As we concentrate on our meditation, the monk takes his stick and hits one of my fellow travelers on the back.
To show said monk that you want a punch – which seems to make you meditate better – you bow so that I keep the straightest back the temple has ever seen!
My journey to Japan begins in Kyoto, and although it’s only early spring, the cherry blossoms are in bloom at the World Heritage Site of Ninna-ji – a temple founded in 888 AD.
There we see the Buddhist monks in orange robes and visit the North Garden with its white sand and ponds covered with water lilies. Entry is £3 (Ninnaji.jp)
Lunch is at Ganko: Takasegawa Nijoen, a house built in 1611 by a wealthy merchant.
Our epic meal of sushi and sashimi is made even more memorable with the appearance of a geiko – a woman who has dedicated her life to her craft of entertaining customers with traditional Japanese arts – and her 17-year-old apprentice.
They perform a dance and spend time answering my endless questions.
No, they are not allowed to marry and yes, they stay with it for life.
Although the cost is between £5 and £70 per person for the uncountable menu £320, this experience is one I will never forget (Gankofood.co.jp/en/shop/detail/ya-nijyoen).
Step back in time
Next we drive to Nijo-jo Castle.
The home of the first Tokugawa Shogun, the military ruler, also hosted the premiere of Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai.
The gold paint on the walls and the murals of tigers and bamboo take you back in time 400 years ago. Entry is £7.60 (Nijo-jocastle.city.kyoto.lg.jp).
We rest our weary bones at the Kyoto Brighton.
It is located in a quiet residential area just a five minute walk from the city’s Imperial Palace and its spectacular cherry blossoms.
Double rooms are from £100 per night (Kyoto.brightonhotels.co.jp).
The next morning we make our way to Bal, a department store so exquisite it could pass as a museum (Bal-bldg.com/kyoto/).
Uniqlo is two buildings down and seems a lot cheaper than the UK, at least I tell myself I have to justify the amount of clothes I buy!
war and peace
Next stop is Hiroshima.
When I told people back home I was going there, they were confused: Few know about it except for the horrific WWII atomic bombing that killed an estimated 140,000 people – almost half of the city’s residents.
Even I google “Is Hiroshima still radioactive?” before booking. PSA: It’s not that.
However, the aftermath of the bomb is clearly visible.
In the blast area, the only building still standing is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome).
The sight of the skeletal remains of a former exhibition hall takes my breath away.
Next, I walk through the adjoining park to the Peace Memorial Museum.
Inside are relics from the day of the blast, including the clock that stopped at 8:15 a.m. – the moment of the blast – and a child’s buckled tricycle riding on it.
Entry is £1.20 (Hpmmuseum.jp).
We set off in silence and go to the nearby Orizuru Tower for a panoramic view up to Mt. Misen.
Entry is £12.80 per adult (Orizurutower.jp).
We will then make an origami crane as a symbol of peace and drop it 50 meters down onto the huge pile created by other visitors.
The way down is unconventional – a helter skelter style slide – but it helps put smiles back on our faces.
We stayed at the Sheraton and the next day the breakfast – a mix of Japanese and western dishes – was so good that I spent far too long going back!
Double rooms start from £134 per night (Marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/hijsi-sheraton-grand-hiroshima-hotel).
We then take the ferry to Miyajima, which costs just £1 for a 10 minute journey.
The island is home to Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site that you’ll almost certainly recognize—a red gate that appears to be floating on the sea.
As we stroll down the main street lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes, I grab some My Neighbor Totoro figurines for my kids and some momiji manju — a sweet bean paste wrapped in sponge cake that’s divine.
We marvel at the wild deer roaming freely through the narrow streets and on the nearby beach.
At Okeiko Japan, we pay around £90 for a 90-minute experience that includes Japanese calligraphy and a tea ceremony.
I love every minute especially when I’m wearing a beautiful silk kimono (Okeiko-japan.com).
After bed at Kinsuikan – an old-style Japanese guest house with its own hot spring, mats on the floor and sliding doors to separate rooms, from £210 a night (Kinsuikan.jp) – we buy tickets for the cable car ride to the 535 meter high Mt. Misen.
A return ticket costs £11.70 (Miyajima-ropeway.info).
The next day we board the famous bullet train from Hiroshima to Fukuyama, which takes 24 minutes and costs £27, and then a 30 minute bus ride to the small fishing village of Tomonoura.
We stay at Hotel Ofutei, where my room has the most beautiful view of any I’ve stayed in — right across from the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea — and comes complete with linen pajamas and a choice of three kimonos.
Double rooms cost £220 per night (Ofutei.com).
Another 30-minute bus ride from Fukuyama is the Shinshoji Zen Museum and Gardens, also known as the site of the aforementioned brawl.
This Buddhist temple offers visitors the chance to experience Zen through various mediums, including a tea ceremony, meditation classes, and bathing.
My meditation session costs £60 and once I don’t find the whole thing terrifying anymore I can meditate for longer than I expected (Szmg.jp).
Afterward, I grab some incense sticks from the gift shop and wonder how I can bring a little more zen into my life at home.