In June of 2018, sixteen of us left for the Asian country of Japan, a nation made up of many islands off the coasts of Russia, the Koreas, and China. We started our tour in Tokyo, continued on to Hakone, and finished in Kyoto. Our team had taken students to China in 2012, but this 2018 trip was our first time in Japan, and we were really excited! Japan, the size of California, has a population of over 127 million; to put this in perspective, it is over 3 times the California population. We could see the high population density in Tokyo but as our group moved southwest to Kyoto, we saw a lot more countryside. People who live away from the cities get up early, work all day, and then relax in an onsen (Japanese hot spring). Japan is full of great people, incredible shrines and temples, delicious food, and beautiful landscapes. With so much see and do in Japan, this write-up can only be a short introduction to this amazing country.
"To say the least, traveling to Japan was completely an eye opening experience. Whether it be the busyness of Tokyo or the traditions of Kyoto, Japan is truly another world. I love to take pictures and Japan was truly a dream from the Tokyo Skyscrapers to the Shinto Shrines of Kyoto. My biggest take away was the blend of ancient culture and modern technology that was highlighted throughout the trip. Having paid for the trip myself, I can truly say it was worth every penny."
-- Michael, ECHS Class of 2018
"After endlessly walking around in a foreign country, trying to experience all that I'm capable of doing within our short 7 day time frame, all I can say is that I'm not done. The scenery is beautiful. The food is even more so. The bizarre trips to "7 and I Holdings," being the Japanese equivalent of 7-Eleven, are interesting. Our EF Tour director, Yumi, provided helpful insight into the culture itself, informing us of how one is supposed to act at the various shrines and temples. Overall, through EF, we got a taste of Japan. I'm almost positive that I'll be back, Japan."
-- Tyler, ECHS Class of 2019
Going to Japan the summer of 2018 was one of the most astonishing experiences in my life and I don't think I will ever forget it. It made such a profound impact on my aspirations as a traveler. I was intrigued by the vast differences in culture and technology from Tokyo to Kyoto, it was simply stunning. The guided tour was wonderful. I learned to truly appreciate the incredible culture that I was immersed in through the astonishing architecture and considerate people. I cannot wait to go on an inspirational trip like this again in the future!
- Stefanie, ECHS Class of 2020
After arriving in Tokyo from San Diego, we saw the hustle and bustle of the most populous city in the world, just driving from the airport to the hotel. With Skyscrapers seemingly everywhere, Greater Tokyo's population is just above 38 million, which is almost 1.5 times more populous than the world’s next most populous city -- Delhi in India. "Tokyo is divided into 23 wards, known as ku, and Greater Tokyo is also a prefecture (similar to a state or province) and includes 26 cities, five towns, and eight villages in addition to its 23 wards (Frommer's Guide)." One of the most interesting things about Tokyo is there are 4 or 5 areas our group visited that are considered the central part of Tokyo. From skyscrapers, to cleanliness, to inexpensive food, to an abundance of vending machines, to……, Tokyo is one of the most fascinating cities I have ever traveled to.
One of the first things we did in Tokyo was listen to a lecture from a former professional sumo wrestler, Mr. Tanaka. With the help of a translator, we learned all about the life of a sumo, from how long tournaments last (15 days, one match a day) to how many meals they eat (two -- it helps them gain weight). We learned about the history of sumo and how tradition-based the sport is, with origins dating back to the Yayoi period (300 BCE - 300 CE). We also learned about how great life is for the top 25 world-ranked sumo wrestlers and how tough life is for those not in the top 25. If you are in the top 25, you get paid well, but below that, you get no pay. Many of the sumos live in a collective, where the top sumos help pay for meals and with their training. Sumos train from 6 AM - 11 AM, then have their first meal, and then eat again at 6 PM. Mr. Tanaka asked us how much sushi we could eat in one sitting; we said maybe 15-20 pieces. He said he would eat 150. Wow! The lecture was great, as he showed us starting stances, how to score points, and how to make the sumo face.
This picture is from the famous Shibuya crossing. During the one minute crossing this intersection will fill with about 1000 people, as people cross in every direction. Shibuya is considered the fashion district of Japan and is located next to one of Tokyo's busiest railway stations.
