For nearly two decades, I have eagerly collected Japanese tea and sake sets, woodblock prints and geisha figurines. They delight me with their elegant and distinct design, with depictions of intricately shaped maple trees and dazzling silk kimonos and the I-know-something-you-don’t-know gaze of the women wearing them. My collection started spontaneously with a love-at-first-sight purchase of colorful geisha bookends from the 1950s. Stamped “Made in Occupied Japan,” they were at a flea market near the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, where many Japanese immigrants once worked in the orchards, and they led me to muse about another world and era.
Yet it was only in November that I finally made it to Japan. My tour started in Tokyo and included Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto. Like so many visitors before me, I thought I would make Kyoto the centerpiece of my visit, but I was also keen to veer from the traditional tourist’s path and discover Japan for myself, to see if or how it reflected my deep and rather mysterious affection for the country.
As it turned out, the dozen or so ryokan, or traditional Japanese guesthouses, in Kyoto that I contacted were fully booked. Discouraged and disappointed, I eventually resigned myself to overnighting in Nara, about an hour’s train ride to the south.
I knew Nara had its own bragging rights. As Japan’s first permanent capital, it easily maintains its noble stature with eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Daibutsu — or giant Buddha — bronze statue housed in an imposing wooden temple, as well as the tame and friendly descendants of sacred deer, which are anointed as national treasures, that roam freely among the temples, pagodas and forested parks. It sounded dreamy.
Staying in Nara, too, would put me close to Ise, or so I thought. My California friend Hiroko, who is a Tokyo native, had visited the small town a year earlier, and told me of its Shinto shrines — an astonishing 125 in all, making it essentially Japan’s version of the Vatican and a principal pilgrimage destination for many Japanese people. Spread out around Ise and its outskirts, the shrine area is the same size as Paris. Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I was curious about how so many shrines could exist in a place I hadn’t heard of until Hiroko had mentioned it, though I later learned that the 2016 G7 Summit had been held there in April.
I related this to Kayoko Kuwahara, my host at the tiny Guesthouse Sakuraya situated along a quiet residential street, as we sat sipping tea on my first evening. A fierce wind had picked up by the time my train from Kyoto had pulled in, and after a short bus ride to the suburb where Sakuraya is, I had to walk some 10 minutes in the cold to reach the guesthouse. But upon entering, I was enraptured.
After Kayoko showed me to my room — one of three she rents to guests — I took in the heavenly view from the sliding glass doors: an enclosed courtyard and dimly lit garden, a carefully shaped arching pine and a palm tree among moss-covered steppingstones. Kayoko later told me that she had bought the building in 2008 from a married couple who had operated a workshop on the grounds to produce calligraphy ink. Neither of their two daughters was inclined to carry on the family business that had existed for 130 years.
When the aging couple put the property on the market, there was intense interest in the traditional wood-and-stucco structure in this attractive district where mostly merchants had lived and worked. Kayoko felt very lucky to be the selected bidder; she had dreamed for years of opening a ryokan and saw great potential in the home. She set about clearing the enclosed garden area — “It was a jungle,” she told me — and remodeling the interior. Today, the Sakuraya is at once modest and dignified.
From the moment I set foot inside, my perch felt privileged — so much so that when Kayoko cautioned me that reaching Ise would require a very early start and three hours of travel on four different trains, I was loathe to book an overnight’s stay closer to the shrines. I wanted to return to my oasis. Moreover, it occurred to me that in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, the long and complicated journey to Ise and back would be fitting, if not adventurous. Part of the trip, Kayoko told me, would be through picturesque canyons and pretty countryside.
Before the long journey, however, I took a day to explore Nara, first indulging in some shopping along the open-air Higashimuki Shopping Mall and practically squealing with delight at the fine ceramics, brightly colored kimonos and fans on display. From there, walking eastward, I was gradually greeted by some of Nara’s ubiquitous and cordial deer, making it clear I’d reached Nara Park and was near Todai-ji temple.
I had seen photos of the temple and what’s known as the cosmic Buddha housed inside it, but these don’t prepare the visitor for the awesome, towering bronze sculpture, flanked on each side by the golden Kokuzo Bosatsu — or bodhisattva of memory and wisdom — and Tamonten — called the lord who hears all. Completed in A.D. 798 and arguably one of Japan’s most striking sights, the three towering figures held my attention. I took my time walking the perimeter, considering meanwhile what I’d read earlier, that the construction of these mighty sculptures had employed, legend has it, some 2 million laborers and had nearly bankrupted the country, in part because the statues were covered in gold leaf.
