Over the years, I have been asked numerous times by friends, family, clients and fellow travellers why is it that I love Japan so much. Why am I drawn to it? What is it about it that grabs me?
Some places are in you blood. I don’t mean genetically or physically, but there is something inside that you absolutely connects with a place on a level that you can’t explain. It might be an overall affinity for a particular country; it might be a small patch of grass next to a lake down the road from where you live; it might be the vibrancy and buzz of New York City with its lights, its skyscrapers, its hole-in-the-wall bars, its department stores. Wherever it is, when you get there for the first time, you will feel like you were meant to be there, that you have been there before, and that you will return again and again and again.
For me, my first journey to Japan was a matter of “when”, not a matter of “if”. I can remember being six years old when my mother decided I should start Japanese lessons. Let me set the scene for you – it is 1984. We live in country New South Wales, about two hours by road north of Sydney. The town where I live has a population of about two hundred people. A big trip is going to Maitland in the ute, about forty minutes drive away. The school I go to is in another town, about thirty minutes away. There are forty kids in the whole school, from Kindergarten to Grade Six. It is not a bustling metropolis or on the cutting edge of global development. It is country Australia, and my mother decides her six year old is going to learn Japanese.
So she finds a Japanese lady who is willing to teach myself and a little friend of mine Japanese. She lives about an hour from where we live, and we commence weekly trips to her house for an hour’s Japanese lesson. This continues for two years.
My family then relocates to Canberra, and the Japanese lessons are on hold. By luck, a year later, I change schools and find myself in a class with a girl whose mother is Japanese. My mother immediately decides this is fate and away we go again, I am back having Japanese lessons with my classmate’s mother. I have promptly forgotten much of what I’ve learnt before, but once I am back kneeling on tatami mats, trying to eat rice with chopsticks and writing pages and pages of Japanese characters, things start coming back to me and I pick up from where I left off. I continue these lessons into high school, when I then am able to take Japanese on as my language at school. The private lessons wane, but school kicks in and my passion for Japan is full-blown.
It’s now 1994 and I am a decade on from that first lesson in the back room of a fibro cottage somewhere near Lake Macquarie. My teacher comes to talk to me after class and hands me a letter. She is offering me a three month placement in Japan as an exchange student over the summer. Am I interested? What do you think???? I think I had my bag packed that night, I was so excited about going to the country I had dreamed about, getting to try out my language skills for the first time outside of a classroom context.
And so in November 1994, I fly into the newly opened Kansai Airport to spend three months living with a family in Nara – the ancient Japanese capital and Canberra’s sister city. I go to school, attend normal classes in Japanese as well as special Japanese language classes put on for the foreign students at the school. I make some wonderful friends (both Japanese as well as other exchange students), attend and participate in festivals, dress in kimono, eat my weight in delights from Mister Donuts, experience New Year rituals and customs, live through the terror and devastation of an earthquake, and most of all come to understand that this country is everything I had hoped it was and more. My language blossoms, my confidence grows and I know that this country and I were meant to be.
Come 2001, and my sunshine-loving, footy-watching, short-wearing husband and I land in Japan to live. I have a honors degree in Japanese linguistics under my belt and a determination to conquer this language once and for all. We spend an incredible – and at times extremely challenging – twelve months in country Aichi, about an hour from Nagoya near the border with Gifu. We are the only foreigners in the town where we live, which is great for me but not so great for a non-Japanese-speaking spouse. My husband gave up a lot for that year so that his Japan-mad wife could realise this dream and put seventeen years of Japanese language lessons into practice. I am cranky when I realise that in three short months he manages to pick up more conversational Japanese than I have after years of heads in text books and sitting in lectures!
We take the long way home after our year is up and restart life back in Brisbane. I begin in the travel industry and start talking about Japan, planning trips to Japan, making other people’s Japanese dreams come to life. It takes until 2008 for myself, my husband and our then three-year-old son to return to Japan to see some new sights and revisit some old. Then in 2011 I travel with three other travel agents to the amazing and largely unknown area of Kumamoto on Kyushu in southern Japan. Who knew there were such deep, beautiful forests; gorges connected by rope bridges; the most incredible food I’ve ever eaten; puffing volcanic craters; gorgeous people with rich heritage and long lineages back to the samurai? My passion for Japan is ablaze and I am determined to show off this unique area to others.
And now? It’s late in 2012 and I am gearing up to take my first tour group to see the cherry blossoms next Easter. My dream to take people to Kumamoto will shortly be a reality. I am praying to the Cherry Blossom God – if there is one – to please make our blossoms bloom on time so that we have ten days winding through a Japan that is bathed in the dusty pink of the sakura.
So what highlights should you try to include as a visitor on a trip to Japan? This is a starting point for you…
- Kyoto. Nothing will prepare you for the beauty of The Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu Temple, Heian Shrine, the narrow streets of Gion, the bamboo forest at Sagano…
- Tokyo. Obvious as well, I know, but from Ginza to Shijuku, from the top of Tokyo Tower to the noise and smell of the fish markets, from the fashionista girls of Harajuku to huge, sweaty sumo wrestlers – Tokyo has it all. Don’t forget Disney if you have little ones in tow…
- Takayama. A hidden gem of a town, nestled at the foot of the Japanese Alps between Kyoto and Tokyo. Gorgeous wooden shophouses, speciality dishes, sake breweries, traditional gassho houses and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, Takayama will give you a real taste of traditional Japan.
