No, it’s not a dodgy lunchbox slogan. ‘Go’ in Japanese means ‘five’ and here are my top five things to do in Japan. Any trip to Japan will be a mind blowing mix of the high tech and the traditional, so Go Nihon Go!!
1. Hot spring baths – ‘onsen’ – 温泉
Like many cultures, the Japanese recognise the relaxing qualities of a good scrub and a hot bath. Unlike the Brits, however, the Japanese hate the idea of wallowing around in your own grubby bathwater and do all the scrubbing before they get in the (single sex!) communal pool. Wearing nothing but a towel. On their heads. For the sake of modesty, you could try to cover yourself up with the towel, but given that it’s generally smaller than your average dish cloth, don’t expect it to cover much! Most hotels have an onsen, but the real deal is one which is served by hot sulphuric springs – and even better if it’s outside. My favourites are at the beach resort of Shirahama in Wakayama prefecture (outdoors, looking out to sea) and up on Hokkaido island, where you can sit in the warm water while it snows on your head! In Nagano prefecture, it’s even possible to bathe with monkeys, if that’s your thing!
2. Biiru – ビール
There are three main brands of Japanese beer – Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo and they are widely available, including in vending machines outside supermarkets and inside nightclubs. They are all of a lager/blonde variety and very smooth. If visiting Japan in summer, seek out a department store roof-top beer garden – pay once and eat and drink all you can. The beer served in a beer garden comes in glasses straight out the freezer. Oishii!! (delicious!). Other options include the Izakaya – like a Japanese tapas bar and natural habitat of the Japanese salaryman out building relations with his colleagues. Or even a karaoke bar or box. In a karaoke box, you’ll get a room to yourself, a bell to ring for more beers and ice cream and a catalogue of ancient Beatles songs and film soundtracks to croon along to. If beer isn’t your thing, try ume shu – a kind of super sweet plum wine or a chu-hai – like a fruity alcopop in a can. If after all that boozing your dash for the last train is unsuccessful, you can always sleep it off in a capsule hotel – handily located beside stations!
3. Cutesy cute – kawaiiiiii!!! かわいい
Irritating, kitsch and cute in equal measure, the Japanese concept of kawaii is a cultural phenomenon in itself. It’s not just the school girls in their mini-skirts and glued on slouchy socks who buy into it, but also fully grown adults. Walk into any department store to find not only Hello Kitty duvet covers, T-shirts and phone pendants, but also Hello Kitty kettles, saucepans and car accessories. Spot the cute culture at its best/worst at Shibuya 109 in Tokyo.
4. Chill Out – Zen – 禅
In every Japanese city, no matter how hectic or high-rise, there is a corner of calm and quiet designed for meditative contemplation. It might be a public garden where you can appreciate the beauty of nature under a cherry blossom tree (April) or a temple where you can make an offering to a local deity. Kyoto excels in the quiet temples and raked gravel gardens of Zen Buddhism – visit Kinkaku-ji (the golden pavilion) or Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavilion). Also in the Kansai region is the holy mountain of Koya San, which is populated only by Buddhist monks and features the most sought after cemetery in Japan. It is possible to stay in a temple in Kyoto or Koya San and experience the strictly vegetarian diet of the monks and their peaceful lifestyle.
5. Food – ‘Nihonryori’ – 日本料理
It’s not all about raw fish and sushi. Japanese food is very varied and each region has its own seasonal and local specialities that people will travel miles for. In ski resorts in winter, o-nabe (a communal dish like a fondue with boiling broth instead of melted cheese) is popular. In summer, cold noodles are served in icy water running through bamboo canes which diners have to catch with their chopsticks. At lunchtime, grab a bento-box from a stand or a combini (convenience store) which will contain meat or fish, salad and rice in a handy compartmentalized box, complete with chopsticks. Most restaurants specialise in one type of food, be it ramen (Chinese style noodles in a soup), okonomiyaki (a kind of omlette baked on a hot plate at the table), sushi or teppanyaki (Korean style meat barbecue cooked at the table). Some restaurants will have handy plastic dishes in the window that customers can point at. Don’t be timid – give it a go!!
© Lynn Sheppard