Kanazawa Castle Garden, Japan

Highlights of a Cultural Journey in Japan, Part One.

Story and Photos by Ashok Khanna.

Tokyo Tower, Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo Tower

Impressions: “Arigato goziamsu” or “thank you” are words I heard most during my 20 days in Japan, usually accompanied by a slight bow or “eshaku,” signifying politeness.  I joined an organized “cultural tour” of Japan with 13 other travelers, stopping in Tokyo, Hakone, Kanazawa, and Kyoto.  My leading destination was Kyoto, the capital for several centuries that is known for its cherry blossoms and Buddhist and Shinto temples.  I picked the dates of the tour on the off-chance that we would be there when the flowers were in full bloom, and they were.

Japan in the late 1980s: I had been to Japan several times before in the late 1980s, but the visits were for meetings with the Japanese aid agency and export-import bank in Tokyo. I did not get much time to get a feel for the country; I just took taxis to attend meetings and flew off.  At that time, Japan was at the peak of its post-WWII economic success, confident and prosperous. I recall everything being embarrassingly expensive despite being on an expense account. Aside from Japan’s economic success, which served as an example for other developing countries to emulate, I had long admired Japanese culture, its authors, and movie-makers, such as Mishima, Murakami, Kurosawa, and Mifune.  At a more mundane level, I eat Japanese food regularly, probably twice a week, because it is healthy, simple, and relies on natural ingredients to appeal to the palate.

 On this visit, in addition to taking more time to experience and understand Japanese culture, I had an added quest.  I had published a book about Emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Indian subcontinent around 250 BCE.  He is credited with starting the spread of Buddhism to the rest of Asia, including his non-violent, compassionate, and effective governance. I have traveled to many Asian countries looking for remnants of Emperor Ashoka’s influence.  In Japan, it was initially through Prince Shotuko (574-622 CE) who promoted Buddhism and issued a 17-article constitution, which strongly resembles Ashoka’s edits about the administration of justice. I found a plaque in Kyoto’s Kosho-ji temple referring to “the legendary Prince Shotoku who spread Buddhism throughout Japan.”

Designated Smoking Area, Tokyo, Japan
Designated Smoking Area

Cultural highlights: It doesn’t take long to notice the differences between Japan and other developed countries. The streets in Tokyo, other cities, and even small towns we passed through were spotlessly clean; all toilets, including public toilets, which are generally available, are not only clean but have seats that are electronically adjustable for warmth and can also shower your bottom upon request.  The sense of order carries over to crossing streets. No one jaywalks. People patiently wait until the Walk sign permits them to cross the street. I couldn’t resist disobeying this rule a couple of times just to feel naughty, thumbing my nose at the citizens’ passive obedience. I did get a couple of quizzical gainjin (foreigner) looks, but no censure. Consistent with order and politeness, the incidence of violence is low, especially with guns, which are covered by stringent regulations. Death by firearms is about 10 per year in Japan compared with 20,000 in the US.

Kyoto-Station, Japan
Kyoto Station

All trains, including city metro lines, are clean and run on time.  Signs are posted in Japanese and the Roman alphabet, making it easier for foreigners to get around. People are extremely polite, considerate, and helpful.  Younger people understand enough English to help with directions, often with the aid of a cell phone. Like in other countries, there is little conversation on platforms or in trains as everyone is busy on their phones.

People dress well, the vast majority in Western clothes. Younger people wear casual clothes and carry a backpack, and working men in their thirties and beyond are in dark suits, white shirts, and dark ties—the “salaryman” costume of the 1980s. In the ritzy areas of Tokyo, along the Ginza, women are dressed fashionably, carry the latest accouterments, and are well-coiffed, too. This is especially noticeable when walking through large department stores like Mitsukoshi.

On my first evening in Tokyo, I stepped into a small restaurant across the street from my hotel. Just three of the ten tables were occupied. They gradually filled up with men aged 35-55 in salaryman costumes and began their drinking and eating for the evening, customarily returning home to their wives around midnight. Has Japan changed in the intervening decades, I wondered?

The level of service everywhere was outstanding—at restaurants, shops, and in transport. Staff always greet customers with a bow and ended the service with one as well. Japan has four levels of bows: categorized as eshaku, a simple 15-degree bend or nod of the head; keirei, a 30-degree tilt to show respect; saikeirei, a full 45- to 90-degree bow intended to show the deepest veneration or humility; and dogeza, a fetal prostration expressing utter subjection or contrition. Most bows are eshaku, but some services, such as in restaurants, often merited a saikeirei.  Shops always carefully wrap any purchase, equivalent to a gift wrap in the US, as a show of respect for the customer.

