For Camila

June 2010.

Japan through all five senses

Dear Camila,

You’ve spoken to me of your eagerness to get to know a place on a visceral level, using not just your eyes but all your senses. The Japanese itinerary I have crafted for you will allow you to do just that, with sights and challenges that will require you to see, smell, taste, feel, and hear. Though any good adventure will involve more than just visual pleasure, Japan is a destination particularly well-suited to such a focus: the grace and thoughtful design of everything in this country are best experienced through immersion. You will certainly do so, as you taste unique cuisine, sniff fragrant flora, examine textured art and architecture, and converse with travelers and locals alike.

Day 1: Arrival

Upon your arrival, Teriha, your guide, will meet and accompany you to your personalized accommodation. After settling into your room, you will embark on the first immersive experience on your journey through Japan. With your tastes in mind, I have curated a mouth-watering menu of savory stops along the way.

From the neighborhood Japanese restaurants that humbly serve exquisite local cuisine, to world-renowned restaurants serving international fare, Japan offers an impressive selection of both indigenous and international dining experiences. While it can be difficult to access the authentic Japanese gastronomical experience without a working knowledge of the local language, we have developed close partnerships with a network of restaurants and chefs to ensure a genuine and appetizing experience. Your palate will not be disappointed.

Day 2: Sensory immersion in Tokyo

This morning, Teriha will meet you for a quick, informative debrief to prepare you for the rest of your adventure. As you requested, your trip has been designed to focus heavily on gastronomy as well as the history of Japan, complete with an array of impressive architecture and famous temples. One of the great pleasures of my work is coming across the unusual, the charming, and the unknown. To this end, I have woven both very famous and lesser-known jewels into your itinerary.

You will begin the morning at one of Edo’s top ten shrines; the Nezu Shrine boasts an impressive display of picturesque red torii covering the hillside. After enjoying all the Nezu Shrine has to offer, you will have the opportunity to stroll through Yanaka, which is thought to be the best-preserved area of Old Edo. You will explore the fragrant streets of Yanaka Hill, which was a carefully maintained temple town during the Tokogawa era, and even today boasts more than 80 eye-catching temples. This experience will pull all your senses into your Japanese adventure: there are so many temples here that the streets are scented with incense.

With your daily desire for history fulfilled, you will be invited to do a bit of shopping and sightseeing in the Ginza, Tokyo’s exhilarating equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue. It was at one time the most expensive parcel of real estate in the world. You will delight in ambling through the side streets filled with tucked away stalls, small shops, gourmet restaurants, and some of the most exquisitely-displayed goods anywhere in the world. Teriha will guide you through the food floor of Mitsukoshi, sharing insiders’ tips and tricks.

Day 3: Further afield from Tokyo

This morning, you will enjoy a scenic and relaxing private ride to Nikko, a beautiful mountainous region north of Tokyo that is dotted with an enchanting array of temples and shrines. You will have the opportunity to take in the elegantly curved vermillion Shin-kyo (Sacred Bridge) spanning the Daiya-gawa River. On the way to Tosho-gu Shrine, you will visit the gorgeous Rinno-ji Temple that is renowned for its Sanbutsudo (Hall of the Three Buddhas). As you approach the entrance to the Tosho-gu Shrine, an impressive five-story pagoda will welcome you. When the Great Shogun Tokugawa Ieyusu died in 1616, Nikko was selected as the site for his mausoleum. Flaunting an estimated 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf, the Tosho-gu Shrine was built by Ieyusu’s grandson with the help of some 15,000 of the finest craftsmen of the time. Its design and structure clearly illustrates the very lavish style that was exceedingly popular in the late 16th-century Momoyama period. Stay alert, as a keen eye will reveal the famous “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil” monkey trio.

Dinner will be a delightful surprise of local dishes prepared for you by a well-traveled local chef.

