For those residents of Tokyo who believe all the world’s a stage, the Harajuku and Shibuya precincts have long been their theatre.
Young people flock here in an eye-dazzling range of costumes and coiffures to strut their stuff. It’s the epitome of hyper-stylish, modern Tokyo – far removed from Japan’s rural backwaters, where time seems to have been frozen in a samurai-era bubble.
The country boasts many ancient wonders, including the World Heritage city of Kyoto (the former capital), the temples of Nara (the eastern terminus of the medieval Great Silk Road) and, in the deep south, the outstanding natural treasures of Yakushima Island, home to the world’s oldest cedar trees.
But in Tokyo, where everything is fast, shiny and new, it’s difficult to remember this other side of Japan.
Besides the trendy attractions of Harajuku and Shibuya, Tokyo overflows with mind-boggling new entertainment precincts, including the Roppongi Hills and Odaiba. The newest attraction in Roppongi is the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT), which opened in January this year. With 14,000 sq ft of exhibition space, NACT claims to be the largest art gallery in Japan.
Another spanking new precinct is Shiodome, built on top of old railway yards. An extensive network of buildings is linked by sky-walks, giving pedestrians a surreal feeling of being suspended in space. The biggest shopping area is Caretta Shiodome, where three levels of shops overlook a spectacular fountain. The Shiodome City Center Tower has two floors of shops below ground and two above, with a number of bars and restaurants that deliver great views from levels 41 and 42.
The world capital for consumer electronic goods, the 250-plus shops of the Akihabara precinct may come as a bit of a bummer for foreign visitors. Most of the state-of-tomorrow’s-art techno-wonders come at a hefty price, or verge on the kitsch. But there are occasional delights to be found – such as the amazing acrobatic robot Kondo, at Robot Colosseum in the Asutop complex.
On Tokyo’s waterfront, the Odaiba precinct is the hot new recreation and entertainment centre. Highlights include Mega Web car theme park, the Museum of Maritime Science and Palette Town, a live performance and shopping complex. The range of new attractions to come online at Odaiba are previewed by the state-of-the-art facilities at the huge Ariake Tennis Park, with its 48 tennis courts and 10,000-seat Ariake Stadium. Opened last year, the new Ariake-Tennis-no-Mori station gives immediate access to the Park from all over Tokyo.
But in this city of the future, it is possible to glimpse the past. The Meiji Shrine can seem like another universe (particularly on Sunday), holding fast to an image of old Japan – traditional, ordered and inscrutable. There’s a shrine to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken; wedding couples in their finest attire led in a procession by Shinto priests; youngsters in formal kimonos parading with their similarly elegant, Western-attired parents.
Whatever the venue or occasion, the show must go on. It’s a window to a world that existed before the flash developments, and proof Japan can adopt the new without discarding the old.
The city of Kyoto was made famous by the movie Memoirs Of A Geisha. When the young geisha Sayuri first ventures out onto the rooftops of Kyoto, she encounters a rustic 1930s cityscape, parts of which have remained unchanged.
Part of the scene is the Goju-no-to pagoda of Toji Temple, resplendent against the setting sun. The pagoda is still in the same place near Kyoto’s main railway station, and remains the tallest wooden structure in Japan.
With more than two thousand temples, some of the world’s finest gardens and no fewer than 17 World Heritage sites, allow plenty of time to explore Kyoto. Get hold of a copy of the illustrated guide Must-see In Kyoto, an excellent and easy-to-read source of inspiration.
Climbing Mt Fuji
The near-perfect symmetry of Japan’s Mt Fuji has long made it a muse for poets, painters and mystics. It’s no wonder climbing Mt Fuji is an almost sacred adventure. The official climbing season lasts just two months, from July to August.
Traditionally, the climb began with prayers at Fuji Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida City, at the base of the mountain. Nowadays climbers usually set off from Kawaguchiko Fifth Station, about a third of the way up. The hike from Kawaguchiko to the summit takes five to ten hours (depending on how leisurely you take it). A popular choice is to start the climb around 10pm, so as to reach the top in time for sunrise. From the summit back down to the Fifth Station takes four to five hours.
From Tokyo, the easiest access is by bus direct from Shinjuku rail station to Kawaguchiko Fifth Station. There are six buses daily, which take just over two hours.
It’s Only Natural
• Hiking the Kiso Valley
Four hundred years ago, the Kiso Valley towns of Magome and Tsumago were staging posts on the Nakasendo ‘Highway’ – a foot-trail along which local warlords had to make an annual visit to Edo, then Japan’s capital.
Now Magome, easily accessible from Nagoya by rail, has a modern part of town with a few low-key gift shops, but once you veer onto the broad foot-trail leading north through ‘old’ Magome, it’s easy to forget that the subsequent centuries ever existed.
Getting there: From Nagoya’s main rail station, the JR Chuo Line runs regularly to Nakatsugawa Station. From Nakatsugawa, a half-hourly bus (¥690) takes about 30 minutes to Magome. The last train from Nagiso back to Nagoya leaves at 8:17pm. For detailed rail schedules, see www.hyperdia.com.
• Step back in time
Visiting the village of Sawara, less than an hour by road from downtown Tokyo, is like stepping back 300 years into the past. This atmospheric Edo-era town on the willow-lined Ono River is minutes from Narita International Airport, but could be in another universe.
Getting there: From Narita Airport, JR Narita Line runs to Sawara in about one hour (with a transfer at Narita city).
• In awe of big trees
Of all the places where cedar trees still thrive, top marks go to Yakushima island. It’s home to perhaps the oldest trees on the planet, and recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its listing as Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage site with the opening of a new interpretive centre. Hiking Yakushima’s trails reveals some awesome nature-sights.
Getting there: Head there via the city of Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu Island. From Kagoshima, a ferry (¥5000 one-way) makes a daily crossing to Yakushima island. It departs Kagoshima at 8:35am arriving at Yakushima 12.30pm, then departs Yakushima at 1.20pm arriving in Kagoshima at 5.20pm. The Toppy jetfoil (¥7000 one-way) makes four runs daily each way in summer, taking about 2 hours 30 minutes.