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Japan: Gardens, temples & a rich culture

Within 24 hours of telling our youngest daughter and her new husband that we wanted to take them on a trip overseas during the summer, they told us they wanted to go to Japan.  

Japan, we mused. We had never been there though we’d traveled extensively throughout Asia. We’d never been there in part because we had no local contacts to make the trip more than just a tourist destination. But we were intrigued.

Factors in favor: 1) we love the food; 2) we love the arts and crafts tradition and indeed owned several important pieces from Japanese-American artists; 3) we love the food; 4) we love big cities; 5) we love beautiful gardens; 6) we love the food; and 7) we have two Asian inspired gardens at our home in Washington; and 8) did I mention we love Japanese food? 

Prioritizing what we wanted to see

We came up with several things we wanted to experience: gardens, a baseball game, sushi, cities, photo-worthy places and the food

This was going to be a complicated trip. We had just two weeks at the end of June and the first of July. We turned to our trusty travel agent at Frosch Travel here in DC and asked him to help us plan. Each of us did our research and came up with several things we wanted to see: For Richard (my husband), it was gardens and a baseball game. For my son-in-law, it was a baseball game and sushi. For our daughter, it was the cities and the sushi. For me, as usual, it was beautiful places to photograph, stays in ryokans, and, of course, the food. 

The trip was all this and more. We had private guides at hand to tell us about the historic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples we saw and to guide us through all types of gardens – strolling, rock and miniature. They carefully shepherded us to and through our Bullet Train connections, cooking classes. the early morning fish market, the subways in Tokyo, bamboo forests, and Japanese language and customs.

We drove through the pristine countryside (sometimes in the rain which added atmosphere) to catch glimpse of Mt. Fuji and marveled at how Tokyo crowds crossed busy intersections. It wasn’t unusual to spend four hours over omakase dinners; to eat sushi brought to us via a conveyor belt; to slurp ramen like the local folks do; or stuff ourselves with yakatori with the “salarymen” in “piss alley.” And we were touched deeply and humbled by our visit to Hiroshima, each in turn ringing the Peace Bell.

Concluding many of our trips, we create a ‘best of list’, which is some ways give you very good insight into what we enjoyed the most.  Here are a few of those memories.

The site most likely to remember

ET: Tsukijiki fish auction/market in Tokyo and the Bamboo Forest (Arashiyama Bamboo Grove) in Kyoto

BT: Bamboo Forest and the Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima

EM: The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) in Kyoto and Mt. Fuji

RM : The three Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) — Gora Kadan in Hankone; Wanosato in Takayama; Sekitei in Hiroshima — and strolling through the gardens (Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Ryoanji Temple/Zen Garden and Tofukuji Temple/HoJo Garden, both in Kyoto)

Best Day

ET: The full day Tokyo tour when I walked 24,193 steps

BT: The first day (starting at 3:30 am going to the fish market and ending that night at the Tokyo Dome for a baseball game)

EM: Hiroshima

RM: Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa

Favorite Japanese Experience(s):

ET: Bullet trains and the baseball game

BT: Eating skewers of Yakitori at Tokyo’s Memory Lane (‘Piss Alley’)

EM: Soaking in the Ryokan baths and enjoying the “advanced” Japanese toilets

RM: Baseball game and losing and getting back my iPad three days later

Favorite Meal(s)

Let's start with the superb “Bohemian” restaurant in Tokyo (Only one table in the restaurant, and it was ours for three hours.)

ET: Kakinuma in Kyoto and Heiroku Sushi, our first ‘conveyor belt’ sushi lunch in Tokyo (within walking distance of the Meiji Shrine, Shibuya).

BT: Wasabi ice cream and the first ‘conveyor belt’ sushi lunch in Tokyo

EM: Hida Beef (better than Kobe beef) at Wanosato Ryokan (Takayama) and Yakitori Alley in Tokyo

RM: Burnt Miso Ramen Soup in Kyoto (Kyoto Gogyo) & Kakinuma

First food you want when you return home

ET: Pizza

BT: Burrito

EM: Nothing

RM: Chinese food

Note: In addition to the many photos displayed in this post, I have a wholly separate slide show just on food.

Ellen Miller
I was the founder of three nonprofit organizations in DC, most recently, the Sunlight Foundation. Now I am retired and travel with my husband, Richard, when we're not home enjoying our family and pairing down my photos from the most recent trip.