When Todd Wassel, conflict resolution specialist and author of Todd’s Wanderings, invited me to list the best things about Japan, two thoughts sprang to mind:
1) How can anyone distil a nation, a people or a culture into a single blog post? It would take nearly a lifetime to appreciate the delicate and subtle characteristics that bind the concept of Japan together.
2) Hell yeah! I loved Japan and can’t wait to share my ideas about the best that Japan has to offer. However individual they may be…
Brace yourselves, therefore, for this Brit’s round-up of the best of Japan.
Highlights of Japan
1 – Japanese Food
Kyoto’s markets will refresh even the most travel-hardened eyes. White blobs, eyeballs and wriggling squelch that may or may not be seaweed…
Bento Boxes of parcel-perfect morsels and home-made pickles sold at train stations across the country…
Tasty, sloppy noodles almost everywhere…
And, of course, the finest sushi the world has to offer. You haven’t tasted sushi until you’ve tasted it in Japan. Try the down-to-earth cafes opposite the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market.
2 – Hiroshima
Yes, I know, this sounds perverse. For me, though, there was something incredibly refreshing and healing about visiting this city. The world may associate Hiroshima with hell on earth, hot metal and twisted lives and limbs but Hiroshima today is a sunny, vibrant city. One with a memory, of course, but also a vast memorial dedicated to peace.
3 – The Ski Slopes
Who knows why, exactly, the thought of ski-ing in Japan surprised me, but it did. Those same snowy slopes blossom by summertime to provide lush green hiking grounds. Look one way and the peaks and pine forests could be the Alps. Look the other, and see monkeys dipping into hot springs as they make the most of a natural onsen. Which brings me onto that hot, hot water…
4 – The Onsen
Britain embraces tepid, with its showers, baths, beer and coffee all a wimpy kind of lukewarm. This has never felt right. In Japan, I was overjoyed to discover that steaming, scalding, almost boiling water forms part of the daily cleansing ritual. From natural outdoor springs to ramshackle hotels with plastic buckets, everyone strips off, scrubs down and soaks. A word of warning, though, gaijin travellers: by strip off, they mean naked. Completely. Naked. In. Public. Shudder…
5 –Mount Fuji
Never mind the cherry blossom and clear blue skies (Fuji-San sulks beneath clouds for most of the year), you can climb Mount Fuji yourself if you have the stamina. Up and back within a single, if exhausting, day.
6 – Folding Prayers
Japan overflows with temples, where fine carvings and clouds of incense surround fortune tellers and fortune sellers. Look out for the origami-like prayers tied to wire fences…
7 – Shinkansen
Sleek, fast, reliable trains that whisk you across the country in one easy and efficient swoop. Try travelling on the British rail network if you don’t understand why that one’s a highlight.
8 – Kyoto’s Old Town
Kyoto itself is a curious mix of the old and the new. Skyscrapers hustle at you the moment you leave the station, whereas the taxis have heart shaped lights. But it’s the old part of Kyoto where you’re most likely to see that elusive Japanese legend, the geisha. Ripe with glowing lanterns and bamboo-walled bars that ooze with atmosphere, Kyoto’s Old Town deserves pride of place on your itinerary. (So, ahem, I’m not sure why I’ve put it down here at number eight. See, I knew I wasn’t that good at these country/ list/highlight thingamejigs.)