Vail Daily travel: In Japan, a mix of old and new |

Vail Daily travel: In Japan, a mix of old and new

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Vail Daily There's always a crowd surrounding the purification fountains outside a temple. Ritual dictates that you should rinse your hands with a ladle full of water and rinse your mouth

VAIL, Colorado ” Walk the winding, narrow stone roads of Kiyomizu and you’ll likely be so engrossed by the maze of eclectic shops and the smell of food that you won’t notice the main attraction until it looms before you.

The stone steps of the Kiyomizudera temple rise into the hillside, and the bright orange gate towering at the entrance nearly glows in the sunlight. The entire scene ” the ancient wooden Buddhist temple nestled amidst the trees, and the various elaborate shrines that dot the hillside ” sharply contrasts the crowds of tourists, all wielding the newest model of impossibly tiny digital cameras.

But such is Japan.

The country is an intriguing mix of old world East Asian tradition and Western modernity. Ancient Buddhist and Shinto temples sit amidst cities of towering skyscrapers, and men in business suits can be seen bowing to each other on the streets of Tokyo.

It boasts some of the best outdoor recreation, the coolest technology and yet has a shroud of mystery in its tradition and history.

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Take Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera ” the main temple has a wooden veranda that has a rather strange history. It was once believed that if you jumped off the veranda and survived the more than 40-foot fall, your wish would be granted.

During the time this was in vogue (roughly the early 1600s to the mid 1800s), there were 234 recorded jumps and an 85 percent survival rate. Peering over the wooden railing, you’d think the jump was possible ” if you could perhaps land in the bushes and skirt those rocks …

Another hillside shrine, Jishu-jinja, supposedly can predict success in your love life. Two stones are placed across from each other in the shrine’s plaza, and those who successfully walk from one to another blindfolded will find love.

Japan has a startling mix of options for any adventurer, especially for a country smaller than California with a population a little over a third of the population of the U.S.

Here are a few other picks worth the trip:

– Japanese hot springs: Spending time at a hot springs resort is quite popular among the Japanese. Atami is a picturesque seaside town with many hot springs hotels built right on the ocean around the springs. You can choose from more modern lodges or a traditional style Japanese hotel (ryokan), complete with tatami floor mats, sliding doors and low-sitting tables.

The hot springs take a bit of getting used to ” you’re provided with dish-rag sized towel for the springs and a yukata robe to wear into the changing rooms. But don’t worry, this is not nudist day at the local pool. The views are beautiful, the water relaxing and the pools spotless.

One hot spring resort actually had two different pools ” a cavernous indoor pool and a partially outdoor pool that overlooks the ocean.

– Fuji-Hakone National Park: Catch some views, or if it’s the right season, make the climb up Japan’s most famous peak, Mt. Fuji.

It can be tough to get a good view of the dormant volcano ” it’s often shrouded by mist and clouds.

There are several ways to see the peak. You can take the shinkansen, or bullet train, from Osaka or Tokyo and see the mountain from the station. The train is a fun experience in and of itself ” it goes almost 200 mph and is a great, comfortable and efficient way to get around.

Or make the short hike up to the nearby Hakone sulfur springs. The volcanic mists rising from the ground look pretty impressive and the view of Fuji is worth the hike, if you can withstand the rotten egg smell from the sulfur.

At the sulfur springs, also try the famed hot spring eggs, which are hard-boiled over the sulfur springs, making the shell turn black.

They don’t taste any different, but they’re said to prolong one’s life for seven years. Don’t eat too many.

– Shopping in Tokyo: Japan boasts some of the most exciting and vibrant cities, especially Tokyo, where about a third of the entire country’s population is congregated. Going over to a different neighborhood in Tokyo can be like going over to a completely different town.

One moment you’ll be looking over the moat at the thick stone walls of the imperial palace, and the next moment you’ll be browsing through high-end stores in the Ginza shopping district.

Even if the thought of designer clothes doesn’t interest you, Japanese department stores are worth checking out. They’re huge, first of all, and they sell everything from elaborate pastries to stationary to the latest electronic gadget.

One of the most fascinating neighborhoods is the Akihabara district. It’s a dizzying maze of video game arcades, electronics shops and neon lights. Not only is this the place to find cameras, phones, computers and anything else electronic, but it is official “geek central.” You’ll see people dressed up as anime characters and entire stores are devoted to comic books or Sega games.

– Kyoto’s Kinkakuji temple – Of Kyoto’s temples, this is one that may truly be one of the most spectacular. The golden pavilion, which sits in the middle of a small lake, is literally plated in gold, looking like a mysterious temple out of a fantasy novel.

The pavilion was actually rebuilt in the 1950s after a crazed monk, supposedly unable to come to grips with the temple’s beauty, set fire to it.

It is also surrounded by one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens in the area, rife with odd-shaped stones and twisted bonsai trees.

There is so much to be seen in this country, and so much that will leave your mouth hanging open. So whether you’re savoring a gourmet meal in Osaka, skiing in Nagano or kimono shopping in Kyoto, be sure that Japan won’t leave you disappointed.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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