Day 4: Behind the culinary scenes

Today, you will set out to explore what has been fondly nicknamed “Kitchentown”—the unique culinary-focused street of Kappabashi-Dori that is nestled between the Ueno and Asakusa districts. Here you will see shops that support over 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo by providing dishes, paper lanterns, customizable knives, bizarre cooking utensils, hand-crafted pottery and much more.

At this point, you will be conveniently close to Trip Advisor’s #1 most highly rated restaurant in Taito, the famed Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro. Go ahead and indulge in the authentic ambiance and delight your taste buds with the delectable shumai.

Later, I suggest that you stroll through Ningyocho, a sophisticated district of old Edo that holds many traditional crafts shops dating back to the Edo period.

Day 5: Kamakura

This morning you will head to the site of Japan’s first Shogunate and several exquisite Zen Buddhist temples located just south of Tokyo, in Kamakura. Kamakura has been dubbed as one of the must-sees in Japan. I have learned by now that, in travel, one must try to see with one’s emotions rather than one’s head. We have been so inundated with tricked up photographs that the magic of a first meeting often pales next to the images one carries. Kamakura is one of these places.

Kamakura’s colossal Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is one of the two largest pre-modern bronze Buddhas in Japan. Enjoy some incredible sightseeing at the panoramic overlook at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine and the vermillion buildings of Sagami-wan Bay.

Finish your day with a bottle of hot sake at one of the many mouth-watering traditional eateries nearby.

Day 6: Mountains and forests

Today takes you on an enchanting journey to Hakone, a beautiful mountainous area with verdant forests, small lakes, and scenic thermal springs. Soak up the stunning landscape of Hakone on this more relaxed day of your journey. You may choose to visit the Hakone Open-Air Museum whose spectacular grounds are the permanent home to approximately 120 works by well-known modern and contemporary sculptors such as Rodin, Bourdelle, Miro and Moore.

This evening I have arranged for you to stay at the famed Gora Kadan—an architecturally stunning ryokan or Japanese inn at which you will enjoy the finest aspects of traditional Japanese hospitality. Located on the grounds of the former summer villa of a member of the Imperial family, the building and facilities have earned immense praise and distinct admiration. The Gora Kadan expertly blends traditional Japanese technique with modern design elements while harmonizing with the natural attributes of the nearby mountains.

A stay at a ryokan can best be described as a quintessential cultural experience of remarkable serenity. Relax in the confines of a beautiful tatami room with its luxurious accoutrements, gaze at an exquisite private garden while sipping some delicious green tea, enjoy an enticingly warm ofuro bath, and eventually return to your room for a delicious kaiseki traditional Japanese meal.

Day 7: Bullet train

This morning starts with an exhilarating ride on the shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. After arriving in Kyoto, enjoy a light but satisfying traditional lunch at one of many family-owned restaurants, before continuing to several of Kyoto’s famous museums. Your self-led walking tour will come to a close at an ornate shrine located at the epicenter of Gion, the city’s highly respected Geisha district.

Since you requested a chance to rest midway through your trip, I have scheduled this day so you can do as many or as few museums as you would like. This low-key interlude will allow you to relax and recharge to prepare for the next few days of adventuring. There is so much more to see and savor in this gorgeous country.

Day 8: Parks

Today you will head to Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, established in 710. Your sojourn begins in the heart of Nara, at Nara Park. Here, graceful deer (considered to be messengers of the Shinto gods) roam freely, as they have done since ancient times. Nara is a very walkable city and is best traversed on foot, so you will have the opportunity to take it in slowly and not miss out on any of the beauty it has to offer.

After visiting Todai-ji Temple, which contains the nearly 50-foot tall great Buddha completed in 752, you will head to Kasuga Taisha, an 8th century Shinto shrine and Kofuku-ji, which houses the subliminal 8th century statue of Ashura, the guardian of the Law and a National Treasure. Next, you will have a chance to discover the Horyu-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site, which is said to be the oldest standing wooden structure on earth, holding more than 2,300 historically important items. After a historically rich day of sight-seeing, you will return to your cozy hotel in Kyoto.

