Japan — a Land of Tradition, Nuance and Contrast

Tsukiji Outer Market, Tokyo, 2017

In 2017, My family and I decided to go on a family vacation to celebrate my 60th birthday. In the travel world, there so many places to choose from, each with their own unique attractions. At first, Bali was on the list which was eventually surpassed by a river cruise in Vietnam and Cambodia. However, Japan must have been lingering somewhere in the back of my mind, since as soon as someone mentioned “Japan!” I had a bit of an epiphany, an “aha moment”.

There was some natural curiosity about checking to see when I had last visited Japan. The last trip I had made to Japan was in July 2000 and before that, November 1994, both short business trips, which gave some glimpses into the Japanese way of life. Now that I was going back on a personal trip, I was determined to observe and experience the country and its people in a different, more personal way.

Even though the nation of Japan is a series of islands, it is ranked #63 in land mass, slightly larger than Germany. Its population is just over 126 million, #10 globally. Culturally, it is also one of the most ancient and homogeneous countries starting with the Jomon Period in 14,500 BC continuing through the Edo or Tokugawa Period i.e. the shogunate and then to modern, industrialized Japan. Even for the experienced traveller, this means that many local customs are either inaccessible or filled with hidden nuances. Nonetheless, the Japanese people are polite, helpful and welcoming to a fault.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Trip Planning

As 5 people were in the travel party, we established some principles early in the planning process to help guide our decisions and to have some fun at the same time. Some of these principles included:

  • Minimize travel time by the use of the Shinkansen; high speed rail travel in Japan is so ubiquitous, efficient and to-the-second on time, we wanted to experience it first hand. We intended to use 7 Day Ordinary JR Rail passes while ensuring that we made reservations ahead of time with the very friendly and helpful JR Rail reservation staff.
  • Maximize use of Airbnb and minimize hotel stays; we wanted to set our own agenda and sometimes stay in normal, urban neighborhoods as opposed to a hotel strip.
  • Enable proper connectivity for our mobile smartphones; this might sound like a trivial point, but it is an integral part of of Japanese travel survival skills and ensured a relatively frustration-free trip in a very foreign land where very few people speak fluent English. Google Maps transit directions is an indispensable tool for urban travel in Japanese cities, especially when you wander off track and get lost 😏.

To centralize our planning and communication, we established a Google “Japlanning” Spreadsheet and an iMessage Group (we all used iOS devices).

Shinkansen Route Map, Japan, 2017 (via Bing Maps)


Imperial Palace, Tokyo, 2017

The history of the city of Tokyo stretches back some 400 years. Originally named Edo, the city started to flourish after Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa Shogunate there in 1603. As the center of politics and culture in Japan, Edo grew into a huge city with a population of over a million by the mid-eighteenth century. Throughout this time, the Emperor resided in Kyoto, which was the formal capital of the nation. The Edo Period lasted for nearly 260 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Tokugawa Shogunate ended and imperial rule was restored. The Emperor moved to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. Thus, Tokyo became the capital of Japan.

The greater Tokyo metropolitan area, with over 36 million inhabitants, is the largest in the world, home to approximately 25% of Japan’s population. Tokyo’s vast expanse makes it a traveler's paradise, with super efficient subway lines to help you get around. Shibuya, Harajuku, Akasaka, Roppongi, Ginza, Ueno … the list is endless.

Akasuka, Tokyo, 2017

Traditional Japanese clothing is worn by all generations, continuing a rich history of garments like kimonos, yukatas, footware, socks and undergarments.

Oreryu Shio-ramen restaurant, Shibuya, Tokyo, 2017

The commercial landscape of most Japanese cities is among the most diverse and service-oriented in the world, where all manner of food, Japanese or otherwise, can be found. Ramen is a popular and inexpensive dish with many variations across Japan. At this restaurant, you select and pay for your order via pictures at the vending machine, and then you’re invited to be seated by the friendly staff who will greet you with a polite “ irasshaimase”.

