During our honeymoon in Japan in January, a three-week trip of a lifetime that included Tokyo, Kyoto and the northern island of Hokkaido,  Sarathi and I were surprised to see so many people wearing medical masks. Admittedly, we initially found it somewhat disconcerting. We could never have imagined, of course, that this would become our own reality in New York just a few months later.

It feels strange to be publishing a travel essay at a time when international travel has been severely curtailed. Yet the memories of our trip have become even more special in lockdown, and the importance of respect in Japanese culture acutely resonant as the world battles COVID 19.

Being considerate of others is extremely important in Japan, where social harmony is highly valued. In the U.S., the rights of the individual have all too often trumped the common good, with consequences ranging from the merely irritating (noise violations) to the deadly (machine gun massacres). In Japan, however, your right to shriek into your cellphone in a crowded space, blast your music on the beach, or eat an odiferous meal on the subway is curtailed for the greater good.  A recent article in the NYT explored the burgeoning interest in skateboarding in Japan, where devotees skate in secluded areas to avoid inconveniencing bystanders.

Wearing masks has been standard practice in many countries in Asia since the 2002 SARS outbreak. Japanese people wear masks out of consideration for others; to prevent spreading germs if they feel unwell. Americans are now being asked to wear masks and maintain social distance: ie to make protecting the vulnerable a priority. The majority of Americans have obliged, respecting guidance from their governors and doing their part to keep everyone safe. Others, unfortunately, have protested what they see as an infringement of their personal freedoms.

None of this, of course, was on our minds when we arrived in Tokyo on Dec 30, when signs for the Olympics decorated bridges, plazas, and walls all over the country. We spent New Year’s Eve at Zojoji Temple, where we joined a huge crowd of people to watch monks ring in the new decade with enormous bells. The temple, whose main gate dates from 1622, is framed by the Eiffel Tower-inspired Tokyo Tower.



On January 2 we joined the crowds waving to the Emperor at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, a local tradition that began in 1948. We had intended simply to explore the Imperial Palace Gardens, but upon arrival saw people holding Japanese flags waiting to pass through a security check. We googled to figure out what was going on and then joined one of the huge lines. Everybody filed along quietly in gigantic queues that snaked their way through the main gate to the palace courtyard, where the royal family appeared at regular intervals on the balcony to offer a genteel wave to the throngs of well-wishers, who roared their approval back. During our trip we enjoyed many such quintessential Japanese traditions and sights.

Shoes are always removed indoors in Japan, a country where there’s a lot of slipper etiquette. There are house slippers, plus separate toilet slippers. Airport security hand out slippers so that when you take off your shoes for screening your sock-clad feet don’t have to touch the ground (which, this being Japan, has probably been mopped 30 minutes previously.) We had a number of slipper etiquette mishaps in Kyoto, where we treated ourselves to a few nights in a ryokan called Hiiragiya, established in 1818.

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns where service is paramount. They usually feature simple rooms with tatami mat flooring upon which remarkably comfortable futons are placed each night. Our bathroom was a traditional Japanese style, with the toilet in a separate room from the sink and tub. When we arrived back from sightseeing our bath was filled to the brim with almost scalding water. Next to the bath was a little stool and handheld shower, because in Japan you wash before soaking in the tub.

While at the ryokan we wore Yukata robes (provided by our hosts). We were served by a charming young woman called Minami, who pointed out that I was inadvertently wearing the man’s yukata. She was presumably too polite to mention that we were wearing them incorrectly in other ways: apparently you’re supposed to wrap the left side over the right side, because vice versa is how the Japanese dress their dead. So we inadvertently became Yukata zombies.

Minami served us breakfast and dinner in our room on a low table on the floor, as is customary in ryokans, where meals are included in the price of the stay. And what meals! Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal that includes many exquisitely presented small dishes of sashimi, cooked fish, meats, vegetables, soup and rice. Almost everything in Japan is elegantly presented and organized, whether the subways, the 7-11’s that look like gourmet stores, and every brochure and ticket stub a tourist might encounter. The meals at our ryokan were works of art. One of our Kaiseki extravaganzas included a main dish of “vinegar rice with tiger prawn, duck loin, scarlet runner beans, sagittaria rhizome with miso paste, deep-fried crab with rice cracker, eel rolled with burdock root, mashed sweet potato and chestnuts.” A sashimi dish consisted of “seabream, tuna, ark shell, tiger prawn, wasabi, squash and rock trip.”