I noticed that commuter trains are not as crowded as they used to be when staff on platforms had to push people into cabins. Now, the staff just bow to the conductor and driver as the train passes. Other staff is also available to assist travelers, a service no longer available in the US and Western Europe. While this is great for travelers and tourists, it may not be economical. Indeed, I got the impression of excess labor employed elsewhere as well. One morning, I noticed about 10 yards of the pavement outside our hotel was being repaired, and there was an employee at both ends, bowing and directing pedestrians to a clearly marked diversion. I was reminded of a conversation with a former World Bank colleague whom I met on my first full day in Japan, who bemoaned the lack of productivity growth in the country.

After walking around Tokyo for a couple of days, I suddenly realized that I had not seen an obese person. I knew about this, but the reality is striking. It is usually ascribed to the Japanese diet based on seafood, often raw and low on fried foods. However, the amount of food consumed by my neighbors in restaurants did not endorse this reasoning. They managed to scarf down a plate of fried rice on top of an entire bowl of Ramen with a pork chop in it while I could just about manage to finish one of those dishes.  The diet is clearly not low in carbohydrates. I have yet to solve this puzzle.

I did not notice a single homeless person living on the street. Japan’s social safety net seems to be better than in other developed countries and is supplemented by close family relationships emphasized by Shinto beliefs.

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto, Japan
Tour Highlight: The Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-ji, officially named Rokuon-ji, is a World Heritage Site in Kyoto. The temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and after his death in 1408, according to his will, it became a Zen Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect.


Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi, Japan
Tour Highlight: Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi

Tour: Our tour group had couples and singles of a certain age and a local tour leader. We visited Tokyo, Hakone, Kanazawa, and Kyoto in that order. Hotel accommodations, inter-city transport, visits to cultural sites, most meals, and in-city transport were included in our package. Hotels had a three-star rating except in Kyoto where we were upgraded to a four-star. Rooms in the two hotels were small but were designed well and had every amenity customarily provided, and more, as items travelers sometimes forget, were available at a display near the front desk. Except in Hakone, the hotels were near stations that had striking modern steel and glass architecture and included shops, restaurants, supermarkets, and department stores. Kanazawa Station had received a major overhaul with a futuristic design that featured a glass-and-steel dome resembling a Samurai helmet and a giant wooden gate like the torii found at Japanese shrines. The Kyoto Train Station structure has a fluidity of space, intriguing discontinuities of scale, open roof lines, and a futuristic quality.

Because Tokyo was bombed and burned during WW II, it is an almost entirely modern city without many remaining older structures. Hakone, a resort town for Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Kyoto, has a modern downtown but also older historic sections that were enjoyable to walk through. Some neighborhoods have been renovated for tourists, with restaurants and craft stores.

Cultural aspects of our tour: We spent a morning with two Sumo wrestlers and learned about their training, competition rules, and the food they ate to bulk up, which we tasted at lunch. I found it bland, not at all what I imagined and wondered how they ate so much of it. Taiko drums have been used since ancient times for various reasons ranging from communication, drama, and rousing the army for battle. While the tutorial was interesting and included us beating out a rhythm, a show we attended later in the week was downright thrilling and had my pulse racing.


The parquetry and inlay demonstration at the Hamamatsu-ya workshop in Hakone was engrossing, and the products were exquisite. I had vowed not to buy anything on this trip as I was downsizing, but I could not resist a natural woodblock portrait. A geisha mother (in charge of a geisha house) explained their role as entertainers and conversationalists. She played music and danced briefly to show us her art and we also saw a performance later with two dancers of this stylized craft in elaborate and ornate kimonos. At the same show, folk song singers got a more participatory reception from the audience.

Green tea, hot and cold, is a staple drink in Japan. We were taken to Fukujuen Tea Company and given a talk on tea preparation where we ground treated leaves, which I fumbled, to make our own cups.  Later, the medley performance we attended had a segment on Chanoyo, the ritualized preparation, serving, and drinking of green tea. (Unfortunately, it is not my favorite beverage.) Our other hands-on experience was a visit to Kakuichi, a leading company making gold leaf sheets for the decoration of Buddhist temples. We received a demonstration of the process for making these fine gold sheets and made our own postcard with one sheet. The company’s gallery and shop had alluring art objects, and I almost succumbed to a second purchase but was let off the hook because I didn’t have my passport.


I did not know that there were several kinds of sushi, although I had eaten all of them at one time or another. We received a lesson in making Nigiri Sushi, raw fish (usually) placed on a molded, vinegared and salted ball of rice.  My effort was not particularly pretty, but it held together. I also did not know that it is customary to eat sushi with one’s hand. That is helpful, as I sometimes have to struggle with chopsticks to keep my bite together. When the teacher/chef, with decades of experience, was asked what he ate at home, he said “curry”, a poetic contrast from the natural, pure ingredient of raw fish to a complex mixture of spices to embellish vegetables, fish or meat.

