Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Japan: Tips From A Traveler Who’s Been There 43 Times!

February 16, 2021 Marian Goldberg is one of America's foremost travel experts on Japan Season 1 Episode 3
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Japan: Tips From A Traveler Who’s Been There 43 Times!
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
We asked Marian Goldberg, who has traveled to Japan -- yes, 43 times, to tell us about some of her favorite memories of that island-nation. As one of this country’s foremost Japanese experts, she focuses on special travel aspects of Japan, from the popular to the unusual, and from serene to exciting. 

-- We learn about Shinto shrines, and the pleasures of visiting and staying in Buddhist retreats. There’s “forest bathing” which has nothing to do with water, and bathing in hot springs, which very much does.
-- We delight in the beauty of gardens and cherry blossoms, light-up festivals and strolls through bamboo forests, and ancient cedar forests on a sub-tropical island off Japan’s southern coast. And also traveling to the  shrines of the Shoguns.=
-- Marian tells of astounding views of Mt. Fuji from a skywalk outside of Tokyo, which also offers zip lines, huge swings and rock climbing.
-- We discuss tea ceremonies at a tea house with a geisha, in a town known for green tea. And we chat about one of the oldest pilgrimages in the world, passing by 88 temples set in valleys below towering mountains, and along the coast, where pilgrims can dress in traditional white robes, and walk up to two months to complete the route.
-- Snow monkeys look like old men as they bathe in hot springs. And hiking trails between Kyoto and Tokyo are classic and popular. Marian tells of skiing from a traditional village near Nagano, where mists surround you and the buildings are ancient. -- Marian takes us to a brewery with a 23rd generation brewer, and sake on tap.
-- And she ends with her favorite travel memory of all her many trips to Japan.
Marian Goldberg was the Japan National Tourism Organization's Public Relations Manager for the Americas for 11 years and does personal Japan Travel Planning. She is a regular  presenter on Japan at the New York Times Travel Show.

She was the U.S. representative for Kyoto City and has been part of the team representing Tokyo in the U.S .Market. Prior to joining JNTO, she was a researcher and  producer at The Travel Channel.
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine travel books, including
Places I Remember, and contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter and  blogs at 
Please subscribe to Places I Remember with Lea Lane, and leave a quick review! New travel episodes every Tuesday, wherever you listen, or at

* Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. Our guest today is Marian Goldberg. She was the Japan National Tourism organizations public relations manager for the Americas for 11 years. She's traveled to Japan 43 times, and is one of America's foremost media and marketing authorities on travel to Japan. Welcome, Marian. Welcome. Hi,


Marian Goldberg  00:43

Thank you for inviting me.


Lea Lane  00:44

It's lovely to have you and to talk about one of the most beautiful countries in the world. And this episode, we're going to focus on some of the unique escapes in Japan from calming retreats to exciting adventures. I think we need that right now very much. So let's start I know you love visiting Buddhist temples. Tell us about that.


Marian Goldberg  01:07

Well, I want to say something about Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines because a lot of people don't know the difference. They don't know the difference between a shrine or temple. So the temples are, in fact, Buddhists and the Shrines are Shinto. But in many cases, this the Shinto shrines can actually be on a Buddhist temple complex. There are certain shrines that are not and those are some of the larger ones, such as Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, which is in its own private garden, you walk along a path through almost a wilderness area until you reach the shrine itself. There's something really calming about going there, the way the trees and the flowers and the plants are all manicured perfectly, the way the rocks are a raked and just walking through the landscape just is hearing the wind rustle on the trees. It's very calming.


Lea Lane  02:18

I know. Shintoism is called nature's religion or nature religion, correct. 


Marian Goldberg  02:23

Right. So it says that's another thing is that they believe that the each everything in nature has kind of like a soul economy. And it kind of comes alive and it's and they it's the importance of nature and and it's really kind of beautiful.


Lea Lane  02:41

Tell me about something I'm really intrigued about. It's called forest bathing. What is that?


Marian Goldberg  02:47

So it's actually when you walk out into the forest, and you can actually feel the the energy of the forest and kind of bathe yourself in the feeling of being in that nature.


