Most first time travelers to Japan never leave the capital of Tokyo. While the big city offers many cool attractions, great nightlife and shopping, the real charm of Japan is in the countryside. Here are some places that are within couple of hours reach and make for great weekend getaways and day trips.
Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It is a charming small town near the hills designated a World Heritage Area. When you arrive, there are shops selling local ice creams and cheesecakes right by the train station. Walk about 20 minutes or take the local bus to the temples and shrines entrance.
Walk through oak and cedar forests to see the mythical Shinkyo Bridge. There are a few restaurants near the bridge that offer Japanese set menus.
See one of the largest wood tori gates in Japan and a complex of shrines at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, and the Buddhist temple next door. Toshogu is Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Plan to walk for couple of hours if you want to see everything.
Nikko National Park also offers scenic landscapes, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails. It is a spectacular place to see fall colors.
Located only an hour drive from Tokyo, Kamakura is home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee
There are also a dozen other temples in the area, but my favorite place was the Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai. Here, you can stroll through tall bamboo forests and have a cup of tea overlooking peaceful nature. Also, check out the dove shaped peace cookies popular in the area.
Kamakura is located by the sea and has resorts and apartments overlooking sand beaches, as well as boating, sailing, swimming and surfing sites.
Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than one hundred kilometers from Tokyo, approximately 1.5 hours by train.
This is a great place to see Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan. Take a boat ride in Lake Ashinoko to catch the best views.
Watch volcanic activity in action on the Hakone Ropeway through Owakudani Boiling Valley. The sulphur has strong odor and can burn your eyes when it’s windy so bring protective covering. There are also a number of open air museums in Hakone. Many people prefer to stay overnight at a ryokan in the area to enjoy the natural hot springs.
A bell tolls from a nearby temple, welcoming the rising sun as it seeps through the valleys, illuminating one pagoda at a time. Dawn marks the hours of alms for the novices that inhabit the hundreds of monasteries and nunneries of Sagaing, the holy center of Myanmar. I watched through the bamboo thatches of my hut as the novices at the IBEC (International Buddhist Education Center) descended the hill with their bowls, some balanced on their head, others falling into their hands. The younger novices struggled to keep their robes tied properly around their shoulders as they ran to keep up with the monks. They were heading to the town to ask the villagers to contribute “alms”, gifts to the monastery. It is these alms and contributions that the holy centers survive on.
I had been living and teaching at the IBEC for two weeks now, participating in the daily rituals of the novices and learning about the pillars of Buddhism. As one of two westerners, and the only woman at the monastery, there is a lot to learn quickly. The principal, a highly respected monk, welcomes me and thanks me for coming. When addressing the principal, one must sit lower than him, with their feet tucked in, as a sign of respect. When he walks through the monastery grounds, people bow on the ground to him. Every morning the monks and nuns come to pay their respect from neighboring monasteries. They kneel before him and bow their heads three times.
The IBEC gives free education to children from all over Myanmar. A lot of poorer families will send their children to become monks because it is the only education they can receive. Walking around the monastery, the children hang out of the windows exclaiming, “hello teacher, hello!” The novices range in age from three to eighteen. They wake up every morning at 4am for their morning chants and alms, go to school until 5pm, study from 5-9pm and pray until bedtime. It’s a tight schedule with little playtime. Teachers are highly respected and the young novices are extremely eager to learn. At the end of every class, they repeat, “thank you teacher, see you tomorrow teacher, thank you teacher.” The nuns also attend various classes at the monasteries. These bashful girls always sit in the back of the classroom and are easily identifiable with their bright pink robes and shaved heads. The boys and girls move in and out of the classroom separately. Gender roles become increasingly apparent when you go into town. Only men are seen eating at the restaurants and women are assumed to be home working.
The local teachers are mostly women and eager to practice their English. Each day they rub thanaka on my cheeks, a white paste made from a tree root, used to protect skin from the sun. In town, the villagers welcome the teachers with open arms. During a “food festival”, each house cooks an enormous meal and participants wander from house to house as a way to socialize with the village. When someone shares a meal with the Burmese, they are considered part of the family. I join over 30 families during my time in Myanmar.
The Burmese culture is infamous for their warm smiles and generosity. A once isolated country; its borders have now been opened to businesses and tourists alike. Aside from teaching novices, I help Burmese immigration officers improve their spoken English. They are required by the government to learn English to prepare for the influx of foreigners. At the end of my two weeks there, I am showered with gifts from my students. I leave the center feeling that I had received much more than I had given to them. This is quite common in Buddhist and Burmese culture, that is the spirit of giving more then you receive.
~ By Teresa Murphy of Tess Travels. Murphy spent three weeks living and teaching at a Buddhist monastery in the holy capital of Sagaing, Myanmar.
A country in the midst of a political transition and geographically placed along the Himalayas, sharing borders with India and Bangladesh and linking a “Golden Triangle” with Thailand and Laos, Burma, now Myanmar, is a fascinating country with the friendliest people in Asia.
I stay near the Sule Paya, a golden pagoda set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. The first thing I do upon landing is head to the bank to exchange my uncreased, unmarked US $100 bills that originated after 2006. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in the country and the banks and black market are extremely particular about foreign currencies. After this extraneous process, I wander Yangon, weaving my way through the activity on the sidewalk; the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Men use wooden crates to make their “cheroot”, betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves. I continue on to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their English and one spread his arms and said, “I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar!” That would be the beginning of many welcoming gestures from the Burmese people.
We pull into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We are greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I feel as if I have found the wild wild west. At 5am, we take bikes and flashlights and set out to the city of temples, finding one, in time to see the sky change from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly a golden orange, as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It is calming, majestic, and even spiritual. After a day of biking through the temples, I hop on a bus to Inle Lake.
Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a life source. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats take children to school each morning and businesses moving goods, ship their items over water. It’s a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a town center, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen’s stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. Each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by, doing their evening chants. I fall so in love with Inle that I choose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants.
North of Inle, lies the busy, noisy, congested, dusty city of Mandalay. The city’s grid system is set up around the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. I visit the Mahamundi Buddha, a large Buddha painted in gold every day, and the historic teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery. On the way, my taxi driver is eager to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is at a crossroads and, as the US lifts some economic sanctions, tourists continue to flow in. This transition is seen in Mandalay’s financial distract, as men go to work wearing a dress shirt and tie, with a longyi, the traditional cloth wrap, on the bottom.
Although the country is undergoing rapid changes, it’s essential to preserve the centuries old customs and traditions that make Myanmar such a unique cultural gem.
~ By guest blogger, Tess Murphy. Tess has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Australia, keeping atravel blog everywhere she went.