Breeze travel writer, Scott McRae lives out a childhood fantasy with his first trip to Japan.
Young or old we all have dreams and desires that we would like to fulfill in life and I am no different. One of my aspirations for a long time was to visit Japan. Why? Well I believe it began when I was about 12 years of age and maybe we were studying different cultures at school. I was never really a scholarly lad, much preferring to enjoy music, drama, sport and the social side of school. But on this occasion I actually paid attention, and for one reason or another had a fascination with, and yearning to engage in, the Japanese way.
My project on the topic was first class, I read as much as I could from what was the Google of the time (the good old Encyclopedia) and achieved an A minus! I think my teacher was in shock!
This Japanese crush stayed with me for many years and I almost got to make the journey to the Land of the Rising Sun on two or three occasions. Alas it never came to fruition. Still, it was always in the back of my mind that one day it would be come a reality.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and that dream and desire that I held as a cheeky 12 year old finally became an actuality.
After 12 years as a travel show host and producer I finally got the call that I had been waiting for. Well to be honest our executive producer and I had just had a conversation about this year’s series of A Taste of Travel and he told me that Webjet Exclusives were our new partners and that Japan was on the list …. Can you imagine my headspace? I basically told the boss I was going to Japan! Thankfully he accepted that concept without question. He always was a good bloke …
Three months later, I stood at the Cathay Pacific check-in like that excitable 12 year old boy from school, busting at the seams to get onboard. Then the unimaginable happened, yes indeed, I got bumped up to Business Class!
Now I was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. From my seat at the pointy end I was as close to heaven as I reckon I will ever get. Cathay Pacific’s onboard service is second to none. The food is a 5 star dining feast, the crew so very attentive, and having the ability to recline that seat and produce a bed, well that was the icing on the cake.
I arrive well rested and ready to explore and I waste no time in getting into work. We used the rail system to get around and once you worked out the different lines it was easy as. What a system it is – every train ran to the minute, never late, NEVER EVER! Spotlessly clean and not a speck of graffiti to be seen. Totally puts Australia’s rail network to shame.
Tokyo was buzzing and apparently that was absolutely normal. People forever on the move, but in such a sequenced and structured way as if it had been choreographed. We headed straight to Asakusa to get a glimpse of Tokyo’s Buddhist history with a visit to the temple, Sensō-ji.
This was busy with tourist traffic but very engaging all the same. As you pass through The Kaminarimon, or the Thunder Gate, you are led into an area of centuries-old shopping streets that lead to the main temple. Large cauldrons chock-full with burning incenses fill the quadrangle with smoke, enriching your senses as people pray in different positions all around you.
Next to the temple itself sits a garden and shrine that are equally inviting. Even though the temple and its surrounds have gone through some significant tests over time, with earthquakes and bombings during war time, the rebuilding and persistence to replicate the spirit of what began in 645AD is very prominent and indeed shines brightly.
As night fell we made our way to one of the livelier nightspots in Tokyo. Shinjuku is one of 23 Wards, or regions, of Tokyo and is home to the busiest railway station in the world. One that has over two million passenger’s everyday. Bright lights, towering skyscrapers, a multitude of shopping choices and laneways filled with dining options dominate the area. It’s exciting and stimulating and a definite must-visit in Tokyo. And if you like people watching you will be mesmerized.
If you’re after a brilliant view of the city by night, make your way to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It’s free and gives you a magnificent view from the top of the 243 metre talltwin towers. I think the south tower has the best views.
Once you get out of the bustle of Tokyo you’ll be surprised by the amount of green space. Well I was! I always imagined people jammed in like sardines and sleeping in areas as big as suitcases. Yes, a lot of the hotel rooms are small, and the cities are compact and very busy, but I think my imagination got the better of me … In fact 70 per cent of Japan is mountainous, which in turn means forests, rivers, lakes and volcanoes.
Mount Fuji would undoubtedly be the most famous, and the most visited, mountain in Japan. In fact it’s actually an active volcano! Standing at 3776 metres in height, and with access being pretty easy, it draws in millions of visitors each year. But let’s get this straight, if you’re wanting to see her in all her glory you may have to be patient. She’s an elusive beast of nature, often covered in cloud. Still, if and when you do see her at her best, the memory will certainly be etched in your mind’s eye forever.
Kanazawa is another inviting city of Japan, situated on the west coast. What I loved about it was its real sense of culture. The city is framed by mountains and the Sea of Japan and has a little more relaxed feel to the daily grind. The features for me were the Omicho Markets, Kanazawa Castle and the adjacent Kenrokuen Gardens.
The markets have been in operation since the Edo period (1600s to 1800s) and feature fresh foods from over 200 stallholders, delicious delicacies of all types and a few stranger ones that I just had to try! Not sure about the baby eel skewers … Still, give yourself a few hours to really enjoy the full experience.
Kanazawa Castle is a beautifully restored castle, originally built in the late 1500s but victim to earthquake and several fires over the centuries. The adjoining Kenrokuen Garden needs no write up from me. Its simple – it’s Japan’s most celebrated garden and just superb. It originally formed the outer garden of the castle and covers over 25 acres. Open to the public since 1871 they have been giving peace and visual enjoyment to millions of locals and visitors alike ever since. A must visit in any season!
My next stop was Kyoto. Kyoto was without a doubt one of my favourite cities on my Japanese sojourn. It served as Japan’s capital, and the emperor’s residence, from 794 until 1868 and its historical value is priceless, part of a World Heritage site. And despite being viciously damaged by both fire and war over the centuries many brilliant shrines and temples have been saved, or restored, in all their glory.
The Imperial Palace is well worth a visit, as are the Fushimi Inari shrine and Kiyomizu temple. But I did fall in love with Old Kyoto and spent a day dressed in a traditional kimono exploring the area and all it had to offer, while trying to embrace the sense of what it may have been like to live here many years ago.
I could go on with so much more, but my page space is limited sadly so I will wrap up it up with this – my dream came true and it was so worth the wait! The Japanese people were so friendly and more than helpful, even when the language barrier attempted to thwart their efforts. The country is so clean and organized and one of the safest I have visited. It’s so close to home I can only suggest that you visit and enjoy it for yourself.