Other than walking (so much walking), the trains were our primary method of transportation during our trips to Japan. Our daily adventures always started and ended at Okachimachi Station, the Japan Rail station closest to our rental apartment. Over the course of two weeks, it’s hard not to start thinking of it as home. And after a long day, feet aching with the memory of 20,000 steps or more, hearing the words at the top of this post always brought a smile to my face:
Tsugi wa Okachimachi. Next is Okachimachi.
The words are always spoken in a polite, enunciated voice that also came to be emblematic of the country and its culture. That omnipresent voice, always in Japanese but supplemented sometimes in English (how spoiled we are), kindly reminding us of this or that. Or, in department stores like Yodobashi Camera, scores of voices loudly informing you of sales or other information at 100 decibels. Yodobashi Camera, if you’re unfamiliar, is what Best Buy would be if it had 7 floors, was filled with blinding lights, and crammed with 200% more merchandise.
But that only tells part of the story of Tokyo. Yes, its reputation as a bustling metropolis literally filled with masses of people is well-deserved, but it can also be a place of quiet serenity. Standing on our rental apartment’s balcony at 5AM, prodded awake by jetlag, it was easy to forget that we were in a city of more than 10 million. I saw neighbors emerge onto their rooftops to hang their laundry and water their plants, watched a stray cat meander through the narrow alleyways, heard the muted ring of a bell from the nearby Buddhist Temple. To the north, visible between two apartment highrises, was Ueno Park with its hundreds of cherry blossom trees.
The understated beauty of the urban parks like the one in Ueno - filled with cherry blossoms, Bonsai trees, and the traditional styling of Japanese gardens - is a reflection of the mountainous countryside outside the cities. On our way to Kyoto, watching through the window of the bullet train (known locally as the Shinkansen), it was fascinating to see the city disperse until we were in the country in just a matter of minutes. As mountains rose to the north and the coast encroached to the south, the contradiction and cohabitation of opposites that we’d experienced in Tokyo was suddenly reversed. We’d gone from a dense, urban zone with sporadic gardens and parks to a gorgeous rural area, populated here and there with small towns, the silence broken every so often by the roar of the Shinkansen racing past at 160 miles per hour.
Kyoto, originally the capital of Japan and a major metropolitan area in its own right, had a massively different feel than Tokyo. A sense of history dominated the city - everywhere were centuries-old castles, temples and shrines. Most famous of these, and by far our favorite, is Fushimi Inari shrine. Home to over 10,000 Torii gates (the gateway of a traditional Shinto shrine), it was founded 1,300 years ago.
Becky and I followed the well-traveled tourist path part of the way up the mountain, but then decided to follow a side-path on a whim. This took us away from many of the gates, but what we found was even more beautiful. The path, alternately gravel and stone steps, wound up the mountain through trees, bamboo, ancient Shinto graveyards, and even private homes. Even better, we were all alone until we reached the top, with only the sound of light rain and birds to keep us company. For all our time spent in Japan, known for Tokyo with its crowded subways and streets teeming with people, Becky and I both agree that our favorite day was climbing cracked, moss-covered steps up mountain at Fushimi Inari.