Exploring Japan’s tranquil traditions

Japan is a heady mix of modern mayhem balanced out by a tranquillity of tradition. I am 10 minutes into a 20-minute meditation. I’m sitting cross-legged with my legs slowly going to sleep, and my arms twitching a little, but I’m completely at peace in the Kyoto temple. The manicured Japanese garden behind me acts as the ultimate relaxation background music – a waterfall flows and birds cheep. Our guide, Shunkoin Temple reverend Takafumi Kawakami, talks us through the benefits of meditation, particularly how they can enrich and balance out our modern lifestyles. Afterwards we sip on green tea and nibble a sweet treat while we reflect during quiet time. It’s all part of the overnight stay at the temple – one of 70,000 temples still standing in Kyoto. Economists have predicted that by 2050 just 10,000 of those will be left because of expensive upkeep, so Rev Kawakami designed the accommodation package to raise money to help preserve the building and continue sharing its history. We leave feeling lucky to have experienced such an enriching practice, but it’s what we’ve come to expect since landing in the incredible country It’s a place like no other, and one that quickly captivates all the senses. There’s the dizzying pace, the mixed culture of traditional and modern delights, and the people who will miss their trains to make sure you get on the right one. And then there’s the food. Oh, the food. From the freshest sashimi I’ve ever devoured, to the yakitori (skewered meats and vegetables grilled to perfection) and gyoza (dumplings), the cuisine is not only mouthwateringly delicious but also always presented and arranged like a work of art. Kyoto is just one stop on our two-week Japanese adventure. We buy a rail pass (about $500 for the fortnight) which gives us unlimited bullet train access between major cities, as well as some local trains. We start our getaway in Tokyo, and head to our accommodation at the Brunswick-esque suburb of Shimokitazawa. Effortlessly oozing cool, the hipster neighbourhood is filled with vintage boutiques, pop-up cafes and live music venues. We check-in, over-indulge in karaoke and then head to the bustling suburb of Shinjuku to check out Golden Gai – a six-block radius of more than 200 tiny themed bars. It’s one of those places that you have to ask the locals where it is, but once you’re there it’s astonishing. Each bar has its own theme and a capacity of just 3-10 people. Most charge a cover fee, but that usually includes a free drink and bar snacks. It’s a part of town that attracts celebrities, sports stars and musicians, with some bars only opening to VIPs. We feel a little heavy-headed the next morning when we grab a train to Kyoto, but green tea ice-cream on board helps ease the aches. We spend our days in the former capital city admiring the rich heritage and fascinating culture. We stroll through the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a path of 10,000 orange gates dedicated to the god of rice and sake, admire the gold-leafed temple, Kinkakuji, and make the short journey to Nara to explore the world’s oldest wooden temple, Todai-ji. In between gazing open-mouthed at the architectural brilliance we make sure to eat okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) from street vendors, visit bright and busy game arcades and buy beer from vending machines, for no real reason other than where else can you do that in the world? I know as soon as we board our plane home that I haven’t even scratched the surface of this amazing country – many more adventures await. But first, a little meditation to help balance out the fast-paced but truly captivating experience.
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