Skyscrapers illuminated by neon lights. Tatami mats in a ryokan. Steam rising from an onsen bath. A futuristic robot restaurant. A tea ceremony in an old Kyoto house… Japan is very different from any other country you’ve visited.
Inspired to visit the Land of the Rising Sun after watching BBC4’s The Art of Japanese Life which saw art historian, Dr James Fox, examine the art and culture of Japan? For a true taste of Japanese life, read on…
Sing, sing, sing
Forget kabuki (stylised Japanese theatre) and kimonos (traditional Japanese robes). It’s karaoke that Japan goes gaga about.
While, in the west, karaoke commonly evokes images of raucous hen parties where scantily clad women boozily belt out Britney, Bon Jovi and off-key renditions of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, in Japan karaoke is big among businessmen, teenage girls in their gym-slips and their grandmothers at the other end of the age spectrum alike. Make no mistake, you can’t escape karaoke: you’ll find branches of major chains – take a bow Big Echo and Karaoke-kan – in every major city.
Get stuck into sushi…
By all means but, in actual fact sushi is generally more of a treat for most Japanese as opposed to the makings of their every-day meals. Other Japanese dishes to try include okonomiyaki, ramen, curry rice, donburi and yakitori and the best place to try them is often, and bizarrely, at a shopping centre. Go ahead: treat your tastebuds.
Cherry on the cake
Cherry blossom season – which celebrates the coming and passing of the pink Sakura blossoms – is big news in Japan. And for good reason: as experiences go, gawping at a land dusted in pink is right up there. You can watch the petals falling on the traditional Golden Route (Tokyo, Kyoto and Mt Fuji) during March and April or escape the hordes and head to Hakodate in Hokkaido to see an enormous star-shaped fort covered in cherry blossom trees. Other top spots to try include Tenshochi in Kiatkami and Tohoku, north of Tokyo, to see a castle standing amidst a sea of pink.
Stripping off and stepping, starkers, into a natural hot spring bath (onsen) might not sound appealing to most Brits but keep an open mind! Once you feel your muscles relax at an onsen, we guarantee you’ll be muttering “Thank goodness I listened to TNT.” You’ll find onsens dotted all around Japan but the best are arguably to be found in Kinosaki – Japan’s classic onsen town – and Hakone.
Sleep in a ryokan
It would be criminal to visit Japan and not spend at least one night in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. You’ll be asked to leave your shoes in the reception area before being served a cup of tea and shown to your room where you’ll sleep on a tatami mat rather than a Western mattress. When night falls there’s the opportunity to bathe up until bedtime before waking to a Japanese style breakfast. In Tokyo, TNT can vouch for the minimalist and modern Andon Ryokan (www.andon.co.jp/)
Take time for tea
Tea is a vital part of Japanese life so it would be criminal to leave Japan without trying a tea ceremony at a tea house – typically small, simple places that you’ll need to crouch to access. Flowers will be arranged in a particular way and then the elaborate ceremony will commence. Expect to sit in a certain position, examine the tea bowl and hold it in the proper way. Not sure what to do? Sign up for a tea ceremony which all abound all over in Kyoto.
Drink in a den
Fancy feeling like you’re in a 1960s Japanese film? When in Tokyo, make sure you go to Golden Gai – a warren of narrow lanes bursting with wooden buildings that were once home to a black market but now house teensy tiny bars, cafes and restaurants. This corner of Tokyo is akin to stepping back in time and experiencing what the city was like before it was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1923 and the Second World War. Simply wander around and pick your favourite…
Bite the bullet (train)
Japan has a train system (the bullet train known locally as Shinkansen) that Londoners would kill for. It’s reliable, reasonably priced and super fast. Most tourists take the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (be sure to sit on the right hand side of the train so as to get a great view of the legendary Mount Fuji). Kyoto’s train station is an attraction in its own right with hundreds of restaurants, an enormous shopping mall and five hotels.
Chill out in a rock garden
When the hustle and bustle of the big cities gets too much – as it will – enjoy some time out in a peaceful zen garden. One of the most mysterious in the world can be found in Kyoto (the great cultural centre of Japan). The rock garden at Ryoan-ji consists of 15 rocks organised on gravel in a cute courtyard. TNT’s tip: arrive early in the morning – before the tourists descend in their droves – and meditate on the meaning of life. Other great gardens include Ginkaku-ji and Tofuku-ji.
Seeing a sumo match
Scored tickets to see a sumo wrestling match? You’re in for a treat. Two overweight, muscled men will grapple with each other in the ring clan only in mawashi (loin cloths) right in front of you – expect to be able to smell their sweat! Grand tournaments are held over a 15 day period, six times a year (January, May and September in Tokyo, March in Osaka, July in Nagoya and November in Fukuoka) and make for a quintessential only-in-Japan experience…
Shop to it
If Japan had a national sport, it would be shopping. And, as the saying goes “When in Rome”…. Tokyo, Japan’s capital, has arguably the best selection of stores selling everything under the sun. Seriously: you’ll be amazed at the sheer variety on offer. Meanwhile the old capital of Kyoto is the place to head for traditional goods – think kimonos, scrolls, ceramics etc.
Words by Kaye Holland