If you’ve been following us on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll be aware that I’ve just had a trip to Japan and today I’d like to share some insights and photos. Maybe you’ll be inspired to visit, if you’ve not been already!
Japan is a world uniquely its own. It’s a country with a perplexing mix of contrasts, of the old mingled with the new, the traditional with the modern, and a people who pride themselves on cleanliness, politeness and order.
With much of its architecture and telephone lines stuck in the 1970s their gadgets are high-tech: singing kettles, talking baths and intelligent toilets with heated seats that rise on their own. There might be super-fast space-age trains and an efficient transport system but to purchase a train pass is an exercise in complex paperwork. Their gardens are beautifully Zen and calm, while the shopping strips and departments stores fling neon lights, dazzling technology and the high-pitched welcomes of sales assistants at you. Although their food is ultra fresh and immaculately presented, in many places you can still smoke in eating areas.
But it is this yin and yang that makes the country a fascinating place to visit and makes you want to keep going back.
My trip took in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nozawa Onsen. It was winter so you may not get the cherry blossoms but you can get snow and the traditional celebrations of the New Year.
Tokyo Food: Fish, Fish and Seafood
It’s hard to go wrong with the food in Japan – particularly if you’re after inexpensive street food, department store food halls (amazing!) and a daily diet of sashimi, ramen, soba noodles or yakatori (barbecued skewered meat). If, however, you’re keen to venture further, you don’t have to look far to experience some more, shall we say, interesting eating experiences such as puffer fish testicles (a delicacy that melts in the mouth but startles the brain – yes, I tried it!) or the various innards of pigs and chickens most Westerners would throw away. If in doubt, try it all, because it’s guaranteed to be fresh and cooked to perfection.
Fish and seafood are undoubtedly a highlight. From crab sticks grilled in a street stall in Shibuya (photo 1) to the famous Tokyo Tuskiji Fish Market (photo 2), where, if you’re keen you can rise at dawn to view the tuna auctions or take a more leisurely stance and go around 9 am, but be prepared for the crowds. Photo 3 – fresh octopus glistens in a department store food hall. Photo 4 – divine sashimi eaten at Sacra Restaurant in Ebisu, a trendy neighborhood in the Shibuya district, renowned for its bars and restaurants.
From top left to right:
- The Japanese can make anything from beans! Like these melt-in-your-mouth buns filled with either beef mince or black sesame and sweet bean paste (the latter apparently recommended for women, although I still don’t know why).
- Plastic food – displayed at restaurants to lure you in – looks as appetising and delectable as the real thing. They even have shops dedicated to selling plates, magnets and other paraphernalia of realistic-looking plastic food.
- Street stalls pop up everywhere, particularly in Tokyo and around the temples at New Year’s and the food is tasty and cheap. Don’t hold back.
- The Japanese love their sweets – from matcha green tea cakes, biscuits and chocolate, to treats made from soy beans, chocolate covered bananas, toffee apples and fairy floss (as seen in this photo taken at Harajuku).
Kyoto: Scenes from the Street
From top left to right:
- Photos 1, 2: Taking the back streets, walking from our apartment in the Higashiyama District to the Buddist Tofuku-ji Temple, whose Honbo garden is designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty and its entrance gate considered the oldest and most gorgeous of all Zen Buddhist temple gates.
- Photos 3, 4: Whether as part of a temple or their own home (even if garden-less), the Japanese have perfected the art of the Zen garden.
Kyoto: Getting back to Nature
The Arashiyama District is a train ride from the centre of Kyoto and the perfect place to get amongst nature. It’s an easy to walk from the station (a map there will show you the way or follow other tourists). First you’ll arrive at the bamboo grove for a gentle stroll amongst giant bamboo. Then you can explore the Okochi-Sanso Villa, the idyllic grounds around the Kinkaku-ji Temple and the Tenryu-ji Temple.
From there, meander the walkways, heading east, to take you along the river to Arashiyama Park, where you can climb to the top (a decent 20 min ascent) to the snow monkey park, where wild monkeys roam without boundaries. But remember, they will pinch plastic bags and scream if you get too close or look them in the eye!
