Japan: a land of contrasts

By far the phrase I used most often was “Arigata gozaimasu”: I appreciate it.

Chureito Pagoda and Mount Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, about an hour and 45 minutes from Tokyo.
  • Chureito Pagoda and Mount Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, about an hour and 45 minutes from Tokyo.

I stare out at Mount Fuji: bright, clear, stately, basking in the morning sunshine. Cherry blossoms frame my view alongside the stunning Chureito Pagoda in the foreground.

My timing was implausibly fortuitous. The previous day had been rainy and cloudy with zero visibility of the legendary peak. I feared my dream of a clear view of Fujisan slipping away. Enduring the 400-step walk up to Arakurayama Sengen Park, I was gratefully rewarded with this epic, bucket-list worthy view. The Instagram photos were no match for being here, in this spot, at this moment.

I'd arrived in Japan a few days earlier (via a nonstop flight from San Diego to Tokyo on the excellent Japan Airlines) with excitement but also a mild sense of dread. Not only was there a forecast for rain at Mount Fuji on the day of my visit, the cherry blossom bloom had occurred earlier than usual. I worried that my April visit, normally prime sakura, full bloom time, had been mistimed and too late to view the fabled blossoms.

Cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.

In Japan, the sakura symbolizes the transience of life. Full bloom lasts only about a week, so the window for the most spectacular blossoms is brief. I was late to catch the full show — but fortunate that there's a late blooming species, so I was able to encounter spots of cherry blossom bloom. I'm routinely surprised that things always seem to work out on my travels, even if they don’t work out as perfectly as planned.

Japan on a budget

Contrary to what many people think, it’s possible to see Japan on a budget. My journey (as well as those of most visitors to Japan) included visits to Tokyo and Kyoto, the past and present capitals of the county. I also managed to sneak in my day trip to Mount Fuji. With planning and preparation, it is affordable to do this itinerary on a budget.

One of the best investments I made in preparation for the trip was to buy a JR pass, which covers transportation around the country on the Shinkansen bullet trains. It can be also used for getting around Tokyo on JR-affiliated trains. Train travel can be expensive in Japan, and if you plan to take at least one visit outside of Tokyo, for instance to Kyoto, buying a JR pass can be a good investment. It must be bought outside of Japan, however. I picked mine up in the lobby of the Best Western Plus Bayside Inn in downtown San Diego. You can buy a 7-day, 14-day or 2-day pass. I also recommend you buy a Suica or Pasmo card upon arriving at the airport for convenient travel on the Tokyo subway. Another budget suggestion is to buy a one-day or multi-day pass for bus and subway travel while visiting Kyoto.

There are many budget options in Tokyo for accommodation through Airbnb. If you book early, study the cancellation terms for your booking, in case you’d like the option of staying flexible. It’s recommended to book early for the choicest options in Tokyo.

Also, you can maximize your time and money by avoiding eating out at pricey restaurants for lunch and, instead, buying inexpensive preprepared meals called bento. These are plentiful at convenience stores, including Family Mart, Lawson’s and (yes) 711. The meals can actually be tasty and nutritious, and I was amazed at the selections available. Japan has developed a well-deserved reputation as something of a foodie paradise — it’s wise to expand your gastronomic horizons and try some new things. I developed a taste for the Japanese snack dorayaki, a pancake filled with red bean paste. If you do eat out (and you should at least a few times), keep in mind there is no tipping in Japan, even if the service is outstanding. Also, don’t expect to pay for everything with a credit or debit card, as many restaurants and businesses don’t accept them. Japan is a cash-based country.

If you would like a guide in Japan, but can’t afford a private guide, you might consider a goodwill guide. There are several organizations that offer this. Just Google "Japan goodwill guide." It’s not entirely free. You will pay for the guide’s lunch, transportation, and admission fees to museums and temples. You can set the itinerary and determine if you would like to utilize the guide for just one day or several days. You can also arrange a tutorial in Japanese etiquette and the Japanese tea ceremony.

