A group of adventurous travelers and I just recently returned from an amazing two-week trip to Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun. The extraordinary culture mixed with the sweet, humble nature of the Japanese people made for a relaxing zen experience compared to some of our other trips we've taken.

Our first stop was Tokyo.

We stayed for three nights in the Prince Hotel, overlooking the iconic Tokyo Tower. We visited Asakusa, the oldest Geisha district in Tokyo, as well as the grounds of the Imperial Palace and the Kokyo Gaien National Gardens.

We walked through Tsukiji, the world’s largest and busiest fish market aghast at the exorbitant prices. All varieties of crab were well over $100 each. The pricing was shocking and we all wondered how this fish-eating society could afford to purchase the food they cherish.

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The Santa Ynez Valley travel group visits the historic city of Hiroshima, Japan. 

In contrast, we visited many Buddhist temples and relished the tranquility that they offered. We also experience the 15th century tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony where several of our group participated in the ancient ritual.

Day Five of our trip was spent at the lakeside resort of Hakone, overlooking Lake Ashi and the UNESCO site of Mount Fuji, which was absolutely breathtaking. This area is best-known for the hot springs and spas produced by the Owakudani crater which erupted some 3,000 years ago.

Novelty earth cooked eggs are for sale at this site, which when eaten are to guarantee another seven years of life. So many of us invested in several of those black eggs wishing for longevity.

Most of us enjoyed using the hot springs spa that offered several pools divided into a women’s and men’s area -- as their custom is to bathe in the nude.

The experience was heightened as we soaked in the outdoor pool overlooking a forest during a lightening, thunder and snow storm. It was exhilarating to say the least; and even with the extreme language barrier, the Japanese women graciously showed us what was expected of us in the spa area.

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A blooming cherry tree in Kanazawa.

We were given a towel not much bigger than a handkerchief to cover over selves -- or our “trouble” spots, we thought, but then saw that they just put them on their heads and walked around naked, so we followed suit. It was quite liberating I must say, but also a bit intimidating with the petite Japanese women walking around.

We were all surprised by the mountainous terrain and snow as we traveled to Matsumoto and Takayama, located in the Japanese Alps. We explored Matsumoto Castle and enjoyed a sake tasting at one of Japan’s 200-year-old breweries.

We explored the historic district in Takayama that offer open air markets dating back over 600 years. We were then again treated to the spa facilities in the evening after a fabulous Hilda beef dinner and sushi.

Our next UNESCO visit was to the unique village of Shirakawa-go, situated in the mountains. The village rooftops are all thatched and designed to resemble two hands joined in prayer. It was beautiful, and the thatched village reminded some of us of Solvang and our Danish heritage.

We journeyed to Kanazawa next, the origin of gold leaf-making since the 16th century, and experienced a hands-on lesson decorating our own lacquer boxes with gold leaf -- which proved to be quite difficult.

We also visited the Samurai district including the former home of a wealthy Samurai family and walked through the 25-acre Kenroku-en Garden of Six Qualities, one of Japan’s most stunning gardens. The blooming cherry trees were magnificent but in a few more weeks with a bit warmer weather, they will be stunning.

Lastly, we toured Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan, boasting over 2,000 beautiful temples and shrines. We visited Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, where the top two floors of the temple are covered in gold leaf, and enjoyed a yakitori (grilled chicken) dinner.

The following morning we boarded the bullet train for Hiroshima and jumped on a ferry for Miyajima Island or “Shrine Island,” also a UNESCO site. The temples were breathtakingly spiritual, overlooking the bay.

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Matsumoto Castle, also known as 'Crow Castle' for its black exterior, is the oldest castle in Japan. 

Many of us climbed to the top and were allowed to ring the ancient bell and make our own private wishes. It was truly a beautiful and spiritual experience.

We ended our time in Hiroshima with a visit to the Peace Memorial Park and the UNESCO ruined Atomic Dome. We also walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which was a very somber experience and reflected upon the horrific events of that fateful day as we rode the bullet train back to Kyoto.

With two days left on the tour, we explored the most revered shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha that followed the spectacular rows of orange torii that weaved through the forest to an inner shrine made famous in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.

We also toured the home of the first shogun, a military dictator appointed by the emperor to rule a specific area, Nijo Castle, which is another UNESCO site.

The day ended with another hands on lesson in paint stenciling at a traditional Kyoto townhouse. Our last day was a free day and several of us experienced being totally made up and dressed in the traditional kimono as a geisha, a process that took four hours.

The white makeup is very thick and there is a very specific look for the eyes and eyebrows; and lips are perfected with a beautiful red stain. The black wigs are all the same traditional style and heavy to wear. The kimono wrap is very restrictive, bound with ropes and huge amounts of fabric that can weigh up to 20 pounds. The finished product was absolutely stunning.

Japan was an amazing experience in every way, and one that I will always treasure.

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