Stunning views from the 52nd floor of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel
“The views are absolutely amazing,” I said.
“Mmmm amazing,” came the ponderous reply.
“I know it’s £23 for two glasses of orange juice but we’ve made them last an hour and now we’ve been, no one can take that away from us.”
I paused momentarily. “Anyway, we’d better make a move,” I added, “we’ve got an action packed few days starting in the morning and we need to get some shuteye.”
As we got up to leave I couldn’t help but admire my surroundings once more. We were in one of the most iconic film locations in the world on the 52nd floor of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Park Tower.
The New York Bar, backdrop to iconic movie Lost in Translation
I could see the movie ghosts of Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray walking through the Park Hyatt Hotel’s New York bar in front of me, having watched the now iconic film, Lost in Translation, just a few days earlier on the advice of a friend.
It cost just $4m to make in 2003 but grossed $119m at the box office not only delivering producers a healthy profit, but the hotel an army of amateur location hunters, all eager to buy a few pricey drinks in return for the privilege of staying awhile in its opulent and now famous surrounds.
This Yorkshireman’s pockets had just been delivered an almighty financial shock, but Aldi’s favourite son still had a smile on his face. Not everyone had been to the Lost in Translation ‘set’ and lived to tell the tale. Surely that had to be worth £23?…..and there was still lots to see on this Saga Holidays adventure. What next?
Tokyo had revealed just a small fraction of itself in less than 48 hours but, with just 12 days in which to capture the flavours of the Land of the Rising Sun, there was a desperate requirement to keep moving. With Hakone region, Matsumoto Castle, Kyoto, Osaka and a range of places in between to call at, there was no time to waste!
Suitcases loaded, the coach pulled out of our hotel but only after the driver had bowed to his audience and, courtesy of our translator, announced that it was his honour to be looking after us for the day.
As my memory waved goodbye to Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, short skirted ‘Kogal’ girls, Hachiko the dog, the Nijubashi Bridge and the capital’s ancient Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, I slipped into a gentle slumber as the coach trundled its way towards Kamakura City’s Hasdera Buddhist temple.
In little over an hour we had moved from the hi-tech world of Japan’s capital to a land of ancient customs, rituals, folklore….and afternoon drizzle!
Hasedera Buddhist Temple
According to legend the pious monk Tokudo Shonin commissioned sculptors to carve two eleven-headed Kannon statues out of a sacred large camphor tree he discovered near the village of Hase in the Nara region. One of them was enshrined in Hasedera Temple, commonly known as ‘Hase Kannon’ and also regarded as the 4th station among the 33 pilgrimage sites dedicated to Kannon in the Kanto area.
Emerging cherry blossom had started to reveal its gentle colours and I reminisced as I thought back to my performing days in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; one of the characters referred to, a Chinese lady, was called Plum Blossom. Had Porter been inspired by Hasedera I mused?
Hundreds of umbrellas jostled for position as a snake of tourists wound their way up the temple’s ascending network of steps, all eager to bear witness to its amazing architecture and statues, including the 9.18m high Hase Kannon, one of the largest wooden Buddhist carvings in Japan.
There were two or three coaches visiting at the same time as us – after all it was Japan’s high-season – and whilst this can sometimes rob you of the calm such a backdrop cries out for, land tours like Saga’s, where just 25 guests travel together, are also famous for something else; moving you effectively and rapidly through a country so that you get to ‘taste’ everything. Time can be limited at each place but you will see a lot.
My mother’s words echoed in my mind: “You can’t have it both ways lad, one or t’other!” It was busy in the temple that damp afternoon but that was ok, I was seeing something that one day I would take to my grave, but hopefully not in the foreseeable future!
The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto Shrine
The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto Shrine hid itself behind a hazy blur of rain, whilst determined waterproofed officials ushered everyone up the left hand side of its main steps and down the right, as an authentic religious wedding ceremony obliviously took its course in one of the main temple buildings. Hundreds of uninvited guests captured the moment for posterity on their cameras and mobiles. I had less than an hour in which to digest and assimilate one of Kamakura city’s most important shrines. Cultural indigestion beckoned!
The Japanese way – perfect order, even in the rain!
The trip rapidly became a sophisticated memory game as I endeavoured to pigeonhole a myriad of tourist attractions in my over-burdened brain, each stunning in its own way. There was the glory of the Hakone region’s Lake Ashi, gateway to Hakone Komagatake Ropeway and the seven minute 1.1 mile cable car climb to the top of Mount Komagatake, where snow covered ground demands that travellers wear sweaters and coats or suffer the consequences; this indeed was a country of contrasts!
Lake Ashi, gateway to the summit of Mount Komagatake
Later, departing the Hakone Highland Hotel, an immaculately quaint throwback to the 70’s in a to-die-for setting……………………
The Hakone Highland Hotel – the glory of the 70’s!
………….I fully appreciated that the next destination would most probably be one of the trip’s highlights, a real jewel in the crown. Matsumoto Castle on the outskirts of Takayama city, a full day’s drive from the comparative calm of Lake Ashi………
Matsumoto Castle - over 400 years old
......is known by many as the ‘Crow Castle’ because of its black exterior. More to the point, it is the oldest five-storey tenshu (donjon tower) in Japan and cannot be overlooked for its historical, cultural and artistic value. As with many visitor attractions, we were required to take off our shoes and pad our way through the bamboo interior, designed in an open plan style so that samurai warriors had total freedom to move in the event of an attack.