Kyoto: Temples at New Year
A must-see: The Higashiyama District and its 1200-year-old Kiyomizudera Temple. Over three days at New Year’s (January 1-3), people flock to temples and shrines all over Japan for hatsumode – the year’s first visit to pray for good luck, purchase lucky charms, get rid of their charms from the year before and learn their futures. It’s a significant time of the year with a focus on spending time with family, cleaning the house and preparing for a fresh start. Don’t expect fireworks and partying till all hours! It’s a fascinating, if not busy, time of the year to visit. To find out more about Japan’s New Year traditions, go to Japan Guide.
From top left to right:
Photos 1,2 ,4: Fushimi-Ku – where you can take the long walk up the mountain through 5000 bright orange torii gates to the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine, which was dedicated to the god of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. It’s a bit of a climb but worth it to enjoy the peace and sacredness, and a great view.
Photo 3: the Hokan-ji Temple, often known as Yasaka-no-to (Yasaka Pagoda) in Higashiyama-ku. Don’t neglect night time temple visits – they look gorgeous lit-up in the dark. Just opposite, if you’re there during the day, is Key’s Cafe where the owner does a mean coffee, speaks great English and is keen to learn where you’re from!
Nozawa Onsen: Village in the Mountains
Skiers and snowboarders delight in Japan’s mountains for its guarantee of snow – and powder at that. And when there’s been a snowfall overnight, everything turns magical.
Nozawa Onsen, a few hours north of Tokyo, is a hot spring village at the foot of Mt Kenashi and home to about 4,000 people. It dates back to the 8th century but has been renowned for it’s hot springs and traditional inns since the Edo period. Now, it’s also known for its skiing and snowboarding. Top tip: the weekend of January 7 & 8 is a long weekend in Japan and everyone flocks to the ski fields for three days.
After a day on the slopes there’s nothing better than a soak in an onsen (hot spring). There are about thirty different types of hot springs and thirteen public hot spring baths at Nozawa Onsen but they can be super hot so foreigners beware. And you must obey Japanese etiquette when bathing – remember it’s all done naked and is sex-segregated.
One of the onsen, Ogama, is so hot that it reaches temperatures of about 90 degrees Celsius – so rare that it’s been designated a natural monument of national importance. The only thing that can be ‘bathed’ in it is eggs and vegetables and now Ogama has become the ‘kitchen’ of the village! Above, photo 1 – shows a man with his hard-boiled eggs in a basket and photo 4 – a shop across the road selling them.
And finally …
Images from top left to right:
- Menu from a yakitori bar I went to. In this instance, it may have been better if we didn’t have an English menu!
- If you can’t stomach the offal, a ‘snot’ of sake and a karaoke sing-a-long might do the trick. This bar may look derelict on the outside but it was all happening inside. A welcome apres-ski hang-out after a day skiing at Nozawa Onsen.
- The Japanese love playing slot machines. The loud signage outside is just the beginning of what lies inside. Not for the faint-hearted or the ‘slotmachineophobe’.
- A fluffy pink toilet seat cover for the ultimate comfy toileting experience. For sale at Loft.
- Hyperdia is the go-to website for train schedules and fares.
- A JR Rail Pass is only available to foreigners and is the most economical way to travel by train. But it must be pre-ordered in advance and you will still have to queue at a JR Rail Pass desk at the train station to get it when you’re there.
- If you love stationery you have to go to Loft – six floors of not only gorgeous Japanese stationery but homewares as well. You can buy anything – even fluffy pink toilet seat covers.
- Kyoto is the home of ceramics and if you’re like me, I find it hard not to purchase anything ceramic. Two long-running family ceramic stores producing quality stuff are close to the Kiyomizu Temple in Higashiyama: Asahido and Mori-Toki-Kan. There are plenty of others as well lining the streets leading to the temple.
- Learn a few words of Japanese – please (onegaishimasu, pronounced ‘on-ay-ga-shy-mass) and thank you (arigato0, pronounced ‘ari-ga-toe’) – will go a long way and the Japanese will love you for it. And if you really love the food you’ve eaten, say it was oishi (delicious).