Shibya Crossing Timelapse
Video Credit: ECHS Student, Jonathan Rodriguez
In Tokyo we visited our first shrine -- the Meiji Shrine (pictured on the left) dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who helped bring the Industrial Revolution to Japan. Visitors to the shrine can take part in typical Shinto activities, such as making offerings at the main hall, buying charms, or writing out one's wish on an ema. The shrine is one of the most popular destinations in Japan as it welcomes over 3 million visitors for first prayers of the New Year. The Meiji Shrine entrance (pictured right) is called a torii. During the creation of the shrine, builders planted 100,000 trees to make up the Meiji Jingu's forest. It is amazing to think that this is still in Tokyo which challenges our assumptions of "city of skyscrapers."
After a three hour bus ride we arrived in Hakone, a small city known for its beautiful scenery, and it did not disappoint us! It is a popular tourist destination for both Japanese and international visitors who want a break from Tokyo. Our hotel was right on the lake, and it was an amazing experience. From wearing traditional Yukata robes at dinner, to a morning walk for viewing Mt. Fuji, to a boat trip on Lake Ashi, Hakone was a great one night stop. From there we got ready to head to Kyoto for a three night stay.
In Hakone (and later in Kyoto) we would wear Yukatas in the hotel (pictured left). Yukatas are traditional summer kimonos that are a lot lighter, and easier to get dressed in (Kimonos typically take two - three people to dress you). Our Tour Director Yumi Boyake (pictured on the right) showed room leaders how to make a traditional bed on the tatami floor. Our students definitely embraced the new culture as they 1) drank green tea in their rooms, 2) wore Yukatas, 3) tried the onsen (natural hot spring baths), and 4) slept on the tatami mats.
On our way to Hakone we stopped in Kamacura to see a bronze Buddha that was 37+ feet tall. This statue was created in 1252 AD. After typhoons destroyed the surrounding temples, it now stands in the open air. You can actually go inside!
Our last three days were spent in the wonderful city of Kyoto. Traveling via the bullet train to Kyoto was like traveling into the past (when compared to Tokyo). With over 2000 temples and shrines, Kyoto is full of religion, nature, and an inner peace that was harder to find in busy Tokyo. Even though Kyoto had a smaller population then Tokyo is still has an impressive 1.5 million people in the city, which would put it in the top 10 if it were a US city.. Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for over 1000 years, up until 1912 (when political power moved to Tokyo). The city of Kyoto showed us the contrast between the new Japan and an older Japan, where traditions and customs are more a part of everyday life. Pictured below is just a taste of Kyoto's beauty known as the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion was originally created in the 1200's, but it burned down in the 1950's and was rebuilt 5 years later. Seeing the gold leaf reflect on the pond with the greenery around it was a wonderful sight, and it makes an incredible photo opportunity.
One of the highlights for me was going to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, known as the "1,000 Torii Shrine" (pictured in both shots above). Walking up the mountain was an amazing experience (and a lot of stairs). This Shrine was dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. We saw a lot of fox masks and statues here, because it was the foxes that act as messengers to Inari. The view (pictured on the right) is from the Yotsutsuji intersection, about 30 minutes up the mountain. The whole trail is 2-3 hours, but people told us that this view would be one of the best, and we had limited time. People pay to donate each torii, with the cost starting around 400,000 yen for a small sized gate and increasing to over one million yen for a large gate. (https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html)
Pictured on the right is the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, a UN Heritage Site. That protection, along with bamboo being the fastest growing plant in the world, allows it to grow really tall. Pictured on the right was from a Kimono show from a textile factory. We got to visit a three level store, learn a little about silk production, and witness the beautiful kimonos.
We got to visit the Odawara Castle briefly, but we got a full guided tour of the large 1603 Nijo Castle. (Pictured on the left is our group shot from the Nijo Castle). It was built initially by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and later became an Imperial Palace after the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867. During the time of the Tokugawa, only the highest ranked visitors were allowed all the way into the main audience room where the shogun would sit on an elevated floor. Pictured on the right is a Buddhist temple we visited on a night walk. Whether they are morning walks or night walks, I highly recommend them!
On the last day, we took the option to Nara, and the temple and the deer did not disappoint us! Pictured left is one of my chaperones (Dave) who is keeping his cool with some very hungry deer. Nara, also known as "Deer Park," is home to over 1200 wild sika deer. You can buy crackers and feed them, just remember to keep your cool (if you don't see video below). Don't worry, they are very friendly. Although the deer were fun, the main attraction is the Todaiji Temple (pictured on the right). The Todaiji Temple dates back to 752, and it is the largest wooden building constructed in the world. It also houses the largest Buddha in Japan, almost 50 feet tall! I would definitely recommend the option to Nara.