1 May 2023 Susannah

My trip to Japan

My trip to Japan

I started April by travelling in Japan. I so loved seeing the country, strolling in glorious gardens under the cherry blossoms, and admiring the incredibly polite and nice people. However, I booked with the wrong tour company – Inspiring Vacations was anything but inspiring and the guide spoke such poor English as to be completely useless when it came to imparting information. That was a big disappointment and in future I will stick to superb tour companies such as ASA Cultural Tours.

Faced with such a lack of information about a very different land and culture, I turned to books and really enjoyed reading Liza Dalby’s East Wind Melts the Ice: A Memoir Through the Seasons. She is a social anthropologist and underwent Geisha training as a young woman and wrote a book about the Geisha culture in 1983. She has also written Kimono: Fashioning Culture and The Tale of Murasaki a novel about Lady Murasaki, who some literary historians think wrote the world’s first novel in 1021. It all comes down to how one defines a novel, and personally, I think The Tale of Gengi is too autobiographical, too formless, and lacking in character and plot development to really qualify as a novel, but I do plan on reading Dalby’s fictionalised version of Lady Murasaki’s life.

East Wind Melts the Ice was a delight – an odd mix of gardening advice, cultural titbits (I was fascinated reading about Japanese mums and the time they spend preparing kids’ school lunchboxes), the importance of haiku (I learned a great deal about the importance of haiku to the Japanese, and also what haiku should contain), and the very different attitude to the seasons held by the Japanese. The book achieved some of what a good tour guide would have given the group, and was the perfect book to read while actually in Japan.

In spite of the lack of a decent tour guide, I did love visiting Japan. Seeing Mt Fuji on a perfectly clear day, with snow on the top and cherry blossoms at the bottom, was a dream come true. I also loved learning that Japan has a ‘Classics Day’, when everyone is encouraged to read the classics of their literature. I think personally we ought to have a ‘Classics Month’, but at least one day when some of the riches of our literature become required reading would be a good start. I came home feeling that we could learn many lessons from the Japanese.

Have you read any of Liza Dalby’s books? Do you have a favourite spot in Japan you’d like to tell me about? Let me know in a comment.

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Featured image- Mt Fuji, Japan, photo by Susannah Fullerton; & East Wind Melts the Ice by Liza Dalby, https://amzn.to/3AmuTWX

Comments (14)

  1. Margaret Emerson

    I feel that I must shout a “Hurrah” for Inspiring Vacations. My husband and I have just completed a 19 tour of Sri Lanka with this company. We have used a number of travel companies over the years to many countries(including Japan) as well as several tours with ASA (a very uninspiring guide in Poland with them) and have concluded that the quality of guides is often a matter of luck.
    Our 2 guides from Inspiring Vacations in Sri Lanka were excellent–they were fully informed, spoke perfect English, were well organized, caring, flexible, and had a sense of humour. The itinerary was comprehensive and well-paced, accommodation mostly luxurious for a budget tour and we regard it as one of the best tours we have been on!
    I am sorry that you lucked out in Japan but would heartily recommend Inspiring Vacations based on our recent very positive experience.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you had a better experience than we did. Yes, there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but a guide who barely speaks English is just not acceptable. And we had dreadful pre-tour experience with the company as well – unhelpful staff, late information (we wanted the name of the Tokyo hotel so we could book an extra night before the tour, but getting that information was almost impossible) and then the terrible guide. I will certainly never travel with that company again.

