Foreigners first setting foot on the fabled islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago don’t have to look far to find the storied Japan of literature, art and myth, for the majesty and incredibly rich culture of the Land of the Rising Sun is manifest everywhere—from the exquisite and delicate gardens so ubiquitous in its large cities, to quaint and serene mountaintop teahouses prevalent in the more remote parts of the country.
Japan is a true repository of culture, as evidenced by the feudal era castles that still lord over modern cities, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and festivals with roots firmly planted centuries ago and resounding with the Japanese distinct character.
Kyoto is the ancient imperial capital and modern home to nearly two million. Japanophiles claim that this is where the soul of the country dwells.
Spring visitors will be enthralled by Kyoto’s Higashiyama Hanatouro, a city-wide festival running from early- to late-May and one of the most popular attractions of the old city where geishas scurry under the glow of paper lanterns, through the Gion District at dusk to tiny teahouses in a scene that makes those who witness it feel like intruders into an ancient, alien world.
The festival hosts the Ikebana (flower arrangement) Promenade and other cultural heritage sites are bedecked with dazzling floral displays and roji andon (square paper lanterns). More than 2,500 lanterns lend an air of magic to the path as it winds through parks, shrines, alleys and Kyoto’s distinctive earthen walls.
Great hotels are plentiful, but Americans will enjoy the comfort and convenience of the Hotel Granvia (granviakyoto.com), ideally situated atop the railway station and adjacent to a legendary department store selling everything from kimonos to the latest automotive models. The Westin Miyako (westinmiyako.com) and the Hyatt Regency (kyoto. regency.hyatt.com) are all ideally situated in the center of the great city.
Osaka, less than one hour away from Kyoto, is a place designed for those who want a taste of traditional Japan. Aside from the Osakan cuisine for which it is famous, the city hosts tours of Uemachi-daichi, a district overflowing with relics of its rich past like archaeological sites, shrines, parks and classical Japanese landmarks. The New Otani Hotel (hotelnewotaniosaka.jp) overlooks the city’s ancient castle and just might have the best location from where to set off to find its past glories.
Nearby Shitennoji is the oldest temple in Japan, built more than 1,400 years ago. The temple is a five-level pagoda with a main hall and lecture hall surrounded by a corridor. When the temple gongs are struck, worshippers holding slivers of paper-thin wood with prayers written on them are shrouded in the smoke of incense.
Those interested in the fascinating aspects of traditional Japan should not miss a chance to experience first-hand the intricate process of dyeing fabrics in nearby Sinjuku. Although smack in the middle of Tokyo, one of the world’s great metropolises, Sinjuku has been home to the Japanese dyeing industry for centuries. Here one finds kimono cloth in marvelous patterns, while exhibits of ancient fabrics can be viewed at the Some-Monogatari Museum, a center exhibiting priceless fabrics from ancient Japanese dynasties. The Tokyo Visitors Bureau will direct visitors to the center and arrange private instruction for foreigners who want to learn the age-old method.
Close by, Sinjuku lies Kansen-en Park, one of the largest in Japan, enthralls visitors with a shrine dating from the 15th century in the middle.
Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel (800 745 8883; lhw.com), with rates starting at about $280 per night, dbl, faces the gardens of the Imperial Palace and is the perfect spot from where to begin a journey of discovery in the great city.
Although it’s been said that one could spend years studying and exploring historic and beautiful sites in Japan, visitors cannot go wrong by experiencing its three most important traditional cities: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.