Fodor's Travel Talk Forums

Fodor's Travel Talk Forums (
-   Asia (
-   -   If you only had one week in Japan where would you go and what month? (

Sarah Jan 8th, 2002 05:14 AM

If you only had one week in Japan where would you go and what month?
I only have one week. I am most drawn to Japan by it's unique culture and history. I will consider festivals want to see the purest forms of Japanese culture but very excited about looking at the historical first. Where would you go?

Florence Jan 8th, 2002 06:49 AM

Bonjour Sarah,<BR><BR>It all depends on the season, your budget, what you consider "the purest form of Japanese culture" and your knowledge of it, your language skills, ...<BR><BR>"Pure Japanese culture" has ceased to exist (if it ever really existed given the influences of China and Korea on it) about 350 years ago with the arrival of the first Europeans, and even more so since the "Meiji revolution" and the arrival of Perry's Black Ships in 1858. I suppose you refer mostly to the Edo period (16.. 1868), and most of what's left of it can be found in museums and architectural sites, but not so easily in everyday life. Surprisingly, many aspects can still be found in big cities like Tokyo if you know where and how to look (but don't expect wandering samurai and kimono-clad geishas ;-&gt;). They are to be found during local festivals, even big ones like Gion Matsuri in Kyoto (mid-July) or Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo (mid-May every two years), during the New Year holidays or the O-Bon (rememberance days for the dead, mid-August), in craftmen's studios, in lots of other small ways that are not so easy to spot in the way people think and behave.<BR><BR>I suggest you start by defining what aspect of Japanese culture attracts you most. Have a look at a general overview site like, especially the virtual museum of traditional crafts and Nipponia, or visit your closest local museum on Asian culture, or Japanese cultural center, then come back with specific questions on how and when. If you practice a typical Japanese hobby or sport (Ikebana, martial art), try to get in touch with a Japanese organisation for an introduction to some school or club in Japan. A shared hobby is one of the best way to be made to see the country from the inside, even though it is only one week. <BR><BR>I and I'm sure many others on this board will be more than happy to help you plan your trip and make the most of your time.

sss Jan 8th, 2002 08:10 AM

Thanks Florence <BR><BR>When I said the purest form I was referring to areas that are not dominated by western influence. I do have a rudimentary understanding of modern as well as historical Japan. Do not expect to find Geishas and Samarui's, appreciate fundamental influences from other Asian countries. These remarks of yours were presumptuous and alienating. Not sure if you understood this. I know that nobody wants to alienate tourism in any country at this difficult time. I do appreciate your suggestions. <BR><BR> I am just looking for what people were most impacted by and would suggest in only a week's time. I am open to interest outside of what I have mentioned. I suspect their are traditional community pockets in some rural areas where you can catch glimpses of traditional life melded with contemporary life but anticipate mostly architecture such as thatched roof villages, temples that are not so disturbed by large metropolitan settings if I am lucky. Was wondering about seaside settings. Understanding what has moved others is where I would like to begin my search. Just remember I only have one week of travel time on the ground. <BR><BR>Last have always wanted to go to the Bon festival, have attended a number of bon dances. Just learning about the Gion Matsuri do you think the pageantry is greater at either one of these? I undersand that Gion Matsuri is the largest festival does that make it a more visual experience than others or does it just attract greater crowds? Also interested in the Tea ceremony if any place, festival or institution is known for this that would be helpful. <BR>Also was wondering about the peach blossom festival anyone ever been are the crowds too overwhelming? Is it worth the trek?<BR>

Sarah Jan 8th, 2002 08:22 AM

Budget, language skills and seasons to travel are not a great concern. Would like a heads up on all so that I can make the necessary preparations/arrangements.

