A Little Photoessay… Two Weeks of Nuance & Culture in Japan

[fourcol_three]The chaos of Tokyo crashed over me in waves when I first landed in Japan. I had booked my tickets on a whim—I found an affordable last-minute flight and jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, I had time to secure a Japan Rail pass, which allowed me to zip around the country on the speedy Shinkansen bullet trains for a discounted price, but beyond that, I had precious few things in place for my two week trip throughout Japan.

And perhaps it’s due to the tidy and orderly nature of life in Japan, but it all worked out, somehow. I had a few cultural snafus (it’s bound to happen to every traveler), I got terribly lost more than once (par for the course for me!), and I struggled to find vegetarian food. Those hiccups, however, only added to my wonder and joy. Despite usually working during all of my travels, I set aside my laptop and played the consummate tourist for two weeks, exploring the iconic and less-iconic parts of Japan.

And having spent only two weeks there, I can hardly claim expertise, especially since I spent them overwhelmed, my eyes wide and curious at every turn. Japanese history and culture are preserved to perfection. I delighted when I discovered a new cultural quirk. And I marveled at the feeling of anonymity when the crowds in Tokyo swept me through the streets. There was immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. It’s a country that I’d recommend to anyone with a curiosity about a thoroughly modern, technologically-advanced country that defies the idea of Westernized development.

Think of what follows as the storybook version of two weeks in Japan (my Japan Travel Guide shares the nitty-gritty details). This photo essay is a snapshot of what it looks like to sink into the travel experience in one of the world’s most fascinating countries, highlighting where to go, what to see, and the experiences you should seek out. [/fourcol_three] [fourcol_one_last]arashiyama bamboo forest [divider]Shukkei-en Garden hiroshima [divider]girls posing selfie in Kamakura [divider] Kofuku-ji temple

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Shibuya, Tokyo

Shibuya represented the Japan I had anticipated—bright lights, vibrant colors, pulsing energy, and so. many. people. A friend from college lives in Japan, a lucky circumstance that guaranteed mea familiar face to lead me through my first days in Tokyo. She navigated us through the metro’s maze and the surging mass of people while I tagged along in confused awe.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

shibuya japan

Zojo-ji Temple & Tokyo Tower

After the heady rush of adrenaline in Shibuya, our next stop juxtaposed that modernity with a slice of quiet and reflection. At Zōjō-ji Temple, the Jizō statues humbled me. These petite statues live in The Garden of Unborn Children and are the first thing you see when entering the temple. Tiny gifts, clothes, and rock piles adorn most statues—it’s a pretty and sweet sight, and as a foreigner, I initially had no clue what they signified. These gifts shorten the unborn child’s trip to the afterlife. The statues rest under giant trees, and the pinwheels near each statue whir in the breeze. Beautiful and a little haunting, this temple was a fascinating first glimpse at Japanese beliefs and customs related to death and the afterlife.

Towering over this quiet garden and temple is the bright orange column of Tokyo Tower. With observation decks at 150 and 250 meters, views from the top include 360 degree sweeping views over the cityscape. I loved peeking into the neighborhoods. Like a bird soaring overhead, I peered down at the shapes and colors of streets and buildings.

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Temple in the background

views from top of tokyo tower tokyo tower in japan

tokyo cityscape from tokyo tower

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Much of Japanese culture is centered around specific customs and rituals. When visiting the shrines and temples, tradition and culture are baked into every aspect. After entering the wooden torii gate at Meiji Shrine, we stopped to admire the large wall of saké barrels. These are decorative barrels, never filled with saké in actuality, but instead are representative of a larger donation. According to custom, Meiji Shrine accepts donations from saké producers across the country on behalf of the many smaller shrines. A decorative empty saké barrel accompanies each gift and is then displayed at the shrine’s entrance; shrines throughout Japan use this  gifted saké for celebrations and holidays. Each barrel is gorgeous and unique.

Once we admired the artful barrels, it was to onward to the temple, with a quick stop at the ablution pavilion, where water basins and ladles allow visitors to perform temizu, before entering, which is a symbolic cleansing signifying the removal of evil and pollution.

