Pokémon Go fever is gripping the world. People are walking around with mobile phones in hand, jumping walls and fences, peeking below cars, performing all manner of acrobatics, just to catch Pokémon and gain points. My acquaintance with video games had been too cursory for me to bother to wrap my head around the mania. And then, I received the itinerary for a trip to Japan!

Serendipity? Had I just been offered a golden opportunity to find answers to all my questions? My exposure to Japan had been minimal, to say the least: stories of samurais and ninjas in movies, replicas of Katsushika Hokusai’s famous ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’, silk fans on the walls of some ‘well-travelled’ homes, porcelain geisha dolls displayed in laminate-and-glass ‘showcases’, and, of course, some generic versions of sushi and sashimi. My curiosity was high.

Arriving at Delhi airport, I’m greeted by my hosts from JAL, Okamoto-san and Nibedita-san, who deliver the first piece of good news: an upgrade to Premium Economy. Eight-hour-plus flights are always a little daunting but with a comfortable large seat with leg rests in addition to footrests, I am thankful for this extremely auspicious start.

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Shirahama beach is always thronging with people
Shirahama beach is always thronging with people

Shirahama, a resort town in Nishimuro District, Wakayama Prefecture, is first on the list. Google had already told me that the name literally meant ‘white sands’, but that years of erosion and degradation were taking their toll and Shirahama was in danger of losing its claim to fame. But the perfectionist Japanese wouldn’t have any of it—they simply went ahead and imported more white sand from the Great Barrier Reef!

This quaint little fishing port has, over the years, become a hotspot for beach buffs and watersport enthusiasts.

The Cliff Diving World Series attracts a large number of participants from across the globe. The sharp drop from Sandanbeki Rock Cliff provides the ideal platform for this sport. Standing on the edge of the cliff was enough to make my feeble heart flutter but more intrepid types—adrenaline junkies, that is—should add cliff diving in Shirahama to their bucket list. That said, views of the robust rockface being lashed by the equally powerful sea waves are available to be enjoyed by all. A perfect canvas for legends of pirates and seamen alike.

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Here's how tuna gets ready for sashimi
Here's how tuna gets ready for sashimi

For a display of little less adventure but no less skill, head to Toretore fish market, which heaves with fresh seafood and offers live demos on filleting tuna for sashimi. Not only is it a glimpse into Japan’s history and tradition but also a wonderful demonstration of these people’s fabled love of precision and discipline. Starting from the blade of the knife, poker-straight at the tip, then gently curving towards the base. The quality of the knife-blade itself is believed to lend flavour and texture to the flesh. No wonder sashimi and sushi
Clockwise from right: serene surroundings of the Kongobu-ji Temple, Kanto region; the rock garden in the temple; a taste of Shojin Ryori, the temple cuisine; and Shirahama beach is always thronging with people chefs are treated with reverence not only in Japan but all across the culinary world.

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The rock garden in the Kongobu-ji Temple
The rock garden in the Kongobu-ji Temple

Speaking of whom, back at the resort, Chef Satoru Nishi had a feast laid out: cold steamed soy milk, lily root and tortoise shell candy, zucchini scallop and squid salad, chicken pot with soy sauce seasoning, vegetable tempura with curry seasoning, red miso soup, mixed pickles, sliced watermelon, mango and kiwi with a citrus sauce. I ended my day with a long, much-needed stroll on the moonlit silver sands, with just enough time to tuck in a matcha (powdered green tea) ice cream.

Next up, Koyasan. If the tranquillity of the beachfront doesn’t induce a zen-like state in you, how about some formal spirituality? In the dense Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, located in the northeastern part of Wakayama, lies nestled the Kongobu-ji Head Temple, founded by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai). This is the principal temple of Esoteric Buddhism, with a history spanning over 1,200 years.

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Serene surroundings of the Kongobu-ji Temple, Kanto reagion
Serene surroundings of the Kongobu-ji Temple, Kanto reagion

After ‘cleansing’ at the Tsukubai (ceremonial stone water basin), I am introduced to Takua Kamei (the kachou or manager of international affairs at Kongobu-ji Head Temple), who is dressed in a flowing black robe and wooden slippers. He painstakingly explains the various aspects of the temple—the significance of the hiwadabuki (cypress bark) roof, of the daigenkan (the gate that can be used only by the emperor, the imperial family and Koyasan high officials), the kogenkan (small entrance used solely by the joko or elite of Koyasan), the various prayer rooms and halls including the ohiroma (main hall), umenoma (plum room), yanaginoma (willow room), all painted by great Japanese artists, the Banryutei Rock Garden and more. I was also given the privilege of being invited to his home for a typical shojin ryori (Japanese Buddhist devotional cuisine) meal meticulously cooked by his wife. More than 100 temples are scattered throughout Koyasan, ancient cedar forests dispersed with historic pagodas, historical ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), paved roads, restaurants, schools, cafés and souvenir shops, making it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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A taste of Shojin Ryori, the temple cuisine
A taste of Shojin Ryori, the temple cuisine

The chants from the temple town began to fade, only to be taken over by the thrumming city orchestra of Kyoto. Serving as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence for centuries, Kyoto is now one of the country’s largest cities with an ultra-modern face and equally rich history. It is also rapidly becoming the gastronomical hub of Japan, where one can find a plethora of delights including sushi, tempura, soba, udon, ramen, unagi and okonomiyaki. With such diversity I was bound to find some gems, and what a revelation tofu in Kyoto was! Nurtured and perfected by Buddhist monks over centuries, the tofu I sampled here revealed delicate and truly sublime flavours. Novices like me are advised to try the tofu-tasting menus on offer across Kyoto.

