Japan: A reason for every season

RENDEZVOUs - Christine S. Dayrit (The Philippine Star) - November 17, 2013 - 12:00am

The intrepid explorer Marco Polo once called Japan “The Land of Gold.”  Having experienced Japan today, it is truly a precious treasure with its breathtaking beauty, natural attractions and four glorious seasons. The quiet resilience of its people, respect for nature and for one another is truly admirable.

At the NAIA airport in Manila, my schoolmate, Mary Joy Chua Serrano, assistant manager of Japan Airlines passenger sales, graciously accompanied our JAL/Universal Holidays Heritage tour group to  our departure area. Onboard the very efficient Japan Airlines’ Boeing 767, one can feel the warmth and hospitality of the airline staff who ensure your comfort and convenience.  Japanese delicacies served onboard were just a prelude to the exquisite and exotic cuisine.

A feather-touch landing in Narita airport elicited excitement and smiles from our gregarious group headed by Japan Airlines’ Joy Flores and Diana Manuel and Universal Holidays Inc.’s (UHI)  Lara Santos and Christine Manalang.

We instantly bonded as we experienced the fascinating attraction called the Kanto Region, which includes the greater Tokyo area.  Here, you can savor an abundance of nature, hot springs, heritage landmarks and delightful cuisine.  One can also feel as though the divine Creator waved his magic wand and the verdant landscape was transformed into a sanctuary of gold, crimson and orange hues.

We were warmly welcomed by representatives from the Nippon Travel Agency (NTA) and we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the Hokkaido restaurant in Shinjuku.  A delightful variety of the freshest sushi, hotpot broth with flavorful vegetables, pork, chicken katsu, Alaskan King Crab and the piece de resistance, as our host poured fine Japanese rice and raw eggs to the broth for the tastiest soup ever.  Amiable food blogger JJ Yulo of Pinoy Eats World will soon be organizing food tours to Japan in partnership with UHI.

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) and Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) graciously arranged our stay at the well-appointed Shinjuku Washington Hotel located right in the heart of Tokyo, adjacent to shopping sites, restaurants and towering skyscrapers. The air was nippy and refreshing, making us all scamper to our warm and cozy rooms replete with all the modern conveniences.

Exemplary cultural treasures we visited were the Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple, a veritable enclave of heritage artifacts and noble architecture that transports us back to the early centuries when the world was younger and simpler. Tucked away at the end of a verdant tree-lined pathway is the UNESCO World Heritage Nikko Toshogu Shrine. You suddenly realize that this sanctuary has the value of a whisper in a world of shouts. We entered the shrine, admired the antiquated and magnificent corridors and realized that though men may change, these heritage structures will always represent their impressive and storied past.

A glorious morning ensued as we explored the picturesque Nikko town, a lush paradise of evergreens, gurgling brooks and romantic bridges. Nikko is the only cultural heritage site in the Kanto Region.

The majestic Kegon Waterfalls with water raging down the precipice almost 100 meters below overwhelmed us.  The Kegon Falls are fed by the waters of Lake Chuzenji and was created by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Nantai thousands of years ago. It can be witnessed from an observation platform, which can be accessed via a 100-meter-deep elevator. Kegon Waterfalls is also a popular tourist spot from mid to late October for its autumn colors.  In the winter, the waterfall is impressive as well, when it freezes almost completely.

In Japan, their respect for nature is a poignant celebration in itself as they take their role as co-stewards of nature seriously. It has been said that God resides in nature and nature is God’s unwritten bible as well.

A stay in the charming Nikko Lakeside hotel (also hosted by the JNTA and JTA) with its private and public onsen baths was a blessed treat.  The onsens are steaming hot baths of sulfur that cleanse you physically and almost spiritually. 

The Japanese have a penchant for intensely rejuvenating onsen baths. Like a giant sponge soaked in hot water, Japan literally leaks from thousands of hot springs.  The extreme heat of the springs creates an intense sensation while the steam turns to mist as it rises and evaporates in the air.  Just outside my private onsen, lit dimly by a yellow glow, was a dramatic tree with leaves of all seasons enticing one to experience poetry in motion.  I took a photo of the sky and was puzzled by the formation of what resembled the map of the Philippines. I prayed for our own country, affected by a series of ominous catastrophes.  We can only trust the good Lord for His mercies, spirit of courage and resilience to move on from such painful tragedies.

The rustling of the leaves, the gentleness of the breeze, the tradition rooted in antiquity, the onsen of spiritual temerity—my soul was silenced.

We enjoyed our walking tour in Kawagoe, Saitama, a charming town of teak wood structures dating back to the 17th century, traditional Japanese shops, antiquated but sturdy wooden towers from where the faint immutable sound of bells resounds nostalgically. One is humbled by the thought that a lot may have changed but some precious elements of the past remain timeless. They demand nothing yet captivate our attention.

I used to think Tokyo was the most expensive city in the world.  Not anymore. In Ginza, you can find Shiseido products at discounted prices.  For bargain hunters of branded, second-hand items like Hermes, Prada, Chanel and more, check out the Don Quixote or Komehiyo in Shinjuku. For a modest sum, I was able to fill my grocery cart at Aeon Narita supermarket  with Japanese sweets and mayonnaise, truffle oil, marron glace jam, cookies and fruits. At the Shisui Premium Outlet that resembled the US Factory Outlets, luxury brands like Coach, Desigual and Agnes b. can be purchased at 70 percent off. Lara advised us to proceed to the clearance section when entering a store. 

Another highlight in the Kanto Region is a visit to the Imperial Palace, formerly called Edo Castle, which is still surrounded by its original, innermost moat. On special occasions, the main bridge is open to the public. The garden is a veritable landscape of the flowers and blossoms of each season.

An early morning breakfast of the most delectable sushi and sashimi delights in the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, as recommended by JJ Yulo is a must.  JJ, Tito Ben Lopue and I awoke before the break of dawn and excitedly visited the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo’s famous fish market where one can find 1,500 stalls selling 450 types of seafood on any given day.

The Kanto region is a balm to the senses, which must be experienced, not just explained. An intimate encounter with nature and with the Divine inevitably takes place. This is the nature of the inspiring Kanto region in Japan. No wonder Marco Polo alluded to this region as the “Land of Gold” because just like gold, the beauty and culture of the Kanto region illumines our lives with heritage and shopping treasures that compel us to return.

* * *

For tours to Japan, contact Universal Holidays at 859-3827 to 29 or e-mail  inquire@universalholidays.com. Japan Airlines flies to Narita Tokyo twice daily with departures from Manila at 9:20 a.m. and 2:50 p.m.

For more information, log on to Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) www.jnto.go.jp and Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) http://www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/en/

E-mail the author at miladay.star@gmail.com.


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