Yoyogi Park Torii Gate to enter Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 sake barrels at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo

Meiji Shrine religious hand washing

Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

The train system in Japan is phenomenal, and affordable if you have time to secure the tourist-only Japan Rail pass before you leave. I took a day trip to Kamakura, a beachside town near Tokyo. At Hase-dera Temple, I found an enchanting moss garden that is surely where the fairies and elves live. The entire temple complex wound through the woods. Families worshipped and tourists wandered. I found a strange little inlet where few people peaked. Towering trees shaded the gentle mist cooling the entire garden, which kept the delicate floor of moss vibrant and healthy.

Elsewhere in the temple, I found more Jizō statues. I had first encountered Jizō statues at the Garden of Unborn Children in Tokyo, and was intrigued to see this other representation. Jizō is a beloved and popular Japanese Bodhisattva known to alleviate the suffering of the living and the dead. And a fun fact, Jizō is also the patron saint of travelers—I mimicked the locals and gave him a gentle splash of water for my journey.

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

worshipping at Jizō Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Little girl pours water shrine at hase-dera temple kamakura

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan

Buddha, Kamakura

The most famous part of Kamakura is the gorgeous bronze Buddha statue at Kōtoku-in, which dates to around 1252. It’s a beautiful statue, and I love the way bronze streaked and aged over the centuries, visually marking the passage of time. The statue is 40+ feet tall and used to be entirely gilded, but now there are just faint traces of that gold on his face. The sign outside the temple noted that it is The Temple of Buddha and the gate of the eternal, marking it as an important spot in Japanese Buddhism. I didn’t make it to the interior viewing because the line was insane (I visited during Golden Week), but apparently you can view up into the statue and see the graffiti left there throughout the years.

Kōtoku-in temple giant Buddha

Kōtoku-in is a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan Daibutsu at Kōtoku-in temple in Kōtoku-in buddha in kamakura

Temple and Beaches of Kamakura

Deep shadows hung over the city by the time I made it to my final stop in Kamakura, the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple. This is a beautiful temple complex, perhaps one of the most peaceful that I found in and around Tokyo. I watched the sun begin to set on the reflection pond while sitting underneath a blossoming arbor of gorgeous wisteria. Earlier in the day I had wandered to the nearby beach, but there was an algae bloom tinting the water orange, so I didn’t stick around long.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple Kamakura Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple the torii gate at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine  reflection pool Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine

kamakura beach with red tide algae

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Japan’s history fills every corner of the islands, and I could have spent months just traveling to the cities and towns near Tokyo. I visited Kawagoe one day, and it is a charming city known for handmade sweets. After a few days in Tokyo, however, it was time to head to Kyoto, a city drenched in history at every turn. During my weeks in Japan, I played the consummate tourist and spent my days far from my computer, instead wandering in and out of elaborate gardens and towering temples.

Kiyomizu-dera is among the most celebrated temples in the country. Founded in 780, the name means “Pure Water” and was so named because the Otowa Waterfall trickles down a ledge and into the temple complex.

Kiyomizu-dera kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera in kyoto Kiyomizu-dera Views from the main balcony Kiyomizu-dera temple statue at Kiyomizu-dera temple

The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera

Views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Around Kyoto, Japan

The Kyoto of my imagination was one that I had romanticized by reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a young’un. I pictured small lanes winding through low-slung buildings. I could hear the squeaking of carriages and the click of geisha heels. The reality is a far cry different. Kyoto is huge. It’s a modern city glinting with steel and glass. And yet, it’s still quaint and historic too. I found atmospheric lanes and aging wooden houses. While I didn’t spot a geisha, truthfully, I didn’t look too hard. Instead, I looked for the hidden gardens hiding towering bamboo. I watched a beautiful interpretive dance performance at small temple. I found historic aqueducts leading to tiny caves. A roadside cart converted into a cat hotel. I found the traditional, the ancient, and the quirky.

old building in Kyoto

bamboo forest Kōdai-ji temple kyoto Kōdai-ji bamboo

Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts

steps near Shoren-in Temple The aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple Nanzen-ji Temple aqueduct

the Path of Philosophy kyoto Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Ginkaku-ji Temple sand garden Ginkaku-ji Temple gardens cats on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, reflects beautifully in its garden pond. Throughout my time in Japan I found myself in awe of the precision of each garden and the fastidious care with which each temple scene is created. It’s all so reflective of the orderly and careful Japanese culture that I discovered over my two weeks in the country. This temple, which is formally named Rokuon-ji, was was oddly reminiscent of Myanmar for me. Very few of Japan’s temples and statues are gilded, so viewing this showy temple reminded me of all the vast amounts of gold leaf used throughout Myanmar on every surface of their religious statues and buildings.

