At the end of the earth in the Land of the Rising Sun, you might just find a truly enlightening playground
Japan is a long way to go for some people in the world. Now, as travelers are dealt some of the most volatile circumstances in recent history, it feels even that bit further away. Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind when it comes to this beautiful, fun-loving country.
Upon hearing the word Japan, many might visualize neverending plains of skyscrapers, bustling swathes of people, and bright colorful lights adorning every street, often serving to promote the country’s impressive pop culture and technology industry. Such images are indeed the reality in the capital, Tokyo, and this is why it’s such a breathtaking place to visit.
The largest city in the world by area, Tokyo is most certainly the place of the possible. Want to cruise the city’s roads in a go-kart? Stop at a café full of hedgehogs? Explore some of the largest department stores, arcades, and theme parks on earth? This is all in day’s work in Tokyo.
Once night falls, make the most of its thousands of fantastic bars and clubs, before crashing at a capsule hotel – a quintessential, albeit strange, Japanese experience. The entrance to a capsule hotel “room” looks much like a door of a washing machine; you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at a laundrette. Fortunately, the space inside is slightly bigger than a washing machine. Slightly.
If the sheer size of Tokyo daunts you, dropping by the much scaled-down third city, Nagoya, is an ideal option. Nagoya is Japan’s primary industrial hub and it doesn’t welcome nearly as many tourists as it deserves. With a population of just over two million, all the fun of Tokyo can be recreated in Nagoya, but with the added bonuses of the ease of getting around, the friendliness of the locals, and not to mention the comparatively low cost of living. Be sure to book a tour around the original Toyota factory and discover hidden gems in Osu, Nagoya’s quirky, alternative shopping district.
Relax and rejuvenate
Not every aspect of Japanese life is a fast-paced sensory overload. Practice some self-care by taking a dip in one of the country’s tens of thousands of hot springs, or onsen, and you’ll experience a new lease of life.
Generations of Japanese people have long attributed the alleviation of aches and pains, the lowering of blood pressure, and numerous other health benefits, to bathing in geothermal waters. The quaint town of Kinosaki in Hyogo Prefecture boasts seven bathhouses and even more traditional inns to accommodate serenity-seekers from near and far.
Another way to experience the tranquility of Japan is by paying a visit to a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine.
Kyoto, the nation’s attractive ancient capital, is known for being the home to some simply stunning temples and shrines often situated in the middle of beautiful parks, abundant in colorful flora. The most famous shrine in Kyoto is probably the Fushimi Inari, with its iconic, winding tunnel of red gates (torii). Meanwhile, the mossy carpet that covers the Saiho-ji temple garden is a marvel to behold.
All seasons go
Japan is a true all-year-round destination. From the subtropical islands in the south to the temperate prefectures in the north, the Japanese climate observes some dramatic variation as the country’s territory spans over 21 longitudinal degrees.
The nation is home to some 300 ski resorts, and the northernmost of the main islands, Hokkaido, is known to welcome thousands of skiers every year. Lovers of winter sports tell of the particularly powdery snow that falls in this part of the world, which makes for apt conditions on the slopes.
Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, even hosts a snow festival every year in February. Intricate snow and ice sculptures scatter the city, performers grace stages that are crafted out of snow, and once night falls, projections and light shows make the scenes ever more spectacular.
If you’re going to Japan in the spring, you’ll be lucky enough to partake in the phenomenon that is hanami, translated literally as “flower watch”. As the days get longer and the cherry trees come into bloom, people gather under the striking pink haze to eat, drink and socialize. Cherry blossom, or sakura, is in fact a renowned flavor incorporated in seasonal varieties of snack foods and drinks, specifically to be consumed while engaging in hanami.
In the summer, opportunities to head to the beach are ten a penny. One spot, however, could be described as Japan’s eternal paradise. Okinawa is a group of small islands situated far from the mainland, in the East China Sea, and they offer holidaymakers sandy beaches, deep blue waters, and awe-inspiring coral reefs.
US military personnel also happen to have been stationed in Okinawa since the end of World War II, and so an interesting fusion of US and Japanese culture can be observed here.
It’s not all about raw fish…
An imperative destination for food-lovers, Japanese cuisine is unique, diverse, and simply mouth-watering. Sushi has taken the West by storm in recent decades, a minimalist dish brandished as fast food for the more health-conscious. And while the fish and seafood available across Japan is second to none when it comes to quality, freshness, and variety, there are many more quintessential Japanese dishes that deserve every bit as much of the limelight.
When it comes to food, regional specialties are a big deal. Indeed, respective local dishes might be considered the backbone of the identities of all 47 prefectures.
Fukushima’s got the kitakata ramen noodles, Aichi’s got the irresistibly savory tebasaki chicken wings, Hiroshima’s got okonomiyaki (endearingly translatable as “grilled things that I like”), a cooked batter pancake brimming with ingredients from all food groups — the examples are endless.
In particular, Osaka is said to be the street food hotspot of the country. You can’t move far in central Osaka without happening upon vendors preparing piping hot balls of battered octopus or something juicy and tender on a skewer. In general, eating out in Japan is also very affordable, even for the most frugal explorer.
Japan’s uniqueness is undoubtedly worth all the effort it may take to get there. If you do make it one day, an unforgettable experience is pretty much guaranteed. Whoever you are and whatever you’re into, Japan will love you back.
Read about our love for other countries on Kiwi.com Stories.