Apart from being one of the most advanced countries in the world, Japan is also the world’s second largest economy, the third largest in purchasing power, a dynamically modern metropolis and is continuing its technological improvement and expanding its high rises.

Mount Fuji at 3,776 meters is not only Japan’s tallest mountain but is only known as the country’s best known symbol. We were unable to see it because of the weather conditions.

The four largest Japanese islands are Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū and Shikoku, together accounting for 97% of Japan's land area. Most of the islands are mountainous, many volcanic; for example, Japan’s highest peak, Mount Fuji, is a volcano. Japan has the world's tenth-largest population, with about 128 million people. The Greater Tokyo Area, which includes the de facto capital city of Tokyo and several surrounding prefectures, is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 30 million residents.

With its rich history and culture, magnificent Buddhist Temples, shrines and Museums and galleries, as well as soul-stirring, graceful and gorgeous festivals, this archipelago of 6,852 Islands is one of the most, if not the most attractive destination for world travelers. Buddhist images are to be found almost everywhere especially in temples and represent a moving inspiration for the millions of Japanese.

Tsurugaoka-Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura.

Almost every nook and cranny in Japan celebrates its own festivals and events in response to the transition of the four seasons. Called ‘Matsuri’, these festivals have their origin in Shinto and Buddhism and attract millions throughout the year.

In addition, Japanese gardens, which excel in the creation of symbolic miniature replicas of landscapes with the restrictions of a few hundred meters or less, are renowned around the world. These gardens are ravishing combinations of plants, sand, water and rock that celebrate the beauties of nature in a structured artistic form, all in accordance with the principles of Buddhism and Shintoism.

The Ministry of Tourism in Japan and the Japan Tourist Bureau have embarked on an ambitious project to promote the country as a tourist destination and hosted a group of eight American journalists to showcase the country’s vast potential as well as its rich cultural history and astounding cuisine.

On arrival at Narita International Airport, the team was welcomed by interpreter-tour guide Maya Kudo and taken directly by bus to Radisson Hotel Narita, located about 20 minutes from the Airport.

Nestled in 13 hectares of beautiful grounds, the hotel has 490 spacious guestrooms, all equipped with large western-style bedding and comforters, high speed broadband internet access, 24 hour English speaking internet support, help desk, in room printing solution,  English cable TV channels, DVD player, iron and iron board and windows that can open.  The hotel offers the kind of warm hospitality, attractive ambience and friendly services that is bound to attract business and leisure travelers.

The group was shown around the property and later had dinner, with a choice of Chinese and Western food; the next morning after a sumptuous breakfast, we set out for our first engagement, visiting Ishi Bashi strawberry farm in the Chiba Prefecture area.

The farm produces about 15,000 strawberries plants with the berries sold locally. The method of planting is an innovation, with four inch pipes used as a pillar and the strawberry planted in a one foot square box, which makes it easier for picking.  It explained that there is a continuous water supply.

With mild climate, rich soil and bountiful seas, Chiba ranks second in Japan for agricultural production and 7th for fishing.

Rail car view - Nokogiri Yama Mountain

Our next stop was Nokogiriyama Mountain.

The ropeway for the rail car has been used regularly by people who have visited the Mountain. The oblique distance is 680 meters between the stations at the foot and top of the mountain and the car is served every five minutes.

In the building at the top of the mountain, there are an observation restaurant, resting room, telescopes, souvenirs corner and other historical materials.

There is a Japanese temple called Nihon Dera at the opposite side of the mountain. In the garden of this temple, there is what has been described as the greatest images of Buddha made of stone. This is the biggest Buddha in the Orient, where thee are some 1,500 images of Buddha. 

Japanese Temple Nihon Dera,
carved into the mountain side at Nokogiri Yama.

Part of the Fish Restaurant
menu near the Kanaya Museum.

Some members of the team decided to go up the remaining portion of the mountain.  It was a strenuous trek but we made it. A total of 3.5 million people use the railcar every year.
 2 photos to use here

Our next stop was the Kanaya Museum which housed some rare paintings. The administrative Director Hiroshi Suziki explained that he was planning an extended Museum. It was small but impressive and we later had lunch at The Fish, a restaurant built with a glass wall to overlook the sea view. The meal was sumptuous.

