As I sit on the last bullet train leg of my first trip to Japan, I know it will not be my last. What a wonderful country this is, filled with wonderful people. Gentle. Sensible. Practical. Efficient. Clean. Fun. All my spirit animals in one place. No wonder travellers return here many times.
I’ve just wrapped up the 2018 Autumn Colours of Japan tour with Scott McGregor’s Railway Adventures and what a great experience it was. Kicking off in Tokyo on a sunny autumn day and ending there 14 days later, our merry band of 20 travellers has enjoyed a wide variety of experiences. From Sumo to Onsen to Swordsmith workshops, from great mediaeval castles to quiet and exquisite gardens and from the world’s busiest railway stations to the empty wilds of the mountains.
We’ve traversed the island of Honshu by a variety of trains, boats, coaches, local buses and taxis. Tokyo with its bustling stations and vibrant entertainment and shopping areas, the City of Trees that is Sendai, Niigata and its magnificent mountains, a stunning Ryokan in Hakone, the charms of Kyoto and the geishas of Gion, the breathtaking Himeji Castle, Fukuoka to join the crowds at the all-important National Sumo Championships, Hiroshima and the profoundly moving A-Bomb site and Memorial Peace Park, the famous floating Itsukushima Shrine and Great Torii Gate of Miyajima and a visit to the out-of-the-way and quirky Meiji Mura. One great itinerary.
Like many ancient cultures where deep-seated traditions are still honoured against a backdrop of modern, almost futuristic thinking, Japan is a nation of delightful contradictions – teenage girls in exquisitely patterned kimonos with the latest iPhone tucked into their obi, reverential bowing each time a train attendant enters and leaves your carriage on the famous Shinkansen as we barrel across the countryside at 300km per hour and ancient shrines and gardens wedged between high-tech high-rise in bustling cities are all part of the modern Japan.
But the most incredible surprise for me was how physically beautiful parts of it are. In a country that 127 million people call home, forests and mountains cover some 67 percent of it – twice the world’s average of 29 percent forest cover. Something that was totally unexpected for me.
Like all Railway Adventures tours, our primary form of travel was by train. Japan is one of the world’s great train travelling nations and almost every corner of the country is reached by one sort of rail related service or another. Over 22 billion train tickets are sold every year here! It also has a proud railway heritage. And on a Railway Adventures tour, we got to experience it all!
Coming from Australia where we’ve navel gazed for years about the value of a decent rail system and done nothing, Japan gives you the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and it is an absolute joy! No mucking about here – they worked out long ago that more roads and bigger airports was unsustainable and inefficient and quite literally, in 1958 they just decided to build one. The first line, between Tokyo and Osaka opened in 1964 and the rest, as they say, is history. The network now criss-crosses the country and hosts several hundred bullet trains every day, some of them carrying up to 1,000 passengers at a time. We all had Green Car (Business Class) rail passes as part of our package, so not only did we travel with speed but in style and comfort. And we even enjoyed a traditional ashi-yu (hot footbath) on the station platform in Ouchijuku and got a stamped rail ticket from a cat at Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line in Kinokawa.
Off the Shinkansen, we also used the local trains, the subway and had VIP journeys on some of Japan’s lovely rail heritage trains – the JR Banetsu Monogatari at Aizuwakamatsu, the Tozan Mountain Railway from Gora to Hakone, the Sagano Forest Railway along the Hozu River, the SL Yamaguchi steam train between Tsuwano and Yamaguchi. Throw in a couple of ferries, a canoe down a river, a local bus or two and some taxis and we covered pretty much all modes of transport on offer.
The autumn colours here are nothing short of spectacular. Red, brown, gold, orange, purple and variations of the above breathtakingly carpet the hillsides, roadsides and village squares. In Hakone, the garden surrounding our luxurious Ryokan was a Zen-like paradise – autumn colours, trickling waterfalls, pebble ponds. All this with a glass of champagne after the garden Onsen and before our incredible private eight-course Japanese banquet.
Which brings me to the glorious food on this journey. You will never go hungry in Japan. Scott and his team made sure we enjoyed the best, and sometimes the quirkiest meal experiences in the country. We indulged in everything from traditional and beautifully presented Teppanyaki to Tempura, Sashimi to Shabu, Okonomiyaki to Sumo Wrestler’s Stew, with a couple of Italian menus thrown in to break it up a bit. One of the best nights was in Sendai, where we dined at Palinka, the home of the famous Sendai Singing Chef. The restaurant was exclusively ours and the menu and wine carefully chosen to impress. But it was when Chef broke into Puccini with Second Chef on piano that the night really ramped up!
The line up of hotels was impressive and included The Strings Intercontinental in Tokyo, the Grand Sheraton Hotel in Hiroshima and the Granvia in Kyoto, all luxury hotels above major railway stations – too easy! Two standouts though were the magnificent Westin in Sendai, where rooms start on the 27th floor, ensuring uninterrupted sweeping views from every room and the stunning Tenyu Ryokan in Hakone, where you feel completely transported out of the crazy modern world into one of peace and tranquillity, helped along by having your own private Onsen on the balcony.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we were in a country where the people are generous spirited, respectful of everyone, polite, welcoming and fun! And don’t start me on the toilets of Japan! Suffice to say it is now my benchmark for public loo luxury!
I will most certainly be returning, along with so many others who fall in love with a country on their first visit.
Bernadette Eichner is an over-50’s business owner, traveller and blogger who also provides product consulting and tour leading services to Railway Adventures. She travelled as a subsidised guest of the company.