3 Ways to Explore Japan
We explore the land of the rising sun, and the many things Japan has to offer visitors.
1. Checking out Tokyo after dark
I now understand lost in translation. It’s easy to get lost in Tokyo. Its subway map looks like a spider web mashed up with Silly String, yet it runs like clockwork; its street corners a vivisection of crisscrossing pedestrians every which way, yet they all march completely within the lines; the Shinjuku neighbourhood’s alleyways a maze of jewel box-sized booze joints, sushi bars and, well, a few seedy hideaways.
It’s raining, it’s midnight and we’ve just jumped out of a taxi from the Park Hyatt, where we played our best Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson at its sky-high lounge. But the sky was full of thunder, grey billowing clouds that blocked the view of bright lights and big city. Time to take it to the street.
And street we do. The taxi driver, too, seems lost, and circles more than once in an effort to drop us off somewhere that he deems a good spot to let go his foreign cargo. But, heck, we’re lost anyway, in one of those neighbourhoods, Golden Gai.
The alleys here are, at most, 10 feet wide; at its narrowest, it’s a stretch to stretch our arms to their widest wingspan. This rabbit warren of seven streets laced together through the cheek-by-jowl drinking holes—more than 250 of them—has a Blade Runner vibe under the pouring rain, but inside there’s an intimacy that some might find claustrophobic.
Some of these places seat fewer than six; some of them allow smoking, most don’t open until after 8 p.m., and stay open until the wee hours of the morning; all inspire conversation. Heavily tattooed lady barkeeps pour shots while businessmen, bikers and the odd couple—Japanese and foreign—all sit elbow to elbow. We prefer to walk and window shop, so to speak.
2. Discovering the art of zen
It is time to breathe. Deep. The art of Zen was founded here and, after a high-speed train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, I am waiting to exhale. At the Shunko-in Temple, the vice-abbot is guiding a meditation class. He’s a practising monk, with roots in Japan but an American education. His manner is easy, a reflection of his surroundings. The temple is all earthy greens, tatami-straw browns and water-colour murals, nothing jarring to the eye.
I sit on a meditation pillow to ease the pressure on my knees while in a cross-legged pose and take a breath. The vice-abbot demonstrates: his method is easy, he says. Find a focus point and keep your eye on it or close your eyes, whichever works best. Then, inhale for a count of five; then exhale for a count of 10. Or whatever number you count to breathing in, you simply double it breathing out. That’s it. It will enable you, he adds, to centre the focus on your breathing and nothing else for those 15 counts. I have never really been able to meditate. But, when stripped away of all the new-age chatter, it’s not as challenging. I can do this. And I do, for about 10 minutes. I am refreshed, grounded, calm.
Just outside the classroom, a Zen garden is our view, and our teacher explains the plantings have been arranged to represent the coastline of Japan, complete with islands. The gravel, engraved by a rake with swirls and lines, represents the sea. A calm sea.
3. Visiting the immaculate gardens
Another train, and we are in Kanazawa, where, surrounded by ancient pines, I feel lost in the woods though I’m not at all. In the way a silken obi belt ties together the most exquisite kimono, here, form, function and beauty come alive. I’m standing in Kenrokuen, considered by experts to be the third most beautiful garden in Japan. If this is third, then all I can say is the first and second must be mind-blowing. It’s autumn here and, although the trees lack the sheer colour ex-plosion of our Canadian varieties, there is colour nonetheless. Burnt orange leaves, fern green pines, near-black ponds and pools provide striking contrast.
Everything is mapped out, meaningful. The gardeners and nature’s caregivers have meditated on this piece of land, all 11.4 hectares of it, wrapping the plants, flowers, trees and sculptures around the soft curves of the ponds and lakes and along the harder edges of the river that runs through it. Tree branches are held up by golden strings, as some, upwards of 80 years old, need the leg-up of protection against the weight of rain and snow. But it is beautiful, artful, the strings a pyramid-like extension of branches, all in harmony and balance with the earth tones and pale-sky backdrop.
I am no longer lost in translation. I am just lost. In the moment.