One of the pleasures of visiting Japan are the many festivals and cultural events that occur all times of year. You can plan your trip around catching a specific pageant, or you can just bump into them by chance, like I did recently when I visited Japan with my son and younger brother. There are 15 national holidays in Japan ( http://www.japanspecialist.co.uk/travel-tips/national-holidays-in-japan/) and many more regional festivals and family celebrations. We happened to be in Japan during the Shichi-Go-San season, or 7-5-3. This is a period of time when children aged seven, five and three are taken to Buddhist temples for special blessings.
As we made our rounds of fabulous temples with smoking incense burners and prayers
fastened to trees, we ran into various family groups taking their brilliantly dressed children to the priests. Some of the children seemed to feel awkward in their resplendent formal wear, and at least one sat right down on the curb and refused to go further with big tears in his eyes. But most hugged their bags of special candy and smiled.
While we were at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a solemn funeral procession passed through the courtyard. The widow was dressed in white, and a priest shaded her with a huge red umbrella.
We traveled from Tokyo to Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, by bullet train, or shinkansen. These are the fastest trains in the world, with a super aerodynamic design (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm1nzUU8nEI). We loved the bullet trains! Not only do they flash through the countryside at about 200 mph, they are also quiet, comfortable, and always on time. We bought Japan Rail Passes which gave us 14 days of unlimited train travel throughout the country for about $420.00 each. These passes can only be bought online by foreigners. They are not available for Japanese citizens. Go to http://www.jrpass.com for more information. Announcements at the stations are made in English, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as for all stops on the train itself. I was grateful for this because 45 years ago when I took the first bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, there was only Japanese. International travelers have increased tremendously in Japan, due no doubt to services like these.
We spent a few hours in Nagano visiting Zensoji Temple. Just catch the bus right at the train station, and go straight up the street a mile or two to this magnificent place. Zensoji is famous for taking in travelers on the road, and they run several hostels in the mountains nearby. The next night we spent at one of these temple hostels in the little town of Takayama. Stay tuned for more on this later.