Read an Excerpt
By Beth Reiber Janie Spencer
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-4323-7
Chapter OneThe Best of Japan
Hardly a day goes by that you don't hear something about Japan, whether the subject is trade, travel, scandal, natural disaster, cuisine, the arts, or the nation's worst economic recession since World War II. Yet Japan remains something of an enigma to people in the Western world. What best describes this Asian nation? Is it the giant producer of cars, computers, and a whole array of sleek electronic goods that compete favorably with the best in the West? Or is it still the land of the geisha and bonsai, the punctilious tea ceremony, and the delicate art of flower arrangement? Has it become, in its outlook and popular culture, a country more Western than Asian? Or has it retained its unique ancient traditions while forging a central place in the modern industrialized world?
In fact, Japan is an intricate blend of East and West. Its cities may look Westernized-often disappointingly so-but beyond first impressions there's very little about this Asian nation that could lull you into thinking you're in the West. Yet Japan also differs greatly from its Asian neighbors. Although it borrowed much from China in its early development, including Buddhism and its writing system, the island nation remained steadfastly isolated from the rest of the world throughout much of its history, usually deliberately so. Until World War II, it had never been successfully invaded; and formore than 200 years, while the West was stirring with the awakenings of democracy and industrialism, Japan completely closed its doors to the outside world and remained a tightly structured feudalistic society with almost no outside influence.
It's been just a little more than 136 years since the Japanese opened their doors, embracing Western products wholeheartedly, yet at the same time altering them and making them unquestionably their own. Thus, that modern highrise may look Western, but it may contain a rustic-looking restaurant with open charcoal grills, corporate offices, a pachinko parlor, a high-tech bar with views of Mount Fuji, a McDonald's, an acupuncture clinic, a computer showroom, and a rooftop shrine. Your pizza may come with octopus, beer gardens are likely to be fitted with Astroturf, and "parsley" refers to unmarried women older than 25 (because parsley is what's left on a plate). City police patrol on bicycles, garbage collectors attack their job with the vigor of a well-trained army, and white-gloved elevator operators, working in some of the world's swankiest department stores, bow and thank you as you exit.
Because of this unique synthesis of East and West into a culture that is distinctly Japanese, Japan is not easy for Westerners to comprehend. Discovering it is like peeling an onion-you uncover one layer only to discover more layers underneath. Thus, no matter how long you stay in Japan, you never stop learning something new about it-and to me that constant discovery is one of the most fascinating aspects of being here.
1 The Best Travel Experiences
Long ago, the Japanese ranked the "three best" of almost every natural wonder and attraction in their country: the three best gardens, the three best scenic spots, the three best waterfalls, even the three best bridges. But choosing the "best" of anything is inherently subjective, and decades-even centuries-have passed since some of the original "three best" were so designated. Still, lists can be useful for establishing priorities. To help you get the most out of your stay, I've compiled this list of what I consider the best Japan has to offer based on our many combined years of traveling through the country. From the weird to the wonderful, the profound to the profane, the obvious to the obscure, these recommendations should fire your imagination and launch you toward discoveries of your own.
Making a Pilgrimage to a Temple or Shrine: From mountaintop shrines to neighborhood temples, Japan's religious structures rank among the nation's most popular attractions. Usually devoted to a particular deity, they're visited for specific reasons: Shopkeepers call on Fushimi-Inari Shrine outside Kyoto, dedicated to the goddess of rice and therefore prosperity, while couples wishing for a happy marriage head to Kyoto's Jishu Shrine, a shrine to the deity of love. Shrines and temples are also the sites for most of Japan's major festivals. See chapter 2, the regional chapters, and "The Best Temples & Shrines" section, below, for more on Japan's temples and shrines.
