As the children of Gen X, our formative childhood years were the 80s. The Energy Crisis of the 70s made the West seem past its prime while Japan was all things modern and futuristic. Our image of Japan was an eclectic combination of Bullet Train posters, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, clunky Sony Walkmans, 800th re-run of Love in Tokyo and the hot of the oven blockbuster, Jappanil Kalyanaraman. The only things I remember from the 80s are the Khaki school uniforms, India's World Cup victory and this uncontrollable urge to visit Japan. The dream finally came true when in the early autumn of 2023, we boarded the red-eye to Tokyo. Drunk on the successful road trips in Jordan and Greece, we had decided to drive around Japan, which thankfully did not materalise. The rental car company rejected my IDP because their rule book says the font on page 3 has to be Arial and mine was in Times New (yes, welcome to Japan). After losing an hour arguing, an hour more to figure out what to do next, we took the Shinkansen to the first planned stop - Nagoya. Reaching there an hour earlier than if we had driven off straight from the Narita baggage carousel. And we could doze off inside the Shinkansen.
Nagoya was where Mitsubishi made their Zeros and hence, was the most bombed city after Tokyo during the World War. Very little survived this bombardment, least of all our first selfie point of the trip, its 17th century castle. The castle has been reconstructed from the rubble and restored to its former glory and its Honmaru Palace is one of the very few in Japan where you are allowed to photograph the interior. After recording the opening scenes of our YouTube video, we headed to our night stop, a hostel in Kyoto.
Eighth century Japan saw the meteoric rise of Buddhism and the monks of the Seven Great Temples of Nara started accumulating power and influence and one of them, Dokyo, coming within a heartbeat of becoming the next emperor. This spooked the royalty and prompted the emperor Kanmu to find a new capital, which in time became Kyoto. The emperor decreed that the prevailing practice of dismantling the temples and moving to the new capital should be discontinued and no more than three temples would be allowed inside the Kyoto city limits. All this only prevented the monks from lording over the emperors, a vacuum that the nobles were glad to fill. The emperors soon became puppets to the Fujiwaras and later, to the Shoguns, a practice (with some short period of relative independence) that continued till one Emperor Meiji restored sanity in 1868, the year Kyoto stopped being the capital. The summary: Kyoto has temples, palaces and monuments that spans this 1000+ years of being the capital that we now have to cover in three days.
First day first show was Yasaka Pagoda, an area where the Edo era narrow winding lanes are so well preserved and photogenic that it gets overrun by selfie-sticks by 8 am. Since we got there by 7, we could have the place to ourselves, but no pictures to prove as all our attempts ended up irrecoverably under-exposed. Next up: Kiyomizu-dera, a temple so old that it pre-dates the founding of Kyoto and hence one of the three that was allowed to stay. It is a mad house during sunset and tolerable in the mornings, thanks to the poor light that halves the Instagram likes. After quick dekkos into the 13th century Nanzen-ji (one of the Five Great Zen Temples of Kyoto), underwhelming Honen-In, colourful foliage filled Eikan-do and the immense Imperial Palace complex, we got to the highlights of the day - the Golden and the Silver Pavilions, the two great symbols of the Ashikaga era. Ashikagas were the third Shogunate to lord over the emperors and their zenith was during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (late 14th c) who gave us the wonderful Kinkaku-ji. His grandson Yoshimasa built the Ginkaku-ji a century later. If you are wondering which is which, "kin" is gold while "gin" is silver in Japanese. We ended the tiring day at the Nijo Castle, another sprawling complex, this one built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last Shogunate. The paintings inside the Ninomaru palace are one of the best in the country.
It rained most of the following day in Kyoto. The rain wasn't going to reach Hiroshima till the evening. It is time to sound like Sherlock: "If we take the 7:20 out to Hiroshima, we can swing by the gate and be able to take the 12:40 back and thereby avoiding mud marks on our shoes." The "gate", of course is the famous floating torii of Itsukashima built in 1168 by Taira no Kiyomori. He was the progenitor of the Shogunate finding the first one, the short lived Rokuhara Shogunate. The reign of the Fujiwaras ended in 1185 and what followed was the era of Retired Emperors. The Fujiwaras had created a complicated mechanism where the real power was wielded by the regent and it was much easier to continue the process instead of inventing a new one. So the emperors would retire in their 20s and become the regent/power behind the throne while the throne itself was occupied by their infant son/grandson. Kiyomori, after a long power struggle with the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, eventually took over this position of "power behind the throne" and heralded the age of Shogunate. Thankfully for us, the weather remained dry enough and the tide high enough to get us the perfect "torii floating over the surface of the sea" picture. We spent more time getting to Itsukashima and roaming around it (than budgeted) and hence had to skip the place where the Little Boy landed and make a beeline to Osaka to check out another historic site - its castle.
