A land steeped in tradition and heritage, Japan is also one of the most progressive countries in the world. With a juxtaposition of IT images (think Sony, Canon, Fujitsu, Sanyo) and enchanting maidens à la Memoirs of a Geisha in mind, I set off on my first trip to Japan in April, as a participant in Singapore Press Club’s Goodwill Mission. The trip coincided with the spring sakura blossoming, just one of the many highlights of the journey.
1. Temples and shrines
Outwardly modern with technology pervading almost every aspect of its national life, Japan is still (thankfully and beautifully) immersed in thousands of years of rich history and culture. Kyoto, the ancient capital, is a stunning testimony to this.
Traditional homes, shops and inns line the narrow streets of the charming city. The walk towards the Fushimi Inari Taisha (a shrine where worshippers pray for success in business) is a delightful stroll enhanced by souvenir shops on both sides. From the main entrance, the 4km, tunnel-like trek to the summit is lined with red torii (shrine gates) donated by worshippers. On Sundays, the locals come out to play and pray in their weekend best. Young ladies dolled up in kimonos giggle away, posing for pictures with tourists.
Worth visiting too is Kiyomizu Temple, a national heritage building over 1,300 years old, perched on a cliff and offering majestic views of the city, sakura blooms in spring and brilliant hues in autumn.
In the Asakusa area of Tokyo, Sensoji – a Buddhist temple built in 645AD in honour of Kannon, the goddess of mercy – is very popular with visitors. Leading to the temple is Nakamise, a shopping street lined with traditional local snacks and souvenirs.
2. Whisky and wine
If we were still drowsy from our overnight flight, the visit to the Suntory Whisky Distillery in Yamazaki woke us up and lifted us into good spirits (pun fully intended). Regarded as the birthplace of Japanese whisky, the town of Yamazaki is known for its pure underground water, a crucial ingredient for whisky-making.
Built in 1923, the distillery has a reputation for producing award-winning single-malt whisky. Our group enjoyed a brief tutorial and sampling of its 12-year-old and 18-year-old single malts and (as a bonus) the 21-year-old blended Hibiki – recipient of the World’s Best Blended Whisky prize at the World Whiskies Awards this year. This became my personal favourite. (Tip: the airport duty-free price of a 350-ml bottle was Y7,500 – versus Y21,000 at the distillery.)
Housed in a traditional old building, the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum in Kyoto provides a historical insight into the making of rice wine or sake. It’s a fascinating showcase of old brewing tools and instruments and images of the sake-brewing process. Our mood was considerably lightened with a sampling of the sake products, including a luscious plum wine. It is customary to let someone else pour the sake into your cup as it is deemed bad manners to do it yourself.
Our guide, Kondo-san, regaled us with anecdotes of Japanese office workers who let their hair down after work with their bosses in sake bars. Apparently, this is the only time that “salarymen” let down their guard. Bosses thus often discover what their employees really think of them – in vino veritas, as they say!
3. Food shopping
For local food products, Nishiki Market in Kyoto is the place to go. It’s a 500-metre-long street with over 120 shops and restaurants selling Japanese products of every type: green tea, mochi (rice cake), pickled vegetables, candy, sushi, fresh and dried seafood, knives, cookware and other non-food products too. Definitely worth a visit.
4. Mountains, lakes and legendary princesses
Of course, no visit to Japan is complete without a stop at breathtaking Mount Fuji, a perfectly conical dormant volcano. Take note that climbing season is from July to August and there are elaborate ceremonies to mark the opening and closing of the season. Legend has it that the mountain is an incarnation of the goddess Sengen. Mt Fuji has been recently recommended for World Heritage status by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a body affiliated with Unesco.
In Akita in north-western Japan, the waters of the circular Lake Tazawa change with the seasons. It is the deepest lake in the country. On the western side stands a golden statue of Tatsuko, a legendary princess who was transformed into a dragon while praying for eternal beauty.
5. Tokyo Drift
Strolling along the streets in the capital city, one cannot help noticing its cleanliness, and yet we were hard-pressed to find a litterbin. We were told they’d been removed after 9/11 for fear of explosives being hidden in them. The locals take their rubbish home or to their workplace for disposal. Another bugbear that the ladies in our group faced was the limited number (sometimes nil) of Western-style toilets; traditional squatting toilets are the norm.
Equally limited is the use of English. Thank goodness for sign language. The Japanese are extremely polite people: bowing is the usual form of greeting, and after a few days our group got the hang of it.
6. All rails lead to Tokyo
A very handsome landmark, the Tokyo Train Station has served as the main hub of the efficient rail network since its opening in 1914. Travelling by rail is one of the best ways to see the country. The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) is a network of high-speed railway lines that connect the main towns and cities. Be warned that it runs with clockwork precision; that includes stops of exactly one minute for passengers leaving and entering the train. Our group of 26 with our luggage was hard-pressed to beat the clock.
7. Public baths for great skin
We were encouraged to do as the locals do – which included sleeping in a traditional tatami room on a futon and bathing communally in a public bath. So we did just that at Hanamaki Onsen, one of the oldest hot spring resorts in Japan. Following a sumptuous dinner and bolstered by courage gained from sipping copious amounts of sake, I ventured into the women’s bath and did “the full monty”. Japanese etiquette dictates that one must shower first before stepping into the hot and cold pools. It was pure heaven soaking in the health-giving waters, and I swear my skin glowed radiantly afterwards. Apparently, the water holds curative benefits for joint aches and circulation too.
8. Earthquake and tsunami-hit areas
The trip was not all fun and games, though. We also had the sobering experience of visiting earthquake- and tsunami-devastated towns – starting with Sendai Airport, which was severely flooded on 11 March 2011. A five-metre-high line on the airport’s exterior wall marks the level that the tsunami waves reached. This forced 1,700 stranded victims to take refuge on the third level of the airport for two days. With the help of the US Air Force, the airport was rebuilt, and reopened a month later.
From Sendai city, where we captured the gorgeous sakura in bloom, we travelled by bus along the gloomy coastal areas to Rikuzentaka city. What were once towering trees have been reduced to decayed shrubs by the unpredictable force of Mother Nature. Empty shells of schools and other public buildings stand alongside bare grounds once covered with houses. Damaged railway tracks and broken bridges overwhelmed us with an eerie feeling of desolation.
Authorities are debating whether to remove a ship that ran aground (local citizens oppose the idea), while efforts are being made to erect a permanent structure for a lone pine tree which remained unscathed while 70,000 other pine trees were washed away. Debris from the disaster is being put to good use in sandbanks or protective sea walls. It is obvious that rehabilitation of the towns will take years. The town authorities are grateful to the Singapore Red Cross for donating Y700 million for the rebuilding of a community hall, to be named Singapore Hall.
What stood out most during our trip was the remarkable fortitude displayed by the Japanese as they rebuild their lives. The parting plea from our hosts as we left was: “Please tell your people to come back and visit us.” The great American military leader, General Douglas MacArthur, once said: “I shall return.” My sentiments exactly.