Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo, Japan

A Predawn Institution – Bring Your Galoshes!

Jet lag can be a wonderful thing. If you find yourself wide awake at 5 A.M. and in the mood for some predawn action, the cavernous wholesale Tsukiji Fish Market seethes with activity, as you would expect of a place that supplies 90 percent of the fish consumed in Tokyo.

Wander this staggering market’s side aisles; you won’t believe some of the things consid­ered edible, much less prized delicacies. In a country where fresh seafood reigns supreme, maguro (tuna) is king: fresh and frozen, torpedo-size tunas are hauled in from the fishing boats alongside the market’s riverside piers or flown in from as far away as Africa.

At any of the lightning-fast auctions that begin the day, as many as 190 tons of tuna can be sold, and one fish alone can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. If you’ve worked up an appetite wandering the 50-acre market and are considering sashimi or sushi for breakfast, no one guarantees fresher fish nor a wider variety than the market’s no-frills sushi bars, such as Sushi Dai. They get high marks for local color too.

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The Park Hyatt Tokyo – Japan

An Avant-Garde High-Tech Aerie

You’ve never seen anything like this ultramodern hotel (unless you’ve seen the award-winning Lost in Translation, which was filmed here) occupying the top floors above Tokyo’s busy nightlife district in a futuristic fifty-two-story skyscraper, one of the city’s most dramatic.

The largest guest rooms in Tokyo are equipped with every gadget and infinite amenities, including huge bathrooms, some with superlative views of Mount Fuji. The numerous restaurants offer soaring spaces with unmatched views.

The starkly beautiful Kozue restaurant and the stylish, super-trendy top-floor New York Grill/New York Bar – the latter with two-story windows, an amazing 1,600-bottle wine cellar, an open kitchen, and fabulous original art – have brought an unprecedented level of sophisti­cation to Tokyo. Together, they’re the city’s uncontested power scene. The gym and pool area are housed in a three-story glass-enclosed pyramid, making sunset and the neon-lit evening hours the perfect time to work out.

The gorgeous, understated East-meets-West ambience in every facet of the design captures the trail-blazing essence of Tokyo better than any other city hotel – and that says a lot.

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Climbing Mount Fuji and Restoring the Soul – Shizuoka, Japan

Japan’s Sacred Mountain, and a Rejuvenating Soak

Hailed as a goddess, revered as a sacred mountain and the country’s national symbol, 12,390-foot Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest peak, a per­fectly symmetrical volcanic cone that’s spellbinding when not shrouded in clouds, and is particularly beautiful when reflected on the mirror-calm surface of Lake Ashi-no.

Famous throughout the world, the dormant volcano has always exuded a strong pull on the Japanese, who believe that to experience goraiko (sunrise) on its summit is one of the most moving of all natural experi­ences. They also admit that while everyone should climb Fuji-san once, only a fool would climb it twice. Still, judging by the huge num­ber of gung-ho climbers who show up every summer – an impressive number of grandpar­ents in their seventies and older among them – a good many of them must be return con­tenders.

Six mountain paths, each with ten stations, lead to the summit, but most climb­ers begin a five- to six-hour climb to the top from the fifth station (8,250 feet), at either Gogome on the north side or Shin-Gogome on the south. The descent is a breeze.

The name Fuji means “fire” in the Ainu language, and in the resort area of Hakone, within the Mount Fuji National Park, intense volcanic activity can be observed from the funicular that passes above the Valley of Great Boiling (or Ojigoku, Big Hell) and its steam­ing sulfurous gorge.

Public baths tap into searing-hot, mineral-rich onsen (hot springs, which abound throughout Japan) and promise to cure everything from stress to rheumatism to muscles sore from climbing the mountain. Despite the modernization and Westernization of Japanese cities, onsen are a tradition that refuses to die, and on weekends the wonder­fully scenic area of Hakone fills with Tokyo­ites who come for a long, hot soak.

Of the handful of traditional ryokan inns with their own indoor and outdoor onsen, Gôra Kadan, the former summer residence of the Kan-In-No-Miya imperial family, is one of the nicest in the country. The renowned Hakone Open-Air Museum houses sculptures by Henry Moore.

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Sapporo Snow Festival – Sapporo, Japan

A Winter Extravaganza

The Japanese talent for reshaping nature is unmatched. Small wonder, then, that the country that has raised ikebana (flower arranging) and garden design to an art form has also transformed this winter festival into a world-famous show where hundreds of mam­moth snow and ice sculptures depict such universal forms as Michelangelo’s Pietà and the even more familiar Minnie Mouse.

Ice palaces are large enough for families to walk through, and a host of other fantasy shapes are created from packed snow and shaved ice, for which more than 38,000 tons of snow are trucked in from the nearby mountains. Some sculptures that can reach more than 130 feet in height and 80 feet in width are begun weeks before the festival’s February opening.