And even more fun than just visiting this temple, I met up with an ALA reader Moira and her family. We had emailed in the lead-up to her round the world trip about the route and how she would school her two children from the road. I was delighted to discover that my impromptu trip to Japan meant that I would cross paths with them during their last stop. We wandered the temple complex and then found a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant nearby to talk travel. Hearing their stories of a year on the road together was a highlight of my time in Kyoto.

Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

school kids at Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Having already confessed to reading the book, I’ll cop to seeing the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, too. For anyone who has seen it, the movie beautifully ends with the orange gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine. The torii gates create a long tunnel snaking up the side of a forested mountain. It’s just as stunning in person. Light dappled through the tree and slanted through the tightly packed gates, which are donated by Japanese businesses because Inari is the long-believed patron of business. The shrine dates to 711, which is so many centuries back that my mind boggles.

伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine school girls at Fushimi Inari Shrine torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

garden Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi-Inari Shrine Fushimi-Inari Shrine School girls walk through the iconic orange torii gates Fushimi-Inari Shrine

The Gardens of Nara, Japan

Perhaps the prettiest garden in all of Japan is in Nara. I say this having not visited them all. Instead, I merely assert that I can’t imagine anything prettier than Isuien Garden. Traveling through Japan taught me more about garden landscaping than I thought possible. Isuien Garden a technique called shakkei; it borrows the surrounding landscape to form a perfectly stacked composition. The far temple is a part of Todai-ji temple and the mountains beyond reflect prettily in the pond waters. I wandered these gardens on a warm Saturday afternoon and then decided to sit on a bench for a bit to read and absorb the scene.

Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Isuien Garden in Nara japan Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Okochi-Sanso Villa in the Arashiyama District

Isuien Garden in Nara japan The gardens of Japan.

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s because of Komokuten, one of a pair of fierce, giant guardians of the Great Buddha. The massive guardians were an unexpected addition to the temple; they are there to guard the Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world. They make an impressive addition to an already stunning temple.

Todai-ji

Komokuten in nara, japan Komokuten Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan Aging copper at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan.

Around Nara

Oh the whole, Nara is a sweet city. Although I know some people visit for several days, I took a day trip from Kyoto and found it was enough time to soak in the vibe. The bowing deer add an unmistakable charm to the visit, and I delighted in feeding them all day long each time I met one in the parks and temples all over town. I love that the cookie in the first photo makes it look like the deer is smiling.

Besides the deer, the massive temple, and that gorgeous garden, there are several other beautiful spots. I spent the last hours of sunlight admiring the view from Nigatsu-dō Temple, and wandering among the moss-covered stone lanterns at Kasuga-taisha Shrine.

nara bowing deer

bowing deer Nara, japan Bowing deer of Nara nara japan

Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Nigatsu-dō temple  sunset Kofuku-ji Temple

park in nara  Kasuga-taisha Shrine

Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Eating All the Things

Japan isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly place in the world—that distinction goes to India—but boy is there plenty to eat. Soups were always easy to find and tasty to consume. And in Hiroshima, I had my hands-down favorite dish of the entire trip, okonomiyaki. It’s a savory pancake-like dish and the vegetarian version has noodles, batter, egg, and piles of cabbage—then it’s all topped with a tasty sauce.

hiroshima style okonomiyaki

Seaweed and spinach, yum!

Hiroshima Shrine

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s a necessary visit for anyone traveling through the city, but especially fellow Americans.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Miyajima Island & Floating Torii

Head to Miyajima Island and plan to spend the day. I know that many people pop over just to see the floating torii, but it’s a gorgeous island. I was down to my final day of travel before needing to journey back to Tokyo for my flight home, so I decided to make a good adventure out of it. I took the cable-car to the near top of the mountain, and then hiked the last 30 minutes for sweeping views of the Japanese coastline. I hiked back down in time for a stunning sunset. And as if the hike and shrine were not reason enough to spend the day, they have bowing deer, too! :)

bowing deer miyajima island

bowing deer of japan Itsukushima Shrine with the tide in floating ferry to miyajima island

cable car on miyajima island

views from Mt. Misen Mt. Misen miyajima

tide out on Itsukushima shrine

Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan. Selfie with the floating torii gate!

Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island


Visiting Japan was an experience almost frozen in time. I had long dreamed of visiting, but the cost and the culture clash had always kept me from booking my ticket. I hiked mountains, visited temples, slurped soup, and studied the people. It was a fascinating and contradictory two weeks and among the most interesting places I’ve ever traveled.

[box type="info"]Planning a trip to Japan? The detailed Travel Guide to Japan outlines possible routes, nitty-gritty details, and a collection of tips and advice sourced from the ALA community. And visit the Japan Rail site, where you can secure the JR pass before you leave home—it saved me hundreds and freed me to visit more places since the train costs were all included in the pass.[/box]

A Little Story… And the Case for Planning a Trip to Nepal

[caption id="attachment_11246" align="alignright" width="503"]japanese-dancer An interpretive dancer sways to the music and delights the audience in the dim lighting of the Honen-in temple in Kyoto, Japan.[/caption]

The first strings of a melody slid into the corners of the room as the musician strummed her guitar. The nearby interpretive dancer stood frozen in place, eyes cast upward as she waited for her cue. The tiny grandma behind me bobbed from side-to-side over my shoulder, attempting to see past my tall frame. I slouched deeper into my folding chair.

Minutes earlier, a volunteer at the Honen-in temple in Kyoto had stopped my aimless meander. With alacrity, he ushered into a room and said only: “Yes, yes, good.” I took it on faith that I’d like wherever they were leading me. Each new temple I visited presented an exercise in futility as I accepted a colorful pamphlet from the cheerful worker. Few were ever in English. I would walk away studying that page as you would a piece of delicate art, running my fingers across the lines of kanji—Japanese characters. Like those workers, the Japanese seemed nonplussed by my blank stares when they spoke Japanese to me. People directed me around the country with effusive Japanese and enthusiastic gesturing reminiscent of an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I rarely knew what was happening. Instead, I learned to revel in the floating sense of discovery as each new experience unfolded.

In the temple, the song picked up speed. The singer began a cheerful tune and my brain snapped to attention. I understood the words. How unexpected. She was singing in neither Japanese nor English. In that heartbeat, my awareness jolted me six years back in time to the side of a mountain in Nepal. Surya, my infuriatingly optimistic guide in the Himalayas, chanted the chorus of a Nepali folk song. He was prodding me to echo his lyrical voice, as I had every day since we started our trek. As the weakest link in our hiking trio, I was slower than the rest. My Nepali was the best in the group, however, so Surya taught me Nepali songs as we trekked. The maze of lyrics and translations kept my mind from dwelling on the long days of 4,000-step staircases through dense, old-growth forests.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="350"]Hiking in the Himalayas to Poon Hill Bringing up the rear on day two of our trek, which included five hours of staircases.[/caption]

The easiest to learn was a folk song about a bird, Resham Firiri. It has a lilting chorus and it’s contagiously popular across Nepal. Other trekking guides would hear me coming in the distance as my voice bounced through the tall trees and the rough forest floor. As the source of the off-key—but enthusiastic!—rendition of their country’s beloved folk song, the guides rewarded me with boyish smiles. As our groups slid past each other on the narrow trail, their voices lifted in song for the chorus, making sure it reached me. Then they slipped further away, continuing down the trail away from us, carrying the tune to other ears.

In the temple, the Japanese singer and dancer progressed through the song’s verses. Past memories floated around me like the seeds of a plucked dandelion catching the breeze. We erupted into applause at the song’s end and the singer spoke for several minutes. From the vibe in the room, I imagine that she was talking about the earthquake and her song as a tribute to the people of Nepal. Throughout Japan, collection plates at temples and street corners noted that donations for the day would go to relief efforts. So, in my mind at least, she was speaking to that. Then she launched into her next song, the incomprehensible lyrics were in Japanese this time. I was free to sink back into the flow of Japan.

