Tue, 12 Jun, 2018
Inside the real Japan
I'm in the holiest place in Japan – in the middle of 200,000 moss covered tombstones – and we've come across a spaceship.
No, Martians haven't landed – it's just another quirky twist you'll only find in Japan.
The Okunoin Cemetery is an unforgettably eerie sight. Along a winding 2-kilometre cobblestone path, on the side of a sacred mountain, lie hundreds of thousands of tombstones.
Also scattered throughout the thick forest are tens of thousands of buddha statues, dressed in red bibs and beanies by parents to bring luck to their children.
At the end of the path is a mausoleum for a revered Buddhist master – complete with 10,000 eternally lit lamps and 50,000 miniature Buddha statues.
The cemetery is so scared, big Japanese companies have bought plots to entomb the ashes of their employees.
A huge rocket tombstone, at least 5-metres high, belongs to an aeronautical company. A pest control company even bought a plot dedicated to its termite victims. Likewise, another is in honour of all the puffer fish that lost their lives to chefs.
Beside the breathtaking cemetery is the tiny village of Koyosan, brimming with medieval style Ryokans – the oldest type of hotel in the world.
This is a side of Japan I had no idea existed.
Our 12-day journey with Intrepid Travel started in the spiritual heart of Japan: Kyoto.
It's home to more than 2000 temples, including Kinkakuji – a temple that's completely covered in gold leaf.
There's also the infamous Sagano Bamboo Forest, with an idyllic stone path snaking through the middle of it
It's been named one of the most picturesque groves in the world.
You can avoid the crowds by getting there early.
From Kyoto, we spent a night at a temple in Koyasan (home to the massive cemetery mentioned earlier) where monks have been welcoming pilgrims to their tiny town for centuries.
It's pretty rustic. Your bed is a futon mattress on the floor.
The bath is a traditional communal 'onsen' - where there's only one dress code allowed: nudity.
The meals are vegetarian and the prayers, drums and a fire ceremony starts at the crack of dawn each morning.
If the wi-fi code wasn't plastered on the wall, I'd think I've woken up in ancient Japan - and I love it.
The next day we are thrust back into modern life by a bullet train en-route to Hiroshima.
The city is a sobering reminder of the horrors of war.
I'll never forget seeing a child's melted tricycle in the city's Peace Museum - it was buried with the 3-year old toddler who was riding it when the world's first act of nuclear war took place in 1945.
After a few nights exploring Hiroshima and a nearby sacred island - we're off to the mountainous centre of Japan.
There lies the medieval village of Tsumago, part of an ancient walkway which once linked Kyoto and Tokyo.
It was often used by samurais.
We retrace their steps by doing a short part of the walk between villages - all of us admiring the stunning explosion of autumnal colours through the forest.
Surely it couldn't get any more picturesque?
The next day in nearby Matsumoto it does.
I find the country's oldest castle set against the glistening Japanese Alps.
After 9 nine days of discovering a Japan I never knew existed, it's back to the ultra-modern Tokyo.
From robot shows to ninja cafes, from noodle museums to teatime with hedgehogs - the next three days exploring the world's biggest city left me wondering whether I was still on Earth.
It was the perfect twist to a trip that is bound to leave you in awe of the unexpected.
Written by Brook Sabin. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.