After one Kaiseki breakfast, we opted for the western breakfast. I have never seen a fried egg and a piece of bacon so beautifully presented. We also enjoyed shabu-shabu (which involves dipping pieces of thinly sliced raw beef and vegetables into a hot pot and flavoring them with various sauces) and Yakitori, grilled chicken or meat on skewers. We also had fun sampling the enormous array of scrumptious desserts in Japan. Matcha is king in Kyoto, where we drank matcha tea and lattes and snacked on matcha cream puffs and cakes. Matcha soft serve beckoned everywhere, a decadent array of luscious green treats tempting us at every turn. We happily succumbed.



Kyoto is full of beautiful temples, shrines and gardens, including the magnificent Kinkaku-ji Temple, a Zen Buddist temple whose gold-leaf veneer is reflected in the surrounding pond. The Pavilion is a reconstruction of the 14th-century original, which was burnt to the ground in 1950 by a schizophrenic young monk. The story inspired the novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, published in 1956 and translated into English in 1959. Ginkakuji (the 15th century Zen Temple of the Silver Pavilion) isn’t actually silver, but was thus nicknamed because of plans that never materialized to cover it in silver foil.

The Golden Pavilion

Silver Pavilion garden

Silver Pavilion

The orange torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, founded in 711 and one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines, create a striking corridor that snakes over Mount Inari. The shrine honors Inari, the god of rice harvest and commerce. Each gate has been donated by a company or individual hoping for good luck, and is inscribed in black ink with the names and date of donation. In Shinto mythology foxes are Inari’s messengers, thus there are fox statues scattered throughout the grounds.

I was curious to see Ryoanji Temple, whose famous Zen rock garden inspired the composer John Cage. The garden, thought to have been designed in the late 15th century, features five groups of stones placed amidst white sand that is raked daily by the monks. There are innumerable theories (both scientific and artistic) claiming to explain the meaning of the seemingly random placement of stones, although with hordes of tourists milling about it was difficult to find a quiet space to sit and ponder it all. There was a more Zen atmosphere at some off-the-beaten-track temples and gardens we visited, such the peaceful Anrakuji Temple. We also enjoyed walking through the Bamboo Forest, in which enormous trees create a mysterious green canopy over the narrow path that winds below.

Bamboo Forest


Anrakuji Temple garden

There are innumerable ‘rent a kimono’ stores in Japan, and young women, many of them tourists from countries in Asia, take selfies and pose for photos in front of famous landmarks such as Kiyomizu-dera. This Buddhist temple, whose current structure was built in 1633, inspired the Japanese saying “jump off the Kiyomizu stage” (the equivalent to ‘take the plunge’ or ‘take the leap”). In the Edo era, locals thought that anyone who leaped from the 43-foot stage and survived would be guaranteed good fortune. (These days, people just enjoy sweeping views of the city from the stage, without taking the plunge).

Kiyomizu-dera pagoda

A local guide we met online led us through the backstreets of Gion at night, so we could enjoy this typically busy area devoid of the throngs of tourists that have become so problematic that there are signs requesting rowdy tour groups to keep quiet and put away their cameras. We were dutifully quiet, but admittedly, I was one of the naughty tourists who couldn’t resist snapping away (from a respectful distance, of course). Kyoto is certainly an irresistibly photogenic place.

Unlike many Japanese cities, Kyoto was not bombed during WWII and survived mostly intact, an entrancing maze of tiny streets and dramatic temples and shrines.

I had read Memoirs of a Geisha before the trip and was hoping to see a few in Gion, a district of teahouse with lattice wood facades. In Gion, the apprentices (who are between 15-20 years old) are called maiko and the geisha referred to as geiko: the two are distinguished by differences in hairstyle and kimono. January 7 proved to be our lucky day: we saw many dressed in their finery going from tea house to tea house, where they entertain high ranking politicians and businessmen, an exclusive world off-limits to anyone without a personal invitation. The geisha outfit is extraordinary, from the distinctive white makeup to the exquisitely embroidered kimonos and elaborate hairdos featuring buns and multiple hairpins. Maiko have to sleep on a wooden pillow contraption to avoid ruining their time-consuming hairdos.

From Kyoto we flew to Hakodate, Hokkaido, where we joined our friends Hiroyuki and Mayu Ito, a Japanese couple who live in New York. I met Hiro, a talented freelance photographer who shoots classical music concerts for the New York Times, during my ten-year stint as a freelance music writer for the Times. Hiro and Mayu (who is also a gifted photographer) introduced us to many culinary delicacies on the island. We stayed at La Vista Hakodate Bay, which is well known for its lavish buffet breakfast. There were gleaming bowls of salmon roe and the freshest, melt-in-your mouth squid, salmon, and shrimp sashimi. I would never have imagined I could enjoy raw salted squid guts for breakfast, but there I was, happily adding dollops of the murky pink substance onto my plate each morning.

