Japan is a land of fascination for many – from the language to the dress, Harajuku to Hiroshima, it’s a land of extremes and apparent paradoxes. It’s modern, but it’s ancient; it’s conservative but open-minded; there is a lot of serious business, but boy do they know how to have fun.
1) Travel on the Shinkansen
Nicknamed the Bullet Train, the Shinkansen is Japan’s high speed train. Plans for a high-speed rail network began as early as the 1930s, and though plans ground to a halt during World War 2, the Shinkansen was launched in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics.
As a visitor to Japan, you can get a JR Pass, which allows you unlimited travel on the Shinkansen (and many local trains) when activated – it pays for itself within two trips and opens the entire country up for you to explore, in an environmentally friendly and efficient way.
2) Visit an onsen
Onsen is the name for Japan’s traditional thermal baths. If you have ever watched the animated Japanese film Spirited Away you will have an idea of the kinds of bathhouse you might find. It is one of the most relaxing ways to spend a few hours.
While the etiquette may take some getting used to (there are separate male and female sections in which bathing naked is the custom – though you wear a swimming costume in the unisex section), you will definitely appreciate the fresh towels, cotton kimono, body wash, shampoo, hair-dryers, toothbrushes and hair brushes that are included in the price of admission.
3) Go to Harajuku
This is where the young and fashion forward of Tokyo come out to play. On a Sunday, teens will gather near Harajuku station to socialise, to shop, and most importantly, to be photographed. Outfits are carefully put together and immaculately styled.
There are plenty of shops, and while you won’t necessarily find dirt-cheap bargains like in much of the rest of Asia, the variety of different styles are worth the cost. You’ll also find more than enough eateries, including one hyper-pink foodcourt.
4) Walk through Kyoto
Kyoto is home to more world heritage sites than you can shake a stick at. There’s a well-worn tourist trail that takes you past some of the temples, shrines and ancient streets, which you can find in most guide books.
A particular favourite is the Sagano bamboo forest – a stunning grove of towering bamboo trees that looks as though it could have been drawn by a Disney cartoonist. Incredible.
Travel advice for Japan
• The Japanese are a friendly bunch, and even though most don’t speak much English, they will try their best to help if you ask.
• Three words you need to know: sumimasen means ‘excuse me’, arigato means ‘thank you’ and eigo means ‘English’ (helpful when asking for English menus!)
• You will find English throughout most metro train stations, so it is not a completely unintelligible task
• Post offices and 7-11s are your best bet for ATMs – make sure you always have cash on you, as most shops and restaurants don’t have card facilities
• Most non-Japanese phones won’t work with local SIM cards, and it’s unusual to find public wifi, so plan your communications ahead of time.