In two weeks in Japan, we explored what has come to be the best place I’ve ever visited. From Tokyo to Kyoto, from Nikko to Nara, we bullet-trained it all over the country. It was the busiest, most manic, most neon, most delicious, most incredible, most stunningly beautiful, most foreign, most magical experience and country and I will be doing it an injustice by putting all into one blog.
But try I must, so I am going to break it down into the individual places we visited (I’ve combined some) and the top five things we did or ate in that place. Essentially, I am giving you my top 35 things to do/see/eat/experience/look at in wonder in Japan. This is by no means conclusive and, if you have better tips, I’d love to hear as, believe me, I will be going back – if not to live, then at least to eat sashimi and Matsusaka beef one more time.
- Explore Yanaka Ginza
Admittedly, this is not in Shinjuku, but it’s worth the short train ride out to see the centre of Yanaka City and a place that keeps tradition at its heart. With peaceful music playing lazily from the town’s speakers and street food vendors fighting with their parents in the street, it feels far removed from modern Tokyo.
- See the lily pads in Ueno Park
While you’re already outside of Shinjuku, you may as well stroll from Yanaka to Ueno Park and see the giant lily pads which, no joke, are taller than me. Okay, I’m not tall, but still, these plants are overtaking every bit of water in the park – think Little Shop of Horrors and you’re somewhere in the vicinity.
- Eat Karaage at Dongara Gassyan in Golden Gai
You can about as much go to Shinjuku and skip Golden Gai as you can go to Japan and skip karaage. In all of our two weeks of intensive investigation, this place did the best classic fried chicken dish. If you’re feeling daring, order the Red Pepper Shochu to drink. They’ll warn you it’s hot and they won’t be lying. I promise, thought, it’s worth the lip tingle.
- Feel like a master and/or princess in Home Maid Café
Located in the geek district of Akihabara, this is as surreal an experience as you can hope to find. Young girls (questionably too young) dressed up as French maids, serve you fluffy pancakes and milkshakes they’ve drawn cute pictures on, before calling you up on stage to take a photo with you. Ignore the grown men playing Connect-4 with the maids and you can laugh the experience off as quintessentially Japanese.
- Get lost in meat and conversation at a Yakinuku
I wish I could tell you where, specifically, we ate, but the truth is we followed the intense meaty smells and ended up having one of the best nights of the holiday. Order a platter of meat (even better if the local salary men next to you can recommend what you should get!), throw it on the bucket of coal and fire and watch the fat sizzle. The Japanese people are as friendly a bunch as you can hope to meet, so get lost a bit, order more food and highballs and tuck in.
It’s nearly impossible to separate the beautiful places in Kyoto, but I would start here, at the peaceful surroundings of Shorenin Temple. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a sunny day, sit back and absorb the rays. Once you feel more relaxed than you knew was possible, take a quick walk to the public park where the bursting colours of leaves and trees are guaranteed to send you even more serene.
- Eat sushi in a car park at Sushisei
Okay, it’s not literally in a car park, but it is directly under one. More importantly, it serves incredibly delicious and reasonably priced sushi and sushi set menus.
- Look up at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
I promise you, the sky-reaching bamboo trees are a sight you will not forget in a hurry. Get a matcha ice cream from the vendors outside before you walk in – life will never look so green again.
I could be more specific here and tell you exactly what and where we ate and drank, but I think you should explore these magical areas for yourself. Wondering the tiny bars, the mysterious restaurants and the little winding streets is all part of the appeal. What I would suggest is to mix it up – do one night of kaiseke or haute Japanese cuisine, do another of Shabu Shabu (cooking your own meat in broth). Whatever you eat, end up at a tiny whisky bar (about as big as an ice shanty) and get to know your bartender. They love to practice their English and their cocktail skills. Also, keep your eyes peeled for Geisha – these are their areas!
- Take a moment in Tenryu-ji Temple
Words won’t do justice to the beauty of this 14th century temple and, specifically, its Zen gardens. With herons poking their skinny legs in the lake and the auburn trees casting what looks like watercolour shadows, this is about as beautiful a garden as you can hope to find.
- Feed the deer
You won’t have much choice but to feed the deer as they’re everywhere. No, seriously, over 1,200 wild sika deer roam the area freely and hungrily. So buy some biscuits, empty your pockets and be prepared to make some new furry friends.
- Cast your eyes on the world’s largest Bronze Buddha
Tōdai-ji Temple houses not only the world’s largest bronze Buddha, but is itself also the world’s largest wooden structure. Two birds, one stone.
- Attend a festival
If you’re lucky enough to be in Nara when the Antler Cutting Ceremony takes place (in autumn), it’s worth a visit. Follow the crowds and watch as the stags have their horns removed. It’s somewhat hard to watch, but no animal is hurt and the antlers do grow back eventually. Plus, you get to have your photo taken with a man dressed as a stag afterwards.
- Stay in a Ryokan
Let’s be specific with this one – stay in Kankaso Ryokan. A ryokan or traditional Japanese guesthouse is a must try during your stay. This one takes things to a new level with its owner, a tiny old lady who breaks her back to offer you the best food, sleep and service. While you bathe, she lays out tatami mats ready for your return and your slumber. She must wake up at 4am to prepare everything for the next day, but she does it all with a smile on her face.
- Take a private onsen
If you are lucky enough to stay at the above ryokan, the private onsen or bath will come with your stay. A very different beast to the public baths you will, no doubt, experience elsewhere. This one in particular overlooks the gardens, so open the windows, de-robe and relax without fear of other people interrupting.
- Eat. Just EAT.
