Tour Japan with Elizabeth
I am frequently asked to explain not only why Asiatica has focused on Japan, but also for specific tips about traveling there.
Why we focus on Japan:
It is a country with rich, deep and appealing aesthetic traditions. And these traditions extend into modern times. It is full of secrets, the discovery of which is rewarding and surprising every time. It is not what it seems on the surface, which gives the observant traveler daily pleasures. There are few places outside of Japan to appreciate these particular delights.
Asiatica has been attempting to convey some of the beauty of Japan and its culture through its annual discoveries. Although we wish we could bring more back, we are particularly hunting rare and beautiful textiles from which to make our clothing.
The joy of any travel extends from just being in a different human milieu, to the daily food search, museums and gardens and churches or temples, to retail experiences — markets or boutiques and department stores, even to local transportation and daily habits. In Japan the language barrier that exists for most foreigners can be intimidating, but their organized systems are very helpful and rational.
Remember that it is a monoculture. They themselves all know the rules and subscribe to them. It is up to us to adapt, observe and marvel at how everything works. Be open to all experiences, but realize you will never belong. This can be an advantage.
Most of the time on my buying trips I spend a week in Tokyo and a week in Kyoto, with a few excursions if time or opportunity allow. And, of course, the opportunity to see exhibitions, revisit favorite temples and shrines and just wander around is an annual pleasure.
Tokyo is a huge city divided into neighborhoods. The neighborhood concept extends to maps and the whole sense of organization. Linear concepts like street names and orderly numerical series do not apply. Some neighborhoods are fancy and full of famous shops (Omotesando, for example), some are malled in imaginative ways (Roppongi), some are for old books (Jimbocho), electronics (Akihabara), department stores (Ginza, Nihonbashi, Shinjuku, Shibuya). But in all the smaller streets are hidden restaurants, galleries, flower shops, architecture …. You have to pick a neighborhood and walk around. For example, in Ueno, which is where Ueno Park and the major museums are located, there is a street where you can buy bargain items — crackers, fish, cosmetics, etc. Any guidebook will give details of the characteristics of each neighborhood.
• The food basements of any big department store (Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, Isetan).
• Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills Malls in Roppongi.
• Tokyu Hands, the most remarkable store reflecting Japanese thoroughness in sourcing every possible type of item from shoelaces to cheerleading supplies.
There is much more to discover on your own. Just remember the idea that lots of good things are hidden.
If you expected to immediately see the Japanese traditional aesthetic which lured you here, you will be sharply disappointed when you arrive. The Kyoto train station is an unattractive and hulking building with a mall inside. You do not need to enter it at all since you can just step off the Shinkansen and head to the street and waiting taxis. (Remember when using the Shinkansen-bullet train to ask for the Shinkansen rather than just the the generic “train station” since there is a separate entrance available in most cases). But once past the station, head North to your hotel and the view will slowly change. The joys of Kyoto are infinite and varied.
Temples, Gardens and Villas:
There are hundreds of temples, shrines and gardens to see (consult a good guidebook). There are also the Imperial villas: Katsura Rikyu and Shugaku-in (reservations required). My favorite places include Ginkaku-ji, Daitoku-ji, Sanjusangendo, Sambo-in, Shisendo, Nanzen-ji, Honen-in. On your first visit, do not visit too many or your impressions will congeal and the memories will not remain clear. Do not be deterred by rain and remember the seasonal flowers which bring tourists when they are in bloom. Walking down the “Poet’s Path” from Shisendo on the east side and visiting temples along the way is delightful.
It is true that the beauties of these places have not infected the main streets of Kyoto. So when you have had enough of browsing, shopping and observing city life, just jump into a cab and go to one of the places above.
As for the streets of Kyoto, once again there are surprises.
Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto follows an ancient Chinese street plan: a north-south, east-west grid. The quadrant of Shijo, Kawaramachi, Marutamachi, Karasuma dori streets contain many of the main shopping opportunities: department stores, boutiques, antique stores, bars, food markets, coffee shops, bakeries etc. But there are some outliers: Stardust and Mitate are new discoveries, You can find more by using Instagram and other means.