Japan Is a Country of Contrasts: My Journey of Transformation & Discovery on a Family Trip to Tokyo & Kyoto by Elisa Schmitz
Japan is a country of contrasts: technology meets tradition; practicality meets spirituality; efficiency meets leisure; convenience meets mindfulness; modern meets timeless. During a family trip to Japan, I learned that Japan is also a country of transformation and discovery.
In December 2019, my husband and I took our three youngest children (between us, we have seven kids) to Japan to celebrate their 21st birthdays. We were so fortunate to make this trip happen with them right before the pandemic – the world literally shut down within a few months of our return.
With the Tokyo Olympics in full swing, and with Japan under so much pressure to host a safe Olympics during an ongoing global pandemic, I want to shine a light on this amazing country and share the remarkable experiences we had – thanks to the impeccable Japanese hospitality. Here are some snapshots of our trip based on my travel diary:
It’s our first night in Tokyo and I love being here with our kids. Seeing the world through their eyes is truly special and so much fun. Through our jetlag, the first thing we noticed about this beautiful city is how clean, organized and modern it is. The skyline is a vertical paradise, with each skyscraper more breathtaking than the last. Even the bathrooms are high tech; simply designed for luxuriously clean efficiency. I may need to take one of these Toto toilets home: heated seats and push-button cleaning and flushing, wow!
When Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver) gives your identical twin daughters the best birthday gift ever for their 21st birthday. This amazing actor is staying at our Tokyo hotel and he’s the most gracious guy – he loved Cassie’s makeup look so much that he took a picture of her on his own phone.
My daughters have loved anime, manga and harajuku since they were little. Who knew that they’d become mini-celebrities in Japan, where everyone wants their picture taken with them and to follow them on Instagram.
Nothing better than exploring the world with this guy. “These camphor trees, planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of the Meiji Jingu, have grown under the protection of the deities to become huge and vivid, and are considered to be sacred. Well known as Meoto Kusu, or Husband and Wife, the coupled trees have become a symbol of happy marriage and harmonious family life. May happiness be brought to you through the divine power of these trees.” Yes, please.
Checking out Anime Town and all things Pokémon and Hello Kitty in Tokyo with our guide, Mike (wearing Pokémon yellow, intentionally, for us). He made this big, bustling city more accessible and just a joy to explore.
After an afternoon of checking out Anime Town and shopping at the awesome Pokémon Center, the kids were spotted on the street and approached by producers to appear in a TV segment on “Cool Japan,” a popular Japanese show highlighting unique things to do in Japan. They got to check out the Otter Cafe, where they played with otters, hedgehogs and other exotic animals. These two are animal lovers, so the segment was perfect for them and they had an absolute blast.
The awesome view of breathtaking Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen bullet train we rode from Tokyo to Kyoto, traveling at a speed of 300km per hour. Mount Fuji is the highest volcano in Japan (12,389 feet), and it last erupted in the 1700s. Mount Fuji's iconic symmetrical cone, snow-capped for about five months a year, makes it instantly recognizable as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where many people make pilgrimages to hike and find inspiration.
After the hectic pace of Tokyo, being in Kyoto is like a spiritual retreat. We spent time at Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple in northern Kyoto. Its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf, giving this historic monument an extra sense of reverence.
Exploring Arashiyama is a highlight of visiting Kyoto. Its famed Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights. Walking through these towering bamboo trees is like being in the most peaceful of worlds. I found myself looking for pandas, even though seeing monkeys is much more likely.
Tenryu-ji Temple is another must-see in Arashiyama. It’s a sprawling Zen temple with one of the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto. This is a holy place where you feel at peace with the world and in harmony with nature.
While in Kyoto, we participated in an ancient Japanese tea ceremony. "En" is a small authentic teahouse in the Gion area where a master of the tea ceremony demonstrates one of Japan's most mindful traditional cultural practices. En “is a name given to an art that synthesizes the preparation and drinking of tea together with spirituality, history, architecture and the appreciation of handmade tea utensils. The Japanese character 縁 signifies a connection or relation between people, spaces or things, and is considered a very important concept. 円 means circle: a shape without corners, beginning or end. The circle, with its quality of amicability immense as the sky and without interruption or imperfection, is considered the shape most expressive of enlightenment and of the highest truths of Zen Buddhism.”
One of the most powerful sights in Kyoto is its artistic and elegant (and often misunderstood) geisha, professional entertainers who are trained in traditional Japanese arts such as dance, music and witty communication. Their role is to make guests feel comfortable through conversation, games and dance performances (and nothing more).
When our tour guide suggested that I be transformed into a geisha myself – makeup, wig, kimono and all – I wasn’t so sure. Would it be disrespectful to the geisha or to the Japanese people? After several discussions with local guides and hotel staff, I was assured that being transformed into a geisha in Kyoto was not seen as cultural appropriation. On the contrary, I was told that the Japanese consider it respectful of their culture when done with reverence to their history and customs. So I took a leap, stepped outside of my comfort zone and put myself into the hands of a reputable and recommended geisha/maiko studio.
After an hour of the staff's painstaking work, I looked into the mirror and saw the end result not only of the makeover, but also of our entire Japan experience: a gentle woman at peace with the world. I didn’t even recognize myself. And, I may never look at myself the same way again.
If you ever have the chance to visit Japan, I hope you, too, will find the magic and the peace within this country of contrasts. And, I hope you, too, are transformed.
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