Travel to Japan?
is a superb, confusing, fascinating, crammed and amusing country, full
of contradictions - not least of which is the mix of ultra high
technology with revered ancient traditions.
are few 'big' sights other than religious structures, but plenty of absorbing little sights,
from the ubiquitous white gloves of service personnel to
fantasy dining spots in Tokyo, musicians in Yoyogi park, funky old Akachochin restaurants, weird otaku (geek) habits...
Japan is so safe that you'd have to pay someone to mug you and teach them how to do it.
Japanese food is totally awesome, (apart from bread and the appalling traditional Japanese breakfast), always beautifully arranged and not necessarily expensive, while shopping is equally impressive with flawless products, huge variety, good value and even gaijin (foreigner) sizes, though eco-mentalists will definitely have an issue with the excessive packaging.
Traditional hotels (Ryokan or Minshuku) are relatively cheap and interesting.
Domestic transport systems are superbly organised, clean, efficient and almost always on time; any tourist wishing to see Tokyo will definitely be using the complex metro system while tourists wishing to get elsewhere than the capital will probably wish to take on the Shinkansen super-train.
And finally, a small but useful asset - clean, modern, public toilets are found in all stations, parks and other public areas.
• Japan is sometimes expensive and always crowded and hectic.
• Tokyo has no real centre, more like four or five hi-activity zones that will require transport to move between. e.g. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Roppongi, Asakusa.
• There are plenty of dull, endless suburbs garlanded with overhead power cables and decorated with
plasto-wood mock-Europe architectural horrors and concrete block-houses. Fine vernacular or interesting modern architecture is sadly rare.
• Quaint traditional clothing like kimonos are rarely seen outside
ceremonial occasions. Shrines, temples and festivals are the most likely place to see them.
• Japan is not very tourist oriented so English signs can be
uncommon in some areas though useage is increasing.
Japan is a mountainous country with varied climates, but since most tourists will be spending most time in Tokyo and Kyoto probably the best times to go there are: Late April, May, October, November, or winter if you're cold-tolerant as it's generally dry with blue skies and few other foreigners.
Spring and Autumn skies are like a woman's heart (to paraphrase a Japanese saying), that is to say changeable, could be superb, could be cold and wet, probably both. Statistically June and September are the wettest months, August the hottest.
The northern island of Hokkaido will definitely have serious snow in winter, with great skiing and a superb snow festival in Sapporo in early February while summer will be pleasantly cool.
Worst: June, August (rains, heat, humidity) Beware holiday accommodation
problems in the New Year (Dec 29-Jan 6), Golden Week (April 27-May
6), O-bon (midsummer)
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Tokyo only - 4 days
Recommended: 2 weeks, Tokyo and Kyoto.
***Tokyo. A monstrous ants nest of a city scattered with neon-rampant action centres,
impressive shrines and temples, stunning shopping and eating and quite a lot of oddities.
According to the Japan Travel Bureau, the top 12 Japanese destinations are mostly in Tokyo:
Shinjuku (wild night lights and action); Akihabara (mad geek zone); Ginza/Nihonbashi (old-fashioned posh shopping and theatre); Shibuya (walking distance to Harajuku - which is unusual in Tokes - great shopping and VERY colourful and busy at night; Imperial Palace area (big sight but doesn't need much time, can walk to Ginza); Asakusa (terrific temples and traditions); Ikebukuro (boring! shopping); Roppongi/Akasaka (newish, upmarket with great bars/nightlife); Hakone (Tokyo day-trip, see below); Odaiba (new entertainment island in Tokyo Bay); Harajuku/Omotesando (young, uber-trendy shopping and 2 minutes walk to wacky Yoyogi Park scenes at weekends or magnificent Meiji-Jingu Shrine)
Some sights outside Tokyo:
***Kamakura. About an hour from Tokyo by train and inevitably busy with tourists and their buses but once inside Kamakura's many temples, shrines and other zen attractions foreigners can't fail to be impressed by the grace, style and (potential) tranquility.
* Odawara Castle. An hour on the Odakyu line gets you to a typical samurai-era Japanese fortress, containing a small weapons museum.
