The lands beyond British India were once known as the “Far East” – a designation implying that Europe was the center of the world. As its populations and economies continue to burgeon at cyberspeed, East Asia is growing increasingly near, both in terms of its global cultural presence and its accessibility to travelers. Most of the countries in East Asia have at some point in history fallen within the Chinese sphere of influence, and bear the linguistic and cultural vestiges of the Middle Kingdom. Beyond this common denominator, though, China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea comprise a staggering diversity within the vast space the countries occupy  choose a point on the East Asia map, and you're as likely to find a rural peasant farm or ancient shrine as you are a stratospheric skyscraper or a modern mega-mall.  The rich religious traditions of East Asia, from Buddhism to Taoism to Confucianism to Shinto, have also shaped many of the area's cultural and physical landscapes. The myriad, august and intricate temples are essential stops in every East Asian country. In addition to the vestiges of the past, the landscape of East Asia  especially in its sprawling, frenetic urban centers   is now replete with luxury accommodations and amenities that are among the best the world has to offer. One of the pleasures of travel in East Asia is the feeling of instant immersion in an utterly different culture. Despite the skyscrapers and all the trappings of modernity, China and Japan are still intensely foreign. Japan, in particular, is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Japanese brand names may pervade our daily lives, but on arrival, you are instantly confronted by the utter unfamiliarity of the language, customs and aesthetics. In a world that is becoming more homogenized by the minute, this can be wonderfully exhilarating. Few experiences are more memorable than a stay at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, where suites of tatami-floored rooms come with private Zen gardens and kimonoed attendants serve exquisite kaiseki meals of 20 courses or more.

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