Florence Jan 8th, 2002 09:04 AM

Sorry if I hurt your feelings, that was not the point. Many more people than you would think appear to consider that glimpsing a geisha or maiko in the streets of Kyoto is the summum of the real Japanese experience and your question was very vague and reminded me of very common expectations that always amuse me. <BR>BTW, I'm not Japanese (French actually) and couldn't care less about the present state of tourism in Japan or elsewhere. I don't work in tourism industry, I'm just trying to share my experience of Japan to pass the time between two trips. <BR><BR>Back to the point. There are precious few things that are not influenced by the West in today's Japanese culture: religious beliefs, some of the darker aspects of politics, the yakusa "code of honor" (as if thugs had honor ...), some of the craftmen's and martial artist's ethics, things that are generally not immediately apparent and that you discover only by interacting with the people. I suppose it won't come as a surprise if I tell you you will find the more traditional ways of life mostly in rural, mountainous, very out of the way and non-touristy villages of the Japan Alps, and maybe a few fishing villages on the Sea of Japan. This means no tourist facilities and almost no way of staying there unless you find someone who is originating from there and willing to introduce you (hence my suggestion of contacting someone sharing a common interest). Even then, you will find that life has been westernised, or at least electrified, with vending machines and 7/11 in the middle of villages, as many agricultural and crafts possible made with machines, etc. <BR>As you expect, architecture will be the most satisfactory remains of the past.<BR><BR>Bon festivals and dances will be very different from a place to another and can be anything from just a bunch of people dancing in front of a stage with taped music and a very drunk drummer trying to keep the beat to a very elaborate and organised dance. You have to gather information at the local or prefectural tourism information center on when any particular place will have them. This is one of the best event to participate in in smaller places, since you will have a very good occasion of really meeting the people with their hair down. The more culturally interesting manifestations concern the beliefs about the dead and the ancestors worship that are held in rather private settings.<BR><BR>Gion matsuri is much more spectacular in terms of pageantry and attendance. It lasts about one month, culminating in the float parade, and including traditional dances and events relating to the history and traditions of Kyoto. It is one of the oldest in Japan. The whole of the city and surrounding areas is involved and although it attracts a lot of tourists, its traditional aspect remains very important to Kyoto inhabitants.<BR><BR>I'm in a hurry, will come back later (kendo practice, my students are waiting for me). <BR><BR>For tea ceremony, do a search here, at and do a search for Kyoto Visitor's Guide.<BR><BR><BR><BR><BR><BR>

Sarah Jan 8th, 2002 10:21 AM

Florence I knew you were European, building your own ego through a put down is kind of a calling card for some younger Europeans. Just remember when you respond according to those expectations you spoke of you only limit your own experience in the world. <BR><BR>You should care about tourism in every country it impacts the livelihood of individuals that should matter to you. I was not speaking of the pockets of travel agents outside the country but tourism within. This is how I feel about countries I love. I have been traveling extensively for 20 years now, not just in Europe, not just in developed countries so please spare me the sophomoric comments. Sorry to be blunt I honestly did not think you would mind judging from your own remarks. <BR><BR>Was hopping to hear about some personal experiences. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Do know many of the basics of Gion Matsuri that you mentioned can you share any personal positive experiences?

Florence Jan 8th, 2002 12:04 PM

I too have been travelling to many countries for more than 20 years. Not a "younger European" anymore, alas. Different continents, different perceptions, different sense of humour. <BR><BR>What strikes me in those (Europeans and others) looking for "the real" or "the pure" Japan is that they are looking for something that cannot exist anymore, some kind of museum, as if the Japanese had a duty to keep their country in a way that suits our desires for something different from what we have at home or for finding something that matches our expectations. I can tell you all the Japanese I know resent that, and many Kyotoites resent the way their city is turned into a museum, often under the influence of foreign residents.<BR><BR><BR>I have lots of memories of Gion festival, built over years, most having to do with spending this period visiting traditional crafts studios, foodstores, smaller temples, people watching in gardens, and receiving bits of information on the meaning of this or that particular event or bit of decoration on the floats, or just wandering down the streets on the evening just before the parade and talking with people. There is this specific ambiance in the year, the special music in the streets, that you have to be there to experience, letting yourself be lost into the crowd and led you don't know where on the night before the parade, having a glimpse of a line of 50ish dancing ladies all wearing the same yukata, or a couple, her in a beautiful yukata, him wearing shorts. Or in Yasaka Jinja, the Kyogen performance by American amateurs (rather good, despite the fact that they were wearing old kimonos that were too short for them and added to the already farcical and somewhat grotesque side of Kyogen) just after the traditional crane dance on the temple stage. The real Japan, the way it is today and the way the Japanese enjoy it, for themselves.<BR>