** Hakone. Another favourite mountain,
recreation and hot spring area, especially in the autumn, with great
views of Mt Fuji if you're lucky, and a superb futuristic museum. 1.5hrs train trip from Tokyo.
***Nikko. A recreation area, with a
sensational temple, a waterfall and some lovely walks. 2 hrs by train
***Kyoto and Nara. 2.5 hrs by Shinkansen from Tokyo. Any tourist to Japan must see the Kyoto area after Tokyo. Offering dozens of elaborate
temples, shrines and zen gardens, including a multitude World Heritage Sites, along with a few charming little old Japanese
streets in the centre, lurking in the midst of Kyoto's modern urban sprawl and congestion.
The most interesting places in Kyoto are well dispersed and will take considerable time to reach. e.g. the golden temple of Kinkakuji is about 40 minutes from Kyoto station by 'express' bus.
Nara, though, is a tranquil, green and compact day trip less than an hour from Kyoto that hosts more spectacular religious structures.
Visitors may also wish to see a tea ceremony, a Geisha display, Katsura Imperial Villa (and gardens)
and Himeji castle not far to the south.
Kyoto is so time consuming, expensive and complex to get around, even confirmed individual travellers may consider taking a comfortable and informative tour worthwhile.
***(Hida-no-) Takayama. A small, modern Japanese town sometimes known as Little Kyoto due to its cluster of ancient streets in the centre and many temples and shrines on the outskirts. Takayama hosts one of Japan's top three festivals in mid-April, the Takayama Spring Festival, involving the rolling around of a dozen huge, ancient, colourful shrines, along with parades, music and a night procession. Running two days, the first day starts about midday.
**Kanazawa, a modern town specialising in pottery, lacquer-ware and dyeing silks offers one superb gardens attraction and several more modest assets easily accessible via a hop-on hop-off tourist bus running from the central station.
The Kenroku-en gardens (one of Japan's top three gardens, along with those of Mito and Okayama) opposite Kanazawa Castle and previously the castle's private space is an absolute must for garden-control freaks. A kind of grown-up bonsai arrangement of dramatically shaped and supported trees, moss-cloaked ground latticed with streams and rocks and strategically placed stone lanterns, it's a magical place, especially if the sun's shining, the cherry trees are blossoming and there's a small glass of saké in your hand.
Otherwise, the Castle Park is worth a walk; the Higashi Geisha district is quaint (but don't expect to see geishas there) with a particularly attractive gold leaf shop/factory; the Nagamachi Samurai district's mud walls and canals are calm and evocative and make a great stroll; the narrow streets of Teramachi is home to the tour-only Ninja hideout Myoryu-ji.
The town also has a couple of excellent museums, especially the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
*Nagasaki. A museum and park dedicated
to the A-bomb, a fine recreation of old European homes in the south
and a full-scale, lived in Dutch town in the north.
*Hiroshima. The first bomb site, also
with an excellent museum and park and the country's #1 sight (according
to locals) - the 'floating' Itsuku Shima Shrine, in Miyajima, not
Yokohama, Osaka, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Okinawa. It's hardly worth going there unless it's for a festival or some
special interest or you have lots of time.
Walking and Hiking: Nikko, Chichibu and Hakone Parks are
not far from Tokyo and encompass some fine walks; best during the week, of course. Or fly to the refreshing northern
island of Hokkaido in the summertime for longer, less busy hiking.
Serious Hiking/Climbing: Mt Fuji
(3,700m) is a tough hike, and sunrise from the peak is the target for most. This hefty trek will take at least 5 hours up and three hours down. Routes are open from April-November but best July-August other than Obon week in mid August.
Some hikers start climbing at nightfall and plan to arrive at the top of the volcano at sunrise, others climb in daylight and sleep over at a lodge near the peak. Organisation will be required to accomplish this trek so ensure you have water, good shoes, warm clothing (the peak may be 20C less than the foot of Mt.Fuji and some money to spend at the top where there is a surprisingly large assortment of shops and restaurants.