Hokkaido is the milk-producing region of Japan, and in addition to delicious fresh milk, a range of high-quality dairy products, including Camembert and Brie, are produced on the island. And the sweets! We gorged on the ubiquitous soft serve ice cream, which in Hokkaido comes in a tantalizing array of flavors such as sesame and sweet potato. I also loved the adzuki (red bean) sweet soup, the coffee-caramel puddings, and what proved to be the most delectable cheesecake I’ve ever eaten, a light, feathery concoction with an ice-cream center. I knew we’d be eating a lot of fresh fish in Japan, of course, but I had no idea we’d also be enjoying such a wide range of other treats.

One highlight of our visit to Hokkaido was the monkey onsen. Onsens are hot springs found all over Japan and are immensely popular with local residents, in this case even the non-human ones. At a monkey hot spring just outside of Hakodate we watched the creatures lounging about, looking eerily human with their arms casually draped over the edge of the bath. There are even foot onsen (for humans) in Hakodate. While the monkeys hung out in their hot tub nearby, we sat on the edge of the hot spring foot bath, pants rolled up and winter boots strewn nearby as we roasted our feet in the toasty hot water. We also saw locals enjoying a quick foot bath by a local bus stop. Honestly, what better way to kill time until the bus arrives than with an impromptu foot bath?

Sarathi and I at the monkey onsen

After Japan’s self-imposed era of seclusion ended in 1854, the Russians and the British were among the foreigners who established a presence in Hakodate, a pleasant port town dotted with Russian Orthodox churches. We visited the building that served as the British consulate from 1913 to 1934. It’s now used as a museum and includes a gift shop selling miniature Big Bens and other British trinkets. (We didn’t hear any British accents in Hakodate, however: indeed, with the exception of the ski areas we encountered only a handful of English-speaking tourists in Hokkaido). At night we crammed into cable cars that whisked us up Hakodate Mountain for a spectacular nocturnal view of the town. It was bitterly cold, and after our descent, we warmed up in a gaudily decked out burger joint called Lucky Pierrot (a popular chain in Hokkaido).

At the end of the day, we enjoyed a soak in the onsen on our hotel’s top floor. Bathing takes on a ritualistic element at these public bathhouses, where (as in the ryokan) one sits at individual cubicles and washes with a handheld shower. You then enter the public baths and sit for as long as you can tolerate the often-scalding waters (which contain various minerals). Almost all onsen are single-sex and nudity is required. While walking around, bathers often preserve their modesty with a tiny towel. They fold it into a little square and place it on their heads before entering the baths: a quiet commune of nude bathers adorned with funny hats.

The fish market in Hakodate sells enormous crabs, including some wallet-busting creatures for $500. In addition to the bowls of glistening salmon roe, we spotted salmon roe eye masks – although I’d certainly rather eat the stuff than put it on my face. The stores at Hakodate airport offered giant crabs in boxes with stickers specifying whether the product was suitable for carry-on luggage. (Needless to say, I didn’t attempt to bring a giant crab back through US customs.)

Next stop was Sapporo, a modern city and the biggest in Hokkaido. Crab is king here too, and curry is also a big thing. In Furano, we ate sausage curries at a quirky little cafe that looked like a cowboy hangout, and in Sapporo we had a delicious curry in a restaurant that offered a spiciness scale of 1-40! I chose level 4 and my mouth was on fire, so I dread to think about the curry inferno that would be level 40. Along with crab and curry, we sampled yet more sweets, this time Sapporo cream puffs. We were amazed to discover during this road trip that you can buy hot fried chicken, which is very popular in Japan, from a vending machine. It was actually quite tasty.

Hiro and Mayu + cream puffs

We rented a car in Sapporo and drove to the famous Blue Pond, although none of us had thought about the fact that it might be frozen over. So instead of gazing into a sparkly aquamarine abyss, we ended up staring at frozen brown ice with construction machines dotted in the background. The gorgeous scenery of Biei didn’t disappoint, however. A number of photographers were shooting the Mild Seven Hill, on which a row of larch trees creates a striking panorama. The hill is named after a cigarette commercial filmed there in 1978.

Asahidake, our next stop, felt like a deserted frontier town. Weirdly, commercial radio was piped onto the sparsely-populated downtown streets, the music and chatter accompanying the occasional passerby who hurried by in the bitter cold. Cheery jingles erupted when the lights changed, a jarring clash with the talk radio, and indeed (aside from the Pachenko parlors in Tokyo) one of the few times we encountered superfluous noise in Japan. After Asahidake we went dog sledding before setting off for Daisetsuzan National Park, a mysterious, remote wilderness of deep powder snow reached by twisting mountain roads.

