A Restorative Trip Through Japan

Kinkakuji Kyoto Japan

My bird’s eye view of the city is a neon skyline speckled with glittering snowflakes in the night.  Standing above Shibuya Sky, sipping a silky cup of hot chocolate from Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse, I gaze out over a sea of light that arouses my feelings of adventure for all that Tokyo bursts from its seams.

Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower, Photo Courtesy of JNTO

Tokyo is a flywheel. Its spokes lead in all directions. No sooner do I arrive and bounce like a pachinko ball through its cosmic maze, do I fly out to the countryside for spiritual purification.

The ancient Kaga region in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea side is home to lush mountains and valleys, a bounty of seafood, delicate grains of rice that look like perfectly polished pearls, and sake that imbues the pristine quality of its source. Dinner at Yamashiro Onsen is like a parade of jewellery. Whole sea bream steamed with daikon, carrot and bamboo; thickly cut sashimi of yellow tail, Spanish mackerel and sweet shrimp; and a delectable presentation of yellow tail wrapped in daikon, local potato in seasoned kelp, sea bream in egg yolk, pink mountain-potato cake, and a ceramic lemon, inside which holds a treasure of sea cucumber, tofu skin and roe.

Kaiseki, Kaga, Ishikawa, Japan
Kaiseki dinner at Yamashiro Onsen in Kaga, Ishikawa, Japan

Following dinner, I walk barefoot through the snow to a steaming outdoor foot bath, where I sip hōjicha, green tea roasted over charcoal, and slowly, contemplatively, make my way to the onsen where, disrobing my yukata, I luxuriate in piping hot mineral water. Each breath of clean mountain air invigorates my soul in tandem with the warmth of the hot spring that kneads out the tension. Leaning against a rock, I pack a mound of snow, set it on my head, and let it melt over me as I stretch out, stare up at the stars and sink.

On this side of the Japan Alps, the snowfall looks like the great baker in the sky had a frosting explosion. Every rooftop, every tree branch in Fukui Prefecture is heavily caked in snow. Immaculate, silent; I’m on the other side of the wardrobe in the Narnia Chronicles, and the only sound is the crunch of my boots pressing forward up the mountain to Daihonzan Eiheiji. Inside this thousand-year-old temple, I pass through austere wooden halls. A calm trickling of water drips from the myriad icicles adorning the curvy, elongated roof.

Daihonzan Eiheiji, Fukui
Daihonzan Eiheiji, Fukui

I remove my slippers and slide across the tatami floor, nestling on a zazen pillow to comfortably meditate under the auspice of the monk assigned to me. He explains how to sit, how to fold my hands, how to breathe, and how to indicate that I want him to whip me with a stick if I fall out of focus. With eyes closed, I breathe deeply. It’s no use. My mind races unabated. I bow slightly. Whack! My young monk eagerly relishes the opportunity to shock me out of my distraction with a sting just above my shoulder. Feeling somewhat centred I walk back down the mountain and meditate to the sound of the rolling creek cleaved through the snow banks.

Due south along the Pacific coastline is the Ise Jingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture, housing the female god of sunlight. Of the 85,000 shrines in Japan this is the most sacred. This is where the imperial family comes to worship its ancestry, and where the emperor prays for the prosperity and security of his nation and the peace of the world. 125 shrines dot the vast landscape. The path leading to the inner sanctum of the shrine weaves around gargantuan trees that seem alive with spirit and energy. Walking here brings out my inner tree-hugger. The feeling of tranquility is undeniable and intoxicating. My personal pilgrimage, however, is to the Oharai Machi & Okage Yokocho, a street located just outside the grounds, notable for its beautiful Edo and Meiji architecture and merchants of every kind. For me, the road to heaven is lined with these vendors of Matsusaka steak, each one offering charcoal-grilled skewers stacked with mouth-watering purses of juicy beef. It’s this wagyu-lover’s dream come true. I’m seduced by a slender cut of Matsusaka beef sushi crowned with a morsel of sea urchin for a decadent confluence of textures. Now I’m ready to pray.

Matsusaka Beef, Mie
Matsusaka Beef Don Buri, Mie

Deeper inland, the forest is filled with “power spots.” Here, in Wakayama Prefecture, the Shinto Gods descended to reside within the trees, rocks and rivers. The imperial family and nature-worshipers alike follow the 600km of sacred paths that criss-cross the 3600 mountains of the Kumano region and the divine trees of the Kumano Kodo.

Kumano Kodo, Wakayama
Kumano Kodo, Wakayama

There is a palpable fountain-of-youth energy in which my every step, up ancient stone stairs into the woods, transforms me from my achy sedentary self of today to the spritely nature of my twenties. It’s a rejuvenating hike that includes climbing the seemingly endless steps up to the Seigando-ji Temple. After I’ve caught my breath, I survey a majestic panorama, and smell the sweet aroma from monks lighting incense to purify the surroundings and bring forth the Gods.

Kumano Nachi Taisha, Wakayama
Kumano Nachi Taisha, Wakayama, Courtesy of Hisashi Hirota

One requisite stop before departing the Kii Peninsula is the tuna market at the port of Katsuura, where freshly caught tuna is hauled off the boat, and prepared before our very eyes as sashimi, sushi, breaded cutlet and grilled cheeks. There is no way I’m leaving here without indulging in each one. The fatty tuna is tender and unctuous, and the tuna cheeks are as buttery as they are meaty. It’s a very special taste of place—to sit on the dock, savouring the freshest local catch with the sun sparkling off the bay, the waves gently lapping the shore; losing all sense of where I am or what time it is, but just appreciating being deeply present in this moment.