But more impressive to me was the 8th-century Kasuga Taisha Shrine, tucked deeper in Nara Park and painted a jolting red. Entering the complex, I was immediately riveted by a long passage filled with hundreds of golden and bronze lanterns, all of which surprised me, because from what I’d read of Shinto shrines, they are mostly austere edifices, void of color and decor.
After that, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Ise. The next morning, soon after departing eastward from Nara, the train passed through a long and misty corridor of bamboo stalks and then hugged the edge of a plunging forested ravine covered in radiant fall foliage. Part of the journey wound through farmland punctuated by snug villages with black-tiled roofs, small groves of crimson-colored Japanese maple trees, well-tended family gardens and solemn pagodas and temples atop grassy hills, some with simple cemeteries encircling them. In this remote corner of Japan, on this clunking rural train, I saw no tourists and few residents.
But once I reached Ise and found my way to Geku, or the Outer Shrine, I was surrounded by other pilgrims. I was among them as we crossed the wide bridge leading to the shrine area, washed my hands alongside them at long stone vessels with wooden ladles and followed them under soaring torii, or gates, marking the sacred entry.
Following a map here and later at the Neku, or Inner Shrine, some 20 minutes away by bus, I came upon shrine after shrine, quickly seeing that visitors could only get so close to the forbidding and venerated wooden structures dating to the 3rd century, all unadorned, fenced in and removed from the pathways bordered by impenetrable Japanese cedars. Shinto tradition also dictates that the shrines be rebuilt every 20 years, using wooden dowels and interlocking joints instead of nails, and only priests and members of Japan’s imperial family are allowed inside the inner sanctums. I watched, almost spellbound, as families lit votive incense sticks and young couples timidly approached the picket gates before slowly bowing in silence.
The prayers, I understood later while reading about Shinto philosophy, are for prosperity, a bountiful harvest and, above all, peace in the world. These are noble and compelling gestures, now more than ever. But my own reflections, as I sat on the lumbering train back to Nara, were of gratitude: for no vacancies in Kyoto, for seemingly commonplace yet beguiling views of Japan — not unlike the everyday scenes of maple trees and pagodas depicted on my sake sets, tea cups and saucers — and for that inexplicable and curious pleasure upon seeing those geisha bookends which still, years on, move my imagination to peacefully and happily wander to other worlds, into other eras.
Zach is a writer based in Northern California. Her website is elizabethzach.com.
This is a traditional Japanese guesthouse with three rooms to rent, each with futons and tatami mats. Japanese breakfast (fish and rice) included; continental breakfast must be ordered in advance. Rooms are good-sized and have a newly remodeled show area, but no private bath. Tea is served throughout the day in the communal visiting area. Rates: $54 to $64 per person per night.
22 Higashimuki-Nakamachi (inside the Higashimuki Shopping Mall)
Cozy family-style locale serving comfort food like thick udon noodle soup and karaage (deep-fried chicken). There is also an extensive sake list. Lunch from
$6 to $9, dinner $3 to $12.
South of Noborioji Street
The idyllic park area in the city’s northeast, where more than 1,000 tame – even affectionate – deer roam among landmark temples. Highlights include i-ji temple, a grand, wooden edifice that houses a 500-ton Buddha statue. Visitors must enter 30 minutes before closing. Admission $8; $2.60 for children.
This Shinto shrine boasts thousands of lanterns hanging within brightly painted red corridors, a feast for the eyes. A garden is also within the shrine’s walls. Free entry. Open from dawn to dusk year-round.
Higashimuki Shopping Mall
Runs north-south between Omiyadori and Sanjodori streets and is one city block west of Nara Park.
A covered arcade along two city blocks with tasteful souvenir shops, traditional tea stalls, cafes and restaurants, Higashimuki is a good place for a quick bite to eat before heading to Nara Park. Free entry.
Ujitachicho, Ise, Mie Prefecture
From Nara, leave at dawn to catch the various trains to this sprawling shrine complex often referred to as Japan’s Vatican. The shrines themselves are austere and hard to see from the pathways. Pick up a map at the Ise Tourist Information Center, located about a 10-minute walk from the Ise train station. Shrines are open from dawn to dusk, year-round. Free entry.
It is worth buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance to save time and money while traveling within the country. Visitors must book tickets from outside Japan at japan-rail-pass.com. Depending on duration of use, the current exchange rate and type of pass, prices range from $19 to $227.