It’s hard to find another country with a culture as singular as Japan’s. Art, literature, food, architecture and even Japanese Buddhism are as distinct from the rest of the world as a fully armored samurai is from one of King Arthur’s knights. It seems like all travel to Japan is time travel; the trouble is that a traveler has to divide himself in two as half will wander through an elegant past, while the other half speeds into the future.
Traditionally, first-time travelers to Japan combine Tokyo and Kyoto with a call at Mount Fuji, but more and more of the country is opening up its smaller, nuanced destinations. At night, Tokyo’s Ginza district, fully juiced with neons, feels like a stroll through the future. A more traditional Japan can be found in Ueno-Onshi Park, where the Tokyo National Museum, dedicated to thousands of years of Japanese Art, is surrounded by several shrines, temples, museums, a five-story pagoda, a symphony hall and more. A new wave of younger American travelers, raised on Japanese animation is seeking out such Anime sites as the Ghibli Museum which was created by Hayao Miyazaki who made such Anime classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. With one of the world’s most user-friendly subway systems, Tokyo is an easy city to explore from the Tsukiji Market to the Imperial Palace.
Not even Vivaldi could celebrate the four seasons as well as Kyoto does. Kyoto is the 1,300-year-old capital of Japan, where the beauty of the country's feudal period is on full display. But you don’t have to go as far as Kyoto to find that feudal spirit. Just a short train ride from downtown Tokyo, Kawagoe feels like it lies centuries away. A quiet country town, Kawagoe became prominent when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, perhaps the most towering figure in Japan’s history, made it his northern military bulwark and gateway into his new national capital of Edo, which we now call Tokyo. Kawagoe’s Kitain Temple, originally built in 830, was rebuilt in 1638 after a fire. It’s also home to Kawagoe Castle, built in 1457 at roughly the same time that Edo Castle was being built in Tokyo. Other wonders of Japan include the Inland Sea, Hokkaido and the city of Hiroshima to name just a few.
Japanese food rode to popularity with the sushi craze of the 1980s and it continues in popularity today along with other kinds of Japanese cuisine. In Tokyo, be sure to catch an early morning meal of sushi at Tsukiji Market. Both Tokyo and Osaka serve as important gateways into Japan and the rest of Asia as well.