In the afternoon we went to the Kisarazu area and witnessed a Geisha Dance Show as well as had an exclusive experience of Geisha Training.  The Geishas were in small numbers and the authorities are working on plans to encourage the younger generation to take part in Geisha training.

The Geisha Dancers performing in the Kisarazu area.

We then moved to Kanagawa Prefecture via the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line.  The Tokyo Wan Aqua Line comprises two 10 km long tunnels under Kawasaki waters and a 5 km long bridge over Chiba waters as well as two man made islands in between. 

The Wan Aqua-Line is a toll road crossing the middle of Tokyo Bay along which coast large cities, including Tokyo, Okohama, Kawasaki, Chiba, Kisarazu are located. The project is regarded as a feat of engineering and it is the first in the world of its kind. It was built in December 1997.  We drove though the Yokohama Bay area and settled in at the Hotel New Grand (Yokohama).

General Douglas McArthur's famous
desk at the New Grand Hotel

Yokohama was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1st, 1923. The New Grand’s most famous guest was General Douglas McArthur.  The room with his desk and chair is still intact today.

Yokohama is located in the center of Japan, along the coastline of Japan’s Pacific Ocean and one of the 15 Japanese Government designated cities.

During our next tour, the group experienced a Kimono and tea ceremony, which was educational as well as fascinating. We sat almost flat, experienced the special tea and saw Miss Kimono in her dress wear.

We lunched at Komyo-ji temple, (Shojin-Ryori) and experienced a vegetarian cuisine.
Going towards the Temple we came across a beautiful temple, protected by the carvings of two ferocious lions.

A beautifultTemple close to Komo-Ji Temple, (Shojin-Ryori).

The Bell Tower at Kawagoe,
regarded as a very symbolic tower.

In the afternoon we were taken on a sightseeing tour of Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Temple as well as Kotokuin Temple with the Great Buddha in Kamakura. The group then continued to Sensoji or Assakura Kannon, dedicated to the Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion.  This is one of the most popular sights in Tokyo. Many rub on the smoke of the incense which is continuously burnt in a cauldron. Then we moved on to Nakamise, a shopping street stretching some 250 meters from the main grounds of Sensoji Temple.

Next we viewed the huge statue of the Buddha, an awesome structure which captivated all those in the viewing area. Known as Kotokuin Temple, (Great Buddha) It belongs to the Jodo Buddhist sect. It is 11.31 meters tall.

This bronze statue is the symbol of Kamakura. It is the second largest in Japan. The statue is hollow and can be entered by a door in the back. The Great Buddha is attractive in all seasons and millions the world over visit Japan to see this magnificent structure.

Kotokuin Temple, (Great Buddha) a
symbol of Kamakura and
the second largest in Japan.

Later we visited a traditional Ryokan and experienced the spa facilities at Ryugujyo Spa Hotel Mikaduki. With 22 rooms, the hotel offers a clean and healthy atmosphere. Here, like all the other facilities, visitors must take off their shoes before entering the property. It was certainly a unique hotel.

The group divided into two and was taken on an Arakawa River Boat trip down the Rhine in Nagatoro. It was most exciting and exhilarating. There was ice on the water and snow on the rocks on both sides of the river. A boater steers the small boat with pole and take you down the River which has varying rapid and slow currents. With the precipitous cliffs called Chichibu-Sekiheki, the area is truly remarkable with magnificent mountains and bed rocks,

The Arakawa River with magnificent
bed rocks & cliffs called Chichibu-Sekiheki.

A room in a Ryokan is usually a single large, undivided room floored with traditional Tanami (rice-straw matting), with the only piece of furniture being a single low table. Doors are shoji (sliding screens), and decoration will usually be one or two simple ink brush drawings or scrolls. Seating in the room is on cushions, called a zabuton, arranged around the low table. In the winter season, there may be a blanket around the table. You slip your feet under the blanket for the warmth from a kotatsu electrical heating unit.

Guests sleep on futons (Japanese-style beds) laid out in the evening by maids after the evening meal. It ordinarily consists of a mattress, sheets, thick coverlet, and extra blankets if needed.

The entire town of Nagatoro north of Chichibu has been designated a Prefectural Nature Park and the Arakawa river passes through the center of the town.

Our next trip was at a Sake Factory where the process was explained and where some members of the group took part in tasting the various products.

