Japan - Land of the Rising Sun
14 Apr 2016
Known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, Japan is a world apart – a cultural Galapagos where exists an eclectic mélange of sumo wrestling, geishas, sake, karaoke bars, traditional onsen (hot springs), ryokan (tatami-matted inns), curious capsule hotels and pachinko parlours. The juxtaposition of neon-drenched modernity with austere shrines, ancient gardens and spiritual mountains makes for a jarring, yet mesmerising contrast. Expect a frenetic pace one day, and tranquil experience the next. From world-class sushi to legendary samurai, this at-times enigmatic nation is a traveller’s delight.
Unique in that, until the late 19th century, it was ruled by the feudal Shogunate, with its semi-divine Emperor a powerless figurehead trapped in the Imperial Palace in the ancient city of Kyoto, Japan shows visitors the past, present and future. With an excellent air and rail system linking the five main islands of Hokkaido in the far north, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and the tropical thousand-island archipelago that includes Okinawa, travelling in Japan is as pleasurable as tucking into a decent okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancake). It wasn’t the world’s first high-speed train, but when the Shinkansen debuted in 1964, its sleek, futuristic design and to-the-second punctuality resulted in it being coined ‘the bullet train’, making Japan’s railways the envy of the world. 50 years later, travelling Japan by rail remains a joy.
Topographically, Japan boasts massive Alps, forests, coastal strips, great cities, stunning lakes and the Inland Sea. Historically and culturally, the cities of Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo all tell of ancient Samurai traditions still highly revered by the Japanese. And, if your Japanese extends only to ‘Domo arigato, Mr Roboto’ – lyrics uttered by a 1980’s rock band called Styx, you’ll be pleased to know the locals are keen to practice their English!
In just a short visit, it’s possible to combine Tokyo with Mt Fuji, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The big smoke – Tokyo was uniquely showcased in Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’. Do go and have a drink in that bar at the Park Hyatt, and if staying, have a dip in that pool. Shop for electronics at Akihabara, and for fashion at Shinjuku. For karaoke fun, try the Roppongi district.
Just outside Tokyo is Mt Fujiyama. A classic stratovolcano greatly revered by the Japanese, Mt Fuji can be climbed in July-August and at Hakone there is a hot spring resort.
Reached by Shinkansen from Tokyo or neon-lit Osaka, Kyoto is the ancient heartland of Japan’s unique culture. It’s here that magnificent temples, stunning gardens and gorgeous geishas abound. Stay at a traditional ryokan with communal baths, floor mats and rooms divided by shoji sliding doors. Kyoto is home to several such stunningly situated inns, famous for their traditional keiseki multi-course cuisine.
Thrust into history by its tragic past, memorials like the A-Bomb Dome and the Children's Peace Monument make any visit to Hiroshima a moving experience, a stop on most travellers’ itineraries.
And, then there is the gastronomy. Iron Chef aside, since the opening of the country to foreigners in 1868, sushi and teppanyaki cuisine have won devotees worldwide. Restaurants come at all levels from back streets teeming with local sushi bars to downtown districts home to celebrity and internationally-acclaimed chefs. Of course, the gastronomic mystery is dispelled by the Japanese use of window-displayed plastic modelled food known as ‘sampuru’ (sample). Point and acknowledge yes to your choice. Just be sure it’s the chicken teriyaki and not the choice eel!
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