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A Long Overdue Return to Japan

  • Fruits at a market in Japan


    Patricia at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
    in Kyoto


    Patricia in the city of Takayama


    Chef at the elegant ryokan inn in Kyoto
    called Hoshinoya

    Photos: A selection taken by
    Patricia Schultz
    Following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I knew it was time for a return to the island nation of Japan, and I’m happy to report that those dark moments already seem like part of the distant past of a country I have always held to be one of the earth’s most fascinating. Organized tours take a lot of the angst out of the logistics and language barriers, but traveling independently is surprisingly manageable in a country whose people have long prided themselves on organization, respect, cleanliness, safety, and hospitality. And all those stories about $100 hamburgers? There are so many ways to stay within your budget and still get the million-dollar experience.

    Like almost every visitor, I started in Tokyo, a vast, welcoming, metropolis of more than 13 million people. With an average age that skews toward an older population, Tokyo still feels young and exciting, Asia’s city that never sleeps. A half-dozen city centers were fused together a long time ago, yet each of these villagelike neighborhoods retains its own character and individual attractions, all of them brimming with restaurants both celebrated and unassuming, hidden pockets of antiquities among the neon-lit modern thoroughfares lined with stores, karaoke bars, Starbucks, atmospheric teahouses, and countless chances to peek into a lifestyle that makes a leisurely walk around town worth a semester back at school.

    Although it is impressively efficient, interpreting the subway system seems more complicated than deciphering the Rosetta Stone. But wait long enough gazing up at the complex map of color-coded lines and a giggling group of teenagers will offer to take you wherever you need to go, in exchange for news about Beyoncé and Brooklyn. Train stations are a showcase of order and punctuality, and frequent Shinkansen bullet trains whisk you to the ancient capital of Kyoto. With a mere 1.5 million residents, it feels almost cozy by comparison with Tokyo, but it’s rife with a breathtaking mix of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, gardens, a thriving geisha legacy, old wooden houses called machiya, and traditional inns called ryokan that all promise a stroll back in time.

    One of the few cities to escape the WWII air raids, the city of Kanazawa has a historic center that is rich with the culture and architecture of Old Japan while also being home to the well-known 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Tourists to the nearby rural area framed by the lofty peaks of the Japanese Alps will find that the heritage districts of Shirakawa-go and Ogimachi are picturesque hamlets of welcoming restaurants and thatch-roofed structures that today house artists and artisans.

    At every turn, Japan is a staggering showcase of man-made and natural beauty. The painstaking attention to design and detail is inescapable and inspiring, ubiquitous in the presentation of everything from food to folded laundry. The Art of Travel, a Kanazawa-based agency of young Japanese and American design enthusiasts, will organize unique itineraries to every corner of the country, showcasing crafts and cultural experiences by opening doors and guaranteeing insights not otherwise accessible (theartoftravel.net). Walk Japan promises the country’s diverse and stunning natural beauty to those who want to explore the people, culture, history and heritage on foot (walkjapan.com). You can also join small groups of like-minded adventurers with the U.S.-based Japan expert Asia Transpacific Journeys (ATJ), or opt for their customized travel (asiatranspacific.com)— whether you’re interested in festivals, sumo matches, and private tea ceremonies, or an inside look at geishas in training, they can make it happen.

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