Tokyo

My three days in Tokyo were a whirlwind exploration of the most populous city in the world. I explored the popular spots: Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo in the Asakusa region, the Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens (the best place in the city to experience sakura), the National Museum, which had a sakura art exhibit on display, and the Imperial Palace Gardens. I also visited the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (instead of the pricey, crowded Sky Tower) for a free panoramic view of the city. Finally, the Shibuya Scramble offered the odd thrill of watching hordes of people cross the busiest intersection in the world. If this appeals to you, go to the second-floor Starbucks for the best view of this spectacle. For a crazy, mind-blowing show, go to Robot Restaurant. But keep in mind, it’s a bit pricey and the spectacle is more popular with visitors than locals.

Leave some time to walk a variety of the city’s neighborhoods to get a sense of the city. Some of my most memorable times in Tokyo were simply exploring a few of the more bustling areas such as Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara (the electronics district), and Harajuku by foot without a specific agenda. This is the best and most visceral way to absorb the pulse of this astonishingly vibrant city and its inhabitants.

Flower fields in Kashiwa, Japan.

Flower fields in Kashiwa, Japan.

It’s good to occasionally get off the beaten path. Not all my visits were to standard tourist destinations. My guide and friend, Tsune, brought me to his home town, Kashiwa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, to view gorgeous flower fields that cost nothing to visit, unlike the flower fields here in Carlsbad. I can’t imagine a more astonishing field of tulips outside of Holland.

A basic understanding of the Tokyo subway system can lay the city at your feet. It can be a bit confusing at first, though. The bigger subway stations in Tokyo are a frenetic madhouse. A bit of zen focus can be very helpful when you are navigating massive Shinjuku station and dodging a sea of dark-suited businessmen as you attempt your first connection. Check out the Hyperdia website before coming. Some helpful apps in navigating the system are Navitime, Tokyo Rail Map Lite and Maps.me.

Riding the incredibly efficient subway system pretty much matched the descriptions I had read. Although often maddeningly crowded and busy, the atmosphere on the subways is sedate. People do not have loud, personal conversations. The typical sight is of gatherings of businessmen and teenagers staring down at their phones or dozing. Also, riding the subway is safe. There are fewer instances of pickpocketing and violent crime than in Europe, the U.S. or Latin America. Decorum, politeness, humility, harmony, and efficiency are the words that mark my observations. Do those words come to mind when you think about the New York subway? Generally speaking, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world to travel to.

The orderliness and efficiency of the Shinkansen bullet trains is mind-boggling. Each train I rode on arrived precisely to the minute of their scheduled arrival, so don’t be late if you have a reserved seat. The train stops in a predetermined spot and, if you have a reserved seat there will be a sign designating exactly where to stand for your particular car. I didn’t know this the first time I caught the train and had to run to my car.

Japanese culture and spirituality

I have a great appreciation for Japanese culture. I love the spirituality of the Zen temples, the sense of decorum, and the feeling for nature evident in their exquisite gardens and variety of works of art.

Japan has numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Most Japanese are Buddhist, but also Shinto. The temples and shrines often have an atmosphere that evoke serenity and reflection. Great care and planning is evident in the design and upkeep of the temple gardens. Try to get to the most popular ones early before the crowds arrive around 10 a.m. It’s more difficult to appreciate the tranquil atmosphere amidst a crowd of tourists with selfie sticks. Do remove your shoes when entering the shrines and temples — and when entering most homes for that matter (It’s a good idea to weed out your holey socks before coming to Japan!). Slippers are generally provided.

One of the most important holidays for most Japanese is Obon, little known in the West. It is the Buddhist equivalent of the Day of the Dead, a day to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. Obon begins this year on October 13 and ends on October 15.

Kyoto

I’ve always been intrigued by the historical and spiritual nature of Kyoto. If you are drawn to temples, you must come here. Temple-hopping is common among visitors, and the Philosopher’s Path is the walking path that connects many of them. Start at Ginkakakuji (the Silver Pavilion), and meander onward to Honen-in, Eikando — perhaps my favorite with its atmosphere of calm and serenity — Nanzenji, Shoren-In, Chion-in, Kodaji, Keninji, and Kiyomizudera, which offers a panoramic view of the city. Set aside a full day for this itinerary. If you are here during sakura, the path is bursting with cherry blossoms. While I missed full bloom, there were still a few blossoms adorning the path.

