Japan is one of the rare countries that can captivate anyone, whether you are a history buff, a techie geek or a michelin star foodie. No matter how many times we visit this place, it keeps surprising, mesmerising and captivating. This time we went to explore three very different sides of Japan: the bright neon lights of Tokyo, the ancient spirit of Kyoto and the snowy calmness of the Yamagata mountains.
Traveling between different cities here often feels like a passage through time, from the dawn of ages to the far future. After the WWII, the country has industrialized from an agrarian state to the second largest economy in the world in just 20 years. Such breakneck growth brought the rise of large megalopolises such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka. At the same time, many smaller cities didn’t urbanize as much. This created an eclectic mix of quaint old towns that still emanate the old the spirit of samurai right next to skyscraper sprawls straight from the pages of sci-fi novels.
Most travelers arrive to Japan through one of the Tokyo airports, Narita or Haneda. In the past, Haneda used to service only smaller domestic flights however recently the government has renovated and opened it for international travelers as well. Because Haneda is much closer to the downtown, traveling to Tokyo through this airport is faster and cheaper. We however, landed in Narita and had to take a longer route. To save time, we took the Skyliner train to the Nippori station which turned out to be a great choice. The route gave us a first taste of the vast Japanese landscapes as well as its amazing transport infrastructure.
Our journey started at Shibuya, one of the most distinct parts of Tokyo. The city is divided into 23 wards, each with its very distinct character. We loved the cyber-punk feel of Shinjuku, classy style of Ginza and the trendy fashion of Harajuku, however it was Shibuya with its merry crowds, constant hustle-and-bustle and the iconic scramble crossing where we decided to stay.
The district is well-connected to other parts of the city with several state and private subway lines. If you like walking like we do, it is also easy to get to many popular places such as Roppongi and Harajuku just on your two. We found the long walk to Omotesando to be the best way to beat the jet lag, explore the area and discover hidden food gems, such as Satsumaya restaurant. Somewhat of the beaten path, this small and cozy place serves few but excellent Japanese dishes.
We continued our culinary adventures with a visit to Tsukiji. This market has been serving fresh fish and seafood since 1935. Over time, the place became an iconic part of the city, loved by both its customers as well as tourists. So much that when the government decided to relocate the market to another location, the public outcry was so strong that the city council decided to postpone the move until further notice. A great way to sample Tsukiji delicacies is to order a mixed bowl with a variety of different fish slices. We liked raw salmon the most and ordered another bowl of sashimi and then followed with some delicious sea urchin. It was a cold morning, and we finished our breakfast with a couple of glasses of gluhwein and hot sake right here in the market. Perfect breakfast!
Tsukiji is just a short walk from the Tokyo Museum of Advertising which is a must see for anyone interested in the modern media. Tokyo is the second largest advertising centre in the world that over many years has been home for agencies that created many iconic brands such as Toyota, Nintendo and Issey Miyake. The exhibition shows samples of Japanese media from as early as the Endo period and is great way to experience the subtleties of the Eastern culture, traditions and communication.
Right here in Ginza, we stumbled upon another excellent museum, covering technology and innovation from Sony. We were offered an excellent tour through the iconic products this company has developed over the last 70 years, from now ancient TV sets to the latest VR headsets. The most exciting part of the exhibition were prototypes of the products yet to be released. Unlike previous generations of gadgets that seemed almost proud of their large size, these new computers try to blend into the walls, furniture and clothes, and make themselves as invisible as possible.
These tours were a good reminder that Japan remains possibly the most technologically advanced country in the world, even though its focus has changed over the years. In the 90s every single cool gadget seemed to come from Japan. We craved Sony music players, Panasonic TVs and Sega video games in the way that Apple and Samsung will never match. These days however, the Akihabara district, that in the past attracted every sci-fi fan, is now more famous for cosplay performances than the state-of-the-art gadgets. Look under the surface however, and you will see that Japan’s innovation is well and alive. Whether it is refining high-end materials from which computer chips are made, developing new robotic prosthesis or creating rare metals, – the industrial powerhouse Japan is as strong at innovation as ever. Having outsourced hectic branding and marketing to other countries, Japan focuses on developing technologies that every single modern device relies on.
