Determined to satisfy an obsession with all things Japanese, we sidestepped the usual travellers’ trail and went from the South-East Asia all the way up to Japan. Best. Decision. Ever. Japan is overwhelmingly different from anywhere else you’ve been before, retaining a rock-solid sense of identity through it’s unique culture, rituals, history and beliefs. There is so much to see, from beautiful artistry to the down right weird. It’s also nowhere near as expensive as I thought, catering for every type of traveller (if you book in advance). Mind blowing architecture, seriously good food, the very latest trends, incredible scenery, technology to make you look twice, gaming, shopping, wildlife and art. Japan is a Mecca for those who find intrigue and wonder in the very idea of otherness. I’ve narrowed down our 3-week trip into these 10 amazing must-do things.
1. See the bright lights of Tokyo
That image of Tokyo you have in your head, of neon signs towering up to the skies, as far as the eye can see? That’s Shinjuku (see also Shibuya and Ueno). Go there at night and walk around in amazement. I felt starstruck, like I’d walked onto a film set. We drank whisky with strangers in Golden Gai, a hipster-heaven composition of about 200 tiny bars crammed into a few narrow backstreets. I had one of the moments where you just feel like you’re precisely where you’re supposed to be.
2. Picnic under the cherry blossom
We chose to visit Japan during cherry blossom season (Late March to April), which is one of the most beautiful times to go. Soft pink confetti fills every other tree and what was just a plain grey street is decorated with paper lanterns and treated as a premium picnic destination. There are loads of great places to see the cherry blossom in its full glory. My favourites were the Meguru River and Kanazawa Castle grounds, which are both spectacularly lit up at night.
3. Ski the Japanese Alps (and see the snow monkeys)
Exploring Asia for 6 months, we didn’t exactly expect to see snow, let alone go skiing, but realising we’d catch the end of Japan’s ski season, we spontaneously made our way across to Yudanaka and rented absolutely everything from a hotel in Shigakogen’s Inchinose ski resort. It was amazing to have such a massive change of scenery and we pretty much had the slopes to ourselves. Whilst in the area, we also went to visit the snow monkeys, you know the ones on snowy nature programs that bathe in hot springs? Definitely go and see them in real life.
4. Spend all your time (and money) in Kyoto
Whether you’re looking for fine dining, hip wine bars or a bit of serious shopping, Kyoto has got you covered. This fashionable city has a really cool vibe and there is so much to do. Get drunk with the locals down buzzy Pontocho Street, raid the vintage wonders of Three Star retro clothing and eat the best Ramen of your life at 1000 winds (just opposite). We also spent the day wondering up and down Philosopher’s Walk, bathed in the beauty of the golden pavillion and found the most amazing bakeries along the way.
5. Take in the temples of Koyasan
A train, cable car and bus ride away from Kyoto or Osaka (roughly 3 hours), you’ll find the spiritual mountain town of Koyasan. An area completely dominated by beautiful temples and home to many Buddhist monks. Some of the monks run their temples like guest houses, giving you the opportunity to spend the night. We stayed at Fukuchi-In, which is the most incredible Japanese building and felt very much like sleeping in a museum. We were served a huge Vegetarian dinner and breakfast in our rooms, relaxed in the lovely Onsen and attended the morning prayer ceremony at sunrise. Be sure to walk through Mount Koya’s woodland cemetery.
6. Walk with wild deer in Nara
In Japan, deer are considered messengers of the gods. In Nara, they are everywhere. It was a really surreal wandering around the temples, being followed by wild deer. You can buy crackers and, believe it or not, the deer bow for you, asking to be fed.
7. Pause for thought in Hiroshima
A volunteer tour guide took us around the Peace Park, and I’m so glad he did because it gave the attack on Hiroshima and the significance of the park the proper context, hearing the story and facts from an older Japanese person. I wasn’t quite ready for the horror of the museum. The remnants, memories and actual artefacts from the bombing are chilling, but essential for really driving home what happened. The park represents the importance of never letting something so awful happen again.
8. Take the ferry to Miyajima
Just 10 minutes by boat from Hiroshima, Miyajima is undoubtedly one of the prettiest places in Japan. Deemed a world heritage site because of its natural beauty, the floating shrine and famous temples sit in harmony with the surrounding, somehow managing the enhance the landscape even more. We followed the three-hour walking trail to the top of Mount Misen and took in the astounding views of the mainland from across the sea.
9. Spend the night in a Ryokan
If you’re looking for an authentic Japanese experience – the slippers, the kimonos, the onsen, the futons, the tatami mats, the tea – book yourself into a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. Be prepared to sleep on the floor, change your slippers every five minutes and bathe naked with strangers.
10. Eat ALL the food
Obviously the food is what attracts most of us to visiting Japan. We didn’t have a single bad meal. Even supermarket sushi is amazing. Ramen from Ichiran (Tokyo) and 1000 Winds (Kyoto), conveyor belt sushi, Tako-Yaki (octopus pancake balls) on Dontonburi Street (Oskaka), deep fried oysters, grilled eel, green tea ice cream, yakitori (meat on a stick), tempura, Udon from Omen (Kyoto), yakiniku (cooking your own meat at your table), shojin (vegetarian buddhist cuisine), just to name a few favourites.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan and need any more tips, please don’t hesitate to ask!