L: Todai-ji Temple Complex, Nara; R: Tosho-gu, Nikko
Sticking quite closely to the normal tourist route in Japan, we saw lots of temples, shrines, gardens, onsens, the odd castle and imperial palace and then more temples. Even in key shopping districts, you can’t walk more than a few hundred metres without seeing a shrine and their corresponding torii (simple gateways). And they are often orange: vermillion is a lucky colour here and this is obviously taken very seriously. Unfortunately when you read the history of many of the castles and temples, you realise that you are often looking at more modern replicas, the originals more often than not having been destroyed by fire.
Miyajima. L: The Floating Torii; M: Senjo-kaku pavilion; R: Itsukushima jinga shrine
In Tokyo, we were lucky enough to time our visit to the Asakusa district to co-incide with the lively Sanja matsuri (festival). This is Tokyo’s biggest festival and features a parade of hundreds of mikoshi (portable shrines) including baby shrines carried by children in the streets around Senso-ji (an important Buddhist temple). It was to all intents and purposes quite a chaotic affair but was fascinating to watch from the sidelines while we tried to work out exactly what was going on.
L: Sanja matsuri; R: Shibuya crossing
As well as more traditional architecture, in both Tokyo and Kyoto we saw some stunning examples of modern futuristic architecture, particularly in Tokyo’s famous shopping district, Ginza, as well as at Kyoto station itself which we passed through many a time. We also took a little time out to watch the frenzy of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing.
L: Ginza district, Tokyo; R: Kyoto Tower
But in both cities what was striking was that you could walk along big roads in busy areas and then 50 to 100 metres down the road, you could turn off the main drag and you would suddenly be in small narrow lanes in peaceful suburban residential districts and not feel that you were in a massive city at all.
Beautiful gardens: L: Tofuku-ji, Kyoto: M: Kenroku-en, Kanazawa; R: Takayama
I didn’t really “get” the zen rock gardens: L: Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillion) rock garden; R: rock garden, Yochi Inn, Koyasan
But our time in Honshu wasn’t all about cities – we caught a glimpse of the magnificent Mount Fuji from one of our bullet trains (we were finally lucky with this: on several earlier train journeys, she’d been holding out on us hiding behind cloud clover and we were beginning to lose hope of seeing her). And we did some (rather gentle) hiking in the Japanese Alps which afforded some beautiful countryside views.
L: Mount Fuji; M: Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps; R: Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
And I guess no extended visit to Japan (especially a first visit as it was for me) would be complete without a visit to Hiroshima. The Peace Memorial Museum and its surrounding Peace Memorial Park were very well done: hugely informative and thought provoking while remaining pretty neutral in their approach. Rather than focusing on why the bomb was dropped (and/or apportioning blame to either the US or to the Japanese themselves), the museum was much more forward looking with an emphasis on total nuclear disarmament etc. We ended up visiting on a rather rainy day and as we left the museum the sombre weather seemed rather appropriate: it was impossible not to be moved by the stories of the heart-breaking devastation caused on 6 August 1945.
L: Atomic (or “A”) Bomb Dome directly above which the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped; this building was one of the very few left standing near the epicentre; R: Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Kyoto; R: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto