JAPAN: SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Japan is a unique and wonderful country that somehow manages to balance being both ancient and modern at the same time. Wandering through one of Japan's many temples, or spotting a giesha walking down the streets of Kyoto, can make you feel as though you've been transported back in time. However, change your location to tech-savvy Akihabara or fashion-forward Harajuku and you will feel as though you're paying a visit to the future instead of the past.
With a rich history, fascinating culture and wide range of sights and activities, Japan is one of those countries that truly has something for everyone. Whether you're travelling solo, as a couple, with friends or small children, I promise you that Japan will have more than enough to keep you occupied and wanting more.
Don't believe me? Read on for my list of what Japan has to offer.
If you're a bit of a city slicker...
Japan is filled with bustling, vibrant cities just waiting for you to explore!
The king of all these cities is Tokyo, whose individual neighbourhoods are so unique and diverse that they kind of feel like mini cities themselves. Two or three days in Tokyo is not enough, ideally you will want to give yourself closer to a week in order to get a feel for a few of the different areas. Some standout Tokyo neigbourhoods for me were Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Harajuku, Asakusa & Roppongi.
Tip: base yourself at a hotel or hostel that is walking distance from one of the stations on the Yamanote Line. The Yamanote Line is basically a high speed JR train that connects all the different areas and smaller train lines of Tokyo. If you have easy access to a Yamanote Line station, you'll have easy access to all the major sights and areas of Tokyo.
If you're a bit of a foodie...
Japan has you covered. Period.
Whether you're after street food or a fine-dining experience or both, it doesn't matter, Japan has it all. Many praise Osaka as being the 'cheap eats' capital of Japan, while Tokyo has more Michelin Star restaurants than any other city in the world.
Some dishes that you can't leave Japan without trying are: ramen, sashimi, okonomiyaki, soba, tempura, gyoza, yakiniku & sushi (duh!).
If you're the adventurous type...
Japan isn't all cities and restaurants - there is plenty on offer here in terms of nature as well!
If you're in Japan during their summer (June-August) I highly recommend hiking Mount Fuji. At 3,776 meters it is an easy summit for anyone of good health and relative fitness. Some people choose to ascend and descend in the same day, but I think if you do this you're missing out on the best part of the whole experience - which is staying overnight on the mountain and making the summit in time for sunrise! The lodges are very basic but charming and the people who host them are incredibly kind.
Even though summer runs from June to August, the summit of Fuji only 'opens' to the public from the 1st of July until the 31st of August... so technically you're not supposed to climb Fuji outside of these dates. In reality though I have never heard of anyone being stopped or fined for 'bending' these rules a little and going in late June instead.
We chose to climb Fuji towards the end of June, when the weather was much the same as July anyway and when we knew all the lodges would be occupied by the workers making preparations for the busy climbing season ahead. A huge benefit of doing it this way was that for large patches of the walk we pretty much had the whole mountain to ourselves (something with I have heard does not happen during the overcrowded July-August period!).
If you like to relax and unwind...
Con: Japan is filled with active volcanoes. Pro: they produce countless hot springs!
The Japanese refer to these hot springs as 'onsens' and they are quite literally everywhere all over the Japan. The hot water is filled with minerals so it is not only relaxing, but also great for your skin.
Traditionally onsens are a public affair, kind of like a bath house, and therefore don't cost very much to enter. If you're in the mood to treat yourself, however, or you don't want to go to a public onsen, stay a night or two at a luxurious ryokan, which often have their own private onsen facilities and in-house spa treatments.
Tip: for our trip, we chose to spend one night at Kozantei Ubuya, a ryokan located in the Fuji Five Lakes area. We scheduled our stay immediately after our Fuji summit so that we would have a reward to motivate us on our hike. Since we knew we would be tired from climbing, and since there's just no point in doing anything by halves in life, we went all out on this one and splurged on the best room in the house... which featured its own completely private onsen on our balcony! Usually, there is a view of Mount Fuji from here, but unfortunately it was really overcast when we went and a giant cloud was obstructing it. None-the-less, I can't recommend this accommodation highly enough. If you're only going to splurge on one night luxurious night on your Japan trip - do it here!
If you're a mad sports fan...
Whether it is baseball or soccer or sumo wrestling, the Japanese love their sports so if you're a sports-lover you'll find plenty on offer during your visit!
Sumo wrestling is a sport that is very typically Japanese, so if you're able to see a match then you definitely should. Tournaments run throughout the year, so do your research and see if the timing and locations match up with your itinerary. Unfortunately for us, there were no tournaments on during our stay (but that's just a great excuse for me to have to go back!).
While not traditionally Japanese, baseball is another sport that is hugely popular in Japan, and going to a game here is a fantastic experience. We were lucky enough to get tickets to see the Hiroshima Carps play the Tokyo Swallows - two of the biggest teams in the league. Naturally, we stocked up on some merchandise to get into the spirit!
Tip: tickets to the baseball are easy enough to get, but I can't say it is the most straight-forward process if you don't speak Japanese (which we didn't!). Basically, tickets are sold from these weird ticket machines in convenience stores (like Family Mart) and there is no English option to translate. The way we got around this was that we researched the baseball fixture online, picked the game that we wanted to go to, and then asked the English-speaking hotel staff to write out for us on a piece of paper the exact teams, time and location of the game that we wanted to buy tickets to - in Japanese. We then took this piece of paper to the convenience store and asked the guy working there to press the correct buttons on the machine for us and then - boom! - we had tickets! Not straight-forward at all, but easy enough, really. The Japanese are honestly so kind and willing to help so don't be afraid to ask for assistance on things like this!
If you're a bit of a history buff...