The festival was established in the 1950s after the dismal years following WW II but really caught on in 1972 when Sapporo, Japan’s newest major city, was chosen as the site for the Winter Olympics. Today the snow rides and entertainment transform the town into a wintertime outdoor theater and make Sapporo an excellent base from which to explore Hokkaido’s wild, dramatic interior and ski resorts. Don’t leave town without sampling the ramen noodles and Sapporo beer for which the city is famous.

Nara Koen – Nara, Japan

Towering Temples, the Great Buddha, and Roaming Deer

The highlight of the parkland called Nara Koen is a colossal bronze image of a sitting Buddha housed in Todai-ji (the Great Eastern Temple), which is believed to be the world’s largest wooden structure. Nara’s most-visited site has drawn Buddhist pilgrims and foreign visitors for centuries.

The 53-foot Daibutsu Buddha, the largest in Japan, was originally commissioned in 743, not long after Nara was founded as the capital of a newly united Japan. (The court was moved to Kyoto in 794, where it remained for over 1,000 years.) Buddhism, imported from China in the 6th century, flourished, and so did Nara as a center of politics and culture.

Nara remains more intimate in scale, and its ancient build­ings and temples more intact and authentic than in neighboring Kyoto, where ancient neighborhoods are being encroached upon as the city’s unplanned development continues. Nara Park’s 1,300 acres of ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples are home to the famous deer believed to be sacred emissaries of the temples’ gods. More than 1,000 roam the grounds, unintimidated by human visitors and endearing – until they start to eat straw handbags, schoolchildren’s lunches, even your paper map of the city.

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Walking the Nakasendo, Visiting the Tawaraya – Kyoto, Japan

In the Footsteps of Shoguns and Samurai

In the 17th century the 315-mile Nakasendo – literally “the road through the central mountains” – was the principal inland route between the capital, Kyoto, and Edo, a growing political and commercial center better known these days as Tokyo.

Today “Walk Japan” cov­ers the most enjoyable, most scenic, and best-preserved section of the Nakasendo, a 63-mile stretch that affords a glimpse of medieval and rustic Japan even the Japanese rarely see. Luggage goes by car while walkers put in a moderate 14 to 16 miles a day, stay­ing in old post towns like Tsumago and family-run inns, many of which date from the early 1600s. These inns are a highlight of the trip, providing excellent meals, the ambi­ence of Hiroshige feudal woodblock prints, and the occasional soak in a hot springs bath (onsen).

Japanese-speaking American or British academic specialists accompany you and provide running commentaries on both the Edo period (1603-1867), when the road traffic of feudal lords, itinerant merchants, and pilgrims was at its height, and contem­porary issues. It’s worth a year back in the classroom.

For a luxurious stay at the beginning or end of your trip, don’t miss the Tawaraya, a 300-year-old family-run ryokan (inn) now in its eleventh generation. Elegance and refine­ment pervade every aspect of the operation, from the almost starkly decorated accommo­dations (where the hand-painted scrolls change with the seasons) to the small, Zen-like private gardens off most of the eighteen rooms.

The gardens are an important part of the Tawaraya experience, each a harmonious blend of red maple, bamboo, ferns, stone lanterns, moss rocks, and water, revealing the serene spirit of Japanese culture. A restora­tive soak in the searing water of a perfumed cedar tub is followed by dinner, an elaborate, artistic, multi-course, kaiseki-style affair served in your room by a kimonoed attendant. After that the shoji screens are drawn and a plump futon is brought out and covered with fine starched linen sheets.

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Old Kyoto – Japan

Highlights of an Imperial City

To stroll through Kyoto is to walk through eleven centuries of Japan’s history. Once the home of the imperial court, the city was also a center of Japanese religion, aesthetics, music, theater, and dance, and reached its height as a center for crafts during the Muromachi Period (1334-1568).

Spared by Allied bombing during WW II, the city is said to hold 20 percent of all Japan’s national treasures, including more than 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines, all dispersed, often hidden, amid its modem cityscape. Kyoto’s beauty can be elusive, but thoughtful visitors can still glimpse the Japan of the past in its temples and gardens, each a compound of several buildings, like a small village.

The two-story, pagoda-roofed Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) is surrounded by gardens designed by a master landscape architect for meditative strolling; the nearby cherry-tree-lined, mile-long Path of Philosophy follows a narrow canal that is beautiful year-round.

The Ginkakuji was inspired by the 14th-century Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was destroyed by arson in 1950. Today, a three-story replica built soon after anchors the moss-covered grounds of its former site. A lovely half-hour walk from here leads to the Ryoanji Temple, whose small garden of raked white gravel and fifteen rocks has become a symbol of the essence of Zen wisdom. The Kiyomizu-era temple, built on a steep hillside, offers sensational views of Kyoto from its wooden platform.

