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Under the strong summer light, the Golden Temple seemed to lose the various details of its form; it kept the gloomy, cold darkness wrapped inside itself, and with its mysterious outline simply ignored the dazzling world that surrounded it. Only the phoenix on the roof fastened its sharp claws firmly to its pedestal, trying not to stagger under the glare of the sun.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima
Japan is a land of stark contrasts. For every elderly person dressed in a traditional kimono, there is a platform-heeled youth, replete in black leather with a flourish of shockingly blonde hair. The architecture ranges from the neon and steel confusion of Tokyo's Shinjuku, to the wooden austerity of Kyoto's zen gardens. Jealously protective of its deep and intricate traditions such as sumo, kabuki and chado (tea ceremony), Japan is also the world's foremost social laboratory where the newest urban ideas are constantly being tested and perfected. Tokyo  cityscape

Tokyo. Anyone who's ever taken the trains or subways at 8:00am on a weekday will certainly agree with Tokyo's critics that the city is soulless, rigid and extremely cramped. As hundreds of people progressively jam themselves into the subway cars, the riding experience quickly deteriorates into one of mild claustrophobia. And yet to focus on the negatives is to miss the point of Tokyo completely.

Sure, the landscape is kitschy with its neon signs, advertising flags, and concrete high-rises. On the other hand, Tokyo is also home to temples, giant public parks, shrines, museums, artistic colonies, theatres, and the dignified Wedding  at  Meiji  ShrineImperial Palace. These gems of silence and greenery are like subway stops that allow visitors to get off the hectic Tokyo pace and simply breathe.

One such island of quiet was the Meiji-jingu shrine, an impressive forest of pine and cedar at the heart of the business and government districts. We went there on a Saturday and were pleasantly surprised to see five- and seven-year old children dressed in fine and colorful kimonos presenting themselves at the shrine. We were also privileged to see two traditional weddings with the brides resplendent in white kimonos that seemed to glow against the dark wood of Meiji shrine itself.

Tokyo's human side is also on display at Ueno-koen park. Home to four museums, including the impressive Tokyo National Museum, a zoo, several statues and the Tokyo Tosho-gu shrine (not to be confused with its Nikko counterpart), Ueno park is usually full of bird-watchers, street artists, tourists, students, picnickers, off-duty businessmen, the occasional boy scout troop, and yes, even karaoke singers. Ginza

By the end of our stay, even Tokyo's modern fašade began to grow on us. In places like Ginza, Shibuya, Akihabara and West Shinjuku, where the latest trends and products are broadcast on fifty-foot video screens and billboards, the focus is definitely on the future. Where else can you find a building like Sony headquarters, where eight floors are devoted to the smallest cameras, the sharpest TVs, the lightest disc players and the newest robotic dogs? Nowhere else but in Japan. Nowhere else but Tokyo. The  crest  of  Tokugawa

Nikko. We also went for a day trip to Nikko where we were lucky enough to witness the poetic beauty of autumn in Japan. The approach to Nikko alone was quite dramatic, as the Japanese countryside gave way to miles of pine and cedar trees interspersed with views of miniature waterfalls, streams and hills shrouded in fog.

Nikko is the burial ground of one of Japan's most important historical figures, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who became the country's first shogun at the age of sixty. The incredibly ornate Tosho-gu shrine that commemorates Ieyasu's importance as Japan's unifier, stands as a stirring example of Momoyama period architecture. By contrast, Ieyasu's actual tomb on a nearby hilltop is an austere affair more in keeping with the somber Japanese character.

Nara. Associated with the golden age of Buddhist artistic achievement in Japan, the ancient capital of Nara contains delicate pagodas, accomplished museums (where pieces from the Shoso-in treasury are displayed) as well as the immense seated Buddha of Todai-ji.

Apart from these treasures, Nara is also home to hundreds of wild deer that roam freely in the parks and city streets. Just make sure to leave your fairy tale notions of trusting, gentle creatures behind. Amusingly enough, we found ourselves being chased and butted by overactive bucks in search of biscuits and other treats.

Kyoto. The dignity and refinement of Kyoto can best be appreciated in its silences and the beautiful symmetry of its temples and gardens. Old Kyoto lives on in the Imperial Palace of Nijo-jo with its 'nightingale' floors that used to guard against intruders, in the peaceful zen gardens and galleries of Daitoku-ji, and in the network of old city streets like Ninnenzaka and Sannenzaka, lined with traditional stores selling sweets, green tea, grilled eel, wooden crafts and temple offerings.A  geiko  and  apprentice  maiko

But nowhere is Kyoto's sense of history more closely felt than in the geisha quarter of Gion where the streets remain paved with cobblestones and teahouses and restaurants, depicted in woodblock prints, continue to serve loyal patrons. The handful of geiko who still walk these quiet streets represent a dying way of life. Indeed our first encounter with a geisha was akin to seeing a ghost. She emerged from the semi-darkness of twilight, with her beautiful white face shining like the moon, nodded with dignity in our direction, then quickly disappeared around a corner, the sound of her footsteps swallowed up by the night.

It's true that Kyoto is filled with such encounters. When we visited Sanjusangen-do, the morning rituals of the monks there fascinated us. In the dim, incense-filled hall, lined on one side with an array of 1,000 images of the Buddha of mercy, the sounds of drumbeats and chanting seemed to transport us to another time, a different place. Indeed, the Kyoto atmosphere is so powerful that even the structures themselves have developed their own personalities such as the sublimely beautiful Kinkaku-ji; the temple of the golden pavilion.Kinkakuji

Like some resting emperor, Kinkaku-ji seemed to be completely absorbed in itself, oblivious to tourists like us who were mesmerized by its golden skin, its delicate windows, its perfect reflection in the pond around it, and the phoenix that crowned its tiled head. And as the afternoon shadows lengthened, we realized how much this pavilion perfectly captured the timeless and dreamlike essence of Kyoto.

For Kyoto was truly a dream. A dream of ghostly women and chanting monks; of stone gardens and nameless byways; a dream of a golden pavilion that seemed to absorb all of the eternal brilliance of the sun and reflect it a hundredfold.

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Copyright: © 2000-2004 Mikey and Lou Samson