Lea Lane  03:06

So it's the senses like the sound of the birds, the smell of the chants, that sort of thing. I think you can do that anywhere really would be a very good thing to do as a as a calming, calming thing. How about the hiking with the mountain monks, I've heard of that. Is that okay?


Marian Goldberg  03:21

So the Yamabushi, the mountain monks, they're very prevalent in an area called Yamagata, which is in northern Honshu, but there are other places in Japan such as Nico, such as the rural areas of Nara prefecture in western Japan and Kansai region. And, and they're very spiritual. They'll blow the sound of the conch shell and and you can walk along a pure pilgrimage with them there, especially in Yamagata. They have several day long hikes that you can actually take with these mountain monks.


Lea Lane  03:59

There's three mountains, correct that they go over during that hike. Yes, during the winter Yamagata, correct? Yes, I know it's one of the longest one of the oldest hikes ever it's about 1400 years old. I right heard that and I would love to do that. Well, if you take a hike How about a bath a hot spring bath that's up there in the volcanic mountains?


Marian Goldberg  04:20

Well, you can take Japan is a volcanic made up of many volcanic islands. I mean, it's there's there's seismic activity throughout all of the islands. And because of that, there's a lot of hot springs and and you you many times people will go into a hotel and and enjoy a hot spring bath within the hotel or real kind of Japanese style inn. But they are also hot springs out in the mountains. And I remember when my kids were little, my son was a he was just four years old. We had gone on a Japan Rail, Japan East rail pass which is just available for the eastern Japan and Eastern Honsou. And we went really far north and we came to a place where we went, got to get a hot spring bath and and he had been it hadn't snowed yet it was but it was it was in December, but that that night that we stayed at the end it snowed and the next morning we got to take the hot spring bath outside. So an outside bath is called a row tomorrow and we got to go to the outside bath in the snow and because my son was little I took him with me with the the women and he was kicking and screaming he didn't want to go outside naked, you know, it's cold outside, and I was carrying him and just biting my arm. And I put him into the tub and it was all these with naked women in the tub. And then he just said this it gets into the hot tub we just gets really quiet.


Lea Lane  05:57

Like a fantasy. I think many men would dream of that one.


Marian Goldberg  06:02

And all the champions have been in the tub started laughing right now and laughing. Very cute.


Lea Lane  06:09

Up there in that area there.


Marian Goldberg  06:11

There are Buddhist temple stays where you can stay in a temple and Is that Is that correct? That well. You can find temple stays in various parts of Japan, in western Japan and Yamagata sorry in Wakayama Prefecture, there is a place called Mount Koyasan. And that's supposed to be a very myth and mythic and important, historic religious experience, I've actually been there. And you you take you go from Osaka and you take a train and then another train and then and then to get into a mountain train and then a bus up to the top of the top area, the mountain and it's in the city. This the I don't know if you want to call it a city with the town of Mount Koyasan is filled with so many, many Buddhist temples, and all of them are called or most of them are open for the to the public, for people to stay overnight. It's called a shut Kubo and you stay overnight and you have experiences with the monks themselves. You write sutra in the morning, you meditate you eat vegetarian Buddhist cuisine with a monks. And you have a complete immersive experience. You spend the day you can walk around the town go from temple to temple. A lot of them are very almost like museums with with the different artifacts that they have. And it's just so relaxing.


Lea Lane  07:50

Is the lodging simple similar to Maria Khan's where they're sliding doors and tatami floors and that kind of thing. 


Marian Goldberg  07:58

Yes, so some of the accommodations are more modest. And some of them are more luxurious. It depends what you pay to stay. But yes, there's they have the tatami mat floors, and they, they have the you know, the area where you walk in and you step up a little bit, too. And you take your shoes off before you go in. You never walk on the tatami or the wood with your shoes on. And yeah, it was it was really a wonderful experience.


Lea Lane  08:27

Now I know Japan has wonderful four seasons, you mentioned that already. And so gardens are of joy. You mentioned light up festivals, what exactly is a light up festival.


