Japan, land of future and tradition all tangled together into the craziest ball of fun. What’s that? You haven’t been there yet? Then there’s only one thing to do, book your ticket. Like NOW!
I have a long term fascination with all things Japanese. Lost in Translation was brilliant, Memoirs of a Geisha was beautiful and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls are too cool for school.
With my brother living there for almost 13 years, the addition of my Japanese sister-in-law, and my oh so cute niece and nephew, I have been lucky enough to visit Japan five times already and indulge my love of the country and its culture.
Japan is a desired destination for many, yet they often never take the plunge and buy the ticket. A big mistake, as this is one place not to be missed.
My first trip at 18 years of age was overwhelming. I remember walking out of the train station in Osaka standing in awe as I took in all the bright lights and neon signs. One thing I soon became aware of was the fact that I stood out like a sore thumb: blue eyes and blonde hair meant I had eyes boring into me from all directions, people touching my hair, strangers wanting to speak with me, free gifts from shopkeepers and even one girl taking a photo of her and I in a booth, the frame being a loveheart saying “Best Friends”. Bizarre, but I quietly enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.
Osaka, where my brother lived on my first trip, is a favourite city of mine. Some may say it’s a slightly less intimidating version of Tokyo, probably true, but it’s no less exciting. There is so much to see in this fantastic city. From Universal Studio’s to Osaka Aquarium, which I must add is amazing, allowing you to see whale sharks up close is an unforgettable experience. Osaka Castle and beautiful parks, the city has rivers and canals running through it, which add to Osaka’s beauty. If you’re not afraid of heights, I recommend paying a visit to The Umeda Sky Building: 173 metre’s tall, consisting of two main towers which are connected with each other by the “Floating Garden Observatory” on the 39th floor, allowing great views of the city. Or for something a little more fun, and in my opinion much scarier, you could take a spin on the ferris wheel at Hep Five Shopping Mall. I ignored my brother’s warnings that it was actually much higher up than it appears, happily boarded, and found myself pinned to the ground of my little cabin in fear as the ferris wheel slowly made it’s way upwards and popped out the top of the mall’s roof. Great views though, hah! And conveniently, if one does need therapy after their ferris wheel ride, you just head down the escalator and shop till you drop in the super sized mall. But don’t spend all your cash here, as there are PLENTY more places to splurge.
One of the areas I always make a bee-line for is Amerika Mura, to check out the clothes and see the style conscious strut their stuff. The area is mostly dedicated to hip hop clothing, cool shoes and various other American style shops. You will not be disappointed if people watching is what you’re after, make sure your camera is charged before heading in this direction. FYI the streetlamps are shaped like robots, so that alone is worth a look.
Within walking distance of Amerika Mura, is Shinsaibashi, an undercover arcade stretching almost a mile long. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll lose your sense of direction in what looks like a neverending tunnel outlined with stores selling anything from designer goods, Hello Kitty merchandise (trust me when I tell you, the cat grows on you! I’m a fan) or the very addictive 100 yen stores where you may be surprised at some of the goodies you will find in such a discount shop.
All that shopping and people watching would make anyone hungry, so once the sun goes down, the best place to head for food is the area of Dotonbori. The street runs along a canal, and comes alive at night with it’s neon signs and lights. You will know you’ve arrived in the area, when you spot the giant mechanical crab attached to the side of one of the buildings. Here you can indulge in mouthwatering food, from okonomiyaki: a batter pancake with vegetables, seafood or meat, takoyaki: octopus dumplings, as well as sushi or ramen noodle bars, the options are endless.
After dinner entertainment is also full of choice: private karaoke rooms, bars and nightclubs, video arcades or you might want to try and figure out how to play pachinko (I’ll let wikipedia explain the rules), you can’t miss these pinball type machines, you’ll hear them before you see them.
So that’s Osaka in a nutshell!
A city with a more traditional feel than that of Osaka, is Kyoto. This being the second city my brother moved to, and where he spent the majority of his time in Japan, I was very fortunate to pay numerous visits to such a special place. Home of the Geisha, it boasts some of the most beautiful temples and tranquil gardens. I always found it amazing, whilst out shopping in the busy area of Kawaramachi, that there would be a beautiful shrine nestled between a coffee shop and a fashion boutique.
Determined to experience some true Japanese culture on one particular visit, I went on two separate adventures. The first was a day spent in Arashiyama, a pretty district in Western Kyoto, with lots of history, walking trails, beautiful restaurants and traditional shops. Here you can take a rickshaw ride through a bamboo forest, visit the monkey park, enjoy a riverboat ride and visit numerous shrines. Easily accessible by tram from central Kyoto, it’s a must see.
