A tour of the highlights of mystical and magical Japan.
Words and photography Carolyn Enting
Raindrops leap off my umbrella like ninjas, soaking my shoes but I couldn’t care less. I’ve made it to Mt Koya – a 900-metre high plateau surrounded by eight peaks, said to represent the eight petals of a flowering lotus.
It was this reason that Japan’s founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi Kukai, selected this place in 816 as a sacred centre – the core of a mandala with its eight deities arrayed on the eight petals of a lotus around Buddha.
Today, Mt Koya (Koyasan) remains the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice in Japan, and visitors like us can even stay in a Buddhist monastery.
Standing in a forest of cedar and umbrella pine, it’s the first day of rain that we’ve had on our tour so far but it’s actually perfect. Chanting monks hum undeterred by claps of thunder as the storm rages above us, making everything seem more connected and alive despite the fact I’m standing in front a mausoleum. It’s Kukai’s mausoleum, however, where he’s said to have entered eternal meditation and believed to be alive here today at Okunoin, giving aid to all beings.
Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan and the two-kilometre path leading to the mausoleum passes 200,000 tomb stones belonging to feudal lords, prominent monks and well known Japanese companies.
By now we are soaked to the skin and retreat to our Buddhist temple lodging for a soak in the communal hot bath, then retire to our rooms after our shojin ryori dinner – a delicious vegetarian meal, prepared and served by the monks, of hot miso soup, pickles, rice and koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu).
It’s early March so it’s chilly up in the mountains, which is why each room has a table called a kotatsu that comes with a heater and blanket. The blanket is placed between the table-top and frame, and heater located on the table’s underside – genius. A very cosy way to keep warm and I’m more comfortable relaxing here than on the futon bed rolled out on the floor. We wake to find the courtyard garden enchantingly covered in snow.
Departing early by private van, I’m grateful to be travelling with Wendy Wu Tours. Getting to Koyasan by train takes several connections and much longer than by car. I’m lucky to have made it here, because so many don’t for this reason.
Koyasan is the polar opposite of Tokyo where our tour began days earlier. Touching down at Narita Airport we hit the ground running on arrival, making me thankful for Cathay Pacific’s on-board yoga programme which helped prepare me for a non-stop walking tour of the city.
Tokyo is a bustling metropolis, where you’ll find cat cafés, super-sized candy floss, vending machines offering everything from hot drinks to beer and sake, designer fashion stores and robot restaurants – though you can find nature in the city too. At pedestrian crossings, recordings of chirping birds signal it is time to cross. You can also walk among tall cedar trees past a bubbling brook and inhale fresh air at the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu, beside a busy shopping precinct.
Meiji Jingu (1852-1912), the 122nd emperor, laid the foundations for modern Japan. The forest was created in his honour and that of Empress Shoken for their souls to dwell in, and every tree is planted by hand. It is the first of many Shinto shrines we visit along the way, and our introduction to Japan’s ancient original religion, which has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversion, but values harmony with nature and virtues such as magokoro (sincere heart).
Shinto is deeply ingrained in day-to-day Japanese life and at each Shinto shrine we visit my admiration and appreciation of Shinto grows. It is, as one of our guides explains, a highly tolerant religion, sitting comfortably alongside Buddhism and other religons. In fact, when Kukai decided upon Koyasan for his base, the first thing he did was invite the local people to build a Shinto shrine before erecting a Buddhist temple.
Our whirlwind tour of Tokyo also takes us to Takeshita Street in the Harajuku district, famous for its quirky street fashion and subculture; and Senso-ji, the capital’s oldest temple – older than Tokyo itself. The shopping is good here too. The busy street leading to the temple is filled with boutiques and tourists wearing hired kimonos.
Tokyo’s Sky Tree is next on the list. It opened in 2012 as the world’s tallest ‘free-standing tower’ at 634 metres. An outdoor ice rink at the entrance is filled with laughing skaters, and we pass by many inviting stores and eateries before riding the lift to the main observation deck with views of Tokyo and, if you are lucky, Mt Fuji – called the ‘shy mountain’ because only 30 per cent of visitors get to see it.
We are lucky to see Mt Fuji on our trip the next day to Hakone, a day trip from Tokyo by train, tram and then gondola, which passes over steaming volcanic fumaroles to reach Owakudani. Here we dine on hot soba noodle soup (the local specialty) while watching the local tourists line up to have their photo taken in front of a statue of a lucky black egg with Mt Fuji as a backdrop. Up here, the shells of eggs, when steamed over the fumaroles, turn black and it’s believed you’ll add seven more years to your life if you eat one.
Catching another gondola from Owakundani to Lake Ashinoko, we board a pirate ship to cruise the lake and before disembarking are rewarded by the picturesque view of Mt Fuji appearing over the red torii (gate) of Hakone-jinja Shrine.
The walk up to the shrine takes us through a cedar forest, planted more than 400 years ago to protect travellers from the weather. Cedar is common in Japan and, according to our guide, 25 per cent of the population suffer hay fever from cedar pollen and cherry blossom – which is why, it turns out, so many people here wear face masks out of consideration to others.