At one time, entire neighborhoods in Kyoto grew up around specific crafts; the country’s finest artisans worked in the city, serving the imperial court and the feudal lords. Today the workshops of their descendants can be found on the quiet backstreets of Kyoto’s historic districts, and the city’s wares – including woodblock prints, silk and textile goods, lacquerware, dolls, and paper goods – are still known for their refinement, elegance, and artistry. To this day, the prefix kyo before a craft is synonymous with fine work.

There’s no better time to visit Kyoto than during any of its annual matsuri, or festivals. The three most important, the Jidai, the Aoi, and the Gion, are worth juggling your itinerary for and making hotel reservations well in advance. Proud Kyotoites by the thousands participate in the Jidai festival on October 22 – one of the newest, having started just over a century ago. A theatrical procession of costumes from the dynasties of the 8th through 19th centuries snakes its way through town, beginning at the Imperial Palace.

The cherry blossoms will be gone when the Aoi festival floats through town on May 15, but spring will still be at its loveliest as hundreds of participants wearing the costumes of impe­rial courtiers parade to the Shimogamo Shrine to pray for the city’s prosperity. The Aoi dates back to the 6th century and is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving festival.

On July 16 and 17, make way for thirty-one huge floats that make up the popular Gion festival, a procession that asks for the protec­tion of Kyoto. It was first held in the 9th century, when the ancient capital was ravaged by a plague.

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West Lake – Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China

The Most Famous Beauty Spot in All China

Described by Marco Polo as “the finest and most beautiful city in the world,” Hangzhou still offers a glimpse of old China, although what hasn’t changed over the centuries or been destroyed by revolution is today obscured by the hordes of Chinese and foreign tourists.

But during off-season or a quiet moment at sunrise, the city’s West Lake is still one of the loveliest sights you will find in China. Its mist-shrouded shores are lined with landscaped gardens, pagodas, teahouses, shaded walkways, and classic pavilions with names like Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake. It may be at its most beautiful (and crowded) in July and August, when it’s covered with a mantle of lotus flowers. The ubiquitous willow creates the perfect Chinese vignette, joined by groves of peach blossoms in spring, orange-scented acacia in autumn, and plum in winter.

By hired boat, float up to the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, the stone pagodas on the Island in the Little Ocean or, opposite this, the Island of the Hill of Solitude, whose excellent 150-year-old Louwailou Restaurant is one of many reasons to come ashore.

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Xishuangbanna – Yunnan, China

Life Among the Hill Tribes of Southern China

The remote agricultural province of Yunnan is the perfect destination for relaxed travel through rural China. Bordering on Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos, its biggest draw is the Xishuangbanna region’s small towns, which are home to more than one third of China’s ethnic minorities.

Market days, hol­idays, and festivals attract a veritable A-to-Z constellation of more than twenty-five hill tribes, from the Aini to the Zhuang, with the Buddhist Dai being one of the most promi­nent.

They still wear their traditional clothing, colors, headwear, and body art, and sell hand­icrafts that have not changed in centuries. Among other attractions in Xishuangbanna are Mount Jizu (a sacred Buddhist site to which many pilgrims come to watch the sun­rise); boating on lovely Lake Erhai; the 200- acre Lunan Stone Forest of weirdly shaped eroded rocks; Dali, a town in a beautiful mountain setting where backpackers come, stay, and tune out; and the Yangtze River’s dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge – one of the deepest in the world – where a challenging trek offers unparalleled adventure. Xishuang-banna is a tongue-twisting approximation of the original Thai name Sip Sawng Panna (Twelve Rice-Growing Districts), and there’s an exotic and kick-back feel of tropical Thailand and Southeast Asia here.

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Sunday Market – Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

The Crossroads of the Silk Road

At the foot of the Pamir Mountains, where it’s hard to remember you’re still in China, much less the 21st century, the remote city of Kashgar hosts a mind-boggling Sunday market that is any photographer’s dream. By most accounts it is Asia’s (and arguably the world’s) largest market.

Estimates of 100,000 to 150,000 people sound right – a remarkable statistic considering that it’s held weekly, and has been for probably well over 1,000 years. The Muslim Uighurs are the majority popula­tion in China’s Alaska-size Xinjiang Province, and bearded Uighur men and women hidden behind veils of brown gauze come to trade, sell, and haggle over sheep, cattle, horses, dowry chests, fur hats, spices, fruit, daggers, and carpets in a scene not unlike what Marco Polo must have witnessed when he passed through in the 13th century, heading east.

Although the Silk Road that once made Kashgar prosperous died out around the 15th century, when sea routes won most of the lucrative trade, try to explain that to these folks. Kashgar is just east of the Kyrgystan and Tajikistan borders, and its culture has more in common with the Central Asian republics than with Beijing, 2,000 miles east.