Japan: My Introduction to the Rest of the World
Would you believe me if I told you that Japan was the first time I had been overseas? Most people go to Paris, Rome, maybe the UK – somewhere more conventional as their maiden voyage. But when a crazy cheap deal on plane tickets popped into my email, we pulled the trigger and began planning a ten day adventure to the Land of the Rising Sun.
We arrived in Tokyo towards the tail end of Sakura – cherry blossom season. There were some trees still in bloom, but I can’t imagine how much more beautiful it is when they’re at their fullest. We wandered through Chidorigafuchi Park, necks craning upwards to take it all in.
The next few days were chilly and rainy, so we enjoyed some different coffee spots (my husband Isaiah is a specialty coffee aficionado) and pastries along the way. I experienced a delicious, steaming hot pork bun from a convenience store. Imagine my surprise stepping into a 7/11 and finding it stocked with high quality, fresh food. The US could never!
A memorable experience was exploring the historic Asakusa district. We saw worshippers at the Senso-Ji temple – there were several despite the weather.
Learning Among Locals
Seeking an activity to get us indoors, we stumbled upon the Shizu-Kokoro-Chad School, which offers tea ceremony workshops. Attending a team ceremony is a popular tourist activity when visiting Japan, but I liked that this was a workshop, which made it interactive. This was probably one of the highlights of our whole trip, and I highly recommend going here if you can make it. The workshop was very intimate. We attended with two other women – a lady from India who was also traveling, and a local woman. The local woman said she had done many tea ceremonies as a child and wanted to remember how to do them. We sat on tatami mat floors and the instructor explained (in English) the different parts of the ceremony to us. It was incredible to learn about how everything, down to the utensils chosen by the host to use, has meaning. Even while we were learning about this intricate, revered tradition, the attitude of the instructor and the overall atmosphere was very approachable. We were able to ask questions, she encouraged us to relax, and we got to make tea for each other and serve it. It was ok if we didn’t get it exactly right.
Mori Tower Views
Another highlight was taking in the bustling city of Tokyo from the Mori Tower observation deck. I love how you get a sense of both the natural beauty of Japan with the mountains in the background, and just how densely built the city of Tokyo is.
We then made our way to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. For all the ways that Tokyo represents modern Japan, with its fast pace, bright lights, and modern amenities, Kyoto is like stepping back a few thousand years into traditional Japanese culture. We stayed at this beautiful Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast. We enjoyed a tatami mat floor, a private onsen, and traditional meals. The bath was the perfect place to end the days, which I did frequently, sipping matcha.
Temples & Tea
Our first day included seeing the beautiful golden Kinkaku-Ji temple, followed by shopping for tea in Nishiki market and sampling lots of street food along the way. Looking for more coffee, we stumbled upon Walden Woods – I loved their modern and minimal aesthetic.
A Secret Garden
We woke up early the next morning to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – beautiful, but very crowded. On the other side of the forest, we stumbled upon a hidden gem – The Okochi Sanso Garden. Stepping into the garden felt almost like going through a portal. The forest had been so busy with visitors, but the garden was almost deserted. We hiked up this lush path to find a modest cafe serving matcha at the top, and benches where you could enjoy this stunning overlook. A gong softly rang out in the distance.
For the God of Rice and Sake
We couldn’t leave Kyoto without seeing Fushimi-Inari, the iconic orange arches. They were so much more extensive than I realized – they go up the mountain for miles. We spent the rest of our trip eating our way through the city – ramen, soba noodles, takoyoaki, mochi, sushi, and more.
Throughout our time in Japan, we were so impressed at the convenience of everyday life, and the ways that Japan has preserved its cultural values while adapting to a modern age. We can’t wait to go back!