Sensoji Temple, Tokyo, 2017

The indigenous religion of Japan, Shintō, coexists with various sects of Buddhism, Christianity, and some ancient shamanistic practices, as well as a number of “new religions” (shinkō shukyō) that have emerged since the 19th century. None of the religions is dominant, and each is affected by the others. Thus, it is typical for one person or family to believe in several Shintō gods and at the same time belong to a Buddhist sect. Intense religious feelings are generally lacking except among the adherents of some of the new religions. Japanese children usually do not receive formal religious training. On the other hand, many Japanese homes contain a Buddhist altar (butsudan), at which various rituals — some on a daily basis — commemorate deceased family members.

Sensoji Temple, Tokyo, 2017
Museum of Yebisu Beer, Ebisu, Tokyo, 2017

The production of beer in the Tokyo area began in 1887 based on German technology and the brewery gave its product name to the local Ebisu Station, which opened in 1906. Soon the local area became known as Ebisu. Yebisu is a premium beer brand and has a well deserved reputation among beer enthusiasts.


Sakura 559 Shinkansen, Shin-Kobe Station, 2017

Fukuoka City is often said to be the oldest city in Japan, and may have been a prehistoric capital. It bears the marks of several unsuccessful invasions, and a lot of more peaceful international trade, as the closest port to China and Korea.

The current city of Fukuoka was created in 1889 by the merger of two cities, Fukuoka (run by the samurai) and Hakata (run by the merchants). Hakata was selected as the new name, but a group of samurai crashed the meeting and forced the name to be changed to Fukuoka. Old grudges die hard, and some people still refer to the city as “Hakata” even today.

Hakata Station sign, Hakata, 2017


Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima Peace Memorial, 2017

To General Carl Spaatz, CG, USASTAF: 1. The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. . . .” The historic directive WAR 37683 July 24 1945.

The city of Hiroshima itself was founded as a castle town on Hiroshima Bay in the late sixteenth century, a period when most of Japan’s medium and large-sized cities were founded, nearly all of them as castle towns constructed throughout Japan by competing warlords. The early history of the city is thus closely linked to the broader — and relatively long — history of urbanization in Japan. Urbanization began in this period of civil warfare and later witnessed, under different circumstances, successive waves of expansion in later centuries, particularly in the decades after the Meiji Restoration, then in the 1910s and 1920s, and then again after the Second World War.

In May 1945, American strategists placed Hiroshima on the short list of Japanese cities targeted for the first atomic attack. It was at that moment that the history of Hiroshima as a city intersected with the history of the event that would signal the dawn of the nuclear age. At the time that the United States dropped the bomb, Hiroshima was the 7th largest city in Japan.

While estimates vary, the number of people believed to be in the city on the morning of the attack was about 370,000, including some 280,000 to 290,000 civilians and 43,000 soldiers. On August 6 1945 at 8:15 am, Little Boy exploded with a yield estimated at 12,500 tons of TNT above the courtyard of Shima Hospital, 167 metres south-east from the original aiming point, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge.

It was literally a scene from hell. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people were vaporized, carbonized or otherwise killed in the initial flash of heat (the fire-ball reached 300,000 degrees centigrade 1/10,000 of a second after the explosion, hotter than the surface of the sun), blast, and fires. At least that many again died by November of 1945 due to injuries and radiation. 92% of Hiroshima’s buildings were totally destroyed or damaged.

The Cenotaph, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, 2017


Shimanouchi, Osaka, 2017

Osaka Castle was built in 1583 after the unification of Japan by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. In both name and reality, Osaka became the center of politics and economics in Japan. In the Edo era, the political center moved to Edo, or present-day Tokyo, but Osaka continued to fulfill its important role as an economic hub for the country.

Osaka’s location as an important point for land and sea traffic allowed it to import many kinds of food from neighboring countries and become an economic center, which led to it being dubbed the “nation’s cook” and the “nation’s kitchen”. The commercial prosperity and abundance of fresh food from all over the country had a large influence on Osaka’s food culture. To this day, as “the city of food,” Osaka continues to make a big contribution to the development of Japanese cuisine.


Sho-ren-in Temple garden, Kyoto, 2017

. . . He immediately said: “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.” And he went on to tell me about its long history as a cultural center of Japan, the former ancient capital, and a great many reasons why he did not want to see it bombed. When the report came over and I handed it to him, his mind was made up. There’s no question about that.” interview with General Leslie Groves, reporting a conversation with Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes 1986.