Day 9: Kitchens

In the morning, you will rise to visit Shugaku-in Rikyu, which is the impressive country estate of Emperor Gomizunoo. In Shugaku-in, you will encounter remarkable sukiya structures, and also will have the chance to learn about landscape gardening with shakkei on a grand scale. Shakkei is the idea of using “borrowed scenery”—that is, incorporating background landscape into the composition of a garden.

Following Shugaku-in, you will be able to wander to Shisen-do, which was established in 1641 as the retirement place of Ishikawa Jozan. Here, you will find more fascinating examples of sukiya architecture. Next, you will explore the Nishiki-koji Market. Nishiki-koji Market is known as “the kitchen of Kyoto.” Here, hundreds of vendors offering wildly variable options. This market offers anything and everything: vegetables; fresh fish and boiled fish paste; dry goods; vegetable pickles; sweets—no matter your tastes, you won’t run out of options. This is great opportunity to take unique photos, try new exotic flavors, and maybe even find some bizarre souvenirs! And don’t forget: the people are what travel is all about – those with whom we choose to travel, but also those who we meet en route. The market is a great place to connect with other travelers and share stories.

Day 10: Museums and gardens

Your morning begins with a trip to the much anticipated Miho Museum and gardens. I have arranged for you to be escorted on a private tour of the museum’s exquisite collection of Near Eastern and Japanese art. The miraculous Miho Museum is built into a precipitous mountainside on a 247-acre nature preserve and is home to Mihoko Koyama’s fabulous private collection of Asian and Western antiques.

Following a light lunch at the Miho Museum, you will return to Kyoto where you will tour Daitoku-ji Temple. Daitoku-ji’s main complex is surrounded by 23 sub-temples, among them Daisen-in. The garden is considered to be a masterpiece of the landscape architect Soami. You will be free to wander around the grounds until you retreat to your hotel for another traditional Japanese meal.

Day 12: Structures

This morning, you will visit two important sites in Kyoto that are representative of the city’s religious and cultural heritage. The first such sight is Ryoanji, a tranquil fifteenth century rock garden laid out by Soami, the foremost master of this art whose work you previewed yesterday. Meander about and enjoy the fascinating structures at your leisure. Next, you will head to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle was constructed in 1603 by Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, and contains a beautiful display of Kano school artwork.

In the afternoon, you will visit Sanjusangendo, which is a 12th century temple replete with 1001 identical gilded statues of Kannon. Following Sanjusangendo, visit Kiyomizudera, a magnificent seven pavilion temple built on different levels of the Higashiyama hillside. You will explore the fun and colorful Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka areas where there are many Kyoto-style shops to check out.

You are free to shop and dine wherever you like before retreating to your hotel for some much-needed rest after a day of sightseeing.

Day 13: Kokedera

On your final full day, you will visit Kokedera. Affectionately known as “The Moss Temple,” it is said to be home to more than 100 species of lush moss. The garden encircles a pond in the shape of the character shin (or Kokoro), meaning heart, spirit, or mind. Following Kokedera, you may choose to experience a portion of Tenryuji Temple and enjoy its gorgeous vista and gardens.

Later in the afternoon, I encourage you to explore the Katsura Imperial Villa, a masterpiece of traditional Japanese architecture and landscape gardening built between 1620 and 1645. Every detail was meticulously designed to create harmonious views, and the villa’s geometric designs have inspired modern architects around the world.

On your final evening, you can return to your hotel to rest easy knowing that you have admired some of Japan’s most incredible architecture, learned all about the fascinating and unique history, and feasted generously on exquisite Japanese cuisine.

Camila, I have so enjoyed weaving together this historic tour of Japan’s finest for you. Destinations are pretty easy to find; it’s what you do with them that counts. Hopefully, if I am doing my job right, I can help to make them shine. Please do reach out if you would like to make any changes.