Japan, on the outer edge of the map, not quite en route to places, with a policy that has kept immigrants at bay, has retained innumerable unique aspects, which excite the traveller in us. Exploring the fabled land of this rather pure (99% Japanese) race is an immersion of sorts, and a enjoyable one. Although our language skills were lacking, English road signs and train announcements, hotel concierges, local friends and cameo appearances by English-speaking folks eased the path, and we quickly learned to do things the Japanese way. Well, maybe not bowing in greeting, toting a parasol or wearing a mask during a cold, but we did stop slamming the automatic cab doors, splashed, clapped and pulled correctly at Shinto shrines and peeled our shoes off at entrances before the whiff of a tatami mat. Here’s a culture that is well thought through, and the Japanese are innately elegant people, who also happen to be finely attuned to nature. They’ve honed many aspects of everyday life into an art form.
Japan’s presence in our daily lives is strong. Toyota and Honda cars abound and Cannon, Nikon, Sony and Panasonic have us hooked. There’s Sudoku in the morning papers, we come upon bonsai, ikebana, judo, karaoke, origami, manga comics through the day and glazed tofu and sashimi for dinner. Ukioy-e woodcut prints hang on our walls and the odd haiku poem lingers on our lips; Murakami novels are on the bookshelves and Kurosawa movies in the DVD pile. On visiting Japan, what is even more worth absorbing are the subtle ways of the Japanese: their polite demeanour, the uncluttered home, the deep connection with nature and the concept of wabi-sabi, finding beauty in ageing and imperfection. Watch them gaze at a thunderstorm just as much as a cherry blossom in bloom, dwell on the cracked, uneven glaze of a ceramic bowl, craft the gift-wrap of a hairpin.
In Tokyo, the Imperial Palace Grounds are a green oasis, held back in time amid the modern high-rise buildings of a sinuous cityscape. Once we discovered the circular walk along the moat and its lush, forested slopes, we joined the locals on their morning jogs and evening strolls, taking in vistas of the city through the filigree of leafy branches. The palace is out of bounds, but the Edo Tokyo museum, close by, allows you right into the old world of Shoguns and Daimyos (feudal lords), Edo era street scenes, kabuki theatre and festival floats. Further north, stalls on Nakamise-dori are abuzz with visitors to Tokyo’s oldest and most revered Shinto shrine, the Senso-ji Temple, dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.
It’s a delight to wander under the low hanging branches of the gardens of Nezu
On the other end of the spectrum, Nezu Museum in Aoyama is a quiet, uplifting sanctum showcasing Ukiyo-e prints by legendary artists Hokusai and Hiroshiye, along with traditional ceramics and sculpture. We especially enjoyed wandering under the low hanging branches and over the bridges in the museum’s garden. The surrounding area, especially around Kitto Dori (Antique Street) is abuzz with upmarket design emporiums and concept stores. Omotesando, the famed shopping street, packs flagship stores of high-end international brands and leads to Yoyogi Park, where the Iris Gardens are the draw in late spring. The adjoining Meiji Shrine’s spiritual essence and stripped wood architecture are worth the 15-minute trek on a pebble path.
Ukioye prints by legendary artists Hokusai and Hiroshiye at Nezu museum
Steps away from the venerable Meiji shrine is the JR Bridge where performing artists abound, and on weekends, teens dressed in anime costumes, with Gothic make up and wild Rococo hairstyles, mill with likeminded friends. In the Akihabara area, packed with electronic goods, giant manga posters line building facades and groupies of the all-girl band, AKB-48, select photos and DVDs of their favourite idols.
Manga posters in Akihabara electronics district
A maid-café, where girls dressed in maid frills stoke the egos of ‘nerds and geeks’
Best time to go: April to early June
Stay: The Palace Hotel (www.palacehoteltokyo.com) is centrally located with views of the Imperial Palace grounds.
Guides: Alfie Goodrich www.alfiegoodrich.com guides and teaches photography.
Tokyo free guides (www.tokyofreeguide.com) offer voluntary services by locals. Take them to lunch in exchange for a tour.
Eat at: Sushi Yasuda, Nobu, Tsukiji Market. Restaurants stop serving lunch at 2pm.