotel to Tokyo Station each day, I would pass a bridal shop displaying and selling the typical white, flowy, lacy wedding gowns that are worn in the west, which did come as a bit of a surprise to me. So I was thrilled to find a couple posing for wedding photos at Sankeien Gardens in Yokahama, wearing traditional Japanese wedding garb – it seemed more fitting somehow.
The Japanese celebrate many holidays. Some are National Holidays like Children’s Day or Respect for the Aged Day or Mountain Day where people get the day off from work. Other holidays are observed holidays, like Shichi-Go-San, or 3-5-7 day which has been celebrated for over 1000 years. This day celebrates the health of 3 and 7 year old girls and 5 and 7 year old boys with a visit to the local shrine. The official holiday is on Nov. 15, but I saw children dressed up in traditional garb at the shrines throughout the whole week around Nov. 15. Besides the shrine visit this is also a photo op day where the parents try to get the kids to sit still long enough in their finery for formal portraits and video. This was at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shrine.
Unborn Children’s Garden
I photographed this because I found it cute, not really knowing what it was until I came home and did some research. This is the Unborn Children’s Garden at Zojo-ji Temple in central Tokyo. Parent’s choose a statue representing their unborn child (either through miscarriage, abortion or still birth), decorate it and provide toys and trinkets in honor of Jizō, the guardian of unborn children, to ensure that he helps them pass into the afterlife. What a lovely memorial.
Getting Wet at Tokyo DisneySea
I spent a day at Tokyo’s DisneySea in the heat and humidity of early August. I couldn’t understand why so many of the Japanese were buying and wearing short terry ponchos with hoods that mimicked their favorite Disney character – Mickey’s mouse ears, Donald’s duckbill and cap, Goofy’s ears. It was so hot and humid, why put on another layer? Then when the afternoon water parade started, I understood. The floats had water cannons that the characters shot into the crowds. The hooded ponchos helped to keep everyone in the audience from getting drenched – except me.
If you are not a quilter, then you would not know that the largest international quilt show is held in Tokyo every January at the Tokyo Dome (home of the Tokyo baseball team). The Japanese adopted the American quilting tradition and have made it their own. Their long tradition for delicate, time consuming handwork is evident in the quality of the quilts in this show. Any one of the hundreds of quilts on display would win a major quilt competition in the USA (and they usually do when the send them over here). The quilts are large, intricate, highly artistic and all done by hand. I was fortunate to attend the show in 2016, and was completely humbled and left in awe of the work that I saw.
Snow Monkey Park
There are many tours during the winter months that can take you from Tokyo to the Snow Monkey Park, but it is also easily done as an independent day trip. Normally, the area is covered in snow for 4 months of the year, however, when we were there in January 2016, there wasn’t any snow due to an unseasonable warm spell. That did not take away from watching the Japanese macaque troop soaking in the hot spring baths, and playing, preening and posturing. It was clear that they had individual personalities and that there was a defined pecking order. They also seemed to be quite used to humans so you could get quite close.
One of the tours I took from Tokyo included a stop at Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park. We only had about 30 minutes to get to the overlook at the base of the mountain to see the falls. Turns out that was more than enough time. You could hike quickly down and then back up – OR – you could take the elevator down and then walk through a short tunnel dug out of the mountain to the overlook for the view of the falls. A lot more efficient and a lot less sweaty.
A day in Shirakawa-go
Another tour took me to Shirakawa-go, another of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. This is a small village where you can still see traditional thatched roof farmhouses amid rice paddies surrounded by flower beds. I don’t know if there is a more charming village in all of Japan.
Tateyami-Kurobe Alpine Route
One of the most challenging tours I took was the all Japanese (no English available) Tateyami-Kurobe Alpine route in Japan’s northern alps. It was my personal Lost-In-Translation experience which is worthy of its own separate post. The scenery was majestic and the transport included buses, cable cars, trolley buses and aerial tramways to go up, over, under and through the mountains. In spite of the language barrier, I successfully made every meeting point on time.
Nothing symbolizes Japan more than Mt. Fuji. With a height of 12,389 ft. it is Japan’s highest mountain and is another one of the country’s UNESCO sites. The five lakes region around Mt. Fuji is also a very popular and highly developed tourist destination. You can do all sorts of activities within sight of this icon, including riding a roller coaster at an amusement park.
