Absorb the urban enigma of Tokyo's traditions among the towers.
One of the world' most densely packed cities, Tokyo confounds, confuses, and enchants achieving what should be an impossible combination of delicacy and restraint, neon and plastic.
Perhaps admitting that you cannot fathom Tokyo is the beginning of understanding it. What other metropolis collectively swoons during the annual cherry blossom festival while proudly flaunting an ultramodern consumer culture? It is easy to find sleek, futuristic Tokyo. But shrines, villages, and traditions abound in Tokyo's districts and markets — if you know where to look.
Soak in: Make your way past the modern punks, Goths, and Lolitas of the Harajuku district to the Meji Jingu Shrine, dedicated to Japan's late 19th-century imperial rulers.
Do: Or explore Asakusa, a village within the city that author Karin Muller calls the "heart of old Tokyo”. At Kumon, visitors can take workshops in Japanese arts like ikebana (flower arranging), calligraphy, kimono wearing, and the tea ceremony.
Eat: For traditional treats like fine sushi, soba, and tempura, locals frequent the food stalls of Jogai, near the bustling Tsukji Market. Or wander off the teeming, neon-lit boulevards of the city's Shibuya district into Drunkards's Alley (Nonbei Yokocho), a hidden lane lined with tiny wood-paneled restaurants, red lanterns glowing above their doors.
Moss expeditions in Japan
This is farewell. I shall wait beneath the moss until the flowers are fragrant in this island country of Japan. ~ Hideki Tojo
Image Caption: Moss expeditions have been available for several years but are now attracting more interest.
It might not seem like the most exciting excursion, but moss-viewing trips are gaining popularity in Japan. Groups of enthusiasts, armed with magnifying glasses are travelling to view moss-covered areas on organized tours. According to plant ecology expert Takeshi Ueno, who leads one such excursion, an essential part of appreciating the tiny plants is getting down to their level, so some crawling around on hands and knees is to be expected.
The moss trips are particularly popular with women. A boom in the number of women hiking could explain the growing trend, notes Japan's Kyodo news agency. "Many women admire plants and flowers as they hike, and that may have peaked interest in moss," says author Hisako Fujii, who wrote a book on the plants.
But for one woman who travelled to Lake Shirakoma, in Japan's central Nagano region, to admire the moss, the pastime is simply an escape from modern life. "Seeing clusters of mosses living together, I can forget about our competitive society," she tells the agency.
Japan has several renowned moss gardens. Those surrounding Kyoto's Saiho-ji Temple are among the most famous, with an estimated 120 different varieties carpeting the ground.
I stepped into Kyoto for the first time in August 1984, during the tree-day festival, Obon, when the lights are set along the eastern hills to lead departed souls back to their earthly homes.
I followed the lights up white-gravel pathways and realized I knew this place; I had arrived home. I left my comfortable job in New York to live in Kyoto and now, more than 25 years on, I am still here.
— Pico Iyer, Author of ‘The Global Soul’ and other books
Japan Hot Springs
Soak in hot springs in the foothills of Mount Fuji.
Image Caption: The hotel is located within the Yamashiro Onsen hot spring area, which has about 1,300 years of history, at the Kaga Onsen resort in the Hokuriku district.
An 'onsen', or traditional Japanese bathhouse, is fed by the intense geothermal activity that goes on in much of Japan and which accounts for more than 2,000 onsen resorts that are spread across the country. Bathing in such springs is to experience what the Japanese call the “naked communion of the onsen,” and it is considered a vital way of breaking down barriers in a hierarchical society of ritual and formality. Naked, all are equal.
At Tenzan Tohji-kyô, two hours from Tokyo, you slip gently into natural hot springs, surrounded by trees, birdsong, and moss-covered rocks. Steam rises into a sun-dappled glade as you revel in the tranquility of the moment, the mountain air icy fresh, the pools deliciously warm, your handful of fellow bathers quiet and lost in thought. Tenzan Tohji-kyô is traditionally built, its wood and stone buildings blending perfectly with its natural surroundings.
You undress blending perfectly with its natural surroundings in the simple interior, wander outdoors, and sit on a low stool in front of hand-held showers to give yourself the wash that etiquette demands. Then you dip into one of the six pools, each of a different temperature. Within minutes, the onsen’s spell — the water the muscles-soothing heat, and the beauty and calm of your surrounding —will have worked its magic.
In the know
While onsen are a mostly rural phenomenon, sento are public bathhouses usually found in cities —Tokyo alone has well over a thousand. Like onsen, sento have long been an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. They are rooted in the religious bathing traditions associated with Buddhist temples in India, whence the practice spread via China and arrived in Japan in the eighth century. Recently, however, their number has been in decline as more Japanese homes are built with tubs and as young people become more self-conscious about shared nakedness. Older Japanese still sento (foreigners are welcome) and fret that in missing the presumed emotional intimacy created by physical proximity — knows as “skinship” in Japan — the young are failing to be socialized properly.
Planning: Tenzan Tohji-kyô www.tenzan.jp. By train for Tokyo, take the JR Tokaido to Odawara and change for Hakone-Yumoto. Free shuttles run from the station to the onsen, which is quieter Monday to Friday. Spring (April-May), when the blossoms are out, is a good time to visit. Bathing suits are not allowed.