Imagine a land of pot-hole free roads. Picture that same land with no litter on the streets, no graffiti on walls and train and bus services which don’t only run exactly on time but are spotlessly clean. Yes readers, there is one out there… As well as a country with these plus points, Japan offers a captivating journey through a blend of ancient traditions and cutting-edge modernity. Witnessing how her incredibly vast population – the capital Tokyo alone has 37 million residents – ticks certainly emphasises the vast differences between our two nations.

Seeing how locals interact, conduct themselves often with much bowing on streets, in shops, cafes and restaurants and even the queuing to board trains or buses in such an orderly fashion it’s crystal clear that there’s a mutual respect and reverence shining through. Qualities, sadly, I fear are missing back here too often in many everyday scenarios.

As we boarded the high-speed bullet train – or the Shinkansen to call it by its proper name – at Tokyo’s main station enroute to Kyoto, an immaculately uniformed team of railway staff line up at the door of each carriage. Almost synchronised when the automatic doors open, on they go, kitted out with all manner of cleaning equipment and carriage by carriage return them to super-gleaming and passenger-ready condition. With the flick of a switch the team turns the rows of seats, so all passengers face the direction of travel.

The Herald: Japan is an orderly societyJapan is an orderly society (Image: free)

A few minutes later they disembark, job done and, like a well-choreographed procession, off they disappear to await the next bullet train’s arrival and clean-up. What’s worthy to ponder is that the first high-speed bullet train ran in Japan on a new, purpose-built network back in 1964 and has delivered better and faster ever since. That was a bit of a ‘wow’ consideration for me when we reflect on the UK’s rail network.

A little over two hours later we’d completed the 280 miles distance linking the modern capital to its predecessor, Kyoto. We’d earmarked six nights there, mostly for local sightseeing but also to fit in day trips again by train – we were hooked – to Hiroshima and Nara.

Kyoto has so many attractions but, for me, three really stood out.

Arashiyama’s famous Bamboo Grove has been called serene and dreamlike and I can’t disagree. A well set-out path snakes its way through a stunning forest of sky-high bamboo trees and their rustling sound has been officially designated by the government as one of the ‘100 Soundscapes of Japan’.

A personal bucket-list focus was visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha, a renowned shrine, famous for its 10,000 or so vibrant red-orange gates leading to the sacred Mount Inari. It’s a fair old climb but worth it not only to see these striking structures atop the pathways but to see the view over Kyoto from the summit.

My third favourite was Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple in the northern corner of Kyoto. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf and on our visit, blessed with sunshine, the structure overlooking a large pond was truly mesmerising as it shimmered and shone. The origins of the temple date back to the early 1400’s but over the years – like so many other historically significant wooden buildings in Japan – was burned down. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955 after being set on fire by a fanatic monk five years earlier.

Another daytrip from Kyoto was to Nara, about 40 minutes by train from Kyoto. Aside from being known for the hundreds of deer roaming around its attractions, Nara’s main draw is the incredible Todaiji Temple, founded back more than 1300 years ago. As well as being one of the biggest wooden structures in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage site houses a 15m high bronze, seated Buddha. The nearby Kasuga Taisha shrine is another stunningly beautiful reason for visiting Nara.


Whiskey and whisky tours in Maryland & Virginia: Food and drink tips

River Kelvin wildlife sends my spirits soaring, says Libby Penman

Why Stromness in Orkney is composer Erland Cooper's favourite place

Back in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan up until 1868, time seems to stand still as we wandered through the narrow alleyways of Gion, one of the historic Geisha districts. My guide was self-styled Geisha culture expert Peter Macintosh, a Canadian one-time former soccer player who settled in Japan 30 years ago. He took us on a 90-minute walking tour, detailing the fascinating history of the Geisha culture. The word geisha translates to ‘art person’ and singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments are among the skills taught at Geisha school during an entrant’s initial five years of training. Emerging originally in the 17th century, the first Geisha entertainers were male, a fact I certainly didn’t know before the tour.

Not only did Peter know his stuff but having acted as an official photographer to the Geisha community, he knew the performers by name and had an understanding with them that his tour participants would likely wish to photograph them. It emerged during our visit that the Kyoto authorities are concerned about tourist intrusion and inappropriate behaviour by some visitors to the Geisha community and soon may well restrict access. Given that impending possibility, the access afforded via Peter’s connections felt extra special and at least respectful.

A visit to Hiroshima is of course a sobering reminder of the devastating impact of war and the resilience of the human spirit. The special museum charting that August day in 1945 and the aftermath is powerfully poignant and serenely respectful as the story is told through those who survived and those who lost loved ones in the atomic bombing. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a museum where a 100% respectful silence was the norm.

Earlier in the day we’d taken the 10-minute ferry to Miyajima to see the iconic Itsukushima Shrine with its floating torii gate. Another picturesque corner where there’s an air of Zen-like peace.

Tokyo, the pulsating heart of Japan, is a sprawling metropolis where neon lights and more of those historic temples coexist in perfect harmony. The bustling streets of Shibuya, where the iconic scramble crossing of as many as 3,000 people at a time sets the pace for Tokyo's frenetic energy and shopping.

The Herald: The historic Geisha districtsThe historic Geisha districts (Image: free)

I much preferred exploring the serene gardens of Japan’s Imperial Palace, a tranquil oasis amidst the urban chaos, and from where it’s easy to marvel at the futuristic architecture of this incredibly busy city which offers the visitor so much to do and see. In late March or early April, the country’s national flower, cherry blossom – or Sakura – draws thousands of visitors from all over the globe. We travelled somewhat earlier but thanks to early blossom in many parts we had a pretty sample of the pink and white floral explosions that captivate so many.

To cover every beautiful sight and sound experienced over a fortnight’s visit I’d need page upon page more but in conclusion, a visit to Japan is a total sensory feast for the soul, where ancient rituals and modern innovations blend seamlessly to create a truly unforgettable experience. I’m sure my memories of my first entre´ into Japan will linger long after I said ‘sayonara’ – farewell – to this enchanting land.


Peter Samson flew with Japan Airlines/British Airways via London and Paris and all hotels were booked via Pasmo and Suica pre-payment cards can be used on buses, trains and the underground as well as in shops and supermarkets.

Tokyo is known as the vending machine capital of the world with an average of one per 23 people. They offer everything from fish broth and bananas to hamburgers and umbrellas.

Kit Kats are hugely popular in Japan with literally hundreds of different flavours produced in Nestle’s giant factories there. Its popularity is said to be linked to the Japanese phrase "Kitto Katsu", meaning "you will surely win". Kit Kats are regarded as lucky charms, particularly among students ahead of exams.