Kyoto, founded in 793, famous for silk and art, full of historic Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines, is the cultural center of Japan. It was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years (from 794 to 1868), Kyōto (literally, “Capital City”) has been called a variety of names through the centuries — Heian-kyō (“Capital of Peace and Tranquillity”), Miyako (“The Capital”), and Saikyō (“Western Capital”), its name after the Meiji Restoration (1868) when the imperial household moved to Tokyo.

Sho-ren-in Temple Zen garden, Kyoto, 2017

Spared the atomic bomb during World War 2, there are numerous things to see and do while visiting. Kyōto claims some 1,660 Buddhist temples, more than 400 Shintō shrines, and even some 90 Christian churches. Kyoto is famous for its tofu, its sublime Kaiseki cuisine and its Buddhist vegetarian fare. It’s a great place to sample all the main classics of Japanese cuisine.

Tenryū-ji Temple garden, Arashiyama, 2017
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto, 2017

Mount Takao

Mount Takao, towards Mount Fuji, 2017

Mount Takao rises 599 meters above sea level in the quasi-national Meiji no Mori Takao Park, one of the smallest parks in Japan. If you are in Tokyo, it’s easily reached in about 50 minutes via the Keio Line from Shinjuku to Takaosanguchi Station. Mount Takao offers a variety of hiking trails and Yakuo-in, founded in 744, where you can worship Shinto gods in a Buddhist temple.

Woodwork detail on roof, Yakuo-in, Mount Takao, 2017

Tokyo Redux

Harajuku, Tokyo, 2017
Mario Karts in Ginza, Tokyo, 2017
Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park, Tokyo, 2017
Katana sword, Tokyo National Museum, 2017

The samurai (or bushi) were the warriors of premodern Japan. They later made up the ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo Period (1603–1867). Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword starting with the tachi and evolving to the katana.

Samurai were supposed to lead their lives according to the ethic code of bushido (“the way of the warrior”). Strongly Confucian in nature, bushido stressed concepts such as loyalty to one’s master, self discipline and respectful, ethical behavior. Many samurai were also drawn to the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism.

Coffee Store, Kappabashi, Tokyo, 2017
Shinjuku Tsunahachi Tempura Restaurant, Tokyo, 2017

Travelling on the Shinkansen

If you decide to you use a JR Rail pass, when you arrive in Japan, you will need to go to a JR Rail office with your passport to swap your Exchange Order for an actual pass. While you are at the JR Rail office, the JR Rail reservation agent can help you make future Shinkansen reservations. If you are using an Ordinary Pass, it may make sense to reserve seats, especially on crowded days / times.

JR Rail Pass
Sanyo Shinkansen Reserved Seat ticket
3 + 2 seating in comfortable seats

When boarding the Shinkansen, you will need to line up at the proper location on the platform. Note that each type of train has a different number of carriages, that’s why there are different carriage numbers marked on the platform. The trains usually only stop for a few minutes in each station, so be ready!

Upon boarding, there is usually an unoccupied row at the back of each carriage where you can store larger or heavier pieces of luggage lying down (so they don’t roll around the cabin 👹).

Travel survival tips:

  • Pre-order a high speed PocketWifi; we used Global Advanced Communications but there are other providers in Japan. Recommend unlimited data and if you’re going to remote areas, extended coverage. Easy pickup at the Post Office in the airport and dropoff in a mail box.
  • Upon arriving in Japan, get a pre-paid Suica card or the nearly identical PASMO version. Each card requires a 500 Yen deposit and then you can easily recharge at machines in train stations. These payment cards can be used for local train travel, purchases in convenience stores or vending machines.
  • If you want to enjoy Kaiseki haute-cuisine experience, try to reserve in advance. Some Kaiseki restaurants allow you to book via the web, others will require a phone call, which will usually require fluent Japanese. If you stay at a conventional hotel, ask for help in making reservations. Most ryokan inns include their own unique Kaiseki experience.

Photography Equipment: Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi, EFS 17–85 USM zoom lens, Apple iPhone 7. Raw images processed in Adobe Lightroom 6, Adobe Lightroom CC and Alien Skin Exposure X3.

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