Whether its ancient history or modern history, Japan has plenty on offer to keep any history enthusiast occupied for years. Historical sights are often set up in a very tourist-friendly manner, with signage and audiotapes available in multiple languages to ensure that you gain the most possible from your visit.
One particular sight that should be at the top of any visitor's list, history buff or not, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum. Confronting, beautiful and heartbreaking; it is important that anyone going to Japan pays a visit to this incredibly moving site. Reading about the horror and devastation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during WWII is one thing, but witnessing for yourself the distorted and melted artefacts while listening to the recollections of survivors is another thing altogether. It is hard to look at and it is awful to hear, but if we don't learn from history we will be doomed to repeat its mistakes. Force yourself to push through this challenging experience because I promise it will change you.
If you're a snow bunny...
Not many people realise that Japan is home to over 500 ski resorts. Niseko, one of the most popular of these resorts, boasts an average of 14 meters snow annually. The powder is so legendary here that it has its own name - Ja-pow! (Japan powder, get it?)
Niseko is located on Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, and is about a two hour drive or three hour bus from the main airport in Sapporo. Not only is Niseko chock-full of great places to eat and sleep, but the ski runs there also feature an impressive view of nearby Mount Yotei. Great snow, picturesque views and delicious food? I'm set.
If you're into myths and legends...
Despite being a country that is both modern and advanced technologically, the Japanese still place a high importance on both traditions and superstitions. Many of the country's temples and shrines have really cool myths and legends behind them. Make sure that you read up on some of these stories and fables before you go, as it will give the place you are visiting so much more significance. Or, alternatively, hire a guide. Some of these sites offer short tours for not too much money that you can organise on the spot. Having someone to show you around and explain what you are seeing can really add a lot to your experience and understanding of a place.
One site in particular that stood out for me was the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto. Inari is technically the god of rice, but became known amongst merchants and traders as the god of business. This shrine is truly enchanting. My favourite part was seeing all the statues of foxes around the place. Foxes were known as messengers in ancient Japan and many of them hold the key (to the rice granary) in their mouths.
If you're a bit of a tech-nerd...
Japan is a country that is filled with cool gadgets and advanced technology. From singing toilet seats to vending machines that serve hot meals, Japan is full of things to amaze and entertain both the young and old.
Those looking to purchase a technological bargain should make their way straight for tech-savvy Akihabara. This prefecture of Tokyo will have what you're looking for - and at a bargain price to book! Everything from home-security systems, cameras, phones, laptops etc. is sold here. Give yourself at least half a day to explore this area. As a general rule, shop prices are set but market stall prices are up for negotiation. Beware though, as market items often don't come with a warranty.
If you're partial to a drink... or four...
Two things: Japanese beer and Japanese Sake. Both are specialties of Japan so make sure you sample a few (or a lot) during your stay.
For those who are new to sake (labelled as seishu), sake is a Japanese rice wine whose flavour notes can include fruits, flowers, herbs and spices. However, you will find that the taste and quality varies widely between regions and brands.
If visiting a small Japanese bar (the good, cheap kind where there are more locals than tourists)
try pairing some beer with a small bottle of sake to share and swap between the two over the course of the evening. Beware though! The smoothness of sake is deceiving and can sometimes mask its relatively high alcoholic content. To avoid embarrassing yourself (the Japanese are not overly forgiving of those who are publicly intoxicated) do what the Japanese do and snack while you drink. Most bars of this kind will serve bargain snacks like yakitori (skewered meat) for you to line your stomach with!
When sampling Japanese beer, break away from international brands like Sapporo and Asahi, which you can pretty much get anywhere in the world. Ask bartenders to recommend a local beer instead. After a few cities (and bars!) you will start to be able to identify and appreciate the differences in flavours and styles between regions.
If you have a green-thumb, or can appreciate people who do...
Traditional Japanese gardens are designed with both aesthetic and philosophical ideas in mind. They also like to avoid artificial ornamentation and instead prefer to showcase the natural landscape. These elements combine to create an atmosphere that is positively enchanting. Make sure you allow time in your trip to visit at least a few of these magical gardens.
A stand out garden for me was Okochi-Sanso, located in Arashiyama which is just over half an hour by train from Kyoto. Okochi-Sanso is the former home of Japanese period-actor Denjiro Okochi and is now open to the public. Not only are the gardens themselves beautiful, but from here you can also enjoy beautiful views of Arashiyama and nearby Kyoto. The admission fee is 1,000 yen, which works out to be approximately $11 Australian dollars. This price includes a tea and Japanese sweet at the garden's teahouse, so hold on to your admission ticket and make the time to sit down and enjoy it at the end of your visit.
Okochi-Sanso is not the only garden on offer in the Arashiyama district, so make sure you carve out a full day from your itinerary to explore. The other-worldly beauty of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, also located here, definitely deserves your time too!
If you're an architectural enthusiast...
Whether its a skyscraper or a temple, Japan has a wide range of impressive architecture for you to feast your eyes upon. The sheer height of Tokyo Tower is something that is best enjoyed from its 250 meter high observatory, which boasts spectacular views of the city and features a see-through floor. For those who appreciate the old-school, head to cities like Kyoto and Nara to enjoy their ancient shines and temples.
If you have an appreciation for the weird and wonderful...
Whether it is the crazy fashionistas in Harajuku, the strangely themed rooms (i.e. 'alien abduction' or 'Hello Kitty') in Osaka's 'Love Hotels', the radio channel that only plays happy birthday on repeat, the hilariously translated signs and advertisements or the quirky and unique bars of Golden Gai -
Japan is nothing if not both weird and wonderful!
If you have an appreciation for the different, the random, the unusual, then you are guaranteed to love Japan and all its surprises!
Well, what do you think? Did you see something you like? Let me know in the comments below if Japan is on your list of places to visit!