My second visit to Japan20.04.15 | Oliver
RB Collection director Oliver Broad reports from his trip to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka in Japan – from cat cafes to robot restaurants, as well as shrines, temples and sumo wrestling tournaments … there was never a dull moment!
It has been seven years since I last visited Japan where I stayed just in Tokyo as part of my Masters research on tourism. I was excited to be invited back, keen to explore more of the country including the historic and cultural city of Kyoto.
My visit coincided with the third anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and it was reassuring therefore to learn from local hoteliers that visitor numbers have increased beyond pre-tsunami levels, showing increased confidence from visitors. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by my visit.
Japan has a completely different culture to that in the west, even though there is an obvious western influence on the streets, something which has stayed within Japanese culture since the war. Consumerism is everywhere, and innovation and technology is inherent to Japanese life but culture, art and history are too and it is this fascinating mixture that provides an array of experiences for the modern day visitor and one which I was keen to explore.
My trip started with an overnight flight from London Heathrow with British Airways landing in Tokyo’s Haneda airport, just a 30-minute drive from the city centre. On arrival I was immediately reminded what a vast metropolis Tokyo is and we were looking forward to exploring the different districts. We stayed at the Ritz Carlton, 51 stories above the skyline, offering amazing views.
The city is so vast, we were grateful to have our guide Mr Masa Hattori on hand to show us around for our first day as we took in the main cultural sites. Tokyo isn’t well known for its temples or shrines but there are some key places to visit. Our first stop was the Meiji Jinj shrine in the Harajuku district just a few stops away from our hotel on the metro. Whilst an extensive network, the metro and trains in Japan are as you may expect highly efficient and I was surprised at how well signposted everything was. Meiji Jingu Shrine covers a large area of parkland and provides a well-earned escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. During our visit there was a wedding couple having their photos taken in the grounds, perfectly timed for us to take a few snaps. Apparently it is THE place to get married in Japan! Wandering along the tree-lined drive surrounded by over 170,000 trees of 360 different types, it was hard to believe we were still in one of the busiest cities in the world. Locals and tourists from within Japan flock to these sights for a moment of bliss and solitude and it was easy to see why. Entering the site through the gate allows one to be purified and in the first three days of the year around two million people will follow the ritual as they welcome in the New Year. The gates themselves are reportedly 1,500 years old and were donated from Taiwan.
Next on our cultural tour of Tokyo was the Imperial Palace, open only a few days of the year to the public, all we could see was the entrance area, but as it is a Japanese tradition for any visitor to Tokyo to have their photo in front of the waterfall gate area we obliged and then moved onto visit Sensoji Temple in the north of the city. Shrines and temples offer a completely different experience, both surrounded by an air of relaxation and contemplation, and yet this particular temple was preceded by a 250 metre road with 88 shops selling anything from street food snacks to lucky charms and kimono. Opposite, over the river is the new Tokyo Skytree offering unparalleled views of the city. From there a river cruise would take you back down towards Hama-rikyu Gardens.
In a very short space of time we had experienced Tokyo’s main cultural highlights and were given a taste of Japanese history and lifestyle.
Whilst in Tokyo we also took part in some more kitsch experiences such as the famous Robot Restaurant, probably one of the most unbelievably amazing shows I have ever seen. Prepare for every sense in your body to be tingled, certainly not for the faint-hearted but if you’re feeling brave and want to be smothered in Japanese pop-culture then I really do recommend it. On our final day we paid a visit to a cat cafe, a must for cat lovers like me. Beware of cafes that have cats – head instead for the cat sanctuary that offers a cup of tea…there is a subtle difference but one which would be noticeable to those who have the interests of the animals at heart. Whilst we take owning pets for granted, as many Japanese youngsters still live with their parents into their older years they don’t get the opportunity to own their own pet and their apartments can be so small, hence why these cat cafes have sprung up. Pay a small entry fee and you can enjoy an hour with a selection of beautiful cats who by the time we arrived in the afternoon were obviously exhausted. Entrance is very limited and do ensure you don’t touch the ones with pink collars on…they are on a tea break themselves!
In stark contrast we then boarded an incredibly fast bullet train from Tokyo west to Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the most visited national park in Japan and more a collection of tourist spots within the region that is easily accessible from Tokyo for the day but is better suited to a short stop-over on your way to Hiroshima or as we did to Kyoto and Osaka.
The highlight of the area is the iconic Mt Fuji and Ashi-no-ko Lake. Hakone is great for families with stunning walks, steep gondola rides, funicular train journeys and even hot spring water parks. Alternatively it does offer a great sanctuary away from the cities with natural hot spring baths which form an integral part of Japanese culture. We just stopped for the day on our way to Kyoto, which was a little rushed and so I would recommend an overnight stay in one of the local traditional ryokan.