Our next lesson was in cultural arrangements of flowers or Ikebana. There are three components; height, density, and angles to form a harmonious presentation. This quest for harmony carries over to exquisitely designed gardens around temples and castles, and all crafts.  I saw some huge flower arrangements later at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

Kenrokuen Garden
Kenrokuen Gardens

For the culture of garden design, we visited Kenrokuen Garden, adjacent to Kanazawa Castle, which is among the best in Japan and the world. “Kenrokuen” means a garden that combines six characteristics: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water sources, and magnificent views. It was raining on our first visit so I went back on the next day, a sunny one, to absorb fully its beauty. The garden has a museum on one side that exhibits crafts in wood, lacquer, porcelain, textile, and paint that looked perfect, clean, spare, and balanced. (The craft store in Kyoto that we visited a few days later had woodblock prints, other paintings, and calligraphy of an equally high standard.)  That night, a few of us ventured into the garden within Kanazawa castle to catch the light and music show.  The changing colors of lights reflected on the garden, pond, bridge, and tall surrounding curtain walls, accompanied by classical music, were mysteriously beautiful.

Kanazawa Castle Garden, Japan
Kanazawa Castle Garden Light Show

Hot spring baths were available in our hotels in Hakone and Kanazawa, where I ventured to try one. It was quite a process. The first step was a thorough shower before entering the shallow rectangular pool, maybe 15 feet by 8 feet and 18 inches deep.  Once in the pool, seating was on a built-in pool-side stone deck recliner. I soaked in the warm spring water for about 15 minutes with a customary hand towel on my head, wondering what it was for. Coached by a fellow bather, I discovered the towel was for rubbing off accumulated minerals after exiting the pool in a process that involved sitting on a stool in front of a telephone shower.

On the drive between Hakone and Kanazawa, we stopped at a community market and adjoining community house. The medium-sized market was expectedly well laid out, with all the products neatly packaged. In the community house, a group of volunteers helped us make our lunch of rice with a hearty miso soup, which had a lot more vegetables than we normally get in the USA.

Dressed in Kimonos
Dressed in Kimonos

In Kanazawa we visited the 280 years old indoor Omichi market with 170 stalls selling every kind of product neatly displayed. I tasted some sweet strawberries and a microbrewery’s IPA with some bite to it. Our group of 14 people was divided into smaller ones of three or four for an arranged home visit with local families. My group of three visited a retired couple in the suburbs. Their house felt small because of the size of the rooms, but the kitchen, dining and living rooms had modern appliances and furniture. We managed to exchange some information about our lives with their broken English and the aid of a translation app. He was the retired owner of a small software company and his wife had been a secretary. They talked about their visit to the US.  hey dressed us up in kimonos for photographs. A glimpse of local life is definitely better than none.

Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan
Hakone Open Air Museum with works by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Taro Okamoto, Yasuo Mizui, Churyo Sato, Susumu Shingu, Constantin Brâncuși, Barbara Hepworth, Rokuzan Ogiwara, and Kōtarō Takamura.

Museums did not get much emphasis on our tour, but some of us did venture off on our own.  I wandered through the extensive grounds of the Hakone Open Air Museum, which had pieces by internationally renowned sculptors such as Rodin, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth.  It also had an entire building dedicated to Picasso’s works, where I viewed a couple of the artist’s cubist paintings and a large collection of his ceramics.  Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art had long lines at the entrance on a sunny day, but unfortunately, only a few galleries were open inside. One small room was dedicated to a painting by Anish Kapoor, a large, oblong black hole on a slanted wall titled “Creation.”  More of his sculptural work was on view outside as seats and a children’s play area sculpted in rounded, shiny aluminum. The nearby small D. T. Suzuki Museum was dedicated to his autobiography.  Born in Kanazawa, he was a Buddhist philosopher credited with spreading Buddhism to Western countries through his lectures and writing.  In keeping with his teachings of simplicity, the museum’s architecture had clean lines and a room looking out on a contemplation pond for self-reflection.

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Japan
Kyoto Imperial Palace

Nijo-jo Castle is really a museum showing the living quarters of powerful Shoguns, but it is also decorated with remarkable wall paintings, especially nature scenes. Some rooms displayed mannequins in traditional period dress that looked just like in the Samurai movies I have seen. By comparison, the Imperial Palace in Kyoto was not as artistically impressive but had lovely gardens and was surrounded by a huge garden-park. On the day of my visit, a Kemari game was recreated. Dressed in elaborate traditional costumes, people stood three-to-a-side in a square and tried, not too successfully, to gently kick a ball to each other in the air, with the object being to keep the ball in the air as long as possible.

Read more of this Japan travel experience in Highlights of a Cultural Journey in Japan, Part Two.