By Linda Johansen
An adventurous group of local travelers recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun.” The trip was amazing in every way, and the culture mixed with the humble and sweet nature of the Japanese people made for a more relaxing and “Zen” trip than some of the others we have experienced.
Our first stop was Tokyo, staying for three nights in the Prince Hotel overlooking the iconic Tokyo Tower. We visited Asakusa, the oldest geisha district in Tokyo, as well as the grounds of the Imperial Palace and the Kokyo Gaien National Gardens.
We also walked through Tsukiji, the world’s largest and busiest fish market, aghast at the exorbitant prices.
In contrast, we visited many Buddhist temples and relished the tranquility that they offered. We also experience the 15th-century tradition of the Japanese Tea ceremony.
Day 5 of our trip was to the lakeside resort of Hakone, which overlooks Lake Ashi and the UNESCO site of Mt. Fuji, which was absolutely breathtaking. This area is best known for the hot springs and spas created by the Owakudani crater after an eruption some 3,000 years ago.
Most of us enjoyed using the hot springs spa, which offered several pools divided into the women’s and men’s areas, as their custom is bathing in the nude. The experience was heightened as we soaked in the outdoor pool overlooking a forest during a lightning, thunder and snow storm. It was exhilarating to say the least, and even with the extreme language barrier the Japanese women graciously showed us what was expected of us in the spa area.
You are given a towel not much bigger than a handkerchief to cover yourself or your “trouble” spots we thought, but then saw that they just put them on their heads and walked around naked, so we followed suit. It was quite liberating I must say but also a bit demeaning when you saw the petite Japanese women.
We all were surprised by the mountainous terrain and snow as we traveled to Matsumoto and Takayama, which is in the Japanese Alps. We explored Matsumoto Castle and enjoyed a sake tasting at one of Japan’s 200-year-old breweries. We explored the historic district in Takayama with the open air markets that date back over 600 years and then again were treated to the spa facilities in the evening after a fabulous Hilda beef dinner and sushi.
Our next UNESCO visit was to the unique mountain village of Shirakawa-go. The village rooftops are all thatched and designed to resemble two hands joined in prayer.
We journeyed to Kanazawa next, the origin of gold-leaf making since the 16th century, and experienced a lesson decorating our own lacquer boxes with gold-leaf. We also visited the samurai district, including the former home of a wealthy Samurai family, and walked through the 25-acre Kenroku-En (Garden of Six Qualities), which is one of Japan’s most stunning gardens. The blooming cherry trees were magnificent, but in a few more weeks with a bit warmer weather, they will be stunning.
Lastly we toured Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan. Kyoto boasts over 2,000 beautiful temples and shrines. We visited Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, where the top two floors of the temple are covered in gold leaf, and enjoyed a yakitori (grilled chicken) dinner.
The next morning we boarded the bullet train for Hiroshima and jumped onto a ferry for Miyajima Island or “Shrine Island,” which is also a UNESCO site. The temples were breathtaking.
We ended our time in Hiroshima with a visit to the Peace Memorial Park and the UNESCO Atomic Dome. We also walked somberly through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and we reflected upon the horrific events of that fateful day as we rode the bullet train back to Kyoto that evening.
With two days left on the tour we explored the most revered shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha, following the spectacular rows of orange torii that weave through the forest to an inner shrine made famous in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” We also toured the home of the first shogun, Nijo Castle, which is another UNESCO site. The shogun was a military dictator appointed by the emperor to rule a specific area.
Our last day was a free day, and several of us experienced being totally made up and dressed in the traditional kimono of a geisha.
It was a four-hour experience and the makeup process is interesting. The white makeup is very thick. There is a very specific look for your eyes and eyebrows, and your lips are perfected with a beautiful red stain. The black wigs are all the same traditional style and heavy to wear. The kimono wrap is very restrictive, as you are bound with ropes and huge amounts of fabric that can weigh up to 20 pounds. The finished product was absolutely stunning.
Future trips in 2019 are Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in June, and only four seats are left on the Croatia trip in October. There will be a holiday trip to Santa Fe Dec. 1-6. Call Linda Johansen at 805-686-1644 for a brochure or any questions regarding any of the trips.
The travel agent’s commission from the Japan trip was donated to the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital for a 3-D mammography machine.