Today’s Japan is a self-styled contradiction. Here, the citizens who fuel a fast-paced economic juggernaut embrace traditions of tranquility and harmony. The most technologically advanced bullet train jettisons passengers to a slow-paced nature preserve. Vending machines dispense quick meals while tea ceremonies are performed with intricate detail and utmost patience. The past and present swirl together to form one rich cultural blend that transfixes and mesmerizes, and no one reveals its complexities and subtleties like Gate 1 Travel during our Classic Japan vacation.
Tokyo: Imperial & Shinto Treasures
If any city is a mishmash of modern and historic, of new wave and traditional, it’s Tokyo. Contemporary pop rubs elbows with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Neon shopping avenues stretch out adjacent to Zen gardens. To get a sense of the entire metropolis, perhaps choose to ascend the Tokyo Tower – the city’s architectural symbol inspired by the Parisian Eiffel Tower. From its heights, you see the patchwork of clustered skyscrapers, quilt-like green spaces, sloped temple roofs and long avenues. But it’s when you zoom in to the details of Tokyo that you get a true sense of its richly detailed textures.
Shintoism is practiced by a third of Japan. The rituals associated with it are believed to connect modern believers to an ancient past. The city’s oldest temple, Senso-ji, or the Asakusa Kannon Temple, is said to have been founded in the year 628 after two fisherman brothers pulled a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, from the water. Upon seeing their prize, the village chief was inspired to build this shrine. Pilgrims keep the faith that the statue is still here, even though it is kept hidden away and has never been seen.
A more serene setting is home to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, built and named to honor the first modern Emperor of Japan and his Empress Shoken. (Other emperors had preceded Meiji, but he brought a political and social structure to the country that ushered Japan into the 20th century.) Built in a 175-acre forest within the city in 1912 – at the site of an iris garden favored by the emperor – the shrine was made from cypress and copper. Visitors are welcomed onto the grounds by a massive torii gate; the Shinto structure symbolizes the threshold between the profane and the sacred.
The centerpiece of Tokyo is the Imperial Palace and its splendid gardens. Built on the site of the 15th-century Edo Castle, the grounds spread out over 1.3 square miles. The imperial family still calls the palace home, but the 50-acre Higashi Gyoen gardens are a delight to stroll. Forested paths and beautifully manicured flower beds and topiary lead to Kokyo Gaien, a large public plaza with views of the famous Nijubashi, the double bridge that crosses the moat into the inner sanctum.
Of course, one cannot visit Tokyo without experiencing its shopping culture. Ginza, one of the world’s most luxurious commercial districts, is a destination by itself. The neo-Renaissance Wako, with its curved façade and clock tower, is considered the “Harrods of Tokyo.”
Osaka: Historic Gastronomic Center
Ancient and modern, contemporary and traditional converge in Osaka, one of Japan’s most remarkable cities for its reach of history, gleaming architecture, and culinary scene. The motto here is kuidaore, or “eat until you drop.” You’ll have opportunity to do just that as you wander and graze the tantalizing stalls of the almost 2,000-foot-long Kuromon Market, where freshly prepared foods like sushi, steaks, oysters, and even Japanese fast-food beckons.
Osaka began as a mercantile city. As it grew in power, and as General Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, it became worthy of a solid defense, and so work on Osaka Castle began in the late 16th century. Today, it rests in a green park in the middle of the city on a small hill, a panorama of remarkably preserved walls, gates, turrets, and the main building, all surrounded by a moat. For a decidedly more modern experience, there are the lively, neon-lit Dotombori and Shinsaibashi shopping districts.
Kyoto: Land of Shoguns and Temples
It’s been said that while Tokyo is Japan’s political capital, Kyoto is its heart and soul. By some counts, 20 percent of Japan’s national treasures are here, including 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines. Eleven centuries of history live here, from shogun castles to sacred Shinto temples. And much of it is beautifully preserved as the city was spared from Allied bombing during World War II. Founded in the 7th century, Kyoto today is a major center of arts, culture and history—all of which are embodied in the city’s famous geiko women, refined geisha-like artists well-versed in the art of singing, dancing and entertaining.
For centuries, Kyoto was also a power center of Japan and one of its early capitals. It’s no surprise, then, that it drew many influential figures. In the 14th century, one shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa had a golden pavilion, the Kinkaku-ji Temple, built for his retirement in a serene setting. In accordance with his wishes, it was converted into a Zen temple upon his death and today houses some relics of the Buddha.
Another temple, Kiyomizu-dera, was inspired by water. This Pure Water Temple was constructed in 1633 without a single nail and is a favorite spot because of the three streams that gently cascade past the structure into a pond, creating the Otowa, or Sound of Feathers. Also in Kyoto, the Kitano Shrine was built in the year 947. Soon after its construction, it was chosen by the emperor as one of the 19 shrines through which imperial messengers delivered news of important events to the gods.
Explore Japan YOUR way
For a closer look at Japan, join our sister company, Discovery Tours, for a small-group experience, Japan, Then & Now. Our group size lets us expand our reach to the cobbled streets of historic Kanazawa, where the Kenroku-en Garden showcases the fine art of Japanese landscapes, and to Takayama, graced with an authentic Old Town. You will also visit Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, where 2,000 tons of fish are purveyed each day; see how sushi is made; visit Hakone National Park and Mt. Fuji; spend the night at a traditional ryokan, or inn; tour Kyoto’s cypress-wood Nijo Castle; attend a tea ceremony; journey to the imperial capital of Nara, home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites; and so much more.
Experience the Best of Japan – Affordably!
Japan is a notoriously expensive and sometimes baffling country to visit. But when you have Gate 1 Travel’s and Discovery Tours’ buying power behind you, and the expertise of our local Japanese guides by your side, you can immerse yourself in this incredibly rewarding culture with maximum ease and minimum worry.
We hope to see you soon in The Land of the Rising Sun!