It is hard to believe that Japan very nearly lost this stunning piece of architecture to a belief at the turn of the 20th century, that relics of the past should be destroyed. However, the efforts of Ryozo Ichikawa and Unari Kobayashi preserved it for generations to come; I quietly thanked these Japanese visionaries.
Takayama old town and Sannomachi Street, just two hours from the castle, is equally fascinating with its beautifully preserved wooden merchant houses…………….
Merchant houses in all their wooden splendour
…….. however, a couple of coffees with four slices of toast will set you back a tenner in this hugely popular destination. But, it’s what you see that more than compensates.
Takayama’s ancient floats, used twice a year
The Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall enables you to see four of the 11 magnificent floats used twice annually as part of the Takayama Matsuri Festival, a 350 year old tradition that’s regarded as one of the most beautiful in Japan. You can also savour the visual feast that is the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine, the oldest in Takayama, and marvel at the one-tenth scale replica of the Nikko-Toshogu Shrine exhibited in nearby Sakurayama Nikko Kan Museum
Replica of Tokyo’s Nikko-Toshogu – 15 years in the making
Japan’s confusing city names and places raced around my head like a foreign language…… Tsurugaoka, Takayama…..which were those two? Was that the temple, the shop, the place name or the attraction I mused? Either way, the cultural banks of my brain were rapidly filling as we headed for the train that would take us from Kanazawa and on to Kyoto.
The architecturally magnificent Kanazawa Railway Station
Earlier we had savoured the visual delights of the surreal ‘thatched’ village at Shirakawa-Go in Hida region, known as The White River Village, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since the late 90’s, as well as experiencing a one-hour Japanese tea ceremony where some wit had commented: “You could die of thirst before you get your cuppa in this place!”
Shirakawa-Go or ‘The White River Village’ with its splendid thatched roofs
Now, ancient Kyoto was about to reveal itself.
The journey there was serene and clean on a well-oiled (train) machine, with customary good manners from staff and fellow passengers, something we were beginning to take for granted.
Before long we were in yet another Zen Buddhist temple at Kinkaku-Ji – officially known as Rokuon-Ji - jostling for position as everyone attempted to photograph the breath-taking Golden Pavilion. It was truly spectacular, however, if there had been a new disease called ‘templenumbitis’ I fear that many people were coming dangerously close to needing a doctor! It would take the relative calm of ‘home’ for everyone to fully appreciate what they had managed to cram in in just two short, action-packed weeks.
The breath-taking Golden Pavilion in Kyoto’s Kinkaku-Ji Temple
For now it wouldn’t be long before we were waving goodbye to The Land of The Rising Sun, but first I had an appointment with death; a reality check that would sober up even the most determined lush, but as important to any visitor to Japan as Auschwitz might be to any unsuspecting tourist being gently seduced by the beauty of Krakow in Poland.
The bullet train to Hiroshima is a highlight………………..
The Bullet Train from Kyoto station to Hiroshima
………………..but the experience of Hiroshima itself is emotionally draining as the sheer scale of what happened hits home.
There was a time when Japan had ambitions to build and grow an empire until it experienced first-hand that most debilitating and extreme aspect of war, genocide, as thousands of lives were snuffed out in the blink of an eye at Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the dropping of America’s A bombs.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Now, Hiroshima is not only a living shrine to the memory of those who perished, but also a symbol of re birth for a country that has risen from the ashes with an attitude re-born.
Since those two fateful days in August 1945, Japan has been a staunch upholder of antinuclear sentiments. Its post war Constitution forbids the establishment of offensive military forces, and in 1967 it adopted the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, ruling out the production, possession, or introduction of nuclear weapons.
Children's Peace Monument, Hiroshima
A short ferry ride away from Hiroshima is Myajima Island with its iconic Torii Gate which stands sentry like over this beautiful, almost seaside like, little island town with its myriad of eateries, temples and pleasant, if at times scenic walks.
Torii (Temple Gate) in the sea at Myajima Island off the Hiroshima coast
The comparative serenity of the town gave me time to reflect as we reached the final stages of our journey.
I hadn’t seen any graffiti in Japan – or rubbish - the maître de at one of our hotels had apologised profusely as though his life depended on it, when there was an overly-long queue for breakfast one morning, and politeness was not only a way of life for the Japanese, but a quality I had rapidly come to admire: a genuine sense of respect, not something oozed by a well-trained franchise ‘operative’ following the process manual to the letter but without an ounce of sincerity.
Japan is a country of contrasts where the concept of Empire is a thing of the past and nuclear capability is frowned upon. If leading by example is now one of the chief exports from this amazing island, then surely The Land of the Rising Sun is at the dawn of a new horizon, that puts it in pole position to teach the rest of us so much about ourselves, and the direction in which our countries might want to think about heading?
Phil Hopkins was travelling with Saga Holidays.
Land of the Rising Sun Tour. Saga Holidays. Prices start from £3699pp. Flights available from both London Heathrow and Manchester with departures throughout 2019 and 2020.
Exploring high-tech Tokyo, ancient Kyoto the historic village of Shirakawago, serene temples, shrines, castles and more as you learn about the fascinating cultures and traditions of Japan.
Includes VIP door-to-door travel service from home to airport and back from anywhere on the UK mainland. Also includes 10 nights in hotels and two in-flight with 13 meals: 10 breakfasts / and three dinners. Return flights & transfers included; Saga tour manager; Porterage at all hotels. Optional travel insurance plus excursions and visits. Hiroshima is an optional extra and includes a journey on the famous Bullet Train.