Tokyo is our last stop--we spent five days there, but that included one side trip to Kamakura and another to Nikko.
Both Kamakura and Nikko are small tourist towns. Both were filled with Japanese tourists busy sight-seeing in their own country.
Kamakura is home to Daibutsu, otherwise known as the Great Buddha, and probably one of Japan's more famous images. It is every bit as awe-inspiring as its picture. What you don't see is that the bronze statue is hollow and can be entered, which, of course, we did. This buddha is somewhat smaller than the one at Todaiji, but because it is now outdoors (it's hall having burned down, as many wooden temples and buildings have, in Japan), it is the more breathtaking Buddha.
Nikko has many culturally significant shrines, both Buddhist and Shinto, all within a relatively small area that is easily walked (although, like many temples in Japan, they all seemed to be at the top of enormous stone staircases with no railings!). A number of families were at the Shinto shrines getting blessings for their three year old daughters. The little girls were made up like beauty pageant contestants with sprayed hair, make-up, and elaborate kimonos. But they were obviously three years old, running around and kicking their shoes off. They were having a great time posing for pictures, particularly for western tourists. Other school groups would accost me (but never my ethnically Japanese traveling companion) with little booklets containing questions with which to practice their English. "My name is Kosumi. May I ask you some questions, please? Do you like Nikko? Do you like Japan?" Of course they were so busy practicing for the next question that they didn't listen to my answers!
Tokyo is the New York of Japan--loud, lively, full of advertising. Sights are less important than people-watching. And the people-watching was great.
So what were my final impressions?
On the surface, the Japanese are wonderfully polite, their country is famously safe and clean, and they have assimilated much of western culture. But they remain inscrutably alien, which makes for a fascinating tourist experience.
What I learned that I didn't know--the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, like the British; their western toilets, whether in private homes or hotels or ryokans have heated seats, bidet functions, and will play sounds (rushing rivers or music) while being used; virtually every car has a GPS system, which in addressed-challenged Japan, has been very useful (some neighborhoods have houses or buildings numbered by the order in which they were built); and being treated with great courtesy everywhere makes one, in turn, more courteous. It just felt good being in Japan, which I attribute to the high level of politeness, whether or not it was genuine.
Financially, I made out like a bandit. I spent less than my budgeted $2000, due entirely to housing and meals provided by my friend's relatives. While Japan can be expensive (first-run movies are $18!), meals weren't, and splitting the hotel costs (which ran from $50 per person per night to close to $100 but often included dinner and breakfast) helped keep costs down.
I did wind up spending about $200 to buy Yukatas (Japanese cotton bathrobes) for all my kids.
I am so glad I went, even if it wasn't the most budget-conscious decision. I don't know when or if I'll get to the far east again, but even if I do, it is unlikely to have the same opportunities to be in local homes that this trip afforded me.