The second adventure was one of my all-time highlights. My sister-in-law and I paid a visit to a professional studio to be dressed as Geisha and have our photos taken. So one Saturday we both head off to the area of Gion, to be transformed. The studio was situated up a narrow street and I felt like I was stepping into a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha as we pushed back the traditional sliding doors and knelt at low tables waiting to be called. We were then ushered into a changing room and told to put on some white gowns and white socks, the ones that fit like a glove between your first two toes. Next up was makeup. White paint was spread all over our upper chest and back and then onto our face. Lips were painted bright red and eyes were accentuated with pretty colours. Kumiko (my sister-in-law) was lucky when it came to her hair being styled, they were able to use most of her own and only added a hairpiece onto the back. I, on the other hand, was not so fortunate having blonde hair and had to wear a full wig. I officially looked like a drag queen and that wig was super heavy. Upstairs we were able to choose which kimono we wanted to wear and also our hair accessories. Then it was lights, camera, action! We were made to stand and sit in a variety of poses while the photographers snapped away. My kimono (and wig!) were so heavy that once I sat down I had to be helped up again because I was unable to move on my own. Following the shoot, we had 15 minutes of free time in their back garden to take photos of ourselves. After washing our faces a million times I finally recognised myself again and was then presented with some beautiful professional photos to keep. It was such a fun experience, not so cheap, but definitely worth it!
Kyoto will spoil you for choice when it comes to visiting shrines and temples, however I recommend heading to the narrow alley of Pontochō. If you have either read or watched Memoirs of a Geisha, you will truly feel like you’ve stepped onto the movie’s set. This tiny cobbled street full of traditional tea houses, expensive restaurants and Geisha entertainment, comes to life when the sun goes down, and you will experience what I can only describe as a magical moment and the feeling of stepping back in time. I suggest heading there around 5-6pm, when you will be most likely to catch Maiko and Geisha shuffling along en route to work.
From Kyoto there are loads of options on where to go next. If you have the time, I suggest a daytrip to Kobe. A stunning port city and the fifth largest in Japan, I find Kobe to have a very different feel to some of the other big cities, as it seems more westernised. It’s also very modern, due to the rebuilding of large areas after it’s devastating earthquake in 1995. Although I’ve visited twice, I haven’t seen a great deal of this place, especially since one of those visits was to a hotel for my brothers wedding. However, I do suggest heading down to the port to visit Harborland. If shopping is your thing, then the large indoor/outdoor mall will more than suffice, or you can opt to dine in one of the restaurants overlooking the harbour. There are boardwalks, gardens, a ferris wheel and amusement arcades, to name just a few of the attractions. But the one thing you must not miss, is the opportunity to ride a mechanical animal. I know, you’re thinking, What Did She Just Say?! For small change, which you push into the coin slot on the side of the animals, you then climb on, and they walk around, it’s hilarious, and worth it for the photo opportunity alone. (I’ve posted some photos below I found on Google, so you can see exactly what I mean).
Hiroshima is another easily accessible city from Kyoto, and one to add to the list, for obvious reasons: the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum. I’m the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of museums, I’d much rather spend my time people watching and taking photographs. So when I tell you I spent a good couple of hours wandering around and reading about the events that led up to that tragic day, then it’s obviously a place I’m going to recommend you visit. Outside the museum stands the only remaining building that survived the bomb.
If you need something to lift the mood after the museum, then you’d be best to head to the port and board a ferry to beautiful Miyajima Island. Rated as one of Japan’s Top Three Spots, it is most famous for it’s torii gate, that appears to float on water at high tide. Full of little alleys with traditional shops and restaurants along with many shrines, you will also find super confident deer that roam around freely and feel entitled to encroach on your personal space at any given time. Accommodation is available in ryokan’s, if you want to soak up the traditional experience for a little longer.
Saving the capital for last. Let’s talk about Tokyo.
Being a big city lover, this is my favourite place in Japan (followed so closely by Osaka that it’s practically a tie). If you’re into a quieter pace of life, Tokyo might be a little too much to handle. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and you love fashion, food, nightlife, shopping, and general craziness then you’ll fit right in! There really is so much to tell you about this place, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. So let’s start with some of the neighbourhoods.
Harajuku, a fashionable shopping district offers the most intriguing sights, by that I mean the people you see. This is the area where all the young and crazy come to hang out and parade around in their outfits, ranging from goths to punks to girls dressed like dolls. Sundays in Harajuku is THE day for Japanese teenagers (and some adults) to gather on Jingu Bridge, dressed up in any manner of costume and have camera lenses shoved in their face by photographers and tourists. DO.NOT.MISS.THIS. The streets surrounding the area, are full of the latest and greatest fashion, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The best street to head down is Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian only street, that gets so packed with people it makes London’s Oxford Street feel like a walk in the park. However, I can literally spend hours here, finding a cosy spot up a staircase and photographing some of the amazing looking people.