Taking a Communal Hot-Spring Bath: No other people on earth bathe as enthusiastically, as frequently, and for such duration as the Japanese. Their many hot-spring resorts-thought to cure all sorts of ailments as well as simply make you feel good-range from hangarlike affairs to outdoor baths with views of the countryside. No matter what the setup, you'll soon warm to the ritual of soaping up, rinsing off, and then soaking in near-scalding waters. See "The Best Spas & Public Baths," later in this chapter, for specific recommendations.
Participating in a Festival: With Shintoism and Buddhism as its major religions, and temples and shrines virtually everywhere, Japan has festivals literally every weekend. These celebrations, which range from huge processions of wheeled floats to those featuring horseback archery and ladder-top acrobatics, can be lots of fun; you may want to plan your trip around one. See the "Calendar of Events," in chapter 2 for a list of some of the most popular Japanese festivals.
Dining on Japanese Food: There's more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, and part of what makes travel here so fascinating is the variety of national and regional dishes. Every prefecture, it seems, has its own style of noodles, its special vegetables, and its delicacies. If money is no object, order kaiseki, a complete meal of visual and culinary finesse. See the "Tips on Dining, Japanese Style" section of chapter 2, the "Where to Dine" sections in the regional chapters, and "The Best Culinary Experiences," later in this chapter, for more on Japanese food.
Viewing the Cherry Blossoms: Nothing symbolizes the coming of spring so vividly to the Japanese as the appearance of the cherry blossoms-and nothing so amazes visitors as the way the Japanese gather under the blossoms to celebrate the season with food, 1 The Best Travel Experiences drink, dance, and karaoke. See the "Calendar of Events," in chapter 2 for cherry blossom details.
Riding the Shinkansen Bullet Train: Asia's fastest train whips you across the countryside at more than 290km (180 miles) an hour as you relax, see the country's rural countryside, and dine on boxed meals filled with local specialties of the area through which you're speeding. See "Getting Around Japan," in chapter 2 for more.
Staying in a Ryokan: Japan's legendary service reigns supreme in the ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Staying in a ryokan is the height of both luxury and simplicity: You'll bathe in a Japanese tub, dine like a king in your own room, sleep on a futon, awaken to lovely views (usually a Japanese garden) past the shoji screens, and breakfast in your room to start the day. See "Tips on Accommodations," in chapter 2 and the "Where to Stay" sections in the regional chapters for more on ryokan.
Shopping in a Department Store: Japan's department stores are among the best in the world, offering everything from food to designer clothing to electronics to kimono and traditional crafts. Service also is among the best in the world: If you arrive when the store opens, staff will be lined up at the front door to bow as you enter. See the "Shopping" sections throughout this book.
Attending a Kabuki Play: Based on universal themes and designed to appeal to the masses, Kabuki plays are extravaganzas of theatrical displays, costumes, and scenes-but mostly they're just plain fun. See "Cultural Snapshots: Japanese Arts in a Nutshell," in appendix A and the Kabuki section of "Tokyo After Dark," in chapter 4. Strolling Through Tokyo's Nightlife District: Every major city in Japan has its own nightlife district, but probably none is more famous, more wicked, or more varied than Tokyo's Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku, which offers everything from hole-in-the-wall bars to strip joints, discos, and gay clubs. See "Tokyo After Dark," in chapter 4.
Seeing Mount Fuji: It may not seem like much of an accomplishment to see Japan's most famous and tallest mountain, visible from 161km (100 miles) away. But the truth is: It's hardly ever visible except during the winter months and rare occasions when the air is clear. Catching your first glimpse of the giant peak is truly breathtaking and something you'll never forget, whether you see it from aboard the Shinkansen, from a Tokyo skyscraper, or from a nearby national park. If you want to climb it, be prepared for a group experience-600,000 people climb Mount Fuji every year. See "Climbing Japan's Most Famous Mountain: Mount Fuji," in chapter 5 for more information.
