You Could Spend 5 Days in a Japanese Forest Training Your Mind Like a Samurai

For Travel+Leisure. August 2018. 

What would you do if you had to trade speaking, bathing, and texting for hiking through forests and jumping over fire, but you were promised you’d come out of it totally renewed? This is not your average digital detox — it’s a tradition practiced by Japanese mountain hermits known as Yamabushi for 1,300 years that is still helping people detach from physical and emotional desires and discover their inner strength today.

Read the full post and video on Travel+Leisure

Practical Tips for African-American Travelers in Japan

For Cuisine Noir. July 2018

Japan is a small country with a deep-rooted culture. Aiyana Victoria Mathews first visited Japan as a 19-year old African-American student. After attending Benjamin E. May High School in Atlanta, she went on to pursue her undergraduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)  and found a way to study abroad as a research scholar of rheology science at the Faculty of Engineering at Chiba University.

Over the next two decades, Mathews studied the Japanese language, learned its peculiar customs, participated in colorful festivals, understood the way to do business and created Gardner-Mathews, a travel consultancy which specializes in customized itineraries for cross-cultural training, corporate concierge, and project management.

Whether you are thinking of traveling to Japan or planning to go for another visit, here are some practical travel tips from someone who calls Japan her second home.

Understand Cultural Norms

“When I first arrived in Japan I did not know how to use chopsticks, what to eat beyond sushi, or what a karaoke jukebox was. But I made friends quickly, and they taught me everything,” says Mathews about her first few months living in Chiba, a university town near Tokyo. Her strong desire to learn the local culture made her experience of living in Japan positive. She says that many of our misconceptions stem from our limited views of the world.

One of the Japanese ladies who conducted an orientation warned Mathews and her classmates as soon as they arrived. She stressed the importance of respecting all people, no matter what their socioeconomic situation, age, job description or rank. “Here we respect everyone as they all serve an important purpose in society,” is advise Mathews remembers to this day. “It made me realize that it’s a person’s responsibility to dictate how he/she will be treated,” she adds.

Be an Ambassador

Being a tall black person in a foreign country can make you stand out. However, Japanese people are genuinely friendly and interested in meeting people of other races. “Yes, I felt the stares, but they were more out of curiosity than animosity,” Mathews confesses.

“When someone came to know that I spoke fluent Japanese and had lived in Japan for a while and saw that I was respectful of their culture, they bent over backward to support me. In the U.S., I would have been written off as someone who was too young and inexperienced.” Mathews frequently takes delegations to Japan for business development and networking opportunities.

Venture Out of the City

Japan is a very small country but it has a lot to see and do, and chances are there will be something of interest to you. Most people who travel to Japan stay in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo captivated by skyscrapers, busy crossing, fish markets and neon-lit pachinko arcades. You’ll soon realize that Japan is a great place to explore art, architecture, fashion, culinary arts, spirituality, temples, and nature.

Mathews says, “One of my favorite things to do is take a sunrise hike to Mt Fuji. The sky is glorious and it is also physically gratifying to make the trek.”

Talk to the Locals

One of the things Mathews suggests doing is bar hopping and talking to people. She likes to visit upscale and intimate wine bars that serve snack foods. These are popular with Japanese people who are eager to learn about foreign culture, i.e. drinking wine, so you are guaranteed to find a few people who speak English. Once a dialogue is established, they will likely offer to show you around or give you more travel tips, and it is completely safe to accept.

Don’t Make Plans

As much as you want to plan your trip in advance, allow flexibility to wander around and get lost. There are a lot of events and festivals that take place in Japan that are not advertised. Walk between train stations through quiet neighborhoods in the metropolitan and you may run into a festival with street food, temple celebrations and incredible photo opportunities. It is also a great way to see the daily way of life.

Purchase Hyper Local Souvenirs

Wondering what to buy in Japan? Each prefecture or district in Japan is known for a specific food due to its agricultural affinity and these make for great souvenirs. Most of these are cookies or sweets with a local ingredient and it is customary to give omiyage (or travel gifts) when meeting another Japanese friend. For example, you may purchase three cheese filled tarts from Sapporo, mentaiko (spicy salted pollock fish roe) from Fukuoka, and chinsuko (shortbread cookies) from the islands of Okinawa.

When Mathews told her family that she was going to Japan, they warned her, “It is too far and unknown. You will feel out of place.”

But that was never the case. Mathews responds, “I had no idea what to expect but learned a lot about Japan that is not obvious in guidebooks. Tokyo has a large international community with French, German and African, so race is not an issue. There are also several clubs with DJs, music performances, and karaoke bars in Tokyo frequented by African-Americans. In her final thoughts, Matthews shares, “The people are very polite and have a healthy respect for time, nature and each other. I always feel at home in Japan.”

Connect with Mathews on Twitter and LinkedIn for additional information about Japan as well as services offered by Gardner-Mathews Travel Concierge.

Written for Cuisine Noir. July 2018

Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away

More than Tokyo: Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

When you think of visiting Japan, the images that probably come to mind most are the leaning skyscrapers, glistening neon lights, and busy road crossings of Tokyo is like any other major city in the world. But head out of the county’s most famous city and you’ll find well-preserved monuments against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. In the countryside are temples, shrines, markets, and places to indulge in Japanese culture.

Spend a couple of days in Tokyo,  but if you want to see the real Japan head to these small towns.

Read the full article about my trip to Japan with Flo Tours on CheapOAir Miles Away blog

Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2016. 

Though most of Japan follows a certain mannerism in the way they greet, dress, eat and live, the touristy areas are more forgiving of westerners “trying” to assimilate in the culture. Once you get to the small towns, language is a huge barrier, and not knowing the customs can cause a lot of frustration even to an expert traveler. Japanese people can be very particular about proper manners and doing a little homework won’t just save you some embarrassment, it will also make your experience more enjoyable.

Here are a few things I learned during my 10-day countryside hike with Walk Japan Tours…

Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog

Following Japan’s Buddhist Trails

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Khabar magazine. Print issue. October 2015

A thousand years ago, the Kunisaki Peninsula, tucked away on the western end of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, was one of the country’s main centers of Buddhism. Even today, life in Kunisaki is a drastic contrast from Tokyo, with its sleek skyscrapers, neon lights, and high-end luxury malls. Time stands still in Kunisaki, where people in sparsely populated hamlets live a quiet life surrounded by mountains, sprawling farms, and picturesque valleys.

Even the type of Buddhism that thrived in Kunisaki is different from that in the rest of Japan. Strong influences of Shintoism, an ancient religion founded in the belief of shrine worship towards a multitude of gods, can be traced alongside the Buddha’s teachings. A famous monk named Nimom founded the Rokugo-manzan complex in the 8th century, which with its 28 temples and three sub-groupings of temples reflected the Lotus Sutra’s 28 chapters. The Kunisaki Peninsula was considered the mandala of the Lotus Sutra, and for many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha, and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. On the pilgrimage paths connecting the temples were 69,380 Buddhist statues, one for each Chinese character of the Sutra. Therefore, a monk walking the Kunisaki was essentially reciting scriptures from the Sutra.

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My journey with Walk Japan tours begins in Fukuoka, the seventh largest city in Japan, and a famous port known for its Yatainight food stalls. From here, I take one of the award-winning fast trains to Usa, passing lots of industrial areas, matchbox houses, the hills of Kyushu, and even a nuclear reactor. The tiny open-air train station is my first brush with rural Japan. No one here speaks English and all the signs are in Japanese. Thankfully, I have an American guide, Ted Taylor, who has been living in Kyoto for many years. Ted is a historian and writer, accustomed to Japanese traditions. We take a short cab ride to Yamaga, which appears to be a popular hillside resort among the locals.

We check into a Ryokan, and move to a different one each night. These are traditional Japanese inns with 5-20 rooms, oftentimes run by a local family. While staying at the inns, we have to follow certain Japanese customs. Similar to some South Asian homes, guests in Japan are required to take off their shoes at the entrance to the hotel’s reception and use only the provided slippers. My room number is marked in Japanese and when I walk in, there is no “bedroom” furniture in it, barring a television, refrigerator, a very low tea table, and a cushion placed on the tatami floor. I sleep on a thin mattress (known as futon), and use a comforter and a buckwheat pillow. It appears that the rooms are multifunctional—they could be used for sleeping, dining or meetings, depending on the occasion and capacity. Bathing is only allowed in the nude at the geothermal hot springs or public bathing houses, separated for male and female. After the evening bath, everyone dresses in a Yukata, Japanese dressing gown with a belt and jacket, which is provided to all guests.

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Since there are no restaurants around for miles, the innkeepers prepare scrumptious family style Japanese dinners. We eat endless amounts of fresh sashimi of sea bream, tuna, and salmon, accompanied by miso soup, silken tofu, steamed rice, seaweed salad, and vegetable tempura, washing it down with cups of cold sake. Japanese cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients, no spices, simple preparations, yet elaborate presentations. We have dozens of small bowls placed in front of us, each one with only a bite or two, looking like a piece of art. The Japanese diet is perhaps the healthiest on the planet, ensuring lack of diseases, sharpness of mind, and a long lifespan.

My guide Ted, an elderly couple from Australia, and I begin our trek around the Kunisaki Peninsula at Kumo-ga-take, or Cloud Mountain, as it starts to pour. We go up steep muddy slopes using walking poles. An hour later, we catch sight of the first of many ancient Buddhist statues that are a vivid indication of the rich history of Kunisaki. Our destination is Usa Jingu’s interior shrine, located in the middle of the mountain. A simple rustic building on the peak stands in startling contrast to the scale and opulence of Usa Jingu, which is far below us on a farming plain at the foot of Omoto-san. The shrine deifies the protector god of Japan, Hachiman, who was also instrumental in the development of Buddhism on Kunisaki. Most tourists arrive at the outer shrine by bus or car, while we trek about eight miles on foot in the footsteps of the monks.

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The lakes surrounding Usa Jingu’s beautiful orange gates are adorned by bridges and ducks. The scenery is breathtaking. I recall a recent photo of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feeding fish in a special ceremony thought to bring prosperity and good fortune, as Ted purchases a pack of fish food from a self-serve kiosk and starts feeding the carp from the bridge. “A wise man once told me that in order to have a good life, I must feed all the carp fishes I find,” he tells me.

The following day, we stay at an inn right next to a Tendai temple, Fuki-ji, the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu circa 718 AD and designated a national treasure of Japan. Tendai Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in the 8th century. Its philosophies are rooted in Mahayana Buddhism that preaches Dharma and the ability to attain Buddhahood. One of the innkeepers is a priest at the temple, while his mother does the cooking and cleaning. They have been running the inn for generations, as most families in the area. 

From here we take a 10-minute taxi ride to Makiodo temple, which looks more of a tourist attraction, as there is even a ticket booth. We see the largest statue of Daiitoku Myoo, the Wisdom King of Great Awe-inspiring Power, and a sitting statue of Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. The statues at Makiodo look like they could have been brought in from a temple in southern India. With fiery eyes, multiple arms holding warrior armor, and a seat on a cow, there is a strong resemblance to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Then we climb a steep but small peak to get a nice view of the charming village of Tashibu-no-sho. I take a panoramic shot of farmlands, peaks, river and houses—some of the most beautiful landscapes in the area that have not changed much in 1200 years.

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We walk alongside farmlands growing buckwheat, rice, soba, and a few other crops. The farmers here don’t use any chemicals and don’t believe in rotational farming. A lady farming by herself on her small patch, wearing denim overalls and rain boots, says that she feels the land should be allowed time to heal and replenish its nutrition. In the middle of nowhere, we stop at a house converted to a cafe that is run by three enterprising women who bake breads, brew herbal tea, and offer some snacks to passers-by. Today, they make a special vegetarian farm-to-table lunch buffet for us. We fill our bellies with organic steamed bamboo shoots, glassy seaweed noodles, boiled Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), dirty rice with white and red lentils, a salad of daikon radish, and soba noodle and mushroom soup. The ladies tell me that this style of eating raw and vegetarian foods is gaining popularity within health conscious households in modern day Japan.

On the fifth day, we take a short ferry to Himeshima (Princess Island). We leave behind the ridges of Kyushu dotted alongside the clean blue waters of Seto Inland Sea. There are a few attractions noted on the board at the ferry terminal, but hardly any people to be seen around. Every August, there is a Shinto religious ceremony, Kitsune matsuri (Fox Marriage Festival) featuring dancers dressed as foxes that attracts many visitors, and October is the season for Kuruma ebi(Prawn Eating Festival).

As I walk along the crescent shaped, white sand beach, I run into a group of four elderly ladies covered from head to toe to protect against the sun, riding on their bikes. We talk briefly with the help of a Google translator, as they giggle every time they hear the sharp voice of modern technology.

Once we return to the mainland, we make a long ascent to the fortress rock peak of Mt. Fudo-san, from where we can see panoramic views across Kunisaki to Himeshima, and beyond to Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu. After a trek through the forests and climbing a long flight of stairs, we arrive at Monjusen-ji, a Buddhist temple where we rest for the night. The resident priest, wearing a white robe, welcomes us and takes us into a cave room that towers over the temple, for an evening ceremony. Here he beats a large drum and chants in Sanskrit. He lights a bonfire in the middle of the room, offering the Gods wooden plaques with inscribed prayers. He blesses each of us with good health, luck, and safe travels.

As a typhoon looms over us, the wooden doors and windows of the temple rattle against the strong winds. I ask the priestess if the building would survive and she offers me little consolation, “Well, it has stood here for the past 200 years, so we shall see tonight.” She serves us a simple vegetarian dinner with beer, and shows us her family photos. Her fore- fathers have served as priests at the grounds where we sit for the past thousand years. After dinner, each of us occupies a temple altar room, sleeping on mattresses placed directly in front of the shrines. The main altar has a captivating blue statue holding an upright sword that could easily be mistaken for Lord Shiva. Golden statues of Buddha, Japanese lanterns, drums, white handkerchiefs, and bottles of sake—all depict the intermingling of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures that have come about in Kunisaki. Although we have only followed the pilgrimage walk of Buddhist monks, it feels like we have witnessed its evolution over centuries and across borders.

Hidden Japan: Atlantan Walks Small Villages Beyond Tokyo’s Glitter

Global Atlanta. July 2015

Often Tokyo overpowers our images of Japan. The automotive and electronics capital boasts sleek skyscrapers, busy intersections with neon lights, and high-end luxury malls dotted with hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants. But there is another face to the country that offers pristine landscapes, ancient history and a rapidly fading culture.

During my recent visit to Japan, I traveled to several small towns that even many Japanese people living in Tokyo have never heard of. On a tour offered by Walk Japan, a local operator that advertises hiking and cultural tours around the country, I spent 10 days exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula located in the southwestern part of the country.

Our small group of four stayed at traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokans, throughout the tour. A far cry from my luxurious room on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo, these bare-minimum lodging facilities offer comfort, cleanliness and personalized service. I had to learn to sleep on tatami mats, bathe nude in common baths (called Onsen), wear a Yucata (dressing gown) every evening, and eat a regimental diet of raw fish, miso soup and steamed rice three times a day. All of this was very strange at first, nevertheless an experience that I learned to enjoy.

Small nuances made me realize the strong feeling of community that Japanese people share, which probably explains why Japanese tourists are always seen traveling in large groups.

For example, a room at the Ryokan is charged on a per-person basis. You may pay $400 for four people staying in each of their own rooms, or $400 for four people sharing one room. The Japanese tourist would prefer the latter. Most of the rooms at a Ryokan don’t come equipped with private toilets, and even outside guests come to bathe at the hotel’s hot springs and baths communal-style for a nominal fee. I never saw anyone dining alone at a restaurant in this area. There were always friends, families and guests sharing elaborate platters of homemade specialties prepared by the innkeeper, and very rarely any menus.

During the day, we discovered the rich history of Kunisaki, trekking through steep hills, dense forests and open fields. As we traced the paths of monks who had been through these areas for over a thousand years, we paid respects at rarely frequented Shinto shrines, stone carvings, statues, caves and Buddhist temples.

I found out that majority of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist, as well as Shinto, an ancient religious belief that focuses on shrine worship towards a multitude of gods. Around the 12th century, when Buddhism flourished on this peninsula, there were more than 50 temples with 800 buildings here. We spent a night at a ryokan adjacent to Fukiji Temple, the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu (circa 718 AD).

While some of the hikes were quite strenuous (8-10 miles each day), what I saw and learned during the day was priceless. Among other things, were shrines dedicated to Hachiman, protector God of Japan; Kumano Magaibutsu, the largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan; and Nyushutsu-nimon-ge’s resting place. Nimon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki approximately 1,100 years ago.

We ascended steep, slippery paths to Kumo-ga-take (Cloud Mountain) rising above the mists, to catch a glimpse of the lush green valleys below and Kyushu Mountains surrounding the horizon. Everyone took panoramic snaps of Tashibu-no-sho, a charming village with some of the most picturesque countryside found in Japan. A scenic drive through what looked like rolling hills of Switzerland, ended in Yufuin, a beautiful town where Mount Yufu (aka Yufu-dake) towers above a river cutting through the valley, scenic lake, paddy fields and temple bells.

As we walked through the rice paddies and farmlands growing buckwheat and soba, we rarely encountered anyone below the age of 70. An elderly lady tending to her vegetable farm wearing tall rubber boots and a peasant hat stopped us when she saw Ted, our guide, and invited us over for tea and cookies. We sat on the floor of her tiny cluttered room overlooking a coy pond, chatting about her grandkids and younger days.

She informed us that all of the villagers move to “the big city” in search of better education and work, leaving behind the elders to tend to the farms. When they pass, the kids end up selling or abandoning the family homes, since they no longer can take care of them. The government has started to offer free historic houses and a stipend to anyone who commits to moving to the village and restoring the properties, as well as actively participating in the community’s affairs. Although we saw hundreds of such homes collapsing, a few individuals disenchanted by the busy lifestyle have brought their families to raise their kids in the country where the air is fresh and life is simple and slower paced.

I noticed that the Japanese fascination for beauty was present whether one was shopping at Mitsukoshi, the oldest luxury retail store in Tokyo, or living in a remote island village.

One of the most pristine places on the trip was Himeshima (Princess Island), a sleepy town only 20 minutes ferry ride from Imi Port. There was a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach close to the harbor that was completely unoccupied on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s biking past. They were covered from head to toe in baggy pants, oversized long-sleeve shirts, and wide hats with built in scarves that covered their faces and necks. It was a far cry from the other beach destinations I am used to. The women couldn’t stop admiring my wheatish skin and couldn’t believe my age. With the help of Google translator (since we couldn’t converse in English/ Japanese), they were curious to know what kind of make up I was wearing.