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With the recent G20 Summit in Osaka, the upcoming Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, all eyes are on Japan. I decided to catch the wave of excitement just as it was gathering momentum, on a two-week "Wonders of Japan Cruise'' in June with Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) luxury travel company.
After a two-night stay at the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto, 177 A&K guests were whisked off to Osaka where we boarded Le Soleal, an elegantly designed ship, owned by the French cruise line Ponant. As it traversed the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan, we experienced wondrous excursions on all four of Japan's main islands, plus a heritage site in South Korea. Several weeks prior to the trip, A&K sent an itinerary detailing daily curated excursions. I can only vouch for my choices, but as we gathered on the ship in the evenings and shared our stories, all sounded equally enticing.
Let me begin on a high - literally. After hiking the ancient path of the Kakusenkei Gorge in Kaga, we were rewarded in the soothing natural hot springs of Yamanaka Onsen towering over the gorge. It is customary to be naked in these public baths, so we were. (Men and women in separate onsens, but co-ed happens). The effect was pure Zen - losing oneself in the moment and in the beauty of the country's nature and traditions. That feeling accompanied me throughout our journey, starting with the "way of tea''.
This wabi sabi philosophy applies to the gardens as well. The aim of their design is to induce serenity and freedom from stress, as a gift to the guests invited for tea. In fact, the concept of wabi sabi was liberally threaded through the lectures given by three experts on Japanese art and culture: Marjorie Williams from the Cleveland Museum of Art; Aya Louisa McDonald, professor of art history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and the Japanese gardens maestro Simon Rickard from Australia. In one memorable lecture, Rickard contrasted the wabi sabi of the Japanese garden to the traditional design of the English garden: "It is never finished unless you can leave nothing else out; the English garden, on the other hand, is like a voluptuous women in a tight corset.'' (At the end of the cruise he did confess, with a twinkle in his eye, that at home, he has an English garden.)
Rickard squired us around the world-famous Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, the only day of our journey that it rained. The drops created an atmosphere of serenity that bright sunshine would not have granted. The great pines and cherry trees, the exotic grasses and silver sheen lakes, and even Japan's first fountain, engendered a sense of solitude and quiet reflection.
A profusion of flowers, not common in Japanese gardens, were in an area of their own: giant peonies and irises were in full bloom. Nothing was left to chance, not the position of the tea house, nor the handcrafted concrete bridges. All had purpose, both symbolically and aesthetically.
That afternoon, we drove through the tranquil Yakumo-Mura Village in Matsue, past rice fields and farm houses to the Memorial Museum of Abe Eishiro. Eishiro, who died in 1984, was awarded the honour of being designated as a "Living National Treasure'' as he was instrumental in reviving the art of traditional Japanese papermaking techniques. One of his sons supervised us in our attempt to create two small pieces of Washi paper. It's a process that takes years to perfect, but our little group was thrilled with the hands-on experience.
It is dark grey with a splash of pale blue. Perfect for wasabi, a pungent horseradish, which accompanies sushi. You're probably thinking, "OK, I appreciate crafts but what about the food''. Well, here we are. Although the international menu served in Le Soleal's two restaurants was plentiful, it wasn't consistently first rate. It was when we had lunches off ship that our senses were dazzled by the quality and presentation. We were in the land of sushi, tempura, paper-thin beef, and oysters in their shells the size of dinner plates. Hands down, my favourite lunch was while sitting on a stool in a tiny restaurant on the ground floor of the Kanazawa Railway Station. Sushi, with the texture of butter, and a cold nonalcoholic beer, miso soup and seaweed salad sent me into an elevated state of euphoria. Sushi was once considered the poor man's food, eaten on the run, with fingers only - no chopsticks. Sushi is now so coveted in Kanazawa that citizens from Tokyo spend hours on the bullet train, just to have a lunch or dinner there, returning home the same day.