Sarah Jan 8th, 2002 01:44 PM

Thanks for the response Florence that is all I was looking for. Anyone who has explored contemporary Japanese literature, film or even read newspapers of some significance understands that much of modern Japanese culture has assimilated into Western Culture. <BR><BR>Just as you were drawn to participate in the Gion Matsuri festival I too want to look at some more traditional remnants of the society. No shame think this honors the cultural roots of the country. <BR><BR>My experience with Japanese friends as well as cultural centers is that they are pleased at my interest. I understand the need to protect the place you love I just would not expect the worst of people first. I find that there are always tensions between residents and tourists anywhere in the world and respect your need to protect. Just remember that there are one or two more of you out there that also respect this. <BR><BR>Gion Matsuri sounds fun you gave a very vivid picture. Are there any seaside day trips that would work well using Kyoto as a base?<BR>

Florence Jan 8th, 2002 08:36 PM

You can easily go to the Inland Sea from Kyoto, to Kurashiki (beautiful merchant architecture from the Edo period), or less known places like Kojima (entrance to the Seto Ohashi bridge), a fishing town from where you can ride a boat that will take you for a 1 hour cruise around the bridge. This doesn't sound very attractive at first (it was to me because I like modern architecture and bridge technology), but it allows for a very interesting view of the coastline and the small islands that dot the bay. Some have been "eaten" by the bridge in fascinating ways. The view from the top of the city (there's a bus going from the station to some amusement park) is quite stunning, and the small fishermen village next to the pleasure cruise boat quay worth strolling inside.<BR><BR>To go there, take a Shinkansen to Okayama and change to either the "Marine liner" to Kojima or a train to Kurashiki. In any case, go to the TIC and ask them to help for the itinerary.

sss Jan 9th, 2002 04:06 AM

Sounds great Florence thanks.

sss Jan 9th, 2002 04:29 AM

Florence I have never done a tour through a travel agent in my life. I rarely travel to new places in under one month and I am usually alone not in a group. With only one week (can't leave work longer) I am thinking it is time to do this. Have any heads up on good travel agencies for this? I have heard positive stories when people did this through institutions like the Natural History Museum. I was thinking of contacting the Asia Society in NYC (another museum). Would you know any others? I know the Japanese government organizes tours but I don't know anyone who has done this. Thanks for all your insights.

Florence Jan 9th, 2002 10:55 AM

I'm afraid I can't help you re. choice of a travel agent or tour company from the US, I live in Switzerland and I never use either. I know the main company specializing worldwide in Japan tours is Japan Travel Bureau, but I don't know what they have to offer from the US. From here, it is the usual tour of the architectural and shopping highlights.<BR><BR>I think your idea of the Asian society is best if you're really intend on a tour. You could also check what Japanese museums (Tokyo and Kyoto National Museums, Edo-Tokyo museum - find them through, universities (mostly Kyoto U), local cultural societies catering to expats have to offer in terms of short seminars and visits. For example, (Japanese Garden database, in the US) advertises a summer seminar in Kyoto. <BR><BR>Travelling inside Japan is really simple and doesn't require the help of a professional. You can book hotels by fax or mail, or rely on the TIC (tourist information centers) at the main airports and downtown Tokyo and Kyoto to do it for you, and I'll of course help you if I can.

Sarah Jan 9th, 2002 11:47 AM

Thanks Florence I am just a bit nervous about traveling in that short time frame I have always given myself longer to acclimate to a foreign destination. I imagine you can be quite brain dead while your tour picks you up drops you off, feeds you LOL. Not ruling out solo travel would be nice to conquer this new terrain. Thanks for the words of encouragement, good to know solo travel is still an option. Think I can hope a train to Kyoto, set up accommodations as easily as I would in Europe? I am thinking I will go for Gion Matsuri, so I guess I would need to book a head on lodging.<BR><BR>Just worried about the hope from Tokyo to Kyoto any suggestions for the quickest route? <BR>Ok I know I said money is not a big concern but with our economy looking as it does have any cost cutting tips? Just have to go to Japan. Was considering Latin America this year but I have had Japan on the brain for a few years now. <BR><BR>Would you choose Gion Matsuri over the Bon Festival in August? I have an attachment to the bon dance would love to see those fires lit but I can skip if Gion Matsuri is more spectacular. <BR>

Sarah Jan 9th, 2002 02:01 PM

also wondering if the weather is unbearably hot in July/August. I live in NYC which can get sticky but will Japan's summers be too hot?

