Melissa's Travels

Just Back From... Japan

I confess that Japan had not been top of my destination wish list, not the way Egypt, Greece, Africa, India or Peru had been, distant iconic points dazzling on the horizon that I hoped to reach from as long as I can remember. Now that I have visited, though, I understand why—Japan and her treasures are subtle and discreet. It would not be in the Japanese nature to flaunt her beauty, nor can it be captured in one representative image to lure hordes of tourists. In fact, many of the moments that stand out from my recent trip involve time lapses; it’s the reconciling of the radical contrasts: the Zen purity of a tatami-mat room and outside, the pulsing night skyline of Tokyo or the serenity of a traditional Japanese garden just steps from the celebration of indulgent consumerism in Ayoma where shopping feels like a joyous street party and Herzog and de Meuron have created a glorious temple to Prada. At Fushimi Inari shrine girls pose in kimonos for their selfie sticks. On Naoshima island, a quiet refuge of sandy beaches and pine forests, a small pier with a giant yellow and black spotted pumpkin statue by Kusma juts into the Seto Inland Sea, a desolate Pacific landscape with a dollop of Pop Art. These are the constant contrasts of Japan.

In Memoirs of A Geisha, one of the young women defines ritual as finding pleasure in daily habits, and much of the every day life in Japan has been elevated to an art form. Taking a bath involves rites: shower first sitting on a wooden stool and using a hiroki wood bath pail, then soak with salts and rinse again. Toilets, even in public places, have heating, washing, drying, and yes, music features. Esoteric arts with strict rules and philosophies surround everything from tea ceremonies to flower arranging; ikebana is based on placing branches and stems at precise angles. The way one appreciates nature follows guidelines in Japanese gardens as well. Stepping stones are set to force solitary meditation. In Kyoto, to gain access to one of the country’s most famous moss gardens, we, like all visitors, had to sit in a Shinto temple and write meditative calligraphy before being granted access to its eden. Our writing months in advance to request permission was not enough; the guardians want to ensure that visitors are in a “right” mind for the experience.

A visit to Japan does what great travel should, it transforms you by making you reexamine many of life’s daily rituals and shifts permanently the way you view the world. So not only is Japan now high on my list of places that I want to return to, but she sits solidly on my list of top travel destinations to recommend—even if as one friend said, ‘I loved my trip but I also felt like the country kept its heart hidden from us.’

Indagare Tip:

Now is a particularly good time to visit Japan because of the highly favorable yen exchange rate and beautiful new hotel properties like the Aman in Tokyo and the Ritz Carlton in Kyoto. Indagare’s ten-day Insider Trip included time at both of these new hotels (three days in each city) as well as a night at Gora Kadan, a beautiful traditional ryokan, or Japanese inn, with natural hot springs, as well as two nights on Naoshima island, aka the “art island.”

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