It’s really hard to find someone who’s only been to Japan once. It’s one of those countries that you’ll never reach the bottom of, no matter how many times you visit. That’s why people keep coming back for more (that and the hot-coffee vending machines).
When I was there last year, the cherry blossoms were just about to bloom. I’d grown up watching Japan, or at least Quentin Tarantino’s version of Japan, and I couldn’t wait to see the real thing – vengeful samurai battles and all. The country didn’t disappoint. It’s still by far the weirdest, coolest and most interesting place I’ve ever been. Here are six things I learned on my travels:
1. Try all of the food, not just the safe stuff
My Japanese menu at home was always some combination of salmon hand rolls, teriyaki chicken and gyoza. That was it. If it didn’t come wrapped in soggy seaweed or deep fried with a coke, I wasn’t taking any chances. Who knows what eels really get up to… But if you let your guard down in Japan, the food is the best you’ll find anywhere.
Top tips are definitely Monjayaki from Tsukishima in Tokyo (look for the restaurant with the sub-zero beer), pork Katsudon with egg (just hook me up to an IV of this stuff), Shabu Shabu dinner (Japan’s answer to steam boat dining – think all-you-can-eat beef) and the bread. Just any bread. France can keep its crusty baguettes – Japanese bread is as pillowy as a unicorn’s dream. I don’t know if they inject pure heroin into this stuff, but by God its moreish.
2. If you can, get local help
English is becoming more and more common, particularly in major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. So if you touchdown at Narita with nothing more than “Kon’nichiwa” up your sleeve, you’ll probably be okay. But it really pays to get some local knowledge. Group trips and organised day tours are the way to go.
Our guide took us to the best gyoza in Harajuku (it’s in a little alley off Cat Street), a tiny tiki bar in Osaka that looked like it was in an abandoned office block, and helped us navigate the spaceship-sized subway stations with ease. You can get around by yourself okay if you have to – Japan’s booming tourist trade means there’s usually an information booth within 20m of you at all times – but your trip will be way more interesting with someone who knows all the cool local hangouts. Suck up that pride and go with a group, at least for the first week until you find your feet.
3. Timing is everything
Before you go, do some serious Google sleuthing around seasonality. A lot of countries are better at certain times of the year (anyone who’s been to Thailand during monsoon season and then fired their travel agent knows what I’m talking about).
But Japan has something to offer all year round: cherry blossoms in the spring, snow-covered gardens and world-class skiing in winter, some of the best autumn foliage outside New England and balmy summer days with tonnes of sunshine. Decide which Japan you want to see. Cherry blossom season in particular can be a bit temperamental – it changes year on year depending on global climate and temperature.
The bloom also runs south to north, moving from Hiroshima and Yamaguchi up through Osaka and Tokyo in a matter of weeks. Check sites like this one for the most up-to-date info. Don’t stress too much if you miss them though – Japanese maple and weeping elms are beautiful year round.
4. Don’t forget the countryside
Most tourists will fly into Tokyo, catch the shinkansen to Kyoto, then finish up in Osaka, maybe with a quick fly-by Hiroshima if they’re lucky. And there’s nothing wrong with that: just those three stops would be a great crash-course in Japan. You’d see a lot of temples and tourists, in that order.
But if you want to get a feel for the real Japan, the one that hasn’t changed a hell of a lot since the Edo period (apart from, you know, wi-fi and irrigation and stuff) head into the country. Nikko is a beautiful little temple town at the foot of Mt Nantai and Mt Nyoho (don’t miss the cheesecake shop near the river).
Then there’s Koya San, my favourite spot in all of Japan: a tiny monastic village surrounded by misty cedar forests in the hills just outside Osaka. It’s quiet, peaceful and classic Japan, right down to the bamboo-panel Ryokans and saffron-clad Buddhist monks. Which leads me nicely onto…
5. The clichés are real
Seriously, you watch Kill Bill and you think, ‘Yeah, right, Tarantino. Nowhere is that good looking. Japan probably stopped with the whole Shinto architecture and Zen-like water features back in the samurai days”. But then you travel there and you understand: the country really is that good looking.
Japanese houses really do have that fluted, Shinto look. Ryokan still have sliding bamboo doors and mint-green tatami mats. Traditional gardens are tended with meticulous care and look just like the movies, moss-covered limestone, water features and all. You half expect to round a corner and bump into a white-bearded mystic who will read you some haikus before fighting an army of Shogun warriors.
You know how you build something up in your dreams and then real life comes along and says, ‘Yeah, it hasn’t been like that for two-hundred years’? Yeah, Japan isn’t like that. If anything you’re not thinking clichéd enough.
6. Get ready to onsen
I was pretty nervous about using the onsen, and that was when I thought you were allowed in wearing bathers. When I was told you had to go in “as you came into this world”, my anxiety increased. So yes, you will be naked. But hey, so will everyone else. The upside is the Japanese are very unselfconscious when it comes to nudity (even if a few of the guys I saw could probably do with a little self-consciousness…if you know what I mean).
But it’s liberating once you onsen for the first time. Make sure to wash on the little stool provided before getting into the water itself. Technically you’re not allowed in if you have tattoos (tattoos in Japan are a sign of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia), but in the more touristy hotels and popular Ryokans this won’t be a problem. Just smile and wave at the old Japanese dudes in the corner, and let the mineral rich, slightly scalding waters do their thing.