We ended up book-ending our trip to Japan with stays at two different Tokyo hotels, one at the beginning (for exploration) and one at the end (for the shopping). The first was the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya, within easy walking distance to the train station and a great place to get settled to the new culture. (A fun fact: close to three million people cross the street at the famous Shibuya corner every day. It is truly a people watcher's dream!)
Our first stop, the Imperial Palace is an oasis of peace in the city and a great introduction to traditional Japanese heritage. Everything seemed to whisper respect for the past.
While it's easy to find five-star restaurants in Tokyo, it's even easier to find a local sushi bar.We selected one in the Ueno Park area.The conveyer belt selection made trying seven plates of sushi easy, and with two glasses of beer, the meal was a great value at $16 a person!
Having had a good dose of Tokyo, we took a train to the city of Hakone to see Japan's iconic Mt. Fuji. An easy couple of hours from Tokyo, it almost seems like a suburb, but it is indeed a world apart. After checking into the Hakone Hotel, we were escorted to our traditional Japanese room, complete with mat floors, floor seating at the dining room table, exquisite rock garden and an incredible view.
Our first exploration was a boat ride around Lake Ashi with views of evergreens reaching up to Mt. Fuji. Next, we took a gondola to get a bird's eye view of the mountains and lake on the way to the hot springs. After a relaxing walk, we headed down the mountain on a cable car, and returned to our hotel. From that day forward, I was convinced anyone could get around modern Japan.
Departing Hakone, we were quickly on to Kyoto-by the famous bullet train. At 270 miles an hour, we expected to hold on to the armrest, but it's a gentle ride. And the views were like channel surfing on National Geographic! Look out one window and see a small city, look out the other window and see rice fields, look back and see beautiful mountains. The train is that fast and the view that spectacular.
Before we knew it, we had arrived in Kyoto, a city truly one in harmony. We saw the Golden Pavillion, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the geishas in the small streets of the district of Gion, (the setting of the film Memoirs of a Geisha), and we experienced a traditional tea ceremony at Ryokan Yoshi-ima. After tea and a stroll down the shopping maze, we headed back towards the Kyoto Hotel Okura (the premiere hotel in the city, used for all the Heads of State for the Kyoto Treaty meetings). Walking down the river, we stopped in one of the hundreds of restaurants, clubs and sushi bars along the way.
Then it was back to Tokyo for one more day before we flew home. Our last highlight was the outstanding shopping near our Hotel Seiyo Ginza, an area where Rodeo Drive meets Times Square, and continued on to Takeshita Street, where teenagers redefine what to wear. Japan is legendary for its luxury brand adoration and J-pop culture. In Tokyo, you can shop for fashions that you didn't even know existed!
Reflecting back on our holiday, one thing was clear-perception is not reality. Travel to Japan is truly enriching, but being rich is not a requirement to enjoy the country. All this culture doesn't have to come at a high price. With competitive airfares equal to other long haul destinations, most hotels easily compete with New York and London. The value is multiplied by the fact that there is no tipping!
The experience of a modern, safe, friendly place with a unique culture- that seemed to be created to share with the world-has left an enduring, invaluable impression on us. Japan truly is in perfect balance.