Japan today is virtually a synonym for hyper-modernity: the Tokyo prefecture alone has a population of over 13 million, for example. Millions of readers worldwide enjoy fast-paced Japanese comics (manga), with their zany, misfit characters and supernatural plots. And the nation’s GDP – the world’s third largest – stands at USD 4.1 trillion.
But amongst all the hustle and bustle it’s still easy to find tranquil spaces, particularly if you’re happy to arrive at sites as soon as they open. Dr Kathleen Olive, who recently returned from a trip researching Academy Travel’s tours to Japan, has some suggestions.
Nezu Museum, Tokyo
The son of Nezu Kaichirō, a wealthy investor and railroad proprietor, established a foundation in 1940 to showcase the fine pieces of Asian art his father had collected. Chang and Zhou dynasty bronzes are displayed alongside celadonware, Japanese raku pottery, and stunning Edo-era gilded screens. The museum makes it very easy to appreciate the objects’ beauty, by rotating only a small selection of its extensive collection.
The building you see today was opened less than ten years ago: the museum has a difficult post-war history. Designed by Kengo Kuma, it presents a discreet and minimalist façade to the street, with traditional characteristics like bamboo and wooden slats reinterpreted in modern ways.
The real jewel is entirely hidden from the street, however – an extensive, traditional Japanese garden, designed to shine in all seasons. The rear wall of the museum, entirely made of glass, dissolves the boundaries between inside and outside, and draws you out to the garden and its elegant tea room. An absolute Tokyo stand-out.
This Zen garden is justly celebrated: probably designed at the end of the 15th century, it represents the moment of impact of Zen Buddhism on Kyoto, the heartland of Japanese politics and culture.
A dry landscape garden, Ryoan-ji’s fifteen rocks are grouped in small “islands” that float in a sea of raked pebbles. (You’ll only be able to spot the fifteenth stone once you’ve reached enlightenment, however.)
The best place to appreciate the garden is a sitting position on the verandah overlooking it, and it’s impossible not to feel soothed by the contrast between its monochromatic severity and the luxury of the trees and bushes that burst forth beyond its traditional oil-stained wall.
There’s a tendency to banalise Zen gardens now – perhaps the effect of all those miniature model gardens for us to rake while we wait for our medical appointments – but putting your finger on exactly why they work is quite difficult. Scientists who have analysed the rock groupings at Ryoan-ji have found, for example, that if any of the rocks were moved the entire effect of the garden would be lost.
This is probably because the groupings follow the natural growth patterns of branches, and an observer sitting in the ideal viewing position on the verandah represents the point of origin for the whole design.
Rightly considered one of Japan’s top gardens, Kenrokuen was initially designed in the 17th century and was developed over subsequent generations into a stunning retreat alongside Kanazawa Castle, highlighting the evanescent beauty of nature at all times of the year.
12th-century Chinese gardening philosophy held that a perfect garden would embody six (apparently contradictory) characteristics: spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, waterways and panoramas. Kenrokuen’s very name comes from its embodiment of all these principles, perhaps making it one of the most historically important gardens in Japan.
It’s hard to forget the sight of its statuesque trees protected by a canopy of traditional ropes (yukitsuri) from the coming snows, and there are a number of tea houses – perched on stilts over the garden’s many lakes and ponds – where you can sit in the early morning and soak up the peace.
Commenced in the 12th century, this long, narrow hall is often known as the Hall of the Thousand Kannon. This is because one side is lined with statue after statue (all gilded wood) of this Buddhist deity representing mercy.
But the Kannon here are protected by unexpected tutelary guardians, many of whom were imported to Japan from the literature of China, India and even the Middle East. Sanjusangendo is an embodiment of Japanese religious syncretism, with Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda revered alongside Vishnu and Shiva. A visit here makes it very clear how Shinto, Confucianism and various Buddhist sects flourished happily in Japan until the 19th century.
Some of Sanjusangendo’s 13th-century guardians were sculpted by golden age masters, such as Unkei. The sculptors’ skill is evident in the dynamism of the guardians’ wooden robes, whipped around by invisible heavenly winds, or the fierce pride of their facial expressions.
Present-day expressions of piety – flowers, candles and other gifts – bring to life the historical and enduring importance of this place for the city. The temple is so significant that photographs are not allowed, so visitors still pad quietly down the long hall in bare feet as incense spirals up towards the ceiling, much as they must have done centuries before.
Hundreds of tourists cross over by ferry from Hiroshima to the island of Miyajima, most of them heading for a photo opportunity with one of the many wild deer that live here, or to appreciate the dramatic beauty of the tidal torii gate that marks the entrance to the large Itsukushima shrine.
But fewer people venture up the long staircase to Senjokaku, a shrine known as the “pavilion of 1000 mats” that sits up above the more famous Itsukushima, built out over the water below.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the samurai generals who brought an end to the so-called Warring States period of internecine conflict, began construction of this huge hilltop shrine at the end of the 16th century, but died before its completion.
Senjokaku was designed as a library where special sutras would be chanted for fallen soldiers, but its focus was redirected to Hideyoshi himself after the Meiji Restoration converted Senjokaku into a Shinto shrine.
Now, numerous ancient paintings – votive offerings showing warriors, horses and the island’s ever-present sacred deer – hang from the wooden roof, and the shrine commands one of the best views from the island.
Drunkards Alley, Tokyo
Its name hardly suggests tranquility but this small complex of laneways, just five minutes’ walk from the famous chaos of the Shibuya Scramble, is a quiet place to enjoy a small glass of something with a tasting plate of local delicacies.
That’s because the restaurants in Drunkards Alley (or Nonbei Yokocho) are micro-bars, seating five or six customers at most. (A few have an extra room up a set of narrow stairs, but not many.)
So you’re guaranteed that these restaurants won’t be too noisy; that service from the owner-operator will be personal and swift; and that you’ll sample something truly unique at a very reasonable price.
Many of the restaurants in Drunkards Alley specialize: in sake from a particular region of Japan, for example, or refreshing plum wine (umeshu). So it’s absolutely the done thing to circulate from bar to bar, in the two parallel laneways that make up this tiny complex, sampling different menus. It’s an intimate, local dining experience, tucked around the corner from the fast-paced, neon nights of Tokyo.
Dr Kathleen Olive
Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.