OUR REPORTER MAGS VISITED JAPAN AND CAN'T WAIT TO RETURN!
Japan is on most people’s bucket list and for good reason. Offering a unique culture, there is nowhere like Japan!
I have been lucky enough to visit Japan and my experience has only left me wanting to return. It is so easy to get around with the amazing Shinkhansen or bullet train, you actually look forward to train journeys that you know with certainty will start and end on time…somewhat a novelty in the UK! Along with the bullet trains, there are also local trains, which are just as efficient, but not as fast so you can always get around easily. Food on board was amazing! (see below) My favourite thing on all trains, is that all the seats are turned around at the end of the line to face the direction of travel…genius!
My biggest surprise was the wealth of countryside there is to see. You might picture a vast metropolis when you think of Japan but it’s so much more than that. We visited Furukawa located in the Japanese Alps and took a cycle ride. The countryside was beautiful and green and we could see in the distance, a live volcano against an azure blue sky. A stunning sight. I certainly didn’t expect to see thatched houses as well. It all looked like a very exotic Surrey! Another interesting fact is how the local town is geared towards winter. They have installed a thermal heating system running along the roads to stop them becoming frozen so no excuse for a snow day!
Most people have heard of Hiroshima which was an intense experience. Despite what you might think, it’s actually a nice town and I had one of the best bowls of pasta I’ve ever had there! The Peace Park, is just that. Very peaceful with the peace flame burning eternally, it’s a place for quiet reflection, as was intended. The museum makes for a sobering visit the story of the A bomb and remnants from the explosion. People from all over the world were visiting and viewing everything in silence. It’s the quietest museum I have ever visited.
Talking of intense, the food of Japan can be just that! Octopus balls can take a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve acclimatised, they are delicious! However, I couldn’t ever quite get used to raw fish for breakfast. We stayed in several ryokans which are traditional Japanese Inns, like the one in the James Bond, where you sleep on the floor on rush matting and a futon. I wasn’t quite prepared for the knock on the door at 7 am where a team sweep in and fold your bedding away and bring in a beautifully prepared and arranged breakfast. This is where the raw fish comes in…and strong pickles. It takes some getting used to but it all so beautifully served in individual hand crafted bowl, your early start doesn’t seem to matter so much.
Another thing that takes getting used to is that in towns where there are ryokans, it is completely normal to walk about in your dressing gown, or yukata in the evening. As someone who loves her dressing gown, I embraced this tradition but couldn’t quite get into the split socks and sandals look!
The temples of Japan are something else that usually springs to mind. They do not disappoint! In Kyoto, there are so many it’s very hard to choose which to visit. We avoided the more visited ones and chose a small one on the outskirts. The flooring, I particularly remember, was lovely to walk on in bare feet (you are required to remove your shoes). Smooth, warm wood and in the background tinkling water in the zen garden. Very peaceful and beautifully designed to soothe the soul.
Parts of Kyoto are very modern but old traditional Japan is never very far away. Gion, the old geisha district is where we stayed looks almost like a Disney set but is in reality, very old. The hotel very helpfully made a restaurant reservation for us in the heart of the old town and it is hard to navigate as it all looks very similar, they gave us a photo to help us find it! In truth, if it wasn’t for my husband, I think I’d still be wandering around there!
Another cultural icon people think of is the geisha culture. We were lucky enough to visit a teahouse and have tea with a genuine maiko, which is the Kyoto term for geisha. You can only do this if you are invited. We use a tour operator (who are our AITO partners and have fabulous knowledge of Japan) that has a special relationship with a teahouse so I was very grateful for this opportunity to look into this secret world. We were watching Joanna Lumley on TV shortly after when she visited Japan and were jumping up and down when we saw she visited the same maiko!
It wasn’t our only experience with that strange side of Japan. We went for a tempura meal and there was a maiko performance happening in the room at the back! Very strange to us…and to lots of Japanese as our guide in Kyoto told us!
Talking of strange, keen to experience the food, we asked for squid entrails in a traditional restaurant and the waitress smiled broadly and said “not for you”. We gave up on that and ordered crispy fish bones instead which were delicious! Keep an open mind at all times as you never know what will surprise you! And the wasabi KitKats, I took back to the office were a surprise too! After many guffaws, everybody loved them!
Most people know that Japan is very seismic and in Hakone we experienced road closure due to an imminent rupture. The smell of sulphur was overpowering and a strong reminder that mother nature is never very far away…and if they tell you to get out of the way, which translates in any language, you do! We retired to our ryokan and bathed in the natural hot springs tub on our balcony. It was almost too hot and I came out looking like a boiled lobster but I felt immensely healthy!
Japan is an amazing country and has something to offer everyone. Where else could you see a rabbit on a lead, eat an octopus ball, meet a geisha and visit a Robot Café on the same day? Although sometimes a bit bewildering, I would recommend Japan to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love of the unusual!
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