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto.

On another day, I visited two more of the best-known temples in Kyoto, Ryoanji and Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. I also visited Fushimi Inari, the most famous and extraordinary Shinto shrine in Japan with about 5,000 torii arches. Fox statues are ubiquitous here; the fox is the messenger of Inari, the Shinto god of rice. They also act as the protectors of rice and sake.

Another must-see area is Arashiyama. First, explore Tenru-yin Temple and then the spectacular but often crowded Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. There is a stunning river valley behind the forest bisected by the Katsura River. Up the hill is Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you can interact with about 170 Japanese macaque monkeys while enjoying a magnificent view of Kyoto.

If you stroll the Gion neighborhood, you just may spot a geisha. To my surprise and delight, I did on my last day here. What was she doing? Graciously and patiently having her photo taken with tourists.

To get the most out of your visit to Kyoto I recommend you review a bit of Japanese history, as this was the capital of Japan for centuries before it transferred to Tokyo in 1869. I’ve also heard that the book (and movie) Memoirs of a Geisha can be an excellent introduction to a Kyoto visit.

Traditional Japanese dance, Ueno Park, Tokyo.

Traditional Japanese dance, Ueno Park, Tokyo.

The Japanese people

I was left at the end of this trip with a tremendous admiration, respect and affection for the Japanese people. I remain awash in appreciation at the politeness, decorum, civility, humility, and helpfulness I was shown during my visit. More than once when I was lost or confused, someone went out of their way to set me on the correct path. I have wonderful memories of strangers, ordinary citizens, offering their personal time, energy and generosity to provide me guidance and direction.

I still smile when I recall the reaction of utter bliss in a young woman, who was a bit shy at speaking English, when I uttered the words, “Your English is very good” after she provided me directions. She bowed in joy and relief.

I always try to learn a few phrases in the languages of the counties I travel to. At least please, thank you, excuse me, hello. By far the phrase I used most often in Japan was “Arigata gozaimasu”: I appreciate it.

Despite my glowing review of my personal experience with the Japanese people, there are quite serious problems within the social fabric. Most notable is a relatively high, though declining, suicide rate and the social phenomenon of hikikomori, the sizable chunk of young Japanese (estimated between 500,000 and 1.5 million) who have, for whatever reason, removed themselves from any social interaction and mostly stay locked up in their rooms.

Hikikomori has become such a concern that Prime Minister Abe announced plans in late 2016 to set up counseling centers and have support staff visit hikikomori in their homes to address the problem. Theories about hikikomori abound, including the difficulty many young people have of fitting into Japanese society in a compatible way and sensitivities to bullying and cyber bullying. In addition, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people age 10-19 in Japan.

Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms.

Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms.

A land of contrasts

Japan is a country of contrasts and contradictions — from the beauty and serenity of the area surrounding Mount Fuji, to the frenetic energy and extraordinary efficiency of Tokyo’s subways and business district, to the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of the ancient temples of Kyoto. No matter how short your visit, be sure to get out of Tokyo for at least a day or two.

The small town of Kawaguchiko alongside Mount Fuji was rife with its own contradictions. This beautiful, serene, life-affirming spot in the shadow of the majestic mountain is a short bus ride from Aokigahara, the forest which is now the second-most popular place in the world (to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) to take one’s life. All I could think about, however, while staring out past the pagoda and cherry blossoms to Mount Fuji was the sheer gorgeousness of the location and that, at that moment, there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be.

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Author's note: The caption on the first photo has an error. Arakurayama Sengen Park is not accessible by bullet train from Tokyo. You can get there via a combination of trains, one of them a private, non-JR (non-bullet) line that does not accept the JR pass. This will take about 1 hour 45 min. with a transfer in Otsuki. From the Shimo-Yoshida station, signs will direct you to the park. You can also take a bus to nearby Kawaguchiko from the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. The bus terminal is on the fourth floor of the south building of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The bus will bring you directly to Kawaguchiko.

It is, however, possible to take a bullet train nonstop from Tokyo to Kyoto in a bit less than 3 hours.

Fixed - thanks for calling this out, Derek!

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