Marian Goldberg  08:37

So in Japan, they celebrate the seasons, as you said, and in in the spring when you have the cherry blossoms, and then some other flowers as well. They, they may light up the areas that night. Like if you go to Kyoto at night, this streets that are lined with sub quarter cherry blossoms will be lit up and it's almost like they're glowing. There's there's an area in Tokyo called Nakameguro where there's a canal and and and they'll and during cherry blossom season they'll light up the cherry blossoms. So it looks really beautiful. And then and then they do this a similar kind of thing. When the the leaves change and the autumn and they'll in the gardens in Kyoto they'll light up the the trees so that you can really see the the different colors and in a town called Nico, which is about two hours north of Tokyo, which is very famous for Toshogu Shrine, which is the burial place of the first Tokugawa Shogun Shogun Yasu they have quite a number of World Heritage sites that temples and shrines in addition to Toshogu Shrine and they will have light UPS Rhinology temple specifically has light ups of some of the autumn flowers and the leaves.


Lea Lane  10:03

Sounds beautiful. i This isn't a garden but I remember a beautiful walk through a bamboo forest in Kyoto, where you were just in a cathedral of trees and plants and it was just peaceful and beautiful and a wonderful memory. So that's that's kind of like a garden to me.


Marian Goldberg  10:21

I  mentioned something about that? Okay, so there's this beautiful bamboo walkway for us in Kyoto. But there's another bamboo forest that is in Shuzenji in Shizuoka Prefecture. And it is smaller but it looks almost the same. But there's no hardly ever anyone there and they and they light that up at night as well.


Lea Lane  10:47

Oh my, next time. How about some adventure? What are some of the things I know there's something called the Mishima skywalk. I've heard about that a lot because there's there are many things you can do there that are very adventurous. What are some of them?


Marian Goldberg  11:00

Okay, so I mentioned Mishima skywalk. So Mishima skywalk only opened a few years ago, but it's it's a long pedestrian walkway that literally is in front of Mount Fuji. So you could take the the Shinkansen bullet train. The Kodama line, which is the the one that makes more stops to a town in Shizuoka Prefecture called Mishima and then take a taxi to the sky walk area and, and you take an escalator up and you get on you walk literally you're walking in front of Mount Fuji. It's a magnificent experience all around the mountains and you can see Mount Fuji so clearly like you're right in front of it. But then also, more recently they started adventure activities from the skywalk. So you can literally do a glide off the sidewalk bungee jump from the Skywalk to take by like a package with an adventure package into these adventure experiences from the sky of sky walk right in front of Mount Fuji. 


Lea Lane  12:11

That sounds fabulous. Let's go back to some calm though. How about a tea ceremony or flower arranging? That is one of the most peaceful lovely things you can do and I will I remember that very, very fondly.


Marian Goldberg  12:26

So there are many places where you can do a tea ceremony in Japan. You can there are many hotels and the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo actually has a tea ceremony package that you can buy and, and you could book a time in they have a tea room in the hotel, or you can and there are some studios where you can dress up as a Miko which is a geisha in training or a geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo and other places and then often have a tea ceremony with the Miko Geiko. Geiko is the word for Geisha in Kyoto. Or there's a town that's in Kyoto Prefecture called Ouji, which is basically like a tea town and you get off the train and all you see are shops selling all kinds of tea paraphernalia and tea itself. And you can go and book a tea ceremony with with what at one of the places there and you will sit around and they will serve you the tea. And with this is very important when I'm trying to get this screen through. So it doesn't, when they serve you the bowl, they are looking at a beautiful table that usually has some kind of a decoration on it. And that decoration is in front of them. But when they serve you the tea, they turn it around, so the decoration is in front of you and they bow when you drink the tea. After you're finished you you put it down and you turn it around so the decoration is in front of them.


