I love visiting Japan. It’s endlessly quirky, obsessively clean, impossibly polite… the people and places are so fascinating, even to a fellow Asian. Here’s a quick guide of my favourites for a week in Japan. If sticking to the largest island of Honshu, then Tokyo is still the ‘must see’ city, with Kyoto a close second. For a week’s duration, there’s barely enough time to go anywhere else, but if you insist on a third city, then Osaka’s the usually popular candidate, although I’d vote for Kanazawa. The island of Hokkaido deserves a separate trip, as does Kyushu.
Hotels: There is an enormous range to choose from, from basic capsules to luxurious 6-star hotels. I don’t think I can add more value to the wealth of advice on Tripadvisor, so I won’t try.
Food: Each Japanese province boasts it’s own speciality, so Japanese food actually comprises a broad range of tastes and types. It makes for lots of fun to travel there in search of the very best version of, say, okonomiyaki (that’s Osaka’s speciality). But conveniently, in Tokyo, you can find a pretty decent version of pretty much every Japanese dish. Here are some of my own favourites:
- Sushi – two ways to eat this, and they’re both good. The cheaper option is at a good quality conveyor-belt sushi outlet. There are many decent outlets, characterised by long queues. But it’s worth the wait – generous servings of fresh fish at reasonable prices. The other option is to go for an omakase meal – sit at the counter, enjoy watching the sushi master at work, and let him pamper you. A good sushi chef observes you discreetly and adjusts his offerings as the meal progresses. I love Sushi Gyoen – typical of a small, intimate artisan, run by a husband-and-wife team, catering to only 10 customers, offering masterful creations of the craftsman’s art.
- Beef – multiple ways to eat this too, all good. The Japanese love their beef fatty – Kobe and Matsusaka being only two of the many highly-marbled examples. It’s too rich to be eaten as a steak – try having cubes of it flash-seared on a hot griddle, so that when you bite into a piece, the flavourful juices burst in your mouth. Yes, it’s expensive, but the richness means that you don’t really need a large portion to be satiated. Too many top-flight Japanese beef restaurants for me to recommend just one – just Google it. Instead, I point you to an unusual option – Seiyoryori Shima serves Japanese less-marbled beef Western-style, in a quirky basement restaurant that’s a challenge to locate. Charming atmosphere, great food and wine.
- Tempura – not many realise that tempura is a relatively recent addition to the Japanese culinary scene – introduced by Portuguese missionaries on their overseas missions to Japan. Available widely, it is especially delicious in purpose-built ‘Tempura bars’ like Tsunahachi.
- Tonkatsu – Maisen is probably the most famous Tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo. Deliciously moist pork cutlets, made irresistible by their piquant dark sauce. It’s always a hard choice between the Katsudon (cutlet on rice smothered by lovely egg sauce) and Tonkatsu on its own – I recommend the juicier ‘rosu’ cut, but those preferring a leaner version can opt for ‘hire’. Consider a side order of their Tonkatsu sandwiches – or take them away! Maisen is located in the trendy Omotesando shopping district – lots to see here too.
- Gyoza – Harajuku Gyouzarou is probably the most famous Gyoza restaurant in Tokyo. Gyoza is a brilliant salaryman snack, to be enjoyed with a cold beer when work is done, as a prelude to a proper dinner. It can be had in small izakaya all over the city, but this outlet has a broader range of choices and an enviable reputation for quality. If you can’t stand queues, give this one a miss, just enjoy gyoza at any busy salaryman joint.
- Ramen – the quintessential Japanese comfort food – to be eaten with loud slurps (actually improves the flavour pickup by your olfactory senses because it aerates each mouthful). Good ramen can be found everywhere, and there are many types (pork broth, chicken broth, miso, soy, etc) that typifies the regional differences across Japan. For variety, you might try those concentrations of ramen shops that band together in one location – and go ramen-hopping. One version which I discovered only recently, and enjoyed greatly, is tsukemen – the ramen is served cold alongside the dipping soup, and is especially firm and chewy (the way I like it). Ask for it.
- Soba and Udon – ditto. I prefer soba to udon, but it’s really a question of taste. I don’t have any particular outlet to recommend – a good crowd is usually a good indicator of yumminess.
- Curry – not my favourite dish, but very popular amongst the Japanese. Available everywhere. A more interesting (to me) version, from Hokkaido, is called Soup Curry – the consistency is thinner and it’s made with lots of vegetables. That, I like.
- Gyudon or ‘beef bowl’ – delicious stir-fried beef, redolent with onions, on top of rice, topped optionally with a raw egg yolk. Comfort food for the masses. The big chains have outlets everywhere – Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya – and it’s a local form of fast food. For a satisfying meal, I would order additional portions of the beef topping.
- Oyakodo / Butadon – if chicken is your preferred meat, then try oyakodon – I had an excellent version at Toritsune in Akihabara, near the train station. There’s also a version of rice bowl with pork called butadon – a specialty of Hokkaido – which is best eaten in Hokkaido.