Florence Jan 9th, 2002 08:03 PM

I can't help you much with tours, since I never used one either. Furthermore, I live in Switzerland and have no knowledge of what an American organisation can offer. I know the main agency specialising in Japan travel is JTB (Japan Travel Bureau), but I've never used them. I also think your best bet for a cultural theme tour would be through a Japanese/Asian cultural society or museum in your country.<BR><BR>Try also to look for cultural organisations inside Japan, like the National museums in Tokyo and Kyoto, Edo-Tokyo museum, cultural societies for expats, Kyoto University, traditional gardening societies - there's an American one that has a website and has advertised tours and seminars for foreigners - , etc. (look for them at, Japan Atlas at, and Kyoto Visitor's guide at www.kyotoguide). Many of those do organise tours and seminars for short term visitors.<BR><BR>If you finally decide to go solo, I'll be happy to help you plan the technical details of going from point A to B (inside Japan).<BR><BR>

Florence Jan 9th, 2002 08:57 PM

Sorry for the double posting, first didn't appear when I checked so I somehow rewrote it.<BR><BR>Weather in July-August is very hot and humid (around 35°C) but everything is air-conditionned and there are vending machines with cold drinks at almost every corners. I've heard it compares to New York in Summer.<BR><BR>Gion matsuri is definitely more spectacular than Bon odori, and easier to plan in terms of what's going on, when and where. For one week, I really think it is your best bet.<BR><BR>Hotel: there are lots of affordable hotels and ryokan in Kyoto (yen 4500 - 8000/night). Ma favorite locations are around the station (Hiraiwa ryokan) and in Higashiyama, around Kiyomizu-dera (Kiyomizu ryokan). <BR>If you can bear with small, tatami covered rooms with "private use of a communal bath" and no room service, you'll find a stay in a small ryokan like Hiraiwa is a great and economical way of discovering a traditional neighborhood - just don't try to engage a conversation with the yakusa living nearby (not a joke, they have a center not far and one of their boss comes at night to the public bath just next to Hiraiwa. It poses no danger at all to travellers.).<BR><BR>Book your hotel directly from either<BR>Japanese Inn Group: or<BR>Welcome Inns: Both places will send you a confirmation with a map. <BR><BR>I've arrived quite a few times in Narita and had the TIC book a room for me, even during Bon festival, but it is easier and more confortable to do it in advance.<BR><BR>Transportation: first, you'll need a JR railpass if you land in Tokyo (see travel tips at, that'll cover Tokyo-Kyoto-and back and all daytrips in between. From Tokyo, going to Kyoto involves booking your seats on the Narita express to Tokyo station and the Shinkansen to Kyoto, changing in Tokyo station is really easy. <BR><BR>If you can, try to find a flight to Osaka/Kansai airport (KIX). It is a 90 minutes ride to Kyoto, compared to 4 1/2 from Tokyo airport.<BR><BR><BR><BR> <BR><BR>

lcuy Jan 9th, 2002 10:48 PM

Hi Sarah- I recognize you from your postings on bon dance in Hawaii. I was horrified to see you and Florence get off on the wrong foot, as I sensed you to be very sensitive to local cultures and Florence is, to put it very mildly, the MOST helpful person on fodors. She patiently answers the most repetitive questions, includes web sites, and from my travels in japan, I know her information is right on the mark. I'm releived to see you two are still "speaking"!<BR>I would also recommend Kyoto for a first and fast taste of Japan. It is easy to get there, easy to get around without reading or speaking much Japanese, and there is so much of old Japan that you can't help but love it. <BR>Once you get there, visit the TIC across the street from the train station. They will give you lists of EVERYTHING going on in town. They sent us to the firefly festival at a small temple last year. It was lovely, and certainly not in any guidebook I'd ever seen! <BR>Japan will be brutally hot and humid in July or August. Coming from Hawaii last June, we died! Everyone kept telling us, 'this isn't so bad at all". Try to aim for Mid-April to very early June, or go in the fall. If you get a rail pass, you can travel from Narita into Tokyo, then hop a bullet train to Kyoto. Better yet, fly into Osaka or Nagoya. From Kyoto, you can visit Nara on a day trip. It's a bit quieter and equally "old Japan"<BR>I'm sure people think I must get a kickback (because I recommend this so often), but I recommend you get the guide book Gateway to Japan, by June Kinoshita. You will get history, architecure, religion and very complete calendars of all the festivals, along with some good info on food and lodging.