Lea Lane  14:03

Interesting. One of the things that's very popular today as well, extremely popular pilgrimages, and I know there is one that's very famous with 88 stops I believe on it. Could you tell me a little bit about that? Because nothing is more spiritual or calming than a pilgrimage. Okay, so


Marian Goldberg  14:23

There are four main islands of Japan and the smallest of the four main islands in the South South of the the inland sea. Were there hundreds and hundreds of little islands and it's absolutely spectacular view is the island of Shikoku. And a monk I can't remember how many years ago it was many years ago I had by the name of Kobo Daiichi or Kukai. came and from China and did this pilgrimage all around Chicago and established these ad temples and people can do that now they can do a part of it or they can do it all. And they're actually some tour companies that are doing this called it's called the hand row that that particular walk HGN are Oh, and and it's it's great exercise to begin going up a lot of steps. Some of these temples


Lea Lane  15:19

It's is a combination of spiritual and exciting adventure. I know someone who did it for two months. He came back very fit. Let me just ask you about animals. I love animals and I think there's something that's very special called Snow Monkeys. I've seen pictures. I've never seen it in person. Did they only go out in the snow? I always wonder they look like old men with white hair when they're in the hot, you know, in the bath. But are they there all year or is there


Marian Goldberg  15:45

they're in there in the park and in Nagano Prefecture on all year round. But in the wintertime, they're cold. So they go into the hot spring. And it they look so cute. I'm telling you that they were little red faces, they're sweating. You know, and there's little, little baby ones and adults and they grooming each other. And they're just so adorable, very cute.


Lea Lane  16:14

After that, I think there are other hikes that are not related to spiritual, like Buddhism or anything but they're very beautiful. One is in a subtropical island with magnificent cedar forests. Can you tell me about that one?


Marian Goldberg  16:30

Okay,  so Yakushima Island, which is a world heritage, natural world heritage site, or world's largest island, has, has some has the oldest old growth cedars in Japan. And just walking through there, it's, it's, you can just breathe the fresh air and the moisture. And it's everything is green, and there's moss everywhere. And you're just hiking through these, these ancient forests. And it's it's a wonderful experience up on the mountain climbing in the mountains and through the forest. And they have guides that will take you and explain all of the vegetation there and everything else.


Lea Lane  17:12

Yes. Very Lush. Someone told me that it rains 35 days a month. Yes. And that the trees are over 7000 years old. Yeah. You You really have some some experience there. What about the hike between Kyoto and Tokyo? That's very famous.


Marian Goldberg  17:30

Okay, so, so the, there was the old Nakasendo Road, which was the, or some people call it a highway, but it's, by today's words, and between Tokyo and Kyoto. And, and now it's kind of an outpost. With the highway, it's actually now the bullet train, which goes from Tokyo to Kyoto. But parallel to that, you can go through little towns and villages in, in different prefectures along the Nakasendo, like Saitama, and my goal may, and there's there's lovely little much YesStyle traditional houses, little merchant houses, selling things and, and you meet you meet people on the way and you have also have it, it's within the forest. And it's actually really beautiful to do again in the autumn when the leaves are changing, especially so that I've never done it in the summer as well. So


Lea Lane  18:28

All these things sound so wonderful. I know there's a traditional style ski experience that I wanted you to talk about because it sounds really interesting. For people who like to ski this is one that they might want to seek out what makes it special.


Marian Goldberg  18:41

Well, most people want to go to Japan, they think of the world class skiing, and in, especially in Hokkaido in that there's a place called Niseko. In fact, just recently, just last year that Park Hyatt Niseko opened and so everyone thinks of Japan in terms of skiing there, but in in Yamagata Prefecture, there is a place called Xiao Z EO onsen. And what they have are all these trees that have a strange phenomenon the way the wind blows, and they cover themselves they get covered with snow and they look like snow monsters, and you can ski around the snow monsters. And also there's other experiences you can say if you don't ski there are snowmobile rides. And during during the winter when they when these these trees are covered and looking like snow monsters, they light them up just the way they light up the the way they laid up the flowers and the leaves and other seasons in japan. And so you can actually just go and watch and walk through it and have the light of experiences or take a snowmobile around.