- Okonomiyaki – a strange pan-fried amalgam of omelette, fried noodles, bacon and sauce, topped with mayonnaise. Sounds disgusting, looks weird and tastes only of BBQ sauce to me. But teenagers absolutely love it.
- Takoyaki or ‘octopus balls’ – another street food popularised alongside okonomiyaki, and equally popular amongst the young. I’d eat it only if I was very hungry, walking the streets of Akihabara.
- Crepes – a confection that wraps cream and fruits in a large pancake, so that you can walk around eating it. Actually tastes pretty good.
- Matcha ‘green tea’ ice cream & coffee jelly – need no introduction. Buy some when you see it, as these are especially good in Japan.
- Pour-over coffee – different from the Italian method (pressured steam) and the French method (infuse and press), the Japanese use a goose-neck kettle to slowly pour hot water over the coffee grounds, in a special funnel. Very smooth texture, great coffee, addictive.
- Unagi or ‘eel’ – especially popular in the summer, it is deliciously braised in a dark soya sauce and served on top of rice, usually in a bento. The fish can sometimes have fine bones – don’t be put off, the bones are soft and will do you no harm.
- Food halls – in the basements of big department stores. Try the basement of Takashimaya – the choice is dizzying.
- Omotesando/Jingumae for top international and local brands.
- Harajuku for ‘young’ fashion – very edgy and interesting.
- Shinjuku and Shibuya for mainstream fashion, lots of interesting department and boutique stores offering clothes and accessories (eg check out this spectacle maker called Kaneko). The Shibuya scramble crossing, busiest in the world, is a must-see. If you’re into Asics running shoes, pick up a pair at their flagship store – the service is amazing.
- Akihabara for the latest electronic goods, maid cafes and people (cosplayers) watching.
- Robot Restaurant is a must for first-timers. All the weirdness, colour and special uniqueness of Japanese culture, in one memorable performance. Don’t bother with the dinner package – book for the show, eat a better dinner elsewhere (early) and then turn up a little earlier to get a decent seat.
- Consider excellent Jazz performances at Blue Note.
Temples: Kyoto is regarded as the cultural capital of Japan, so it’s no surprise to discover exquisite temples here. A few of the most memorable ones I’ve visited:
- Ryoan-ji is an important Zen Buddhist temple, with probably the most famous kare-sansui (dry landscape) garden in the world. It is so minimalist and evocative that it’s quite an experience to simply sit there, in silence, and contemplate the simple layout.
- Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion and Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion, make stunning photographs. Both have interesting (and related) histories.
- Kiyomizudera – spectacular verandah with stunning vistas. Especially beautiful during autumn, but good to visit any time. Make time to walk the gardens.
- Fushimi Inari-taisha – remember that scene from ‘Memories of a Geisha’ when Zhang Ziyi gets chased through these spectacular red torii gates? That’s a real place, at this shrine.
Food: Kyoto is considered by many to be the most ‘refined’ city in Japan. Kaiseki dinners are elaborate affairs anywhere, but they’re especially fine (and expensive) in this city. For a more wallet-friendly option, consider going for a temple meal comprising only tofu dishes. That’s multiple courses, from appetisers to desserts, made of soya bean – I found it an eye opener and surprisingly enjoyable.
Shopping: Pickles, which the Japanese love with their daily staple of rice. Kimonos, if you must buy one, are best in Kyoto. Knives, made of Japanese steel – very high levels of hardness and fine craftsmanship.
Nara is really only famous because of the deer temple/park. Over many years, the deer have become tame and used to humans because they regularly wander into the temple/park to be fed by hand, by tourists. Lately, they’ve become a little more pushy, some say aggressive, because they’ve come to expect that this is a normal way for them to feed. Makes for nice photos, and kids love it.
I’ve never found Osaka to be an attractive city – it feels built-up in a haphazard way, the buildings have no consistent theme or significant architectural value. It IS considered by many to be the food capital of Japan, but I didn’t find it particularly special in that department – maybe I’d hadn’t been to right places. I do recall a spectacular soup-udon, served in huge bowl the size of a wash basin with a piece of kitsune the size of a handkerchief. And very good soft cheese tarts at Pablo.
Take a walk down the famous Dotonbori river promenade and see the lights that Osaka is famous for, including the iconic ‘Glico man’. Buy Glico Pocky and weird stuff from Don Quixote store, to bring back as souvenirs.
A city by the Sea of Japan, on the Western shore of Honshu. Features the second largest fish market (after Tsukiji) in the country, and truly excellent seafood, especially Hamachi, which is fished in these waters. Also features one of the most important Japanese gardens in the country, Kenrokuen. And a stunning museum of modern art, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s not yet overly crowded with tourists, and still a charming, interesting city with great food – what more can you ask for? Easy access, you say? Well, they’ve just started a shinkansen service from Tokyo.