Of all the major travel destinations of the world, somehow Japan had always eluded us. We had heard it was expensive and difficult to get around, but with the strengthening dollar, we decided the time had come to make our trip.

We set off on the “beginner’s” trip of Japan-Tokyo, Hakone (Mt. Fuji) and Kyoto. What we discovered was a country rich in culture yet affordable in cost. Most importantly, we discovered a very special people. Sure, most countries have pride, but Japan has posture. It is a nation based on tradition that looks to the future. No matter where you travel, you get a real sense of caring and concern.

Tokyo is the perfect place to enter into Japanese culture. The city is style, commerce and culture all fused together. It might have been true in the past that it can be tricky to get around, but venturing out, we realized so much is in English that the train and subway are almost as easy as the Paris Metro or the London Tube (for less money)! The best bet is to get a Japan Rail Pass. The train circles around the middle of the city in both directions, making it hard to get lost. Even the taxis are an attraction. Picture a suit and tie, hat, white driving gloves and doily-covered seats. They are that impeccable.

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We ended up book-ending our trip to Japan with stays at two different Tokyo hotels, one at the beginning (for exploration) and one at the end (for the shopping). The first was the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya, within easy walking distance to the train station and a great place to get settled to the new culture. (A fun fact: close to three million people cross the street at the famous Shibuya corner every day. It is truly a people watcher’s dream!)

Our first stop, the Meiji Shrine is an oasis of peace in the city and a great introduction to traditional Japanese heritage. During the bright day we visited, we witnessed a tea master giving a lesson to hundreds of women, complete in kimonos, trying to perfect the classic art. We even spotted a bride, about to commence her wedding in a small corner temple. Everything seemed to whisper respect for the past.

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Next, we decided to contrast that experience with a bit of modern food shopping. We ventured into a department store and descended to the basement food area, where hawking vegetables reached a new height. Besides wetting our visual appetites, we witnessed the melody of excited venders selling their asparagus, fruit or fine chocolates in a “song” that rivaled most choirs.

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After the department store, we were excited to eat. While it’s easy to find five-star restaurants in Tokyo, it’s even easier to find a local sushi bar. We selected one in the Ueno Park area. The conveyer belt selection made trying seven plates of sushi easy, and with two glasses of beer, the meal was a great value at $16 a person!

Having had a good dose of Tokyo, we took a Romance Car of Odakyu train to the city of Hakone to see Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji. As our eyes rose over the evergreens, breathtaking hills and beginnings of fall foliage as we came into view of the breathtaking Mt. Fuji, it was easy to see why the mountain was such a proud symbol of Japan. The moment was certainly a signature memory of our trip. An easy couple of hours from Tokyo, Hakone almost seems like a suburb, but it is indeed a world apart. After checking into the Hakone Hotel, we were escorted to our traditional Japanese room, complete with mat floors, floor seating at the dining room table, exquisite rock garden and an incredible view.

Our first exploration was a boat ride around Lake Ashi with views of evergreens reaching up to Mt. Fuji. Next, we took a gondola to get a bird’s eye view of the mountains and lake on the way to the hot springs. After a relaxing walk, we headed down the mountain on a cable car, and took a little detour to the Chokoku-no-mori outdoor sculpture museum (filled with a range of traditional Asian art as well as a few Picassos and Henri Moores) before returning to our hotel by local bus. From that day forward, I was convinced anyone could get around modern Japan.

Departing Hakone, we were quickly on to Kyoto-by the famous bullet train. At 270 miles an hour, we expected to hold on to the armrest, but it’s a gentle ride. And the views were like channel surfing on National Geographic! Look out one window and see a small city, look out the other window and see rice fields, look back and see beautiful mountains. The train is that fast and the view that spectacular.

Before we knew it, we had arrived in Kyoto, a city truly one in harmony. We saw the Golden Pavillion, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the geishas in the small streets of the district of Gion, (the setting of the film Memoirs of a Geisha), and we experienced a traditional tea ceremony at Ryokan Yoshi-ima. After tea and a stroll down the shopping maze, we headed back towards the Kyoto Hotel Okura (the premiere hotel in the city, used for all the Heads of State for the Kyoto Treaty meetings). Walking down the river, we stopped in one of the hundreds of restaurants, clubs and sushi bars along the way.

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To really appreciate the art of Japanese cuisine we rounded out our Japan holiday with a cooking class. Not the stereotypical mirror over the stove classroom, this was a private class in our instructor’s home. A part of the WAK program (Women’s Association of Kyoto), the cooking class was just one of many amazing opportunities. Our instructor helped us discover how to use just enough flour for tempura and how to roll really tasty sushi, all while making us experts with chopsticks. She now has us convinced we should have a sushi making party at home!

Despite the promise of our sushi skills, we discovered that to experience impeccable Japanese dining, the real treat was visiting a small out of the way temple for a quaint evening dinner at the Kanga-an. The meals are entirely vegetarian (no food created from animals is even allowed on the grounds) and the ingredients are locally grown. We enjoyed a variety of 18 different dishes served with elegance and true style. We even learned that previous patrons included Jodie Foster, Brook Shields and Michael Douglas. We enjoyed all of this in immaculate surroundings that had a harmonious mix of traditional (rice paper shoji screens) and modern fixtures (black jade chandeliers). With a final drink at the bar (yes, there is a bar in the Temple) we left fulfilled in many ways.

Then it was back to Tokyo for one more day and my unexpectedly favorite part of our trip: an insider tour of The Fish Market by the General Manager of our Hotel Seiyo Ginza. Lloyd Nakano is a third generation Japanese American who has lived all over the world and has found his calling in Tokyo. He has three standout passions: his family, his hotel (The longest standing GM in Tokyo’s finer properties) and The Fish Market (the most famous Tsukiji fish market and the largest in the world!). We met Lloyd at 6am to head down and see some of the auction, tour the market and, of course, enjoy a sushi breakfast afterwards. I couldn’t put down the camera. Everywhere we looked there was action: huge fish and fast moving no-nonsense cart drivers and fishermen. Lloyd told us more information, with more enthusiasm, than the most experienced tour guides we’ve encountered. What is fresh, what is fast frozen, what this will end up costing in the restaurant, what the Russians will buy, where the tuna came from, how the buyers know what’s best, and much more. By 7:30am we were busting with new knowledge and ready for our sushi breakfast. We passed the Fodor and Lonely Planets recommended, queue- filled restaurants to the Sushi place where they knew Lloyd and we ate a spectacular meal with the freshest fish.

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Our last activity before flying home was some outstanding shopping. We began near Hotel Seiyo Ginza, an area where Rodeo Drive meets Times Square, and continued on to Takeshita Street, where teenagers redefine what to wear. Japan is legendary for its luxury brand adoration and J-pop culture. In Tokyo, you can shop for fashions that you didn’t even know existed! While other countries have decided to “Westernize” by imitating American and European fashions, Japan has surpassed that concept and decided on its own style. It’s moved from Made in Japan to Created in Japan.

Reflecting back on our holiday, one thing was clear?perception is not reality. Travel to Japan is truly enriching, but being rich is not a requirement to enjoy the country. All this culture doesn’t have to come at a high price. With competitive airfares equal to other long haul destinations, most hotels easily compete with New York and London. The value is multiplied by the fact that there is no tipping!

The experience of a modern, safe, friendly place with a unique culture?that seemed to be created to share with the world?has left an enduring, invaluable impression on us. Japan truly is in perfect balance.

by Al Merschen

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