Then there is Kaiseki - an art form unto itself - multi-course menus of small servings of sashimi, grilled fish, sushi, savory egg custard, clear broths, pickled cabbages and sweet potato, Japanese taro, fine beef, delicate rice in lidded wooden boxes all presented in the finest of lacquer ware and ceramic bowls. The company sourced ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in different cities and villages along our route so we could relish this uniquely Japanese cuisine.
In the Yoyokaku Ryokan in Karatsu, we were treated to a private performance of bunraku (traditional puppet theatre originating in Osaka in the 17th century, now recognised as a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage). Black-clothed puppeteers manipulated their life-size puppets while they were given voice by a elegant woman of remarkable talent. The strings of the samisen struck a musical chord that heightened the emotions. There was not a dry eye in the audience by the end of the tragic tale.
One glistening, sunny day, we cruised the Sea of Japan to the remote Sado Island, once a place of exile for intellectuals and political dissidents, now home to 16,000 people, vast rice paddies and the world-famous Kodo Drummers. The force, pace and rhythm of their drumming was nothing short of astonishing. The women and men who performed for us were as strong, lithe and disciplined as they were musical. In a post-performance Q&A, one of the drummers spoke about the years it takes to become a member of the Kodo ensemble and the strict regimen of exercise - a 10km run each morning is the norm.
Our sole stop in Korea was in Gyeongju, the country's ancient capital, now a Unesco World Heritage City. The Bulguksa Buddhist temple, with its two original 6th-century pagodas, was filled with fantastical wood-carved demons and deities "greeting'' you at the entrance. A magical place with thousands of multi-coloured paper lanterns floating above our heads. (Bright colours rule in Korea, a contrast to the subdued palate favoured in Japan). At lunch, magnificently costumed dancers performed various traditional Korean dances while seemingly floating across the stage, not unlike the lanterns of the temple. (For those souls "templed'' out, an alternative attraction was a visit to the Hyundai factory - the world's largest automobile assembly plant, which lies within the nearby port area in Ulsan.)
A stunning geisha performance on Le Soleal's theatre stage displayed the subtlety and beauty of the cherished tradition.
Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are ubiquitous in Japan. In Kyoto, alone, there are 400 temples and 1600 shrines. At 5.30 on the first morning of the journey, the gentle bongs of a temple bell awakened me. That day we toured Sanjusngen-do, officially named Rengeo-in, the temple that houses 1001 larger-than-life-sized statues of the Buddhist deity and his protectors. It is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan.
Perhaps the most photographed Shinto shrine gate in Japan is the red floating Torii Gate, standing sentinel in the water at the entrance to Miyajima Island. Torii symbolically marks the transition from the human to the spiritual world drawing visitors on to the island to the Itsukushima Shrine, another Unesco World Heritage Site. The Sika deer have made the island their home and no shrine or gates keep them away from being petted by the delighted tourists.
A massive sculpture of a yellow pumpkin decorated with black dots greets visitors to the shore of Naoshima Island set in the Seto Inland Sea. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, may have created a modern riff on the Torii Gate, but in any case, it sets the tone for devotees of modern art to pay homage to one of the hottest art and architecture destinations in the world. Both the Benesse Art House Project and Chichu Art Museum were designed by the architect Tadao Ando. The subterranean Chichu plays with natural light in such a way as to allow the art exhibits to change their appearance at different times of the day.
He seems, to me, to be a modern master of the ancient wabi sabi tradition.
At our last Unesco World Heritage Site, homage was again paid. The Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum was not to be ignored. It honours the lives lost after the atomic bomb dropped at exactly 8.15am, August 6, 1945. The museum houses an enlarged photo of a clock frozen in time, one of the thousands of photos, artefacts, videos and a chilling re-creation of the decimation. On the grounds of the Peace Park, several of us struck the Peace bell tolling for international peace. In another area of the park, millions of colourful origami paper cranes were crafted by thousands of schoolchildren who prayed for eternal peace. Each crane symbolically lives for a 1000 years.
The Japanese proverb "The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour'' seems appropriate here.
I leave you with another: "Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested''. This journey was one of my best investments. - TNS