Lea Lane  19:55

Someone mentioned also there's steam coming all around the hot springs there that or that have been there for many many centuries so you walk along in this old village with steam coming up all around you it sounds really surreal sounds like well wonderful place even if you don't ski I would just like to go there just exactly.


Marian Goldberg  20:11

If you don't ski you have the hot springs when you have the great food at the at the end of that you could stay out there.


Lea Lane  20:19

Yeah, wonderful. After all this hiking and skiing and all peace and all how bad some Saki I would say that would be something that a lot of people would find very, very calming. Tell me about it.


Marian Goldberg  20:32

So I'm going to talk about one place. So if you take the Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano, it's about it's a little over an hour from Tokyo because the bullet train is so rapid and you can get off it sorry so my apologies it's not like it is it's going to Niigata so Scrolling further but it goes through Naga like goes to Niigata can he got to the station there you can get off there and there is it's almost like a little sock a museum at the station. And they have all these different varieties of Saki kind of on tap, and you put money and you buy a coin and and then you put the money in and you get a glass and then you get a sample of the socket, whichever whichever machine that has this because and not and Niigata there are 93 different breweries, so sock a and they even have a soccer a festival every winter time. But yeah, so you can go and taste this the soccer right at the train station there. But also so many soccer breweries now are offering tours. So you can actually go and see the behind the scenes of how they make the sake for many generations. There's a soccer in the more rural area of Tokyo called the Tama region, Ozawa Shuzo., the 23rd generation sake brewer I guess I can imagine in this country, right?


Lea Lane  22:10

Now that's very healthy. Sake keeps you healthy.


Marian Goldberg  22:15

And we asked him how many times he drinks sake. He says every day,


Lea Lane  22:21

Every day, every meal.


Marian Goldberg  22:25

But he was so cute and such a wonderful place, adorable.


Lea Lane  22:31

I think that's this is a great place to to end it because I'm thinking of all the wonderful things we've gone over. And we do end with since this is places I remember to ask you what would you say is your most memorable escape that you've had in Japan out of 43 times there?


Marian Goldberg  22:54

So I my first kind of staying at a luxury to consider some of the real kind of more modest but there was in Ishikawa prefecture on the Japan Sea coast. About 20 minutes south of the city of canas hour. There's Yeah, please call Yamagata on Sen. Yama, Yama, Yama, NOC Yama Naka Yamanaka answer not to be confused with the prefecture of Yamaga Yamanaka, onsen, there was a place called Kayo, Thai and this ryokan was so beautiful, and they had this outer Rotenburg outer hot spring term with the most magnificent view of the landscape and, and that in the tub was so warm, and it was always almost by myself there, just a couple of other people there. And just looking out there and relaxing and being my first time having that experience. It was just, it was just one of these wow moments. And I thought, you know, I could do a two week trip to Japan, just going from hot spring to hot spring. And just taking a bath every day taking a bath in a different place.


Lea Lane  24:06

And sake.


Marian Goldberg  24:08

I'll tell you one other thing. There's an airport in Japan and there's a couple of them that are off the coast. But the airport in Nagoya is off the coast. It's a manmade island off the coast. The one in concept is also a man a noun, but this one actually has a hot spring on the roof of the airport. And all different and you pay money and so why if you have to check in instead of hanging around and you don't know what you want to do for two hours before your flight, you can go take a bath and put your robot in, they can walk outside and you can actually be in your yukata robe looking outside watching the plane.


Lea Lane  24:52

It's your beach , I'll take it. Thank you very much, Marian, this has been fascinating and I think I want to go back at least one more time, if not as many as you've been. We really appreciate it. Thank you.


Lea Lane  25:13

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Buddhist temples/Shinto shrines
"Forest bathing"
Hiking with the Mountain Monks
Volcanic baths, hots springs
Temple stays/lodging
Seasons: cherry blossoms, autumn, lightups
Bamboo forests
Mishima skywalk, Mt Fuji
Tea ceremonies
Snow monkeys
hiking: cedar forests;Kyoto/Tokyo
Skiing with snow monsters/hot springs
Sake, on tap
Favorite memory!