We followed this up with a  tour of the Soba Making factory; we divided up in pairs and began the process of soba making, starting from sifting the flour, making the dough and cutting them to the required size.  Later we ate the soba we produced. Members of the group were thrilled at the experience.

An inspection of Kawagoe Town was next on our list of activities. Kawagoe is a town rich with history and culture. One of the most significant events takes place on December 31st each year. After cleaning their houses, they hold a family reunion and about midnight, temple priests all around the country strike their temple bells. The bell tower in Kawagoe still exists today.

The tower actually is a symbol tower of Kawagoe which bears national and local importance. The first Bell Tower was built in 624. The present tower was rebuilt after the big fire in 1893. Rising 16 meters above ground, the Tower still preserves its beautiful uniformity of style. Today the bell chime rings four times a day, at six in the morning, twelve noon, and three o’clock in the afternoon and six o’clock in the evening.

Built in the years of Kan-ei period, the symbolic clock tower of Kawagoe struck time for over 350 years. The three storied wood building is 156.2 meters in height.

Kawagoe City is located slightly south of Central / Saitama Prefecture on the northeastern edge of the Musashino tablelands.

The famous Tokyo Tower
lights up the sky at
333 meters high.

Out attention was turned to Tokyo where the Tokyo Tower lit up the sky and remains one of the main tourist attractions today. 

The Tokyo Tower opened in 1958 and is 333 meters tall. It weighs 4,000 tons and transmits 24 broadcast stations. There are 176 floodlights. It is illuminated with orange lights in the winter and white incandescent lights in summer.  From the special observatory on the top of the Tower, one can see Mt. Tsukuba and Mt. Fuji..  Mt. Fuji is the center of a wide ranging natural recreation zone.  It is a wonder to behold.

In the evening we were guests at Yakatabune, Tokyo’s Dinner Cruise, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit.  We were welcomed by Mr. Sakae Yagishita, Senior Staff Member, Planning Team, Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs.

Yakatabune originated during the Heian Period as a form of entertainment for the aristocracy. Today entertainment on the water takes place in large private rooms that can be easily enjoyed by anyone. The boats are also used year around for banquets for weddings and other occasions as well as for business negotiations and entertainment.

Onboard facilities include not only the Tanami-style rooms, but also katatsu (low tables) with pits under them to make sitting more comfortable which we were accommodated.

The New Tokyo Tower
under construction. It
will be 634 meters high.

The Tokyo Sky Tree construction site proved to be one of the highlights of the tour. The tower features a silhouette inspired by historical Japanese architecture featuring Sori (concave curves) and Mukum (convex curves). The triangular pyramid shape at the bottom transforming into a cylindrical shape as it goes upward, reducing the feeling of its massiveness and the impact of shadows on the surroundings.  The silhouette varies depending on the location and angle from which it is viewed.

The tower was named after the development concept ‘to form a rich community caring for the people’ surrounded by clean air and lush green trees.  So far, 281 meters have been completed. The final height will be 634 meters. Mr. Mochizuki Yasunori Manager of Sky Tree Sales and Planning Division of Tobu Tower Sky Tree Company explained how the work was being done on the Tower.

He said the Tower will be lit up by two types of lighting used alternately every other day. The operations are called iki, the manly spirit held by the urbane commoners of Edo, and Miyabi, one of the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals, meaning elegance.

We checked in at Hotel Nikko, Tokyo, in the Odaiba area.  Located bayside on the dining and shopping island of Odaiba, the hotel has the Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower, and city skyline as its backdrop.

After breakfast at Hotel Nikko, the group set out for Odaiba which is a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay, across the Rainbow Bridge from central Tokyo. It was initially built for defensive purposes in the 1850s, dramatically expanded during the late 20th century as a seaport district, and has developed since the 1990s as a major commercial, residential, and leisure area.

A suspension bridge over the port of Tokyo City, the Rainbow Bridge is located on Tokyo Bay’s northernmost area, spanning the distance from the Shibaura Wharf.  The Port of Tokyo, once known as the Port of Edo, developed as a strategic water transportation hub for supplying goods and materials to the former capital, Edo. It became a gateway for international trade in 1941.

Since then, it has been the vital waterway facilitating production and consumption for 40 million people in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  The Bureau of Port and Harbor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Tokyo Port Promotion Association have opened Tokyo Minato-Kan (Tokyo Port Museum) to give visitors a glimpse of the history of the Port of Tokyo, as well as the current conditions and plans of the Waterfront Sub-center.