Between the height of Ashikaga Shogunate and the eventual dominance of the Tokugawas, there was a period of chaos known as the Sengokku Jidai - the age of the Samurais, Ninjas and the Ikko-ikki, the vision that the mind conjures up when hearing the phrase "Medieval Japan". The emperor had little control beyond Kyoto and rest of the country was carved up between mutually warring clans. The era ended when the three most famous warlords progressively unified the nation. Unification was started by Oda Nobunaga, continued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The last chapter of this unification process was scripted here at the Osaka Castle. During the Siege of Osaka, Ieyasu put an end to the Toyotomi clan. If the history doesn't give you goosebumps, the stupendous views from the top surely will.
Our walkathon across Kyoto continued the following day starting with another famous Insta-point - the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. We felt like celebrities when we reached there. The moment we turned the most photographed corner, we saw hundreds of camers pointed straight at us ready to shoot. But unlike the paparazzis, these guys wanted us out of the frame rather than in it. There is no way we could have competed with this madness. So we accepted defeat and went to Buddha for solace. Emperor Kanmu's move to Kyoto gave an opening for new Buddhist Schools to sprout. One such was Pure Land Buddhism (and its variations) where the emphasis was on chanting and worshipping Amida Buddha to achieve re-birth in a "Pure Land". The largest subsect of this is the Hongan-ji and its main temple was founded in 1321. As it always happens, they became too powerful for their own good which lead Tokugawa Ieyasu to split them into two in the early 17th c. These two sister schools (Nishi and Higashi) host two massive temples in the heart of Kyoto which are generally devoid of crowd and one could wander its grounds in relative peace.
The rest of the day was occupied by ogling at the photogenic pagoda of To-ji, climbing up the Kyoto Tower for the stupendous views, gawking at the oldest Zen gate at the Tofukuji and learning to pray the Shinto way at the two of the oldest temples of Kyoto - the Shimogamo and the Kamigamo jinjas. The highlight of the day was the astonishing array of 1001 bronze Kannon statues neatly arranged in four rows inside the massive Sanjusangen-do. Since pictures aren't allowed inside, I had very little clue what was awaiting us. These small instances of being completely swept away by the unexpected are what make travelling so special and rewarding.
We continued our attempts to beat the Insta-crowd the following day as well. The target was Fushimi Inari-taisha. Getting there is not easy. Well, it can be if you splurged on a taxi (which is what we did) and that cunning trick ensured we got there before the crowd. The draw is the never ending array of toriis that wind up the mountain. The line of bright orange toriis neatly and tightly arranged one behind the other strikes a pretty picture. And this one is long enough that you can find a quiet corner even during peak hours. After finishing a memory card, we headed to one of the prettiest edifices in Kyoto - the Byodo-in. The modus-operandi of Fujiwara regency was to get their daughters married to the emperor and when the first grandson arrives, crown him as the emperor and rule in his stead. There is one fatal flaw here. Gender is not in your control and what happens when there isn't a male heir? Well, that is exactly what happened to Fujiwara no Yorimichi in the 11th century. There was also a Buddhist belief that the current epoch will end and new (and more corrupt) one will start in 1052 AD. Yorimichi interpreted him not having a grandson as a sign of the impending doom and decided to convert his villa to a Zen Buddhist temple. The result was this last great architectural achievement of the Fujiwaras and it is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the mornings.
"One more temple and the world will end." That was not Yorimichi from beyond. That was Aparna from behind. Enryaku-ji has to wait for another trip. Took the next available train to Kanazawa to escape the temples of Kyoto. In the chaos of Sengokku Jidai (scroll up if you already forgot what it is) there emerged a Peasant's Kingdom comprising of peasants and disgruntled Buddhist monks, with a shared hatred of the Daimyos and the Samurais lording over everyone else. This kingdom was centred around Kanazawa and the castle there was built by the general who defeated this kingdom. The castle wasn't half as interesting as the history. Thankfully, the nearby geisha district with its well-preserved Edo era wooden buildings and the matcha rice puddings saved the day.
The following morning we finally checked out of Kyoto and headed to Himeji with baggage in tow. Japan has coin baggage lockers everywhere: inside the station, outside the station, outside every tourist attraction etc. We deposited ours at the Himeii station and headed to the castle, considered to be among the top three in the nation. It is no hype. Walking towards the castle and see it slowly grow on you, it is easy find out why it is nicknamed the White Heron Castle. With its bright white exterior, it does look like the bird taking flight. Photographing it from all angles and finding our way back to Osaka took all morning and city sights kept us busy all afternoon.