Hot Springs and Baths (Onsen), especially
'rotenburo' (outdoor pools) are fun, functional and authentic.
Warning - No soap in the pool! Squat on the stool provided and wash yourself outside the bath at the soap station (dousing and rinsing from the hand bucket provided), rinse off, then enter the hot bath, cold bath or outside bath. Onsen/Bath pictures and instructions.
Nightlife is lively and colourful, if expensive, and it's totally
ok to get reeling drunk and throw up on your neighbour's shoes.
Unless he's American.
Feb Lantern Festival, Nara: 3,000 ancient lanterns are lit, with
dance, at Kasuga Shrine
Feb, Snow Festival, Sapporo, Hokkaido: gorgeous, massive ice/snow
sculptures and a 'let's get wrecked on hot saké' ambience.
March, Water Drawing Festival, Nara: Spectacular religious night
festival with torches and chanting at Todaiji monastery.
early April, Hanami: Japanese getting plastered under
cherry blossom trees. The date depends on seasonal warmth but probably the first couple of weeks.
first Sunday in April, Kawasaki Penis Festival: a small but perfectly formed shrine party celebrating the male genitalia, with music, booze, crowds, portable shrines loaded with willies, stalls loaded with dicks on sticks, cherry blossom if you're lucky, transvestites and lots of laughs. Easy to reach on a day trip from Tokyo. Hilarious.
April 14, 15, Takayama Spring Festival, near Nagoya. One of Japan's top three festivals. Takayama Pictures and more information. Also in October.
May,Toshogu Shrine Festival, Nikko: a huge fancy-dress parade and
sacred dance at a supremely beautiful shrine.
June, 2nd Saturday, Hyakumangoku Festival in Kanazawa, with costume parades, torch-light drama, floating lanterns and much action in the the amazing Kenroku-en gardens.
July, Gion Matsuri, Kyoto: a parade of monstrous, wonderfully decorated
floats. Also good for a few days before the parade.
Mid-July to mid-August, O-Bon Festival nationwide: date depends
on local council. Festival of the Dead, paper lanterns on water,
candle ceremonies etc.
Oct, Festival of Ages, Kyoto: massive historical dress parade.
October 9, 10, Takayama Autumn Festival, near Nagoya. One of Japan's top three festivals. Takayama Pictures and more information. Also in April.
some precise dates, more suggestions and information see:
Unless you're with a tour group you'll need to use local and long-distance trains frequently.
The Tokyo metro system is complex due to the lack of a single city centre but most signs use English as well as Japanese and some lines even have English announcements.
The system is colour-coded, well-organised and clear if you can get your head around the initial shock of alien data overload.
- The Yamanote sen (line) usefully runs a circular route including our top three must-see areas, Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.
- get an English metro map.
- buy a Pasmo card (or a variant known as Suica) at more or less any station and top it up when necessary. This card stores your funds and can be used on most trains or buses (even some shops) just by brushing it across the illuminated blue Pasmo sign on entry, even if it's still inside your wallet or purse. Thus tourists have no more need to endlessly buy tickets - but this is a convenience, not a discount card!
- finally, if seriously confused, station staff will be keen to help and may speak English. Speak slowly and clearly, or just say your destination and you will be OK. Don't panic!
Outside Tokyo most visitors will need to use trains for long distances, including the hi-speed Bullet (Shinkansen) trains. A Japan Travel Card is a very cost-effective way to get around on these and indeed all JR (Japanese Railways) lines over several days or weeks (including Tokyo's useful, circular Yamanote line but not the inter-city, super-speed Nozomi trains that are a little faster than Shinkansen), but MUST be purchased abroad, via the web or a Japanese tourist office.
Remember, when in Japan:
- walk on the left on crowded pavements and stand on the left of escalators.
- don't speak on a mobile phone on a bus or train.
- pay on the way out of a eating place, not at the table. And don't tip!
- eat or drink at places that display prices. e.g. the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku can be very pricey even if you are in an ancient and dishevelled bar.
Pictures | Japan Map | Kyoto
Pictures | Tokyo