At our next stop at Odaiba, it was explained that Bayside Tokyo’s new symbol, the Rainbow Bridge was finished in 1993. It is over five hundred meters long and ferries three lines of public transportation, namely the Rinkou Douro or Portside Avenue, Metropolitan Expressway (on the upper deck), and the Yurikamome New Transit (on the lower deck). Walking across the bridge is possible during times when they open the walkway.

To fit in with Tokyo’s central skyline, the towers keeping the bridge up were colored white, and can be viewed from Odaiba.  Lamps located on the bridge’s supporting wires illuminate the bridge at night with three different hues, green, white, and red, powered by solar energy harnessed during the day, an ingenuous way to keep the city “earth friendly”. What is more, the Rainbow Bridge collects no toll.

One of the many attractions in Odaiba is Aquacity, a shopping mall featuring various stores, boutiques, restaurants, cafes and a 13 screen cinema complex. There are nice views of the Rainbow Bridge from the wooden deck in front of Aquacity and neighboring Decks. We visited Hamarikyu Palace, which is a very extensive Hotel with marvelous spa facilities. Some of the guests were bathing in the nude with their children.

During a visit to the Ryogoku area, we experienced some of the products at a Paulownia furniture store, followed b a visit to Lion Dou, a clothing shop that caters only for sumo wrestlers. Later we lunched at Ryogoku, (sumo wrestler’s pot) we were amazed when we saw the size of the sumo wrestlers pot. It was huge It took four of us to eat one pot of food.

Next we took a turn at making our own lanterns at the Japanese Chochin Company. Owner / Proprietor Osamu Onda Satomi explained how the lanterns were made and guided members of the group to make their own lanterns. It was a thrilling experience for all of us.

The Asahi Beer Tower and Asahi Super Dry Hall with its characteristic Flamme d'Or were, completed in 1989 and host the headquarters of Asahi Breweries. Furthermore, several restaurants can be found in the complex. This landmark is a building pretending to be a beer glass with an adjacent big golden object.

An inspection of the Tsukiji Market, (fish auction and sightseeing) was an unexpected surprise. We left the Hotel at 4:30 a.m. and drove to the Market, the largest in the world which sells some 20 million tons of fish daily.

At first glance, the area where Tsukiji is located appears to be nothing more than a mass of narrow streets lined with hole-in-the-wall sushi stalls, sushi knife sellers, vegetable and fruit stands, and a few good luck charms and other items.

Tuna being inspected for auction at the
famous Fish Market, (Tsukiji Market).

This is the place to locate, at wholesale, the world’s finest seafood delights. Tuna is what the auction is known for, but each aisle is stocked with an array of fish, guts, shells, fish heads, tails, and numerous unidentifiable other things that seem to be in demand enough to warrant a lot of them being sold under this roof.

The fresh tuna auction is closed to the public and the massive frozen tuna that were lined up on the cement floor. Each was labeled with a number and was waiting for transport to its new owner among the stalls. Adjacent to these now “off the market” fish, the auction was still going on.

The prospective buyers paced in front of the tuna and periodically inspected one from the tail end with a flashlight. This is the only way they have of checking the quality of the frozen flesh; there is  a lot at stake when it comes to determining whether the tuna is worthy of its rating.

Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world's largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. The sight of the many kinds of fresh fish, shellfish and other seafood and the busy atmosphere of scooters, trucks, sellers and buyers hurrying around, make Tsukiji Market one of Tokyo's major tourist attractions.

Just outside of the wholesale market is a thriving "outside market" of small retail shops and restaurants that cater to the public. Here you can find all sorts of food related goods, knives, vegetables and fish for sale in smaller (than wholesale) portions.

A visit to Tsukiji Market is best combined with a fresh sushi breakfast or lunch at one of the onsite or local restaurants. Restaurants typically open around five in the morning and close between 12:00 and 15:00.

Since the wholesale area of Tsukiji Market is a site where serious business is conducted, it is important for visitors not to interfere with the action by adhering to the following rules: At one time tourists were barred because they touched the tuna and wanted photos taken. Now no flash is allowed and no tourist is allowed to touch the fish.

— Feature and photos by Edwin Ali, Jetsetters Magazine Editor.