Japan is an enigma. Not an original thought of course but that is the only way I can seem to resolve my feelings toward Japan. The more I get to know Japan the more I find to love and to hate. More on that later.
The Diary I was accompanied on this trip by Ms Byington, Tour Leader In Training (still being assessed). Wearer of the Map Pocket Jacket. A dedicated Nipponophile making her fifth trip to the land of washi and stationery shops.
Hokkaido There was certainly no need for any concern on my part about getting to Japan and more specifically Hokkaido in late Feb and not seeing enough snow. The whole island was covered in at least three feet to who knows what and snowed regularly, we had a couple of -18 degree C nights, not quite enough to freeze the sea but enough to freeze most rivers, gorgeous. Sapporo, not the prettiest of cities but once outside its borders the frozen landscape of Hokkaido seduces. Praises are sung of Hokkaido's unspoiled nature. We had many magic moments on the Pacific coast in and around Kushiro.
Osaka Future city, massive, like Tokyo. Good jumping off point for, what could be called its suburbs, Nara, Koyasan and Kyoto.
Nara Historic, cultured, wealthy, dramatic change from Osaka. well worth more than our day trip.
Koyasan It snowed quite heavily the night before, utter magic, as is the journey. Twisting alpine railway finishing with a funicular. You could be in Switzerland. Another day trip worthy of at least a week. An alpine refuge, a temple town, countless temple complexes.
Kyoto This is where I had my epiphany. Too dramatic! Well, at least shall we say somewhat of an enlightenment. I watched Kabuki and loved it, Three plays and only barely nodded off in two. Especially enjoyed the second play, minimal dialogue and about sake. Twelve musicians and six singers on stage, and incredible costumes of course. The other cultural highlight in Kyoto would have to be Kokedera (苔寺), the Moss Temple. 'Intrepid Guide' made an appointment by snail mail to become Zen Buddhists for a day and participate in sutra chanting. Oh my. Rich in temples, shrines, the elusive Geisha, (still haven't seen any, although we did see some Maiko, who I photographed). Kyoto and its surrounding hills...
Hakone What a gem. Surprise of the trip, Hakone and Nikko. Our first stay of the trip in a luxury ryokan, a ryokan hotel actually, vertical ryokan. We splurged, $300 odd dollars a night and no regrets. This place was so good I could imagine some of my mates moving in and never wanting to move out, you know who you are. It was heaven, two staff on each floor to see to our needs, Japanese breakfast in the room, three onsens on the top floor overlooking the river and the old Tōkaidō (road). A switchback alpine railway took us to a funicular and then cable cars to Lake Ashi and views of Mt Fuji, if you're lucky (and we were, barely). We expected Hakone to be Theme Park Japan because of these views, we were wrong.
Nikko We went to Tokyo for a few days before heading off to Nikko for a night. Not nearly long enough. Another temple town, it turned it on. Snowing, just incredibly beautiful. Stayed in a traditional ryokan, for about a third of the price of Hakone. It was almost as good. Onsens, garden, which Hakone didn't have, Japanese breakfast in a huge gorgeous dining room. A little well-worn, but that added to its charm.
Tokyo Six nights in Tokyo. Businessman's hotel, Nihonbashi. They remembered us -- we were the people who went to see the snow monkeys last trip. We are slowly conquering Tokyo. Not quite as intimidating as it was, didn't get lost, lots of museums, caught up on photo ops that I missed out on last trip. But still, it's huge, a city of cities, no matter where you emerge from the subway, you're greeted by teeming masses of a city you hadn't encountered before. See postscript. Adieu
Postscript Ah yes the likes and dislikes, but first another 'moment of enlightenment': We discovered on returning to Sydney that the expensive little sliver of translucent sashimi we had in Kushiro, and again in the Tokyo izakaya was FUGU... the poisonous puffer fish. A true case of what you don't know doesn't hurt you.
The Likes In no other country or more specifically city that I am aware of do you see school children, knee high to a grasshopper taking themselves off to school. In ones, in twos, in small groups. On the subway!!! I'd watch them file past from the lobby of our hotel in Tokyo, a sight that gladdened my heart. Says a lot about the culture. So many times when asking directions the asked would say something like 'mind the shop while I show these gaijins where they want to go' and so off we go at a brisk clip following our guide, sometimes in the snow with them in shirtsleeves. They would then quite often have a chat with the person we were looking for.
The Dislikes Japanese businessmen with their supercilious looks and utter disdain for us, all looking alike. The Black Clones I called them. The subway. I know there has to be a subway, how else do you get 22 million people around a city. And I love the idea of public transport. After several days though of being a third of a kilometer underground for a third of your waking hours sitting or standing amongst sullen Japanese, I got depressed.
But maybe the biggest dislike is that I can't spend more time there.... right now, anyway.