I just came back from my first trip to Japan but still have yet to come back down to earth. Wow! My husband Ben and I spent two weeks visiting my sister Carolyn in lush, laid-back Okinawa. She’s in the Navy and has been living in Okinawa for almost two years. The three of us also made a side trip to Kyoto to visit temples and enjoy its historic architecture, gardens, markets and nightlife.
This trip got me even more excited for our November 2023 Classical Pursuits trip. (It’s currently sold out, but we have another departure date in March 2024.) I loved so many things about Japan that it was hard to pick five to highlight, but here they are:
We went to this Zen temple in the late afternoon, when the light was beautiful and the crowds were thin. Tofokuji dates from 1235 and has long included traditional Zen gardens. The present ones were designed in the late 1930s by Shigemori Mirei. After full day of exploring Kyoto, we were content to sit in the interior courtyard and admire the southern garden and the effects of wind and light. This quiet, peaceful experience was one of the best parts of the trip for me. The southern garden is a traditional Zen dry garden, with real and mythical landscapes recreated in miniature. For example, the immortal islands of Chinese mythology are represented by stones, set among seas of raked sand. I also loved the checkered pattern of the Abbott’s Garden on the north side.
Our November travellers will see Tofukuji at one of the best times of year, surrounded by a riot of fiery autumn leaves, but the gardens were still lovely in early March as signs of spring started to appear. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. You can click on each image to see it in a larger size.
Ramen was our go-to meal in Japan, and it never disappointed. (OK, to be fair, it was one of our go-tos, we were so eager to try everything.) It was quick, affordable and invariably delicious. I tend to go for the tonkatsu broth, made by cooking down pork bones and often other parts like trotters until you get a rich, creamy silky base for the soup. At Carolyn’s local place, we experimented with different levels of spice and noodle firmness. Firm noodles are the way to go, and I always add a poached or soft-boiled egg.
Many styles of ramen were available in Kyoto; one of my favourites was a beef-based ramen from a no-nonsense place on Ramen koji (Ramen Street), a collection of restaurants in Kyoto Station.
Other food favourites: soba with mushroom and burdock root, and roasted chestnut soft-serve ice cream in the Gion neighbourhood of Kyoto; fatty toro (tuna belly) sashimi at Kyoto’s Nishiki market; sea grapes on a popular shopping street in Naha, Okinawa, and Carolyn’s breakfast sandwiches made with Japanese milk bread.
Okinawa is one of the most coral-rich places in the world, and also one of the best places in Asia Pacific for snorkeling and diving. Carolyn lives just steps from the colourful underwater forest off the Sunabe seawall, looking out over the East China Sea.
I had never been snorkeling before, and it was truly wondrous. After the first shock of cold, our bodies adapted, and our wetsuits allowed us to stay out for a more extended time. Along with many species of coral in beautiful shades of pink, green, orange, purple, yellow and blue, we saw clownfish, various types of angelfish, sea snakes, blue damselfish, urchins, and anemones.
I also love open-water swimming, and it was so rejuvenating to be out on the water, surrounded by sea and sky. When I’d had my fill of snorkeling, I had an exhilarating swim back to shore.
We did not go diving, but I wanted to share this image I took of night divers off Sunabe, and images of the gorgeous Okinawa coastline.
Ben and I arrived too late to see sakura (cherry blossoms) in Okinawa, and we were too early for them in Kyoto. It was hard to be disappointed, though, when took our first stroll along Kyoto’s Kamo River and were drawn to the delicate, delicious fragrance of plum blossoms. Being among other people who were delighting in these flowers was as fun as admiring them ourselves. A bonus was that different regions in Japan don’t wait for blooms to appear to celebrate sakura season. Once the season starts in Okinawa and the other Ryukyu islands, across Japan you can get everything from sakura lattes, cream puffs and Kit Kats to sakura onigiri (rice balls stuffed with pickled sakura) and sakura beer. At the onsen (public hot springs baths), one of the women’s pools had been tinted pink, with a cherry-blossom fragrance.
Shisa are traditional Okinawan guardian lion-dogs. Brought to the island from China, they are everywhere in Okinawa, and are made of stone, ceramic, wood and more. They adorn houses and businesses, whether on gateposts or fences, or on top of roofs and in gardens. The open-mouthed shisa wards off evil spirits, and the one with the closed mouth welcomes them and keeps them in.
It was an extraordinary trip. I knew I would love the cultural richness of Kyoto but did not expect to love Okinawa just as much. If you are thinking about going to Japan, I encourage you to go! More info about our trip, which focuses on Japanese arts, can be found here.
Image credit: Coral off the coast of Okinawa; そらみみ on Wikipedia