As I write this now, the bouncy words of the chorus dance through the room, whispering memories of the past. That song linked two seeming disparate moments. Forged together now is a mountainside in Nepal and a dim room in a Japanese temple three thousand miles away. My Nepali guide’s child-like voice sings in tandem with the crisp female vocalist lit by the soft temple lights. I breathe in musty wet forest as I remember a petite woman in red as she sways and twists and flows around the room. Somehow, impossibly, time and space blended these two moments. They crystallized, forever linked for me.

Last year, I shared the bubbling laughter and connectedness I felt on a dala-dala in Tanzania. The women that day banded together to help me find my way, and cheered me on as I skipped into my hostel. Three years ago, I hung from my taxi window in a roundabout in Yangon, Myanmar. A love of travel swamped me—a love for the flood of scents that rush across you, the random, delightful experiences you never plan but find only by chance.

The world has rallied together to support Nepal. Our collective focus turned toward this small Himalayan nation, mourning the losses to people and history alike. And in the temple that day, I breathed in the drifting incense and realized yet again the reason I travel: for the connections. I travel for the ability to pull together a deep and nuanced story of the world and our shared role on this planet. Chimamanda Adichie shared a powerful TED Talk about the dangers of the single story. She spoke to the dangers of media and stereotypes that give us only one way to view places and people flickering across our news stream. Last month, Nepal featured briefly on our collective radar. Mention the country and our first thoughts flit toward images of vast devastation. Thoughts swirl around the amount of human life affected by the earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley. Those images motivated the world to donate to extensive recovery and relief efforts needed across Nepal.

This moment in Japan reminded me that this is but one story of Nepal.

Little Nepali girl Cloudy day trekking Old man resting in a tree on our trek

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu Pharping, Nepal

Let’s not forget that Nepal has many stories. Many pieces of the country’s culture, people, and history went unsaid as we watched the earthquake disaster unfold. It’s easy to leave the country on that note. It is, however, short-sighted.

As Nepal rebuilds, it’s these other stories of a warm culture and a welcoming tourism industry that we need to continue telling. Through these other stories we form nuanced understandings of this complex nation. Alongside the rebuilding efforts, businesses are looking for ways to move ahead. A Nepali-run adventure travel company reached out to me for advice. In the wake of such a powerful narrative about Nepal’s destruction, they wondered how they can help the world remember that they depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. They are not downplaying the severity of the disaster relief—this work is imperative to their recovery. But Nepal is a small country, and tourism impacts even the remote villages. I spent two months volunteering and traveling through rural Nepal in 2009. My tour guides were quick to paint for me a snapshot of their daily lives. They shared stories about the love of their life living in a small village beyond the trekking path. They described for me unparalleled dal baht they longed for at their parents’ remote farm. To a person, they had journeyed from the country’s tiny villages into the bigger cities to make money so they could support their families back home.

I often write about grassroots tourism. I wrote about it for NatGeo. I launched an entire site dedicated to supporting the concept. Local-level travel has the power to impact the world. Spending tourism dollars directly within a local economy allows those people to use those funds to eat, live, and lift themselves out of poverty. Donations provide the deeply needed short-term relief, but the country’s long-term recovery strategy relies on rebuilding their tourism industry.

Nepal

So why should you plan that trip to Nepal? Now, as ever, the transfer of dollars from the developed to the developing world through economic support and tourism has the greatest long-term impact. And maybe not right now, but in the coming months, and likely by the next trekking season, they’ll be ready for you. The Kathmandu Valley has a long, long path to recovery. It will take years. But much of the rest of the country is still working. The airports are running. Trekking guides are eager to help tourists tackle Annapurna Circuit. As the Nepalis in the Kathmandu Valley shovel rubble, they are also rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their hotels, and rebuilding their businesses. In the wake of the earthquake, those who want to rebuild their livelihoods in tourism are left wondering how they ask the world to come visit.

The Nepal tragedy already begins to fade from the media. As we move into summer and long for the cool breezes of fall to assuage the unrelenting heat, think about Nepal. The country is more than the latest victim of a natural disaster. Nepal is a beautiful, vibrant country with Nepali people eager to show you another story of their home.

Below are some of my favorite photos from my two months traveling through Nepal in 2009.