Next Stop: Madrid To Tokyo

By Cheryl Ryan

I flew directly from Madrid – following my Camino de Santiago hike – to Tokyo. It was a culture shock. Coming from Spain with ancient Roman ruins, expansive fields of grain and plenty of cheese and wine to a pristine, modern city of high rises, airport monorails, sushi bars and rice fields took a minute to adapt to.

The first thing I noticed was how clean and orderly everything was. Not a piece of garbage to be found. Anywhere. And there aren’t even trash cans. All citizens manage their own garbage and collectively agree to a social contract of keeping the country clean for everyone. People don’t carry food around. They eat it where they buy it. 

In Tokyo, we did a lot of walking and sightseeing. There aren’t many old buildings because much of Tokyo was firebombed and destroyed during WWII. It essentially had to be rebuilt. We hired a guide to take us to a few of the remaining royal palaces, Buddhist temples, quaint neighborhoods and a replica museum of an old Japanese block. In one temple (unfortunately, no pictures allowed), we joined a Buddhist ceremony that was musically and visually exquisite. They had huge drums joined by a range of instruments, including chimes so quiet that you had to strain to hear them, all played by golden-robed monks. I closed my eyes to experience the mesmerizing musical and spiritual sounds fully. It was truly memorable.

You quickly get a sense of the Japanese proclivity for art and creativity. We enjoyed our first fixed-menu dinner in Tokyo – it’s a thing in Japan. For four hours, we ate one tasty morsel after another. We ate lunch at sushi markets (unbelievably good, especially for someone who isn’t a super sushi fan). And did I mention fashion? Japanese love fashion and dress meticulously. They love to dress up and show off their fashion on the weekends. If you see me wearing wide-leg pants and tennis shoes with dresses and skirts this summer – it’s the Japanese fashion influence.

Island Hopping

After four days in Tokyo, we started island hopping. Because Japan is made up of islands, ferries are a common mode of transportation. First stop; Shodoshima, a small island vacation spot. We stayed at a modest hotel by the ferry port, went to the quirky Yokai Art Museum that night, and rented bikes the next morning to explore the island. It was lovely. We visited the only olive groves in Japan, found a great sake-tasting room, and admired beautiful views all along the way.

Our next islands were the art installation Islands of Teshima and Taoshima. We spent half a day at Teshima and then took another ferry to Naoshima for our two night stay at the Banesse House Museum. Many of the art installations on Naoshima are by world famous architects and very impressive in their scope and size. It was a very unique experience, made even more so by being in the second typhoon of Japan’s rainy season.

Might want to check the weather

Oops, we unknowingly booked our Japan trip at the beginning of the rainy season. Lucky for us it didn’t spoil our time. We had some cloudy days and a few rainy ones, but unlike were we live, the rain was warm and fell straight down. There are umbrellas everywhere so everyone just opens thier umbrellas and continues on. But it would be wise to avoid June thru July if you are planning travel there because there can be flooding and general inconveniences for a traveler if they get bad storms.


Then off to our final four day stay in Kyoto. Kyoto was spared the ruin of war because of its history as the longtime capital of Japan. Unlike Tokyo, it has many old temples and traditional Japanese city style. There are beautiful, of course, clean rivers running through its center and it is surrounded on all sides by mountains.

We had our second delicious fixed menu meal there, went to David Bowie’s favorite temple (turned out to be ours too), went to the Sanjusangen-do temple and Fushimi Inari shrine, ate dinner along the river’s bank on a Saturday night with the locals (respectfully bringing all of our trash with us). They are known for their ceramics and we bought a few. We mastered the public transportation system and on the last day went off script to find a neighborhood off the beaten track and it was a great adventure which only cost a few cents. It all felt so safe. You could go anywhere.

A few thoughts

Our final leg was the bullet train back to Tokyo. Even though the language is drastically different, using Google Translate made everything doable and more fun!  And everyone attempted to respond in kind – usually by whipping out their own phone.

A few takeaways are the differences in the food. The Japanese diet has long been studied because of their longevity and overall health. What I noticed is that they eat mostly fresh fish, rice, and small quantities of a variety of fermented veggies (a lot of seaweed) and fresh, seasonal veggies and fruit. They eat very little bread or dairy. I’ve been trying to duplicate some of those habits. Obviously, we don’t have fresh fish everywhere, but the idea of eating smaller quantities of a variety of fruit and veggies with less bread and dairy seems like a good idea.

And my final thought is that of conformity. There is a follow-the-rules mentality that I found myself struggling with the first couple of days. Take your shoes off, put them back on. There was a proper way of stowing all the umbrellas in the stand so that they didn’t get tangled. But once I learned the rules, it was refreshing. The idea of everybody following the traffic rules took the stress out of travel and everybody picking up after themselves made for such clean cities and spaces.

It’s been a heck of a travel year for us and it’s been a blast but it is also good to stick close to home. Let us know if you’ve been anywhere close to home that you loved and would like to share?

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  • Reply Shana July 21, 2023 at 6:47 am

    I love reading about your adventure! What a great experience. Love that you included pictures too.

  • Reply Jeanne July 21, 2023 at 9:54 am

    Thanks for the fascinating trip report! I enjoyed your wonderful descriptions.

  • Reply Patsy Lindsay July 21, 2023 at 4:00 pm

    Cheryl, I love hearing about your adventures. You aren’t bragging and describe everything so graciously. Your descriptions are so well thought out, it’s easy to share the experience. Thank you for sharing and being you. 😘

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