Yamagata was the second destination on our journey. Our good friend and business pirate Kazu has invited us to celebrate New Year in the old Hatsumode tradition – an offer we couldn’t refuse. This small town, surrounded by mountains, is famous for its hot onsens, long ski tracks and excellent pork and ramen. We experienced the latter right away when our friends took us to one of the oldest Ramen shops in the city. The shop has been famous for its great food for the last 80 years. Forget about buying its ramen online or even in your local supermarket as the store only serves people in the Yamagata area. Despite its lack of growth ambitions or any kind of marketing, the shop is thriving – we had to book the table well in advance.
Hatsumode is a traditional rite that Japanese follow to welcome the new year. Many people go to shinto shrines after midnight, and so, not to be left behind, as soon as the clock striked 12, we were ready to go. As we arrived, the temple was already full of people taking part in an elaborate praying ceremony. It starts with tossing coins into a wooden box, then clapping hands twice before making your wish as you ring the bell above you. Next, we peeked into what the future held for us this year. We dropped a few coins into the fortune telling bin and picked our tokens with the divinations. We were lucky to have our friends with us as the predictions were entirely in Japanese. As the queue was quite long, by the time we finished the ceremony we were utterly frozen and went right to the counter serving hot sake on the other end of the temple.
At this time of the year Yamagata gets pretty cold, especially at night. Moreover, most of the buildings don’t have central heating, which means that the temperature inside is pretty much the same as outside. Frozen to the bone, we were looking forward to our next destination – the hot Onsen. Yamagata is known as a hot spring paradize, every town has at least one. Each onsen facility has its own style and character that reflects the culture of the area. We were lucky to have a host spring just a short drive from the place we stayed at.
I read a lot about onsens but could never imagine myself entering one during winter, in sub-zero temperatures. As someone who utterly hates cold, I thought I would rather walk barefoot on broken glass or hot coals than stand naked in the snow. It turned out however that the body retains a lot of heat from the hot spring. After sitting inside the pool for a few minutes, we could easily walk outside. In the end, it was lovely to sit and chat in the pool, watching the snowflakes fly by.
Contrary to popular beliefs, visitors with tattoos didn’t seem to face any issues entering Onsens. In the past, a tattoo meant you were a member of Yakuza and were barred from entering public places such a Onsens. Nowadays, the tattoo bearer is more likely to be a hippie tourist than a mafia member, and a lot of places have relaxed the rules. That said, if you do have a dragon painted all over your back, you just might be stretching their hospitality a bit too far.
Our next destination was the ancient city of Kyoto, which we arrived at in a decidedly futuristic Shinkansen train. Japan has pioneered bullet trains that travel between cities at previously unimaginable velocities. It set a high benchmark for other countries such as China and Spain, that since then rolled out their own high-speed trains. Shinkansens are still very remarkable – we were able to traverse the distance between Tokyo and Yamagata in just a couple of hours. Before traveling to Japan we bought a JR Pass that offers unlimited passage on all Japan Rail trains, including Shinkansen. Because we used the train often, this ticket was a great deal and saved us a lot of money. If you decide to get the JR Pass, make sure to purchase it before the trip as it is only available outside of Japan and only to foreigners.
Over these couple of days, we had a privilege to stay in one of the most interesting places in Kyoto, an old Japanese house that served as a music school during the day. The owner of the house, Ms. Negi, is a remarkable individual and an artist who plays the traditional instrument Kato. Despite her old age, she is still a hard worker who gets up before dawn to play music in local temples and later teachers her craft to young disciples. She was kind enough to cook a delicious breakfast for us and then guide us through the map of the city and places worth seeing.
The best way to explore Kyoto however is to get creatively lost. It is one of those places where one will find beautiful sceneries regardless of the direction taken. And while we were impressed by the magnificent Kiyomizu-dera, it is smaller temples off the beaten path that touched us the most. On our last day in the city we woke up early and went for a walk. As we were strolling through the narrow streets of the old town, we found ourselves in front of the gate to the Konchi-in temple. While simple in style, this ancient building conveyed a calm and deep spirit. After walking through its wooden rooms and contemplating the intricate layout of the stone garden, we were a little bit closer to understanding the wisdom of Zen.
As much as we enjoyed the calmness and tranquility of Kyoto, we were longing for the hustle and bustle of the big city. It was time to go back to busy Tokyo for a couple of more days in the City Of Neon Lights before heading back to Singapore. Traveling through three very different parts of Japan – Tokyo, Yamagata and Kyoto – allowed us to appreciate the depth and richness of this country. As our plane was taking off, we knew we will be back and were already making plans for the next trip. There are more stories to come!