From Harajuku you can head down to Shibuya. Those who have seen Lost in Translation will recognise the huge pedestrian crossing. You have to cross this intersection. Several times. Take photos. It’s an experience. After that, the best thing to do, is locate the Starbucks on the north side of the crossing, on the second floor of the Tsutaya Building, wait for a window seat, which looks out over the intersection and you will get the perfect view of this organised chaos. Shibuya is known for it’s shopping and nightlife, so if you haven’t maxed out your credit card you will certainly manage to do so around here. Full of restaurants every which way you look, you’ll be spoilt for choice. However, if you are with a group of friends, then try out an Izakaya. This is a drinking establishment where you usually sit around low tables on tatami mats and for a set price per person, you can order as much food and drink as you like, within a time limit of around 2-3 hours. If you’re up for a night out after your Izakaya, I can recommend Club Camelot. Having been here twice, once for New Year’s Eve, I had a fantastic night both times.
Shinjuku is another area you need to explore. Home to the largest train station in the world, I remember arriving there for the first time and having an anxious feeling I’d never locate the correct exit (there are more than 200!), and make it to my hotel. Apparently I don’t give myself enough credit, I did locate it, but found myself annoyed when I arrived at the hotel and the escalator to the lobby was broken. Or not. It was my first time to discover escalators that run on a sensor. Duh. Shinjuku is a large business, entertainment and shopping district. It is also home to Kabukicho: the red light district and features a number of skyscraper buildings. One of these skyscrapers is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, which offers free admission to it’s viewing towers on the 45th floor. Another skyscraper you must visit is the Park Hyatt Hotel. Make a reservation at the New York Bar for evening cocktails, and you will find yourself sitting in the same place Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson frequented in the movie Lost in Translation. The views over Tokyo are simply amazing.
For fancypants shopping, head to the upmarket district of Ginza, where you will find neverending designer stores. Need a new camera? Then Akihabara is the stop to head for. But there’s also another, much more entertaining reason to visit Akihabara, it’s full of Maid Cafe’s. What’s a Maid Cafe you ask? Well where do I start! Attracting predominantly males that are obsessed with anime, manga and video games, the waitresses in the cafe, usually young attractive girls, dress in French maid outfits and treat customers as masters and mistresses. Your assigned maid will interact with you, by encouraging you to participate in hilarious little songs with cute actions before commencing a meal. No photography is allowed inside, but you can pay extra to have an official photograph with a maid, or if you prefer, you can check the pricelist to play boardgames with her. I know, I know, it sounds completely weird, and you’re not wrong there, but trust me, it’s a sight to see!
Something a little less quirky, but just as interesting is the Tsukiji Fish Market. You will need to rise and shine super early for this, but it will be worth it, so make the effort. The largest wholesale seafood market in the world, it opens most mornings at 3am with a live auction starting at 5.20. Men driving forklifts will be racing around either side of you, and you can walk through the covered market where you will see seafood every colour of the rainbow. Afterwards, you can be truly traditional and have a fresh sushi breakfast at one of the outside stalls.
If you find yourself seeking out more quirky adventures, then I suggest you head to Ice Cream City inside the Sunshine 60 mall in Ikebukuro. Here you will find flavours you simply would never imagine possible, cow tongue anyone? Or perhaps octopus? There are also more tame flavours, and ice cream from all around the world. Crazy. But fun.
Wherever you wander in Tokyo, you will stumble across something amazing, so I will leave you to discover some of your own adventures.
Last but not least a little bullet pointed list of things you must do/know:
- Take a journey on a Shinkansen train. Bullet trains are brilliant, not only are they always on time but they’re fast, clean and you even have room at your seat to stretch your legs. But best of all are the respectful staff. Every time they enter and exit a carriage, they turn to bow to the passengers. Only in Japan!
- If you’re a fan of gadgets, stationery and various stuff you don’t need but really want, I bow down to two stores in Japan, Tokyu Hands and Loft. Seek them out, you will not believe the stuff you can buy in there. They stock everything imaginable, after about four hours of scanning the aisles on my last trip, I left with bags containing elephant shaped mayonnaise holders, Elmo magnets, funky stationery and creme brulee scented bath salts; this being only a portion of my goods.
- Beware of the toilets. The Japanese squat style always terrified me, with the fear of falling in. But when faced with the fact that I was bursting and had no other choice, I took the risk and was so proud of the new skill I’d mastered! Later on, thinking I’d found the safety of a western loo, I accidentally leant on one of the many buttons (think music, seat warmer etc), and a jet sprayed up from inside the toilet causing me to leap into the air and duck for cover from the spraying water! You’ve been warned.
- Karaoke. It’s practically illegal not to try it. Hesitate you may. But don’t miss this essential Japanese pastime, it is so much fun. Especially at 4am after celebrating New Years Eve in Club Camelot as mentioned above, totally rad way to see in the new year.
- Purikura. Let me explain. I’m sure you’ve seen those photo sticker booths somewhere at some point. Well Japan is king of the photo sticker booth, called Purikura. I have an addiction. Here’s some proof:
So I think the above, should be enough for you to A. be booking your flight to Japan tomorrow and B. give you enough info to provide you with a kick-arse time once you get there.