- Hiroshima. We all know it’s awful, atomic history, but this is a beautiful city and an important one to visit on an itinerary to Japan. The memorials, the confronting museum, the A-Bomb Dome shell, the millions of paper cranes – all of those are physical and visual reminders as to why that destruction should never happen again. It is also a stepping stone to Miyajima and one of the most photographed and well-known images of Japan – Itsukushima Shrine, with its red gate marooned off the coastline, surrounded by water at high tide. The island itself is beautiful and worth at least a day trip, if not an overnight stay.
- Mt Koya. An important stop on any Japanese pilgrim trail, Koyasan is a mountain-top community that is home to over one hundred Buddhist temples. Visitors travel by cable car to the top of the mountain and walk the trails between the temples and along Okunoin – a 2km cemetery trail leading to the secluded Okunoin Temple deep in the forest. Overnight guests stay at a temple and eat vegetarian meals prepared by the resident monks, then rise early to attend prayers and take in the beauty of the area in silence. It’s a magical experience.
- Arima Onsen. Like baths? You’ll love hot springs – onsen – and Arima Onsen at the top of Mt Rokko behind Kobe is one of the more unique places to give it a go.
- Kyushu. Rust-coloured “Hells” hot springs of Beppu, active Mt Aso volcano, deep forests and swing bridges of the Last Samurai in Gokanosho, majestic Kumamoto Castle. Hidden Christians of Amakusa, the multicultural port city of Nagasaki and the extraordinary chasm of Takachiho Gorge – there is so much to see and experience here on this island. Highly recommended for a returning visitor to Japan.
- Himeji. Known as “White Heron”, it is one of the best-preserved castles in all of Japan. It is currently under an enormous restoration project which is due for completion in 2014.
- Hakuba. Located in Nagano prefecture in the Japanese Alps, this is a premier ski resort that is perfect to visit in both summer and winter. Summer provides a retreat from the heat and humidity that the rest of Honshu experiences, while winter is all about the swoosh-swooshing in powder that Japanese ski resorts are famous for. More “Japanese” than some of the ski resorts on the island of Sapporo and easy to access from Tokyo and Osaka. Also the ability for interesting day trips to Nagano, the “Black Raven” castle at Matsumoto and the quirky but incredible snow monkeys at Yudanaka.
If you’re looking for must-do experiences, try these…
- Tea Ceremony. Experience the patient, beautiful art of making the perfect green tea – how to whisk it, how to hold it, how to drink it, how to experience it.
- Cherry Blossom Viewing. Known as hanami, you can view these beautiful pink explosions from afar, or by walking around the various parks, temples and shrines, or even by partaking in a special “Cherry Blossom Party” where you sit beneath the blossoms and enjoy a feast of picnic delights while enjoying the blossoms above and around you.
- Sumo. There are six tournaments each year, with meets held in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Even if you don’t manage to get tickets to go into the arena to watch the tournament, it’s an amazing experience standing outside and watching the competitors walking past.
- Japanese food. We all know about sushi and sashimi (raw fish in various forms), but make sure you try local specialties as well. Each region has some kind of local, famous dish, or at least a special way of making that particular kind of dish. My favourites include okonomiyaki from Hiroshima, takoyaki from Osaka, hida beef from Takayama and yakisoba from… well, China actually, but it’s bloody good everywhere that I’ve eaten it!
- Vending machine shopping. You name it, you can buy it from a vending machine. Most popular products are hot and cold drinks, alcohol, cigarettes, cup noodles and batteries, but there is no limit as to what else you may find…
- Staying in a Japanese Inn. If you want to see what Japanese life is about, an overnight stay in either a minshuku or ryokan is a great experience. You eat traditional Japanese food, wear a yukata (casual robe), bathe in an onsen and sleep on a futon on the floor. It’s not for everyone, but even just for one night it is worth challenging yourself and giving it a go.
- Travelling on a Bullet Train. For the young and the old, the shinkansen is not only the most practical way to get from A to B in Japan, but also the most comfortable and iconic way to do it. The trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, for example, zooms past Mt Fuji at up to 300km per hour.
This list is by no means finite – please add your highlights in the comments box as I too would love to share your personal highlights from your experiences.
So again I ask, why Japan? Well, it’s everything. It’s the sashimi and the sake; it’s the people with their rich culture and quirky customs; it’s the iconic images of the cherry blossoms, the autumn colours, the red gate of Miyajima and the neon lights of Shibuya; it’s hot springs and sleeping on the floor; it’s taking your shoes off and hoping you don’t have holey socks on that day. And moreover, it’s my journey and my destiny with Japan that means it has made an indelible mark on my being.
The cherry blossoms are calling… see you there…