Mild Seven Hill in Biei









The weather was bad when we arrived at our hotel in Daisetsuzan, so the next morning (wearing our city clothes) we joined the horde of skiers and snowboarders taking the ropeway partway up Mount Asahikake. Upon exiting the lift area “no patrol” signs offer a stern reminder that you’re on your own in this wilderness, the sky and snow so blinding white it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Since there didn’t appear to be any official trails, the snowboarders and skiers – their luminescent apparel contrasting with the stark white landscape – set off down the mountain, dodging trees and ravines as they went. Our hotel had a fantastic onsen, where we soaked in individual hot tubs outdoors on a deck framed by snow-laden branches. I officially became an onsen addict after this trip.

The last stop on our Hokkaido itinerary was Kushiro, known for a beautiful bridge featuring decorative statues. The marshes in this area are home to the Tancho, the famous red-crowned cranes of Japan that are a symbol of love and longevity and appear frequently in Japanese art. We were lucky to spot many of these elegant creatures in their native habitat.

After a fantastic week in Hokkaido, we said goodbye to Hiro and Mayu and returned to Tokyo, where we had plenty of time to explore different areas. Akihabara is a quirky neighborhood full of colorfully dressed characters and electronics stores. We ventured into a pachinko parlor (a kind of casino) but fled after about 30 seconds, unable to tolerate the deafening racket of the slot machines and the lurid neon lights. Akihabara is full of pachinko parlors, as well as many visible allusions to the less salubrious elements of Japanese culture. In Akihabara, young women in provocative ‘maid’ outfits stand on street corners trying to lure bystanders into the nearby Maid Cafes, which are touted as an innocuous entertainment.

We also visited the fantastic Digital Museum in Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay. Odaiba is an entertainment hub with shopping malls, a huge Ferris wheel, giant robots, an indoor arena with high-tech cars, and funnily enough, a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The architecture in this area is modern and futuristic, as is it in much of the city.

Odaiba Island

Spot the Statue of Liberty!

Tokyo was firebombed in 1945 and large swathes of the city were destroyed. Most buildings are post-war, with notable exceptions such as Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple in the district of Asakusa that was built in 645 A.D. and attracts hordes of visitors. Incongruously dotted between the austere looking office buildings and futuristic shops are myriad tiny shrines and temples.  Other highlights of Tokyo included Jimbocho, an atmospheric district full of bookstores and cafes, and museums with fantastic exhibitions of Edo-era art. We attended a kabuki play, which was admittedly a little tough to sit through since there were no subtitles and we hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on, and a concert by the Tokyo Philharmonic. And, of course, we savored more mouth-watering sushi, thanks to Hiro and Mayu’s recommendations.

Sensō-ji Temple

Imperial Palace Gardens

The Prada Building

In addition to the spectacular cuisine, scenery and art in Japan, there’s a lot else to admire. Commentators often remark on Japanese cleanliness, but until you see your face almost reflected in the glistening subway floors it’s hard to imagine just how clean Japan is. We couldn’t see as much as a gum wrapper on the streets. There are also few wastebaskets because people take their garbage home to dispose of it. In Japan, children and teachers are both expected to help clean the schools they attend. The pot-hole free roads are generally well maintained and trains run on time. The fact we actually marveled at stuff like this indicates how accustomed we’ve become to crumbling American infrastructure.

The public bathrooms are usually spotless, and Japanese toilets, a high- tech version of the pedestrian bidet, are a thing of wonder. A digital side panel offers varying water pressures and angles, and in case you’re worried about making unseemly noises, the sounds of a thundering waterfall will disguise your emittances. The toilet seat warms up when you sit on it, and in some stalls, the toilet lid lifts automatically when you open the door. Sanitary disposal bins open via hand sensors. You can opt for a heavy or light flush to save water.

While Japan really is a utopia for travelers I had to remind myself that it’s not always so ethereal for residents. We often saw commuters passed out on the subway, perhaps suffering from Japan’s famously workaholic culture. There’s even a name for death by overwork: “karoshi”. We were usually so worn out from sightseeing that we weren’t out late enough to witness Japanese salarymen staggering around drunk to unwind after a brutal workweek. There are clearly consequences to creating this outwardly ‘perfect’ society, including a culture of conformity that has driven some to become recluses and a high suicide rate, although the latter has actually dropped during lockdown. There seem to be immense pressures on people. We certainly admired the aesthetics of food presentation in Japan, for example, but pity the busy working mother who is expected to render a child’s school lunchbox a daily work of art.

We enjoyed the trip of a lifetime in Japan – smitten by the scenery, cuisine, art and beauty.  We returned to New York with enormous respect for a culture that places such emphasis on consideration for others. One can only hope, as we face a terrifying global crisis, that citizens everywhere will adopt the Japanese mentality of thinking about the greater good.