Japan – Land of the Rising Sun
It was just over six years ago in February that I went to Japan for the first time. As a little girl growing up in Hong Kong it was my dream to go to Japan, for no other reason than because it was the country where Hello Kitty lived. Yes, the Sanrio cartoon cat that every little girl wanted in Asia (and as it turned out, those of us who have grown up with it still want it regardless of age). I’m sure if my parents had consented to take me there when I was just a little girl, that would have been all I cared about and nothing else. As it turned out, it was probably a wise decision to leave me at home (but don’t let my mother know this! :))
With all the technological advances and gadgetry that the country is renowned for, it is sometimes easy to forget that Japan is steeped in tradition and pride. Its culture introduced us to a time when samurais were honoured to be chosen to protect their emperor with their lives; the grounds of the palace littered with pebbles so that any would-be assassins could be heard on approach (unless you were a ninja who could just glide through the air without a sound). The precision involved in a Japanese tea ceremony is one you must experience.
Everywhere you look, there are castles with gorgeous and perfectly-manicured gardens (complete with bonsai trees, of course!). A couple of tips for your visit to Himeji Castle (in Shin-Osaka): if you take the shuttle bus from Himeji station, make sure you go inside the bus terminal and wait for the conductor to call for boarding, otherwise you will be on the receiving end of a lot of frantic hand gesturing directing you to go back inside as the driver will absolutely NOT let you board directly
from the street, as I discovered when I made that mistake! Having said that though, it was one of the funniest moments of my holiday. The other key point if you are visiting this Castle is to wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking, and most of it uphill. Once you reach the Castle itself, if you wish explore the six storeys of its main tower, you will be asked to take your shoes off, although they did provide slippers for you to change into, to protect the delicate wooden floors of this historic building…oh and beware the very narrow and steep staircases!
Of all the touristy places you will visit when you go to Japan there is no way you would miss a temple. They are everywhere and they are beautiful, historical and spiritual. Unfortunately, they are also becoming more “commercial” and some of the more popular ones have become tourist traps. Thousands of tourists, local and international, flock to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It is believed that if you drank the water at the temple your wishes will come true. Back in 1981 when my mother took my sister there, you could drink this water for free, however, this is no longer the case. And around other parts of the temple you will find stalls selling tokens of love and prayers – apparently you can buy whatever blessings your heart desires. If you can manage to ignore those money-making aspects of the temple, you will truly enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.
Whenever I travel overseas, especially to a country where I do not speak the language, every little success needs to be celebrated. In the case of Japan, this included buying a subway ticket from their ticket machines. Although it offered a choice of languages, it offered no instructions as to how to buy a ticket – it merely provided station names in English as opposed to Japanese (I can’t remember what other languages it offered). When we tried to ask passersby for assistance, I was surprised how few people outside of Tokyo actually spoke English. They all wanted desperately to help (yes, they are extremely polite and I got very good at bowing A LOT!) but we struggled terribly to communicate. Finally, through a series of trial and error, we realised we had to determine which zone we were travelling to using the subway maps on the walls of the station, select that particular segment, and then select the number of tickets to purchase, insert the cash into the slot and wait for the tickets to be issued…simple! 😀 And speaking of bowing, if you get to travel on the Shinkansen (bullet train), be sure to look out for the conductor as he enters and exits each carriage. He bows as he enters and when he gets to the back of the carriage, he turns back and bows again even though all the passengers have their backs to him (yes, I was so intrigued by the bowing I turned around to look!).
Other points of note (please check these before your travel as it has been several years since I was last there):
- Bring lots of cash with you as few places accepted credit cards
- Apart from the ATMs of international banks, my Australian EFTPOS card was not accepted at any of the ATMS of local Japanese banks
- Wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking
- If you are visiting the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, bring your passport and check-in at the office
- If you do not speak or read Japanese or Kanji (Chinese characters that are used in modern Japanese writing), then make sure you get hold of a local map which has both Japanese and English so you can at least attempt to match the writing when at subway stations or if you need to ask for directions (with a lot of hand gestures!)
Before I end this trip down memory lane, I cannot help but mention the recent blow that has hit this beautiful country on Friday 11th March (and as at time of writing, is continuing to spread grief and devastation around the country). That afternoon, the country was hit by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, which triggered a series of tsunamis that have been estimated to have caused between 10,000-20,000 deaths and billions of dollars of damage (these have not been confirmed as the country remains in danger). The damage wreaked by Mother Nature has been exacerbated by explosions at a nuclear plant in Fukushima causing serious concerns about the effects and extent of radiation leaked from the plant. As has been the case of the earthquake in New Zealand barely a month earlier, the international aid community has been arriving in Japan to offer assistance, proving that the human spirit is stronger than any language, cultural or political barriers.
Japan was devastated by its defeat in WWII. The dropping of two atomic bombs, one in Hiroshima, and the second in Nagasaki was one of the most tragic events of world history. In spite, and perhaps because of this, the Japanese people rose against all odds to rebuild and become a modern and economic powerhouse. Japan and her people are resilient, proud and determined. Then, as in now, I have no doubt the sun will once again rise over this beautiful country and make her strong again. And together, we can make this happen.
Author’s note: my visit to Japan was in February 2005. I have not checked for the latest tourist information regarding any of the sites I have mentioned here and may have changed over the years.