Sarah Jan 10th, 2002 05:03 AM

I do see that you (Florence) are very helpful and I appreciate you coming back to the board when my words were not always so carefully chosen. Love those links this is really helping along a dream. <BR><BR>Hello Lcuy!!! Hawaii is where I first developed an appreciation of Asian cultures glad to have your input also. You know it is hard not to go back to Hawaii but I have to discover a new place every once in a while to stay awake in life and I figure choosing Japan will enhance continued trips to Hawaii. <BR><BR>Florence is that neighborhood you spoke of safe? How will I recognize a yakusa? Have any favorite guidebooks for Japan? Lcuy anymore cost cutting tips? Funny I always feel that people think I am a travel agent for Hawaii. Well I am stuck with summer and we do have sticky ones in NYC now that I am prepared it will not be so bad, I hope! Can’t imagine it will be worse that one August I spent touring Egypt or another August in Turkey. I hope again!!! Just want to be comfortable enough to move about in the streets. I suppose you have to employ the rule of staying indoors between 12-3? <BR>

Florence Jan 10th, 2002 09:23 AM

Lcuy, you died of heat because you didn't eat the right food: Unagi! ;-)<BR><BR>"Grilled unagi is a delicacy in Japan, popular not only for its flavor but also for its stamina-giving properties. It's traditionally eaten during one of the hottest days of the summer (sometime in late July) to provide strength and vitality for the rest of the year. "<BR><BR>More seriously, bearing the rigours of summer and winter is part of the traditional culture of Japan. A lady friend of mine remarked, on seeing Japanese ladies wearing pantyhoses and full makeups in August while she was sweating all over "I don't know how they can keep their dignity in that kind of heat" ... Most sports societies will hold particularly harsh training periods at the hottest or the coldest time of the year, typically 1 week of 7-8 hours a day of hard training, and communal living (this is why I came to Japan the first time: 10 days of summer "Gasshuku" with some 50 other kendo players from all over the world), in order to foster a mentality of never being overwhelmed by the climate.<BR><BR>It is not as bad as Egypt or Turkey (or Arizona) in August, and the 12-3 rule is that you should stop in a air-conditionned restaurant for lunch, then enjoy people watching while sitting in the shade of a beautiful tree in a temple courtyard.<BR><BR>Sarah, I wouldn't dream of staying in an unsafe area, even less of sending someone to one. The yakusa avoid any action that would attract unwelcome police attention, like molesting foreign tourists, or having the neighbours complain about robberies. This makes in fact this area of Kyoto very safe indeed. You can rather easily spot the yakusa: they are the ones lounging in the shade in front of their house all day, and the boss (if he still goes to the bathhouse) will return wearing a yukata, with a helper in front holding his suit on a wire hanger and two thugs trying to look like though bodyguards at the rear. They pose absolutely no threat to anyone except maybe members of another gang (One reason being that they usually don't carry firearms; Japan is mostly firearms free). <BR><BR>There's been a turf war, mainly in Osaka, some years ago, with a few shooting. They mostly shot themselves in the feet, except for 2-3 incidents when passerbys were hit. Since then, local residents associations and the population at large have been petitioning the police for more action against them.<BR><BR>I've been in Kyoto a good dozen times, sometimes alone for weeks on end, walking all over town at night, and I have yet to find an unsafe area.<BR>

Sarah Jan 10th, 2002 09:40 AM

Thought this to be true about safety Florence just thought I would double check. Unagi (eel)(?) HELLO!!!!!! Can't wait to have eel in Japan one of my favorite pieces of sushi or main dish. I have had the best broiled eel of my life in Hawaii. In NYC it all taste the same from one restaurant to the next although I have never been to the high end Nobu. If it is not eel than I am up for a try anyway. Can't wait to have authentic Japanese food. Tell us more Florence. I am going to look for those lounging Yakusa thanks for the humorous description.

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 12:34 PM.