Last year, two of our designers had the chance to travel to the Land of Rising Sun. Jess visited with her husband Chris in September, while Heera and Ben made the trek at the end of October. While both couples had differing itineraries, they all chose to visit Tokyo and Kyoto during their respective whirlwind tours. Jess and Heera then chose their favorite aspects of each city and crafted a beautiful snapshot of their unique adventures in Japan.

Tokyo – Heera Basi

One of my favorite experiences traveling in Tokyo was visiting the Inner Garden at the Meiji-jingū, or Meiji Shrine. This garden was a tranquil and peaceful oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Originally built in 1920, the Meiji Shrine is one of Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrines. The grounds are extensive, occupying roughly 170 acres in the middle of the city. The entry into the shrine grounds is impressive as you pass through 40 foot tall Tori gates made out of cedar marking the transition between the city and the shrine. As you walk along the tree lined pathway that leads to the shrine, the garden is off of a small side path that would be easy to overlook. The Emperor Meiji designed an Iris Garden here for the Empress Shoken. Once inside the garden there are a variety of smaller pathways to meander through. Along with the Iris garden, there is a beautiful tea house, a pond with koi fish, Kyomasa’s well, and several little pavilions where you can sit and enjoy the scenery. The garden attracts far fewer tourists than the shrine itself so it is a great place to tuck away for a relaxing stroll and a peaceful break from the city!

Tokyo – Jess Stuenkel

Tokyo is an amazing place where outside of every metro station looks to be its own metropolitan hub, eccentrically designed skyscrapers stand proud, and you are never far from the most delicious noodles. But after a few days feeling like tiny fish in the big city, we decided to venture an hour North just outside of Tokyo to Ōmiya. It was mid-week on a day with a gloomy sky endlessly threatening rain but the town was nevertheless a little oasis. Known as the Bonsai Village, Ōmiya was formed by a collection of professional bonsai growers who moved from Tokyo in 1925 in search of clean air and spacious land for their bonsai collections and life’s work. When the village was formed it had rules including that you had to own a minimum of 10 bonsai and open your bonsai garden up to the public. Although these rules no longer apply, the village maintains a sense of calm and greenery that is impressive. There are still around seven major Bonsai gardeners remaining with large garden shops, still practicing bonsai cultivation in the village. All of these gardens are open to the public to enjoy and even watch the bonsai masters at work. But perhaps the thing I found most impressive is the idea that to be a bonsai gardener transcends a lifetime. The oldest bonsai we saw was estimated to be 1000 years old, carefully cared for by generation after generation. Each bonsai is not the work of one gardener, but by an entire lineage of those dedicated to this ancient craft.

Kyoto – Heera Basi

Visiting Kyoto can be overwhelming as there are so many important and impressive temples to see. My favorite temple by far was the Genkoan Temple. Located in the foothills in the Northern part of the city, this small Buddhist temple was originally built in 1346. This temple is known for its “bloody ceilings”. The ceiling is comprised of wood floorboards that are stained in the blood of fallen samurai. In the 1600’s, these samurai were defending a castle that was under siege. Faced with overwhelming odds and impending defeat, the samurai committed ritual suicide rather than be taken by their enemies. The blood-stained floorboards from this castle were then installed as the ceilings in several temples, including the Genkoan Temple, as a way to honor and offer peace to the souls of the fallen samurai. You can still see the footprints of these soldiers on some of the boards. One of the other predominant architectural features here are the two main windows, one circular and one square. Located side-by-side, the rectangular window on the right is known as the “Window of Confusion” representing the suffering and passage humans go through in life. The circular window on the left is the “Window of Enlightenment” which represents the Zen concept of the universe and enlightenment beyond the suffering of mortality. The windows offer a view out to temple’s gardens, which were gorgeous in the fall with the leaves changing color. Visitors to the temple can sit on the floor and meditate in front of these windows. It is a bit of a trek to get up to this part of the city, and on the way to the temple we discovered Klore bakery which is just down the road. It is a small unassuming place, but the French-style pastries here were some of the best I’ve ever had! I highly recommend visiting this temple as it is less touristy and off the beaten path. Like the inner garden of the Meiji Shrine, it offers a peaceful experience and space for contemplation.

Kyoto – Jess Stuenkel

My favorite day in Kyoto was spent on the West side of town in the Arashiyama district. The tourism websites tout the experience of first hand encounters with snow monkeys, and photos within the tall groves of bamboo in the Arashiyama Bamboo forest. The monkeys were admittedly adorable, and the bamboo forest was indeed beautiful despite the gaggles of tourists with the same itinerary. But having completed these two activities we continued on to search out a shrine that looked to be a decent walk way, in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. We exited the far side of the bamboo forest, and after walking quickly away from the masses of people, our path became obvious. It was much less a street, and more a promenade that wove itself around the neighborhood, touching the entrances of temple after temple. In between, a picturesque residential area was dotted with small shops filled with handmade ceramics, tiny owl figurines, indigo wares, and yes, noodles. The residences, both large and small were complete with perfectly weathered woods, natural stone, and the most beautiful roofs. We walked slowly, making time to take in the colors, textures, sounds, and smells. We quietly debated which temples we had time to investigate beyond peering through the gates, or down their tree-lined entrance paths. We did pay visits to a couple of temples in the area and they did not disappoint. Each was completely unique, perfectly sited, and exquisitely crafted. The whole area melded the natural & man made into something completely harmonious and thoroughly enjoyable.