By Paul Tocatlian.
It has been two years since I visited Japan and spent eight awe-inspiring days in Tokyo and Kyoto – with a short trip to Mount Fuji and the Hakone area. This blog post is long overdue! I decided to visit Japan because of its captivating sightseeing destinations and mesmerizing collage of the ancient and the modern. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let me share with you my fondest memories with a few million pixels.
Built in 1958, the Tokyo Tower is one of Tokyo’s iconic landmarks standing 333 meters high. We made it to the main observation deck that is about half way to the top and enjoyed a 360 degree breath-taking panoramic view of the city. Mt. Fuji is visible from the observation deck on a clear day, which wasn’t the case for us. How does the Tokyo Tower compare to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Las Vegas? Well… you’ll have to go see for yourself and let me know what you think.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Buddhism and Shintoism are the two largest religions in Japan, as evidenced by the existence of numerous temples and shrines throughout the country. Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine. Shinto, which means “Way of God”, is a religion deeply rooted in the way of Japanese life. This shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. We bowed once at the shrine archway upon entering and exiting. We rinsed our hands and mouth at the purification font and then proceeded to the main shrine building, where we put coins in the offering box. It was a beautiful and peaceful experience well worth the visit.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan, surrounded by over a square mile of gardens in the heart of Tokyo. The Seimon Ishibashi bridge in the picture leads to the main gate, which was closed. In fact, the palace is closed to the public except on January 2 and the Emperor’s birthday, currently celebrated on December 23. Earlier Emperors resided in Kyoto for nearly seven centuries until 1868, when Emperor Meiji moved to Tokyo.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is the biggest fish market in the world and handles hundreds of types of seafood, ranging from tiny sardines to large tuna, sold in over 900 stalls. We visited early in the morning and were able to find our way into the market after enjoying sushi for breakfast. Guided tours are available, but didn’t make it in time as in-person registration opens at 5 am and is limited to 120 visitors per day. Nonetheless, our self-guided visit was equally fun and unforgettable.
Located in Tokyo’s north-east Asakusa district, Sensō-ji is the city’s oldest Buddist temple. We visited the temple grounds and its many traditional small stores that are part of a living tradition of selling to pilgrims who walk to the temple. The “Thunder Gate” in the picture features a massive paper lantern painted in red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. The five-story pagoda and main hall were equally remarkable.
Omotesando, oftentimes referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo, is filled with high fashion shops such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Christian Dior. But you can also walk up alleys filled with smaller shops selling trendy bargains aimed at the younger crowd. Guess where we shopped? That’s right… the alley shops! The avenue is near the Meiji Shrine and stretches from Harajuku to Takeshita. We also had lunch at a tempura restaurant where we savored deep-fried to perfection. Tempura has never tasted the same since.
Takeshita-dori is a narrow and crowded pedestrian-only street that is part of Tokyo’s Harajuku area and best known for its “antenna shops” that manufacturers seed with cutting-edge fashion prototypes for test-marketing. Takeshita-dori is the place to be seen if you are a young Tokyoite. So we congregated with the cool kids – twice. We couldn’t resist shopping at the Daiso 100 Yen store where we bought some adorable Japanese nicknacks made in China.
Roppongi is immensely popular for its nightlife, featuring numerous bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, restaurants, hostess clubs, cabarets, and other forms of entertainment. What happens in Roppongi stays in Roppongi. So guess where we spent most of the evening? At a sushi restaurant where we enjoyed some dead fish – pun intended.
Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776 meters. It is considered an active volcano that last erupted in the early 1700s. It is snow-capped several months a year as evidenced in the picture. We visited Mt. Fuji as part of an all-day bus tour and made it to the 4th station at 2020 meters before heading to the Owakundani Valley Hot Springs. Mt. Fuji is not only a special place of scenic beauty but also a historic and cultural site that has inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.
Owakundani Valley Hot Springs
Owakundani, meaning the Great Boiling Valley, is a volcanic area with active sulfur vents and hot springs. We tasted a local specialty called kuro-tamago. These are ordinary chicken eggs but the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulfur spring. Local tradition holds that for each black egg eaten, seven years is added to one’s life. So I had three. Looking back, it wasn’t such a good idea. Now I need to work that much longer before I can afford to retire. Oh well.
The Shinkansen is the Japanese Bullet Train that goes a maximum speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph). It only took two hours and thirty minutes to make the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. That gave us plenty of time to eat up the bento boxes we bought in Tokyo, while catching sight of Mt. Fuji for a second day in a row. The ride was very comfortable as the train is quite silent and the seats generously spacious.
I first saw a picture of Kinkaku-ji, a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf when reading Steve Jobs biography a few months early. According to the biography, the gardens around Kyoto are the most sublime thing he had ever seen. So I had to visit and see for myself. There is a 2010 picture of Steve and his daughter Erin in the book where they’re standing at the same spot I took this picture. I hope to take my daughter Jenna here one day.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the ruling palace of the Emperor of Japan until 1868. The grounds comprise a number of buildings along with the imperial residence, including halls, other residences, a courtroom and library. You must apply in advance to receive permission to view the palace or be granted same-day permission by joining a guided tour conducted by the Imperial Household Agency and presenting your passport upon entering. We joined a guided tour.
The Ninna-ji Temple, also known as the Old Imperial Palace, is one of the 400 shrines and 1,600 Buddhist temples in Kyoto you won’t want to miss. The Niomon Gate serves as the front gate and entrance way to the temple. The name of the gate refers to the wrestler-like guardian statues enshrined to the left and right of the gate. The picture is of the right guardian statue. The left guardian didn’t look any more welcoming. But we made it through the gates and enjoyed the rest of our visit.
Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon of Peace, is best known for its 15-rock Zen garden. The boulders are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. I only saw fourteen.
If the gold medal of temples goes to Kinkaku-ji, then the silver medal goes to Ginjaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion. The main temple structure’s design sought to emulate the golden Kinkaku-ji with initial plans to cover its exterior in silver foil. The property surrounding the Zen temple is distinct in two ways. First, there’s the enchanted wooded grounds covered with an array of mosses (there are over 100 varieties of moss in Kyoto). In addition, there is a unique sand garden with carefully formed piles of sand as high as 2 meters that are said to symbolize Mt. Fuji.
Last but not least, is the temple of Kiyomizu-dera located in the eastern mountains of Kyoto. The views from the temple’s main hall veranda are as spectacular as the temple itself. What is most noteworthy about the construction of the temple is that there is not a single nail used in the entire structure. The temple complex includes several other shrines, among them the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to a god of love and “good matches”. This shrine possesses a pair of “love stones” placed 6 meters apart. Success in walking between the two stones with your eyes closed implies that you will find love.
Memories of my trip to Japan are as vivid today as they were the day I returned from my vacation. A trip of a lifetime that I hope to repeat, as there are so many more places to see and experiences to be had. In many ways, this visit resembles the walk between the two “love stones” at the Jishu Shrine, except that my eyes were wide open. But I still fell in love with Japan. I hope to share with you more pictures of my trip in a future post. Until then arigato and sayonara.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by Paul Tocatlian.