  2. John Wilson

    Susannah, Glad to hear you enjoyed your first visit to Japan and I hope you will go again. Autumn is also a beautiful time to visit. I was fortunate to live there for 12 years, first in a traditional Japanese house and then for ten years in an apartment overlooking the Asahi River, Korakuen garden and a castle. It was in Okayama, a provincial capital between Osaka and Hiroshima, near the Seto Inland Sea. For those who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of Tokyo or Osaka I can recommend Okayama City which has the benefits of a city, but has more of the feel of traditional Japan. Korakuen garden, a fifteen minute walk from the station served by the Shinkansen (bullet train), is one of the three famous gardens of Japan and beautiful in all seasons. Close by are no less than three wonderful museums and Okayama Castle which connects to Korakuen by the Moon Viewing Bridge. A short train ride takes you to Kurashiki town which is voted by visitors as one of the best places to experience Japanese food, handicrafts, porcelain, art, temples, the famous Ohara Museum and a canal, all in one compact area.
    Lafcadio Hearn, intrigued by Japanese spirituality, visited Japan in 1890, married a Japanese woman, took a Japanese name (Koizumi Yakumo), wore traditional clothes, – yes he went native – but he became a professor at several universities and wrote quite a few books on Japan as he found it. These were admired by the Japanese as giving an authentic picture of their country and its beliefs. The best is probably Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, strongly recommended. You can visit his house in Matsue, near the castle, on the Japan Sea coast. Travel there from Okayama on the train which shares his Japanese name, the Yakumo. Doing so you will cross virtually from one side of Japan to the other in a morning, through timeless scenery of mountains and rice fields. What a surprising country.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for your comments and recommendations, John. I have read some Lafcadio Hearn but had no idea his house was a museum. Yes, it is a very beautiful country and I was so impressed by the people – so polite and considerate of others.

  3. Jenny Sharp

    Hello Susannah,
    Your photo of the cherry blossoms and no cloud over Mt Fuji make up for a lousy tour guide.
    I went for the cherry blossoms and loved every minute.
    My sister and I bought a 7 day rail pass in Sydney and off we went.
    The little picnics under those cherry trees, the Japanese ladies magnificently dressed I still reminisce about.
    Loved Japan. So much so on my next holiday to Alaska I went via Japan and spent another 4 days there.
    Really felt home away from home.
    A must for me next is their autumn in November.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree – a really lovely country. I would also love to go back in autumn. One woman on the tour group, who had visited in both spring and autumn, said she felt autumn was the most beautiful.

  4. John Power

    I particularly like “Yama no be no michi”, an historic walking path in Nara from Sakurai to Tenri. One passes a succession of shrines and temples, including some of the oldest surviving ones in Japan. They are not only historic but gorgeous. The walk is about 10 miles long, along the edge of hills. It is also parallel to the railway line from Kyoto, so one does not need to take the full walk.

    I have loved my annual visits to Japan, but note that that Westerners in Japan do not endure the enormous peer pressure that Japanese face. Japan has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, and it is particularly sexist.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That sounds like a beautiful walk – definitely something to add next time I visit Japan.

  5. Anne

    Hello Susannah

    I have been to Japan twice and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to return. The sense of respect is the main thing that captured my own sense of self as I navigated the streets and gardens of Tokyo. Respect for culture, for the other person, for the beauty of nature and so much more. As I soaked up the culture I had to take a deep breath and then enjoy this new experience – something I have never experienced elsewhere in all my years of travel and living in different countries. My favourite place was Kyoto…..now I understand the true beauty of the Japanese pebble garden!!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The gardens were just so serene and lovely! I agree about the people – such respect for others, such good manners, neat clothes, no littering, no tattoos. I never saw a badly behaved child anywhere.

  6. Carol Hayes

    Hi Susannah
    Yes Japan ticks all the boxes. I have visited twice in Spring and Autumn. My youngest daughter lived there for 4 years and and her husband 5 years so are fluent in Japanese (handy for our visits). Her family go there once a year to snowboard and catch up with friends. It is like their 2nd home. We found Japan easy to navigate and they even drive on the same side of the road. I highly recommend you do the 8km walk through the Niso valley in Autumn if you go again
    Yesterday in the SMH there was an article on Japanese literature by Jane Sullivan. I recommend reading the Australian novel Cold Enough for Snow.
    So glad you loved your time there…a country steeped in both the mediaeval age and 23rd century technology. A beautiful but sometimes bizarre culture. And what about the food?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the reading recommendation. I can understand why your daughter came to love the country so much.

  7. Mary Mauger

    Having lived in Tokyo for a while, I miss the joy of immersing myself in an outdoor hot spring, up in the mountains, surrounded by forest as the leaves turn golden, red, or as the snow drifts down onto the surrounding boulders. A seasonal pleasure!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am now really keen to see Japan in its autumn colours – must be glorious. They do seem to respond to the seasons more than we do in Australia (or Sydney, anyway). Evidently even the goods on sale in vending machines change according to the seasons.

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