An Onsen is a traditional Japanese bath fed by geothermally heated waters. Any Japanese Onsen experience will be special, but taking one within sight of Mt. Fuji was memorable (even if I did have to go naked into this public bath-fortunately I was all alone).
The Nara Deer
Nara is also one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and was the capital of Japan in the 8th century AD. But while the tours come here to see the ancient temples and shrines, the many tame, free roaming deer steal the show.
Geisha for a Day
Only in Japan can you dress up and be a Geisha for a day. I came across these young women strolling the streets of the Gion area of Kyoto early one morning. I don’t think they were real Geisha (or Geiko as they call them in Japan) because it was so early and because they were clearly just sight seeing and windows shopping. Nevertheless, it was still a pretty sight.
The Fushimi-Inari shrine in Kyoto was made famous to westerners when it was seen in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The 4 km path up the mountain goes through about 10,000 torii gates. The classic photo shows the tunnel of orange gates going off into the distance. I think I like this photo better, showing the outside of the torii gates as they march up the mountain side. Besides the torii gates, there are also many interesting side shrines and tea houses as you climb up. We spent a morning there, only hiking about half way and could easily have spent the whole day.
Japanese Maples in Fall
The Japanese maple is the star of the fall foliage show, in particular in the shrine and temple gardens of Kyoto. With the sun light shining through the leaves, the trees get a neon like glow. The Japanese love their fall foliage and if there was a red or orange or yellow tree around, you could bet that someone was taking a selfie or posing for a photo in front of it.
The Japanese Garden
Japanese garden design has its own unique aesthetic. No flowers tumbling over picket fences here. It’s all about clean sight lines, meticulously placed elements, and combining rocks, water and plants to form a calm and serene environment. The gardens are for strolling and having a pleasing perspective from any angle at any time of year. In Tokyo I enjoyed the gardens in Hibya Park, Hamarikyu Gardens and Rikugi-en garden. In Kyoto, every shrine and temple we visited had a beautiful and unique garden attached to it, as did Nijō castle (in the photo below).
Walking through the Hiroshima Peace Park was a moving experience for me. For the Japanese, the memorials in the park are clearly not just a collection of sculptures to draw in tourists, but a source of lessons for future generations. The day I visited, two large school groups were visiting the Peace Park on field trips. The students were subdivided into groups that went around to each of the memorials where they received a lesson. In this photo, a group of students is gathered in front of the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound which contains the ashes of 70,000 cremated unidentified victims of the first nuclear bomb.
Miyajima island is a short trip from Hiroshima. It’s best known for the floating torii gate which is part of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The shrine has many sub shrines and temples, all of which are interesting to visit. There is also a cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain for views of the harbor, and hiking trails down. The town with it’s traditional buildings is fun to stroll through and since this is a popular tourist destination, there are also many shops and eateries. I only spent a day here but could have stayed longer.
The Intangible Japanese Cultural Essence
Finally, the aspects of Japanese culture that I most appreciate are difficult to photograph. Everywhere I’ve gone, I have been treated with the most polite and gracious hospitality. The culture is based on order and rules. If the light is red, no one j-walks, even if it is late at night and there is no traffic. As a tourist, this makes it much easier to travel. With rules and order also comes a culture of honesty. Many people ride bikes in the cities, but I saw very few locked up when they were not in use. And finally, the focus on cleanliness. As I was waiting for trains, I saw stairs being swept and handrails wiped down. Tokyo has to be the cleanest big city I’ve ever visited-whether it’s the highways, the streets or the train stations. I was amazed at how immaculate the restroom was at Tokyo Station, one of the largest train and subway stations in the city. (Not sure I would want to use a public restroom in a subway back home).
With these images and stories of my Japanese experiences, I know I am barely scratching the surface of a very deep and rich culture. In traveling through Japan, I initially took some tours which were an efficient way to see the sights. But once I became comfortable with using the transportation system, I traveled independently at a slower pace that allowed me to be more observant and interactive.
Even though I have been to Japan three times already, I look forward to going back again – there is much of the country that I still have not seen and many more unique Japanese experiences for me to discover. And then there are the 2020 Olympics.
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