Japan travel is a mixture of ultra-modern skyscrapers and ancient temples, with gorgeous public gardens, crowded streets and a multi faceted people that are reserved but friendly. We visited Tokyo and its famous Meiji Shrine as well as the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Mt Fuji. We also visited the Kamakura/Shonan area, home of the famous temples and the Kamakura Buddha. This is where we tried the local dish, raw shirasu.
Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one – Japanese proverb
Tokyo is a hugely populated city with immense skyscrapers and lovely public gardens. In spite of its enormity, the city is impressively calm and well maintained, with clean streets and modern, orderly transportation to get you places.
However, I must be honest and say that it is difficult not to get overwhelmed here and it is not all due to jet lag. The addresses are virtually impossible to locate, the streets don’t have names and the building numbers don’t go in any sort of order. We were told that it is impossible for a westerner to understand the ‘vernacular geography’ of the city.
The Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo is a great vantage point for gorgeous sunset photos over the city. You can also get a photo with Mt. Fuji in the background, weather permitting. The hotel bar of the Tokyo Park Hyatt was the location for the scene in Lost in Translation where Bob and Charlotte meet each other.
Getting to the Meiji Shrine is as interesting as the shrine itself, which was built in 1920 as a memorial to the first modern day royal rulers. It in an urban forest in the middle of the city, with beautiful grounds and passageways, making it like a trip to a national park, with over 100,000 trees. The city’s sounds and sights are totally blocked out.
Japan local culture
Almost half the people on the subways were wearing masks, this was before the pandemic. Japanese have been cautious of getting sick before Covid 19. People are not exactly friendly but they are very polite and will offer help when they are asked. The frenzy you would expect for a city this size, doesn’t exist.
A cultural phenomenon in Japan is the “Lolita” look, a throwback into the Victorian and Rococo periods, although the west considers the look sexually suggestive and exploitative. In Japan, imitating the look of a doll and looking innocent is a hugely popular style. There are different looks to the style such as sweet, gothic, country and even gory.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of Tokyo’s iconic landmarks and one of the best places to see cherry blossoms. We were there in March, the perfect time not only to see the cherry blossoms but also the rapeseed blossoms, the rapeseed is a flowering plant with a long history in the region. Comprising 144 acres of green space and incorporating three landscape styles, Japanese traditional, French formal and English garden, the gardens are a great way to savor some peace amidst the city bustle.
Tokyo to Mt. Fuji
One of the most famous symbols of Japan, Mt. Fuji is approximately 138 km, or 2.5 hours by fast train. It is the country’s tallest peak at 3776 meters and an active volcano that is also considered sacred by the country’s Shinto followers.
The area around Mt. Fuji is quite large so you have to decide what you want to see.
The area of Gotemba is said to be a shoppers’ haven but as we travel carry on, we could only fit chopsticks in our luggage, we never do much shopping.
You can spend time around the Fuji Five Lakes if you want a close view or if you want to climb or hike. The climbing season is from July 1st to August 31st. After that, the mountain huts are closed and there is no shelter on your way up the mountain. We were warned that only very experienced climbers should attempt the hike off season, we did not make the attempt.
There are all levels of accommodation, from the five star Fufu Kawaguchiko, Hotel Mt. Fuji and the Highland Resort Hotel to some very basic hostels.
A visit to Japan is not complete without a visit to the Buddha and the temples of Kamakura. The city is approximately 50 km from Tokyo, with fast and efficient road service to get you there. We hired a guide who had a background knowledge in the area’s many cultural treasures. Our guide in Tokyo was a young entrepreneur while our guide at Kamakura was a seasoned historian. Both offered great insight into the culture.
The Kamakura Buddha and the Temples
With over 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines, Kamakura makes for a great visit. Shrines is Japan are almost all Shinto and are dedicated to the worship of a single spirit or god. Shintoism is a religion with lots of ceremonies and the shrines are places where those ceremonies are performed. Unlike Buddhism, Shintoism originated in Japan. There is no dress code for visiting the shrines or temples, as far as we could tell.
At the top of the treasures list is the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a large bronze statue of Amitabha Buddha. The second tallest buddha in Japan, it dates back to the 13th century and is undoubtedly one of the most visited iconic sights in the country.
The main temple in Kamakura is the Kotoku-in, a Buddhist temple that enshrines the Great Buddha and is part of the Jodo Sect. This sect was founded by the priest Honen around 1133, whose teaching emphasized that through chanting, anyone can receive protection from the Buddha and be reborn, regardless of any past misdeeds or social standing.
Kamakura Local Cuisine
The local dish in the Kamakura area is the shirasu (whitebait). It is used in dishes during the spring season when the restaurants start serving shirasu bowls. One of the primary areas where this fish is collected is the Kanagawa/Shonan area around mid March and is eaten raw until May but can be found throughout the year either salted or dried. It is essentially raw, white juvenile fish, a young sprat or herring, but very small, less than 2cm in length.
Possibly more interesting than even the raw miniature fish dish was the manner in which we waited for a table, or rather, a spot at the counter. Our guide recommended a restaurant that specializes in shirasu. When we walked in, a line of chairs facing the backs of people eating at the counter was set up as the waiting row. We took the first available seat closest to our left and waited. At some point, someone at the counter vacated their seat, whereby the person at the end on the left took the seat at the counter. Everyone in the back shifted left. Everyone patiently waited for their turn without speaking. Nobody spoke during the lunch except to place their order.
Mondisti’s Japan Trip Tips
- Japan travel is best around March and April if you want to enjoy the cherry and rapeseed blossoms.
- Tokyo is very difficult to get around if you do not understand the local geography and signage.
- Kamakura temples and shrines are a great way to spend two to three days. The area is filled with Japanese treasures.
- Visit the Mt. Fuji to view, but if you want to climb, go during the season July to August.
- When in Kamakura, try some of the fish dishes and especially the shirasu if it is in season.
- Hire a guide to take you around Tokyo and Kamakura in order to get the most out of your trip.
- Choose a downtown hotel in Tokyo that offers spectacular views over the city.