Six members of the Irish travel trade had the experience of a lifetime from 8-16 June, delving into the extraordinary history and culture of Japan on a seven-day fam trip hosted by Wendy Wu Tours with Finnair. From teeming, kaleidoscopic city streets to plunging mountains and emerald hills, jaw-dropping temple structures to futuristic skyscrapers, and serene shrines to bustling urban centres, the group experienced Japan in all its breath-taking diversity on an adventure through Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka.
Wendy Wu was represented on the fam by John Booty, Sales Manager Ireland & Isle of Man, and Liam Brophy, Business Development Executive, with flights – including a superb Business Class experience – provided from Dublin-Helsinki and Helsinki-Tokyo by Finnair, represented by Catherine Grennell-Whyte, ATTS, Finnair’s GSA in Ireland.
With Japan set to be inundated by an influx of Irish and international visitors this September for the beginning of the Rugby World Cup, the fam marked an opportune moment to get a closer look at the country in all its majesty – and the group gained a particularly valuable insight into its vast range of experiences and suitability for a variety of travel styles.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the trip was the country’s seamless blend of tradition and modernity, exemplified in each of the cities visited during the epic week-long itinerary. Tokyo, for example (the group’s first port of call on arrival), is renowned as a sprawling metropolis whose streets throb with colour and activity – a reputation that’s well-deserved, if the group’s visit to the Harajuku area and Shibuya Crossing (the world’s busiest intersection) was anything to go by.
Unsurprisingly, though, the city is also overflowing with examples of the country’s rich and astonishing history: located just a half-hour drive from those thoroughly modern city areas is the Sensō-ji Temple, a Buddhist shrine whose origins date back to 645 AD. Its iconic structures and hallowed temple grounds, a stone’s throw from Tokyo’s developed metropolitan core, served as a vivid illustration of the balance between tradition and modernity offered on many of Wendy Wu’s Japanese itineraries.
It was a combination that was also evident in Kyoto and Osaka, both of which complement areas of historical tradition with lively city streets (although Kyoto is a touch more laid-back than the energetic Osaka). Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine is particularly iconic for its vividly coloured orange torii-lined routes and distinctive vulpine statues. Here, the group partook in a cleansing ritual, using a specialised ladle to wash the hands and mouth at the direction of Kazuo Motohashi – one of Wendy Wu’s local guides who expertly stewarded the trip.
Wendy Wu’s focus on authentic local experiences was equally on display at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple, where the group convened for a tea ceremony to showcase the process and time-honoured tradition of making green tea. Motohashi, translated as tea master, explained her intricate, careful procedure before each member of the group participated in the ritual of examining and appreciating their cups and drinking – slurping deeply as directed to signal their respect and thanks.
As for Japan’s scenery and landscape? The country was arguably even more stunning than anticipated. A boat ride allowed the group to take in the sloping verdant hills and calm, glassy waters of Hakone’s Lake Ashi, with a smooth cable car ride up the nearby Mt Komagatake providing spectacular views of the surrounding terrain from 1,327 metres above the sea.
Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji Temple alone was worth the journey in its own right – a Zen Buddhist temple whose famous ‘Golden Pavilion’ looms large over the lake, with awe-inspiring views the further you climb its hilly ascent. The group took a quick detour on its Kyoto-Osaka route to visit Nara, a city laden with areas of cultural and historical significance: these include the Tōdai-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features the largest bronze statue of Vairocana in the world, and the picturesque Isuien Garden, whose 145,000 square feet are replete with grassy knolls and idyllic walkways.
Special mention must also be given to Japan’s exemplary culinary scene, whose vast array of options caters to virtually every whim. Those who aren’t keen on straying too far from Western-style cuisine will find it easily, while visitors seeking a moderate sample of Japanese food can enjoy its variety of tasty rice- and noodle-based dishes.
Committed foodies who want the full-on Japanese dining experience are equally in for a treat: from takoyaki (a speciality of Osaka consisting of fried octopus balls) to tempura and miso soup to udon, the country is brimming with local dishes that are both delicious and surprisingly accessible.
Also catering to all tastes are Wendy Wu’s Japanese itineraries, with the fam striking a pleasing balance between peaceful rural relaxation and bright city lights. The noise, colour and billboard-festooned streets of Osaka’s renowned Dotonbori district and the Shinjuku area of Tokyo were offset neatly by the seclusion and silence of the Hakone Highland Hotel and Kyoto’s bustling but relaxed atmosphere. Nor is travelling around the country a drag: in fact, some of the trip’s highlights included travel by high-speed bullet train (reaching a maximum speed of 320 km/h) from Hakone-Kyoto and Osaka-Tokyo.
A tired but exhilarated group bid farewell to Tokyo and Japan on Sunday 16 June, having experienced the full majesty of its culture and traditions – both ancient and modern – during an eventful week. What is certain is that with the forthcoming Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games both set to be held in the country, a new generation of Irish visitors will soon be introduced to Japan and its many wonders.