Spending a Few Days in Kyoto: If you see only one city in Japan, Kyoto should be it. Japan's capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is one of Japan's finest ancient cities, boasting some of the country's best temples, Japanese-style inns, traditional restaurants, shops, and gardens. See chapter 7 for extensive information on the city.
2 The Best Temples & Shrines
Sensoji Temple (Tokyo): The capital's oldest temple is also its liveliest. Throngs of visitors and stalls selling both traditional and kitschy items lend it a festival-like atmosphere. This is the most important temple to see in Tokyo. See p. 175.
Meiji Jingu Shrine (Tokyo): Tokyo's most venerable and refined Shinto shrine honors the Emperor Meiji and his empress with simple yet dignified architecture surrounded by a dense forest. This is a great refuge in the heart of the city. See p. 175.
Kotokuin Temple (Kamakura): This temple is home to the Great Buddha, Japan's second-largest bronze image, which was cast in the 13th century and sits outdoors against a magnificent wooded backdrop. The Buddha's face has a wonderful expression of contentment, serenity, and compassion. See p. 228.
Hase Kannon Temple (Kamakura): Although this temple is famous for its 9m (30-ft.) tall Kannon of Mercy, the largest wooden image in Japan, it's most memorable for its thousands of small statues of Jizo, the guardian deity of children, donated by parents of miscarried, stillborn, or aborted children. It's a rather haunting vision. See p. 229.
Toshogu Shrine (Nikko): Dedicated to Japan's most powerful shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, this shrine is the nation's most elaborate and opulent, made with 2.4 million sheets of gold leaf. It's set in a forest of cedar. See p. 234.
Kiyomizu Temple (Kyoto): One of Japan's best-known temples with a structure imitated by lesser temples around the country, Kiyomizu commands an exalted spot on a steep hill with a sweeping view over Kyoto. The pathway leading to the shrine is lined with pottery and souvenir shops, and the temple grounds have open-air pavilions where you can drink beer or eat noodles. Don't neglect the smaller Jishu Shrine on its grounds-it's dedicated to the god of love. See p. 324.
Sanjusangendo Hall (Kyoto): Japan's longest wooden building contains the spectacular sight of more than 1,000 life-size wood-carved statues, row upon row of the thousand-handed Kannon of Mercy. See p. 326.
Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion; Kyoto): Constructed in the 14th century as a shogun's retirement villa, this three-story pavilion shimmers in gold leaf and is topped with a bronze phoenix; it's a beautiful sight when the sun shines and the sky's blue. See p. 326.
Todaiji Temple (Nara): Japan's largest bronze Buddha sits in the largest wooden structure in the world, making it the top attraction in this former capital. While not as impressive as the Great Buddha's dramatic outdoor stage in Kamakura (see above), the sheer size of Todaiji Temple and its Buddha make this a sight not to be missed if you're in the Kansai area. See p. 348.
Horyuji Temple (Nara): Despite the fact that Todaiji Temple with its Great Buddha (see above) gets all the glory, true seekers of Buddhist art and history head to the sacred grounds of Horyuji Temple with its treasures and ancient buildings. See p. 346.
Ise Grand Shrines (Ise): Although there's not much to see, these shrines are the most venerated Shinto shrines in all of Japan, and pilgrims have been flocking here for centuries. Amazingly, the Inner Shrine, which contains the Sacred Mirror, is razed and reconstructed on a new site every 20 years according to strict rules governing purification in the Shinto religion. Follow the age-old route of former pilgrims after you visit the shrines, and stop for a meal in the nearby Okage Yokocho District. See p. 367.
Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima): The huge red torii (the traditional entry gate of a shrine) standing in the waters of the Seto Inland Sea is one of the most photographed landmarks in Japan and signals the approach to this shrine. Built over the tidal flats on a gem of an island called Miyajima, it's considered one of Japan's most scenic spots. At night, the shrine is illuminated. See p. 468.
Excerpted from Frommer's Japan by Beth Reiber Janie Spencer Excerpted by permission.
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