There is a word that is synonymous with Osaka – ‘Kuidaore’. It means to ruin yourself with food and that is exactly what you should do in this hectic, frenetic city. Takoyako, okonomiyaki, soft-shell crab, grilled scallops and even French fries with chocolate sauce line the streets. So wonder around Dotonbori and tell your stomach it no longer understands the meaning of the word ‘full’.
- Make your own ramen at Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
If I’m being honest, the museum itself will only take up about 20 minutes of your time, but you’re not going for the museum. You’re going for the opportunity to create your very own ramen, from cup decoration to flavour profile. See the 5,000 different combinations you could create, choose one and then eat it later drunk in your hotel room.
- Eat the best meat of your life in Matsusakagyu Yakinuku
It isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t need to be when it’s this good. The beef is Matsusaka and better than Kobe, so throw caution and your wallet to the wind. It’s worth it.
- Get drunk at Namba Matsushioya
The manager of the restaurant above recommended this tiny bar, and personally escorted us there. For good reason. The bartender and owner, Masashi, is about the cutest and nicest guy you could hope to meet. He won me over when he said he had been to Leeds and had a great night out. Plus he made a mean Whisky Highball.
- Play video games in Shinsaibashi
Forget shopping – you’ve seen an H&M before, right? Instead, tuck inside one of the mental arcades and either dare to play Pachinko yourself (I still don’t understand how, despite the arcade employee trying to teach me) or watch the Japanese kids play like pros on Taiko Drum Master. They could teach Dave Grohl a thing or two.
- Ensure history isn’t repeated by visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
It’s not an easy visit and you’ll struggle not to cry, but it’s worth seeing the harrowing effects of the atomic bomb. It’s also incredibly uplifting to learn how a city has been rebuilt through hope and determination.
- Watch the sun set over The Great Torii
During high tide, the torii looks like its floating on the water. Match that with a beautiful sunset beyond the mountains and the island’s lanterns becoming illuminated, and you have a sight you’re not going to see anywhere else in the world.
- Climb Mt Misen
Over 500 meters high, the (very) uphill climb will take you just under two hours. Get up early to beat the crowds – it will make the trek all the more peaceful and inspiring. The views you get when you reach the top will make your throbbing legs and sweat incredibly worth it. Even the journey up is something to behold (ever seen a crow picking bugs out of a stag’s ear? You just might!).
- Eat the island’s specialties – oysters and eels
It’s hard (very, very hard) to find anywhere open on the island after sunset (part of its appeal), so head to Mame-Tanuki where it’s warm (as long as the door stays closed) and they have a set meal consisting of Grilled Eels over Rice and Fried Oysters – perfect.
- Gorge on Momiji Manjū
The island’s most popular souvenir and sweet are these small, maple-leaf-shaped cake filled with mashed sweet bean paste. They are now branching out and doing all sorts of flavours (chocolate, cream cheese, matcha, honey, etc.) so do like me and get all the flavours to sample each on the ferry ride back to Hiroshima.
- See a festival
Nikko, a city way up in the mountains, is full of the most ornate and over the top shrines and temples you will see throughout Japan. It’s the Autumn Festival that stood out for me though. With a colourful procession of 1,000 people adorned in traditional costumes, it felt like a step back in Japanese culture and time.
- Eat Yuba
A native food for this region, yuba is actually the skin from tofu. It comes served in a variety of ways (fried, grilled and raw). My favourite way, and certainly the most unique, was to eat it from a bowl of milk, dipped in sesame paste and soy sauce.
- See Lake Chuzenji from high above and down below
There are places you will see in Japan that will make you wonder whether anything will look as beautiful again. Then you will see Lake Chuzenji. I can’t imagine a better time to view this serene body of water than the autumn months when the trees seem to be exploding orange all around it. An early morning stroll on the banks and then a drive up to Hangetsuyama Observation Point are both essential to give this lake the proper viewing it deserves.
- Forget fear and take a public onsen
The public baths here are the real deal, using sulphur water and overlooking the woodland that surrounds the lake. The smell of sulphur (aka eggs) does permeate the air and strangers’ naked bodies may or may not be close by, but an open-aired bath in this setting makes all of that slip far, far from your mind.
- Hear the roar of Kegon Waterfall
From the silence of the lake to the rumbling of the falls, Kegon stands at almost 100 meters high and, again, only benefits from the awesome colours of the autumn trees.
- Order ramen from a vending machine
Trust me, it doesn’t matter which one. Just pick a spot that looks busy, put your order into the machine and wait for a spot at the bar for your massive bowl of steaming ramen to be delivered to you. Who knew vending machine food could taste so good?
- Dance the night away in Air
This bar come club is a few minutes’ walk from Shibuya but feels like a million miles away. Sure, it gets huge DJs and the basement club is as smoky as the UK back in June 2007, but it’s actually the lounge bar upstairs that stands out. Think a cross between Ibiza and London and you’re somewhere in the right vicinity. Plus they’re still serving pancakes at 4am.
- See the Harajuku Girls in Harajuku
The girls are few and far between (and it’s hard to get a picture of them without feeling pretty rude), but the area is worth a visit alone. It’s like a girly-girl’s dream of a pink Camden, with the crowds to match. Don’t miss the condom store or the markets selling vintage kimonos.
- Lose your voice at Karaoke
C’mon – you can’t go to Japan and not do it at least once. Karaoke is serious business in Japan so don’t waste time messing around. Get up to your room, get Tears for Fears ready and start wailing. You’ll get a phone call when you’re running out of time, so hurry up and SING.
- Explore Japanese Craft Ale
I never thought I’d say this. No really – never, ever, ever. But the thing is, I actually had some craft beers which I enjoyed in Japan. Whether you’re a fan or not normally, visit Craftheads which boasts an astonishing selection. Try Earl Grey or Tomato if you, like me, prefer your beer to taste like something else entirely.