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Tofu is a staple
Tofu is a staple

I was led to just such a place, in one of the quieter streets of the famous Higashiyama District with its well preserved wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops. On the menu: hiyayakko (cold tofu topped with katsuobushi, which is dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna—green onions, grated ginger and seasoned with a bit of soy), yudofu (tofu pieces boiled in a clear, mild soup and dipped in soy sauce or ponzu (a classic Japanese citrus sauce), aburaage (thin sheets of fried tofu), koyadofu with miso, gomadofu (sesame tofu) and yuba (bean curd sheet).

In contrast to the serious business of tofu-tasting, there’s also the fun side of dining in Kyoto—ninja-themed restaurants can be entertaining and at the same time maintain high standards of food.

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Fishing village on the sea coast
Fishing village on the sea coast

Kyoto has a seaside too. The town of Ine on the Tango Peninsula, which juts into the Sea of Japan, is well known for its funaya boathouses. These quarters combine living space on the top floor and boat docks below. Originally home to fishermen, some of these funayas are now being converted into inns that give guests the opportunity to taste boathouse living. Since I didn’t have time enough to enjoy a stay, I had to make do with a glorious boat ride, under the crisp sun and with seagulls for company.

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A chairlift is the fun and peaceful way to see the view at Kasamatsu Park
A chairlift is the fun and peaceful way to see the view at Kasamatsu Park

A short coach ride along the bay and I was in Matsushima, in northern Honshu’s Miyagi prefecture. Amanohashidate is one of the most popular sites of the region, the meaning of which is roughly ‘bridge in heaven’. It is a three-odd-kilometres-long, pine tree-covered sand bank that cleaves the Miyazu Bay from Asokai Lagoon. To catch the best view of this natural wonder, I headed to the observation point in Kasamatsu Park.

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The young one knows the right way to view Amanohashidate
The young one knows the right way to view Amanohashidate

Convenience and comfort are guaranteed while travelling in Japan, and it’s no different when it comes to reaching hilltops—a gentle chairlift ride through dense forested slopes and, voila!, I’m there. Now to most, including me, the view of Amanohashidate (while standing upright) is of a sandbank. But I soon discovered that the correct way to view it is (hold your breath): stand with your back to the bay, legs apart, bending forward and, if you can still maintain your balance, try viewing it upside down!

As if this wasn’t enough for one day, back at the resort, I decide to try out the onsen.

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Women enjoy a relaxing bath in the hot springs
Women enjoy a relaxing bath in the hot springs

There are a few rules when it comes to a Japanese onsen, trivia worth knowing before you plunge into those steamy waters. Nudity isn’t just a preference, it’s the rule. A testament to the shock some of us Japan first-timers experience upon learning that we have to ditch our bare necessities to take part in the country’s favourite holiday ritual, multilingual signs are frequently posted in hotel rooms and outside the more popular hot springs to outline onsen etiquette. Some even have comic cartoon depictions for added emphasis. If you manage to get past the mental barrier, put it on your must-do list.

The Japanese often use the term ‘kyakusama wa kamisama’ which loosely translates to ‘the customer is God’. When it comes to Japanese hospitality and their attention to every tiny detail, it stands truer than ever. The country might be tiny in comparison but, make no mistake, Japan is a treasure-trove waiting to be pilfered. Go forth and plunder.

The Information

Getting There
Japan Airlines (JAL) has flights to all four international airports in Japan: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka from Delhi. The economy return fare for these are approximately 40,000 including tax. JAL also connects to around 30 domestic airports in Japan; the fare is approximately 64,500 including tax from Delhi. See in.jal.com/inl/en/

Currency
INR 1 = JPY1.73

Where to Stay
Shirahama: Laforet Shirahama (from approx. 4,000; granvia-wakayama.co.jp)
Koyasan: Temple Lodging, Shukubo (+81-73-656-2616, eng.shukubo.net). The average cost for a stay is between 5,000 and 9,000 per person per night, including dinner and breakfast. Most temples accept cash only.
Kyoto: New Miyako Hotel. Located right in front of Kyoto Station bullet train stop, this hotel offers easy access to all city attractions (from approx. 10,000; 75-661-7111, miyakohotels.ne.jp).
Ine Village: Kagi (from approx. 12,000, includes meals, funaya stay and fishing; 77-232-0356, ine-kagiya.net)
Miyazu: Miyazu Royal Hotel (from approx. 7,000; 77-225-1800; daiwaresort.jp/en/miyazu)

What to See & Do
Shirahama:
Wakayama Adventure World, to spot its star attraction—the giant pandas along with natural sights like Sandanpeki cave, Senjojiki and sunset on Engetsu Island.

Koyasan: Besides visiting Kongobu-ji temple, the mustsee sights are Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kukai, Danjo Garan, Koyasan Reihokan Museum, Daishi Kyokai and Tokugawa Mausoleum.

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A young maiko, that is an apprentice geisha, walks elegantly through the streets of Kyoto
A young maiko, that is an apprentice geisha, walks elegantly through the streets of Kyoto

Kyoto: The list here can be endless but some are unmissable. Fushimi Inari Shrine (an important Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates), Kiyomizu Temple (for its vantage view of Kyoto’s basin), Gion (the famous geisha district), Ryoanji Temple (for its famous rock gardens), Nishiki Market (the best traditional Japanese food market), Nijo Castle and Kyoto International Manga Museum. Besides these, a saké tasting tour through Fushimi, the centre of the saké brewery district, is also a must-do.

Travel Tip
If you’re going to be travelling around the country, do get yourself a Japan Rail Pass. I would recommend buying it before you travel, in India, as it works out cheaper. The approx.cost is 17,000 per adult and 8,000 per child. The validity is for 7 days, and covers most railways, bus and ferry boat travels across Japan. HIS Travel in Delhi is the sole agency handling these passes (011-45161111).