Our longest bullet train journey then took us onto Kyoto, covering roughly 400km in just two hours! Kyoto is a must for anyone on a tour of Japan as it contrasts greatly with the metropolis of Tokyo. The highlight for many would be the historic Gion district with traditional Geisha offering tea ceremonies and restaurants with carefully prepared food just waiting to tantalise the taste buds. This area is best explored on foot and a different experience can be gained during the day compared with the evening where more Geisha are wandering around. If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture, visit one of the Geisha dress-up parlours where they will dress you in a traditional Kimono and also do your hair and make-up so you have a real Geisha experience. This is popular with young Japanese visitors, and is popular with young couples visiting Kyoto for the day on a date! It was great to see how the locals enjoy their own heritage and we were made to feel very welcome by those we spoke to. In Gion itself, we enjoyed a beautifully prepared lunch, designed and created meticulously in front of our very eyes.
On our first morning we sampled one of Kyoto’s 1,600 temples and shrines and enjoyed exploring beautifully preserved gardens with no crowds or noise. Kinkaku-ji in the north of the city which is home to the Golden Pagoda – one of the most visited sites in the city and a perfect photo stop. Further south towards the centre of the city is Nijo Castle where you can wander around the wooden squeaking corridors, designed to alert off intruders. Kyoto is certainly worthy of three or four nights, and you can also use it as a base to visit nearby Nara where there are even older shrines and temples to explore. Nara was once the ancient capital of Japan and is home to the impressive Todai-ji Temple, which is the world’s largest wooden structure and home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. In the parklands around the temple you will find deer roaming around freely amongst the tourists.
We then ventured onwards to the bright lights and bustling city of Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city and somewhere for shopping lovers to enjoy before your flight home – be careful though as you can easily get carried away and end up having to buy an extra suitcase like me! Osaka is also home to a beautiful towering castle but ask anyone outside of Osaka what to do when you get there and all they will tell you to do is … eat! It is a city famous for its variety of food and you must ensure you sample as much on offer. My personal favourite was the Okonomi-yaki, a savoury (cabbage) pancake on a hot plate on your own table with fillings of your choice. It will definitely fill you up and is great if you have older children with you as it makes meal time just that little bit more fun!
The highlight of my stay in Osaka was attending the sumo. Held in an arena setting, this is not just an evening’s entertainment; your ticket allows entry from the morning all the way through the day until the main event from around 4-6pm. Part of the fun is watching the warm-up routines, ceremonies and younger sumo wrestlers practice before the late afternoon excitement. The regular auditorium seating is where you find most of the foreign visitors, but there are also areas for the family to spread out and we saw many taking their picnic and spending the afternoon watching the various matches take place as the excitement built up for the famous sumo wrestlers later in the day. When we first arrived we thought “this is quite subdued” but by 6pm we were screaming and cheering with the locals as they supported their favourite wrestlers. Many colleagues had told us it would be an amazing experience and I wasn’t so convinced to be honest. However I can certainly say it was definitely worth a visit.
What struck me most about Japan is how polite and friendly everyone is. There is such a high level of respect for each other which sometimes is forgotten nowadays in western culture.
Tokyo was a 48-hour whirlwind with every sense constantly entertained, while Hakone allowed us to see stunning scenery and experience some down time in a hectic schedule. Kyoto took us back to the Japan of yesteryear while Osaka quickly flung us back into the modern day with a glimpse of an amazing traditional family day out at the sumo
My visit was a little early for the famous cherry blossom season, which traditionally begins around the end of March depending on where in the country you are. It is definitely the most popular time of year to visit and tours can book up a year in advance.
I can’t express enough how amazing Japan really is. It is a culture shock but in a good way. You definitely need a guiding hand here and there, but after a little hand-holding it is easy and efficient to get around. There is a language barrier but it didn’t cause any problems and only adds to the experience. I would definitely recommend it for people of all ages and it would be especially good for families with older or teenage children. One family I met had a manga artist following them around for the week, and at the end of their tour they were presented with a storyboard of their travels. Another family sent the children off with some local children at a countryside retreat to cycle and experience life as a Japanese teenager whilst the parents visited a local shrine. Attractions such as the Studio Ghibli Museum will keep them entertained and educated.
It is a very clean, polite and friendly country with low crime rates and visitors are welcomed with open arms. If you have ever thought about visiting Japan, now is a great time, with visitor numbers on the rise and a favourable exchange rate.
Japan fact file
Seasons: Oliver visited Japan in March just before cherry blossom. Tourist spots were quiet and weather pleasant, similar to the UK. The busiest time of year is late March/April and the rainy season tends to be in June when it can also be very hot. Weather varies greatly across the country and you can even enjoy world-class skiing in the winter.
Flight time: 11-12 hours direct from London
Time difference: + 9hrs
Highlights: Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka
Example package: nine-night ‘highlights’ escorted tour taking in Tokyo, Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto with international flights, internal rail travel, expert tour leader, geisha district evening walking tour, luggage forwarding, info-pack and much more from £1,999; 13-night cherry blossom tours from around £3,400 per person.
Tailor-made: if you prefer to travel independently we can tailor your holiday to Japan for you.