Travelling to Japan is like visiting an alien planet. While, in the eighties, Soviet visitors were primarily awed by never- before-seen technology, today, in my opinion, the most surprising thing is the Japanese way of life thoroughly thought out and regulated. The Japanese must feel uncomfortable when they come into our chaotic and imperfect world.
This country is so well organized that, even if you dont have a lot of time to spare, you can easily experience a diverse cross-section of Japanese life. We have six days and our trip will take us from Tokyo to Kanazawa. Were supposed to cross the island of Honshu from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan in less than three hours on the high-speed Shinkansen train. We will then take a car back to Tokyo, driving through the Japanese Alps. Our adventure will take us through several prefectures, each of which has its own unique appeal.
My trip starts, as that of most foreign guests, in Tokyo. Much has been written about this megapolis, but my first glimpse of the city still evoked joy and surprise (despite all the reading I had done).Tokyo reminds me of a patchwork quilt, whose individual pieces are so different that you begin to wonder from time to time if youve accidentally stumbled into a different city.
Visiting Ginza is a must a district full of fashionable stores and restaurants, where you can watch people standing in line to get into the Chanel boutique. Even more interesting is Omotesandō Avenue, a shopping area where luxury brands havent simply opened stores, theyve created architectural masterpieces: Tods building is covered in concrete branches, Diors is an icy parallelepiped, and Pradas is a mirrored polyhedron.
We turn off of Omotesandō Avenue and end up on the famous Takeshita Street, where crowds o anime-loving Japanese youth are dressed in completely theatrical costumes that come together to create a sort of silent street show that is extremely colourful and rather bizarre to a sober Europeans eyes.
Continuing our adventure into the world of Japanese animation, we head to Akihabara district. There you can find dozens of shopping centres, full of thousands of stores packed to the brim with things related to the characters from Miyazaki films and other cult animated offerings.
You can spend a couple weeks getting lost in Tokyo, but our path takes us further to a less tourist-oriented part of Japan.
Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, is a wondrous place. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, this prefecture was not far behind Tokyo in terms of wealth. Interestingly, it was actually rice that used to serve as a measure thereof. In order to prove their peacefulness to the Tokugawa shogun, local lords would spend their funds on developing arts and crafts. To this day, Kanazawa is the countrys primary producer of gold leaf. This modestly-sized city is also home to one of Japans three most beautiful gardens, which are harmonious and beautiful even on a rainy day.
Kanazawa, much like Kyoto, is known for their geishas. We visited one of the houses where, to this day, these people of art (that is the literal translation of the word geisha) entertain visitors with their songs and dances. This is a profession without an age limit the oldest woman in the house is 80 years old.
In Kanazawa, we stay the night in a traditional Japanese ryokan inn. Here, guests customarily sleep on tatami mats and visit Japanese onsen baths, which are a type of open-air hot springs. Visits to bath houses, much like everything else in Japan, has its own strict rules. For example, people with tattoos are not welcome at onsen, since, in Japan, tattoos have an implied meaning and, as a rule, are only obtained by the yakuza members.
Its worth noting that ryokan are not always comfortable, but theyre harmoniously in sync with the location, which is what matters most to me. Our Hoshi Ryokan inn is 1,300 years old. It is almost as if it has melded into the surrounding landscape, resulting in a very peaceful experience.
Later, we head through the Japanese Alps to the village of Shirakawa, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shirakawa is known for its unusual buildings, with a metre-thick thatched roofs. They need to be changed out approximately once every 20 years, and the whole village participates in the renovation. Here, as it was in the past, entire families (sometimes up to 30 people) live in one big house. This is also a hot destination for young married couples looking to take photographs in front of an idyllic mountain landscape.
In the picturesque city of Takayama, which is filled with wooden, two-story buildings from the Edo period, we first head over to the castle of the local feudal lord. It is the only such building in Japan that has withstood the test of time. It paints a fairly clear picture of life and relations between the social strata in 17th century Japanese society.
Takayama is also well known for its beautiful and grandiose parades featuring karakuri puppets. The parades are held twice a year (in April and in October).
In Takayamas old town, we had a chance to sample the local cuisine, which is known for its bountiful use of vegetables and mountain herbs.
Actually, throughout our entire trip, in each prefecture, weve been sampling the local fare, from buckwheat soba noodles and marbled Hida beef, to delicious persimmons and apples.
From Takayama we headed to Matsumoto. A highlight of the trip was the amazing Hoshino Resorts KAI Matsumoto hotel. Consisting of just a few dozen rooms, the hotel prides itself on providing its lodgers with a comfortable and restful stay. In the evening, we listen to a pianist who, near the end of his performance, plays a rendition of Podmoskovniye Vechera (Moscow Nights) and even greets us in Russian, which was, of course, unexpected and pleasant.
Throughout our eventful journey, we have watched with delight as the leaves of Japanese maple (kaede) change colour. This period is also known as the sixth season (in addition to the classic four seasons, here they also recognize the rainy season tsuyu). Even those people that have never been in Japan have heard of the flowering of the sakura trees, the embodiment of the beginning of life; yet, few people know about an equally important event to the Japanese: the process, (yes, specifically the process) of viewing and enjoying the colour change of the kaede red maple known as momijigari (red leaf hunting). In the autumn, the maple leaves shift colour through a variety of shades of red, from orange to burgundy. Here, the Japanese are also surprisingly logical: any life comes to an end, but that end can also be enjoyed. I could keep watching those leaves forever; the process smoothly and almost imperceptibly submerges the viewer into a meditative state.
The wings of passing birds singed on the red maple leaves. (Kagami Shikō, XVII century)