Japan is a country of contrasts: somehow it manages to be (among other things) modern, traditional, rural, urban, technologically advanced and behind the times when it comes to wifi. It’s a place we all have a mental image of, one that’s been formed by Hollywood movies, anime, modern literature and documentaries. Each of these tells part of the story, but Japan is much, much more than we can ever imagine.
In this Japan podcast, Craig talks with Andres Zulata, founder and president of Boutique Japan Travel, about what to do and see in the land of the rising sun. To listen, hit play below or find episode 308 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
The Tsukiji Fish Market is a good place to start your Japan adventure. Get there early to explore the outer part of the market before the central section opens at 9am, then take your time to stroll around among the fish sellers. Head to the Ginza neighbourhood for a taste of grandeur and have a bento lunch in the basement of one of the grand old department stores, and to Harajuku if you’re into teen fashion. Omotesando is the neighbourhood for upscale shops and modern architecture. If you want a taste of an older Tokyo, make your way to Asakusa to see Tokyo’s oldest temple, and to the beautiful quiet area of Yanaka.
If you don’t fly into Tokyo, Osaka will probably be your entrance city. While it doesn’t have the sights of Tokyo or Kyoto, it’s worth a spending a couple of days there, if only for the food — it’s a foodie heaven. Don’t miss the takoyaki octopus balls, which are possibly the best street food available in Japan! Osaka’s a quirky, laid-back place, with outgoing, friendly, and funny inhabitants — in fact, most of Japan’s comedians come from Osaka.
Although they are just 30 miles apart, Osaka and Kyoto couldn’t be more different. Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, retains a traditional, more-formal atmosphere, and is dotted with Unesco world heritage listed buildings. It’s a large city and has its share of concrete and neon, but get to the back streets for a taste of what Japan used to be, including seeing geisha going about their business and cherry blossoms flowering overhead.
Don’t just stay in the cities though: go somewhere rural to see another side of Japanese life. A good way to do this is to visit one of the many hot springs, or onsen. You stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, and from the moment you enter (and remove your shoes) you’ll be swept along a slow-moving wave of courtesy and etiquette. You won’t see your shoes or even your clothes for the duration of your stay, but taking part in the tea ceremony and bathing naked in the warm waters of the hot spring will be experiences you won’t forget in a hurry.
There are plenty of places to hike in Japan, with Mt Fuji being one of the most popular for its accessibility to Tokyo and because it’s so iconic! For a multi-day hike, the Unesco-listed Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in the south of Japan is an excellent option. Its similarity to the Camino to Santiago in the north of Spain is underlined by the Dual Pilgrim program, which encourages people to do both routes — we’re certainly considering it!
Be aware that free wifi isn’t as widespread in Japan as in other parts of the world, so a mobile wifi device is worth investing in. Another thing that’s missing is escalators and elevators, so pack light to make it easier to haul your suitcase up stairs. And make sure to try the breaded pork chop — you won’t regret it.
Japan’s one of those places you really have to experience for yourself, to see it in all its contradictory glory. Discover the contrast between town and city, old and new, and (not least) the difference between what you expected and what Japan is really like.
If you’ve been to Japan, what’s your number-one tip for first-time visitors? If you haven’t, what do you want to see or do there? Leave a comment below!
Context provides private guides and (very) small group tours for the intellectually curious traveler. PhD and MA-educated guides take you deep into your destination, and with a maximum group size of six, you can ask as many questions as you like!
All photos in this post were taken by Janine Grainger, who blogs at Carry On Exploring.