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Travel feature: Lee Atherton explores Japan

The Golden Temple in Kyoto

The Golden Temple in Kyoto

  • by Lee Atherton
 

Japan is a huge vacation. It’s at least a 15-hour direct flight, though there are more reasonably-priced tickets requiring a transfer.

I flew into Narita airport and immediately collected a prepaid JR Rail Pass and several all-day metro tickets which are discounted at the airport.

The pass gives you unlimited travel on the Shinkansen bullet trains and any other local lines run by Japan Railways.

It costs £180 for seven days which may seem expensive until you consider that just one return journey from Tokyo to Kyoto costs the same.

These are only available to tourists and a voucher must be purchased before the holiday to exchange in Japan.

There are many rail companies operating numerous services, but I found the Keisei Limited Express to be the most reasonable transport into Tokyo.

Capsule hotel

Tokyo takes your breath away. It is a huge city with the most bewildering array of architecture. From ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to huge skyscrapers, mile-long shopping arcades and belts of neon-lit entertainment districts.

I stayed in a variety of hotels, but by far the most interesting was a capsule hotel.

They are very cheap and rather noisy, while the amenities tend to be spread around each floor.

Nevertheless, it is a distinctly Japanese experience and should be tried at least once, and do mind your head!

The main accommodation was the Oak Hotel which is highly recommended on Trip Advisor, but rather hard to find! Fortunately, a local man was eager to help.

I particularly enjoyed the Senso-ji Temple, in Asakusa, the Imperial Palace tour (must be pre-booked online) and the entertainment districts of Shinjuku, Shibuya and Odaiba.

There are many peaceful parks though I chose to visit Ueno and the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. Indeed entertainment is wildly varied.

You might enjoy the view, drinking cocktails on the top floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, made famous by the film Lost in Translation.

There are hundreds of night clubs, bars, cafes and themed restaurants. We visited the spectacular Robot Restaurant which defies description and is quite unforgettable.

There are, of course, the seedier areas which you would find in any city and there are literally hundreds of Pachinko parlours, though some would best be described as palaces to the national obsession.

It is a very simple game which I once saw in a Victorian penny arcade, but which the Japanese have taken to extraordinary and noisy heights.

Sumo wrestling was a unique experience, though it is seasonal along with their theatre programmes.

Excursions from Tokyo included Kamakura, the highlight of which was the delightful Hase-dera Temple and the huge outdoor Buddha, 44ft high and weighing 93 tons!

Okonomiyaki

The food is great and unless you are proficient with chopsticks, I would strongly recommend carrying your own knife and fork.

The food ranges from noodle dishes (Ramen and Yakisoba for instance) to rice dishes, sushi and Tempura (lightly-battered, deep-fried vegetables or fish).

I particularly enjoyed their Okonomiyaki which is a thick pancake-shaped mix of cabbage, egg, shrimp, squid or pork cooked on a griddle.

The areas around railway stations often house cramped alleyways of very cheap, small eateries, but beware – the food can be exotic, by which I mean cooking things we would normally discard. Octopus balls are very popular, though I waited until the last night before trying them. They were delicious and thankfully not what I expected!

I grew particularly fond of green tea ice cream and, of course, the refreshing drink on which it is based and which is best enjoyed in one of their many traditional tea houses.

Osaka

I based myself in Osaka for the second week. It has relatively-cheap accommodation and is central to several major destinations.

The JR Pass can be used to get around the city, which is the second largest in Japan.

I particularly enjoyed the castle in which you can dress as a Samurai warrior or Geisha girl. The Umeda Sky Building has a wonderful observatory and the Harbour Bay area offers the chance to enjoy one of the world’s largest aquariums and allegedly the world’s largest Ferris wheel.

Like Tokyo, this city is home to some vast entertainment districts.

Kyoto was beautiful, with an unusual mix of temples and shrines.

Particular highlights were the Fushimi Inari Shrine with hundreds of red Torrii gates, the exquisite Golden Temple, Niho Castle and the colourful Nishiki Market.

I was very fortunate to see a Geisha perform her dance at the local Gion Cultural Centre which also included the traditional tea ceremony and a Bunraku demonstration involving large puppets.

Hiroshima was very moving. I rang a bell beneath the point where the Atom bomb exploded and visited a museum which left little to the imagination.

The nearby Miyajima Island is delightful and provides one of the top three views in Japan.

The whole island is a shrine and populated by deer that are completely tame until you present deer crackers; available to buy at local shops!

Both places can be visited in a day and the JR Pass provided free ferry passage to the island.

Nara was one of my favourite excursions. Again there are deer everywhere and the town is home to the famous Todai-ji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building, housing one of the largest bronze Buddhas.

Yet the highlight for me was the opportunity to successfully squeeze through a small hole reputed to be the size of Buddha’s nostril!

I got a bruised arm and the guilty pleasure of watching several large business men begging their colleagues to pull them out by their ankles. The point of the exercise was to attain enlightenment, which I did along with most of the children!

Details

The holiday cost me: flights, £650; accommodation, £250; train pass, £180; and £400 spending money.

I was only there for two weeks, yet with extensive planning and the speed of the bullet trains, many aspects of Japan were covered with ease.

English wasn’t a problem. There is good signposting and you can generally make yourself understood one way or another.

The people like to play as hard as they work. Nevertheless, they are polite to a fault, constantly bowing to the point where you find yourself doing the same or at least nodding in appreciation.

I would add one note of caution.

There is a good mix of Western and Japanese toilets (squatting) throughout the country. However, beware, you are often expected to provide your own tissues!

A wonderful vacation in a country I plan to visit again.

 

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