Tuna, Wakayama
Tuna, Wakayama

The temple experience in Japan differs between regions. North of Wakayama lies the ancient capital of Japan, Nara. As the sun rises, Todai-ji Temple has already attracted a crowd—of deer. They are messengers of the Gods, and protectors of the temple grounds. A promenade of moss-covered stone lanterns serves as ancient lanes for the deer darting between them. In Nara Park, 1000 deer laze away the day. “Wouldn’t it be fun to feed them?” I ask myself. Excitedly, I purchase a package of deer biscuits, and laugh at the sign warning that these adorable animals can kick, bite, butt and knock me down. The instant I begin to open the package, every deer in earshot perks up and charges toward me. Completely swarmed, I scream, “Okay! Okay,” throw up my hands, toss them the biscuits and run.

Nara Park Deer
Nara Park Deer

The road leading up to Todai-ji is so perfectly manicured. Ground-keepers collect leaves and sweep the dirt. It reminds me of what the monk at Daihonzan Eiheiji shared: “The most important thing is not za zen. It is cleaning; humbling oneself.”

Todai-ji’s main hall is awe-inspiring. It is the largest wooden structure in the world, and it houses, Daibutsu, the largest Buddha in the world, made of bronze and seated on large bronze petals. Dating back to the 8th Century, this complex of temples and shrines that meander up the mountainside offers a quintessentially Japanese experience in so far as the daily maintenance reflects the daily reverence to the roots of Japan.

Daibutsu, Todai-ji, Nara
Daibutsu, Todai-ji, Nara

The crown jewel of temples in Kansai is Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto. Its golden façade reflects the sunlight off the surrounding pond and snow-capped trees like a beacon for all to admire. Young women rent ornate kimono to pose for pictures in front of the temple because, tucked within its natural surroundings, it truly stands out like nowhere else in the world. I’m entranced by this beguiling ancient wonder.

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For one thousand years, Kyoto stood as Japan’s capital and home to so many cultural arts. One vestige of traditional culture, a rare privilege to enjoy, is dining with Geisha. As I’m enjoying each morsel of sashimi, presented so artfully from the ceramics to the decorative arrangement of ingredients, two Geisha enter the room. Tomitae-san, the Geiko, sings and plays shamisen guitar, while Hidechio-san, her Maiko apprentice, dances in traditional fashion. I’m captivated. The next courses of steamed, soy-lacquered sea bream with fluffy light potato encrusted in a rice cracker crunch, and tender Kyoto beef with an umami-rich jus, mountain vegetables and crisp garlic, arrive in succession. I ask the Geisha about their lifestyle, costume and make up, and about Japanese culture. But now, I’m told, it’s time for a game: Konpira Fune Fune.

Geiko and Maiko, Kyoto
Maiko and Geiko, Kyoto

Seated opposite Hidechio-san, Tomitae-san plays her guitar at an ever-quickening tempo, during which time Hidechio-san and I alternate clapping our hands and touching a box on the table with quickening tempo corresponding to the music. If Hidechio-san picks up the box, and I still put my flat hand down where the box once stood, rather than a closed hand, I lose, and vice versa. It seems easy enough, right? And yet, after a few shots of sake, not so much. I lose every time, but it is hilariously fun and addictive.

As Kyoto is known for arts and culture, its neighbour, Osaka, is known as the nation’s kitchen. There’s an expression here, kuidaore, which means to ruin yourself by spending money on food, and eating until you drop. Well, that’s a game for me. The Kuromon Market is an epicurean oasis along a narrow street purveying tantalizing skewers of grilled Kobe beef; massive oysters served raw or grilled; succulent fatty tuna; crisp stacks of sweet potato; plump, ruby red strawberries and perfectly shiny apples straight out of a fairy tale. Like a kid in a candy store, I want it all. It’s a true test of willpower.

Kuromon Market, Osaka
Tamagoyaki with Unagi, Kuromon Market, Osaka

Time to walk it off by visiting the castle. Osaka Castle towers over an inner and outer moat and a beautifully manicured park that attracts joggers and those seeking a quiet stroll. Inside is a fascinating multi-storied museum with relics and replicas of Japanese history. The view from above is refreshing and provides a 360° deck from which to scan the bay, the mountains and all that lies between.

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle

In order to gain distinction, each hotel in Osaka competes to offer the best of Japanese cuisine. Where to stay is often determined by where to dine. From the teppanyaki counter of Tenka restaurant, in the Hilton Osaka, a culinary cascade of flavours delights me. Cassis and orange-braised abalone is followed by porcini mushrooms in onion soy sauce with hibiscus, sesame and curry chili tomato, fried lobster claw, seafood chowder boiling within a cellophane cooking pouch, and two brands of wagyu: Kagoshima beef fillet and Shodoshima Olive beef sirloin, each one a rich exemplar of why we love wagyu. Leaving no stone unturned, a dessert of almond mousse with blood orange sherbet confirms that I am happily “ruined.”

Wagyu, Teppanyaki, Tenka, Hilton, Osaka
Wagyu, Teppanyaki, Tenka, Hilton Osaka

Visiting Japan, however ancient the destination, always reveals something new. It’s not merely a feast for the senses, but a restorative reawakening of them. From the spiritual landscape to the gastronomy, there is so much to appreciate, so many little details that add up to time well spent, with each new day offering a completely different rewarding experience to cherish.

For more information on travel to Japan go to: https://www.japan.travel/en/ca/

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