The multitude of steps leading up to the shrine is hot work on the sunny, blue-sky day we have been blessed with, so we stop for a cone of sesame ice cream. Our tastebuds suitably piqued we seek out matcha ice cream the following day in Kyoto.
We travel fast to Kyoto from Tokyo by bullet train (365 kilometres in two hours and 20 minutes) and don’t have to go far with our luggage. Our hotel is located within the railway station.
Our next guide is waiting to greet us and by the end of the day we realise we’ve walked 17 kilometres but we hardly noticed as we took in the city’s delights: bamboo forest at Arashiyama; groves of plum blossom; the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji – its gold leaf exterior reflecting beautifully in the pond that surrounds it; and Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. You may remember the scene from the film Memoirs of a Geisha, where a young girl runs through seemingly endless shrine gates – well, there are approximately 10,000 gates along a four-kilometre path up the mountain. Here, as well as in the bamboo forest, tourists are dressed up as geishas. Hiring kimonos to tourists is popular but if you want to see a real geisha, Kyoto is the place to be.
There were around 80,000 geisha (female entertainers who act as hostesses) in Japan at their peak in the 1920s. Today there are approximately 1000 (including apprentices, maiko) with nearly half working in Kyoto. We don’t see a real geisha but we do get to meet and see a maiko perform, and our guide takes us down Kosode Street in Gion (the geisha district) where there is a geisha boarding house. The landlady is standing outside so we scurry by, keeping our mouths shut on the instructions of our guide. It’s so narrow, anything said in the street can be heard inside the house.
Walking through Gion and nearby Nakagyo-ku at night is a pretty sight, with paper lanterns dangling at the doors of restaurants. We chow down at Chao Chao, which lives up to its Tripadvisor Five-star rating for its gyoza. Specialty fillings include cheese and chicken, and chocolate, especially nice washed down with sparkling sake.
As we enjoy the ambience of this small, friendly restaurant I’m struck by the cleverness of the Japanese when it comes to operating in compact spaces. A shelf has been thoughtfully provided above the tables for patrons to stow bags.
Japanese culture is incredibly considerate. You’ll even find toilet paper in public loos folded into a neat triangle by the person who’s last used it, so that it is easier for the next person to pull down. Toilet seats are heated (even on the bullet trains) and come with modesty settings which allow you to conjure up the sound of a waterfall at a push of a button to spare any embarrassment over noises. And when shopping, everything is wrapped so beautifully it seems a shame to open the parcel. Even toothpicks in restaurants come in origami sleeves.
We find strings of thousands of coloured origami cranes hanging at the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima, inspired by Sadako Sasaki, who was just two years old at the time of the atomic bomb. At age 11 she developed leukaemia and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes in the hope she would recover. Sadly, she died before reaching her goal but her classmates folded the rest. And today children from around the country and the world continue to fold and send colourful cranes here.
Walking through Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, it’s hard to imagine that on 6 August 1945 an atomic bomb obliterated 90 per cent of the city instantly killing 80,000 people. In the following months, 130,000 died of radiation exposure and other secondary effects. It is sobering but highly recommended to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum here. It may move you to tears, like it did me, but it’s important we never forget.
Today Hiroshima is a friendly, bustling city. For lunch we head to Okonomi-mura for savoury pancakes made in front of us on the hot griddle. We also visit nearby Miyajima Island and its famous floating torii gate which is best seen at high tide. Maple leaf-shaped pancakes filled with sweet bean curd, chocolate and other fillings are a speciality on Miyajima. I get distracted by these tiny pancake treats and nearly miss meeting the group to catch the ferry back to the mainland, sprinting the last 500 metres.
Our Wendy Wu tour is scaled as ‘active’, which means they pack a lot in and you’ve got to follow the programme but it means you do get to see the highlights. We even manage to squeeze in a visit to Himeji castle on our way to Osaka (our final stop). With its white façade and winged roof it’s easy to see why it’s nicknamed Shirasagi-jo (white heron). Built in 1580, it was originally a powerful samurai warrior house.
Our last night of the tour takes in the neon lights of Osaka’s Dotonbori pedestrian-only restaurant area where we sample street food and try not to lose each other. The streets are jammed with hundreds of well-dressed Japanese and tourists, either eating or taking selfies. We escape the throngs, stepping off the main street and down an alleyway – it leads to a Shinto shrine, and moss-covered statue of Buddha. It’s watered regularly by blessings of passers-by who use a ladle to throw water upon it. I too feel blessed.
Life well travelled
Cathay Pacific flies to Japan via Hong Kong (a great stopover destination), with flights leaving directly from Auckland (and Christchurch in the summer season from December 2018 to February 2019). It has four lounges at Hong Kong airport. The newest, The Pier, even has a Tea House, cold-pressed juices, and daybeds. Onboard, the blankets used are made from recycled plastic bottles and wrapped in biodegradable plastic, and napkins made from 70 per cent sugarcane and 30 per cent wood pulp. Cathay Pacific’s on-board yoga programme will ease you into your journey too. cathaypacific.com