First up, the historic Shitennoji. When Buddhism arrived from Korea in 548 AD, a skirmish broke out between the Mononobe (who wanted to stick with the home grown Shintoism) and the Soga (who favoured the new). Spoiler alert: Soga won. The result was attributed to divine intervention and the hero of Soga, Prince Shotoku, is said to have built this temple. With Buddhism came writing and hence, record keeping. We know exactly what happened after this date. What happened before is guesswork and reading pottery shards. The era that immediately preceded this is known as the Kofun Period, named after the large keyhole shaped tombs, the Kofuns. By large, I mean seriously large. The largest one is half a kilometer in length, so large that you have to fly over it to get an idea of its shape. Close up, it just looks like any old hill. Since we don't own a private jet, we shouldn't have bothered to get there. But we did and we got to watch videos of what we could have seen had we been richer. We hopped, skipped and jumped from antiquity to the ultra modern, to the Umeda Sky Building to be precise. Built in 1993, this 190 m tall building houses an open air observatory at 170 m and we got to experience one of the most memorable moments of our lifetimes - watching the sun set over the Osaka skyline. There was yet one more site left for the day, the bright and glitzy Dotonbori, Osaka's answer to the Times Square. Given the Japanese penchant to improve everything they copy, it was no surprise that Dotonbori was brighter, livelier and more hep than the one in Big Apple.
After that brief tryst with the contemporary, it was time to go back in history. It was time for Nara, the capital of Japan before Kyoto. All the big temples that Kanmu left behind are still here and still functional. We started off at the largest, the Todaiji. In the early 8th century, Japan was hit with a series of disasters and the then emperor, Shomu, decided to build a series of temples (collectively known as the Kokubunji Temples) across the country and the grandest was Todaiji. It housed the largest bronze statue housed in the largest wooden building on the planet. Both the superlatives were surpassed only this century. Short forest walk past the frolicking Nara deers brought us to Kasuga-taisha, a Shinto shrine established by the first Fujiwara, famous for its arrays of stone and bronze lanterns. With the footfall being minimal, we enjoyed the serene setting before heading onto the more famous (read crowded) Nara temples. Here is where the car could have been useful. With just public transport we could barely cover half of what was originally planned. Nevertheless, the stunning treasures (millennia old giant Kannon statues) of Kofukuji, the gleaming kondo of Yakushi-ji, the evocative (thanks to the wooded setting) Toshodai-ji and the historic Horyu-ji housing the oldest wooden building on the planet more than made up for the disappointment. Just one of these would have been well worth the trouble taken to get to Nara.
The southern hills of Kansai was the birthplace of Kumano, a syncretic religion that borrows elements of Shintoism, Buddhism and local animistic belied systems. This religion was made famous by the Retired Emperors who used to make elaborate yearly pilgrimage to visit the famous Kumano shrines of the region. The path they took, known as the Kumano-kodo is used by pilgrims to this day. There are no Shinkansens here. So we could only get in by noon despite a pre-dawn start from Nara. That gave us just enough time to squeeze in the two most famous Kumano shrines. The first, Nachi Taisha with the iconic image from this region (a gleaming red pagoda with a 133 m falls on its background) and the equally impressive Hayatama Taisha, a long red edifice at the foot of a verdant hill. Shingu, the small town gateway to the region, was our night stop. It took most of the day to get into which means it took all of the next to get out.
Six hours on track, two on asphalt and a half on footpath (all with luggage in tow) brought us out of the Kii peninsula and into the middle of the Fuji Five Lakes region with the tantalising views of the volcano keeping us company for at least half of our journey. The journey ended at Kawaguchi-ko, the lake that is closest to the mountain, just in time to watch the sun set over it from the rooftop of our hotel. The following morning greeted us with the clearest of skies. We put our luck to full use by first witnessing a sunrise of our lifetime and then pocketing a lifetime worth of DPs at the supremely photogenic Chureito Pagoda. The only downside of such a good weather is that half of Tokyo also decided to do what we did. That translated to settling for a complicated connection that ended in the heart of Tokyo instead of a smooth one to Narita. Well, every crisis is an opportunity. This time an opportunity to strike off the National Museum from our next Japan itinerary. The never ending array of Edo era painted screens, the astonishing collection of treasures from the Horyu-ji and a chance to bore my wife with the nth rundown of Japanese history was a wonderful way to end such a memorable trip.
If upon reading this, you think 'wow, what an amazing trip', then imagine all this in peak autumn colours. And mind boggling Japanese technology that includes taxi doors opening automatically, heated toilet seats and money exchange machines that would spit Yen if you insert dozen other currencies. And the joy of tasting Ramen, Yakisoba and Udon for the first time. And ubiquitous 24/7 combnis stocked with most delicious okashis. And overflowing with polite, welcoming people who would repeatedly drop what they were doing and walk with you to make sure you went where you had intended. This was the 25th country of my travel life and 20th for my wife and we both can say this was the best. And best by a long way. Now, if only they stop adding sakanas to their daashis...
Click here for more photos from Kyoto.
Click here for more photos from Osaka and Nara.
Click here for more photos from Kansai and Chugoku regions.
Click here for more photos from Chubu and Kanto regions.