Any pre-conceived idea of this esoteric country will immediately dissolve when you walk along Tokyo’s fascinating streets, experience Kyoto’s addictive ancient culture or visit any number of Japan’s unique sights. A pulsing, driven ball of energy, Tokyo is caught in its own time warp, progressively developing beyond recognition, and yet only three hours away, Kyoto still clutches tightly to its ancient history. With both old and new cultures running side by side, we pick the traditional and contemporary highlights not to be missed.
Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
At the top of any ‘to-do’ list in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market (above) is a veritable feast for the senses. Wind up in Tsukiji for the very early tuna auction. Placed in the centre of the room surrounded by clouds of mist that circle the frozen produce, watch as buyers check the tuna quality and listen as the auctioneers sing the bid for these human-sized fish. Having waited since 3am to be among the first 120 allowed into the 5am auction, have the breakfast of champions, when the sushi restaurants throw open their doors, and taste the delicious tuna you just witnessed being sold.
Nishiki Market, Kyoto
Tsukiji may be all about the action, but quaint and quirky Nishiki Market is about the experience. Offering everything from eels arranged like precious necklaces to bright red octopus with quail egg heads, you are bound to see something weird yet utterly wonderful. Nestled in Kyoto’s downtown area, you can snack on some of the free samples, have a full meat at a sit-down establishment, or just watch the chaotic market tick by along the modest narrow streets.
Sumo wrestlers in Ryogoku, Tokyo
Requiring years of strict training, a rikishi, or professional sumo wrestler, is a revered figure in Japan: photographed at tournaments, followed in the streets by tourists and watched constantly when in public. Throughout their career, they will live, eat and train in stables alongside other wrestlers, which, out of the six Grand Tournaments, is where you can watch these masters in action.
Grand champions are hard to come by in sumo as there have only been 71 in sumo’s 270-year history. The stable master, Hakkaku Nobyoshi, at Hakkaku stable, just happens to be one, and you can regularly see him presiding over the morning practices. It is here that you will also be able to see Okinoumi Ayumi, a wrestler in the top division of professional sumo in his honorary white belt, engaging with other wrestlers in butsukari-geiko (where a junior wrestler pushes a senior straight across the dirt ring). Prepare for an early start, as the best time to go is at 8am, and make sure to phone ahead to confirm the stable is allowing visitors that day. After the practice, definitely head to the Sumo Museum, just around the corner, to see the collection of portraits of past and present greats.
Geisha in Gion, Kyoto
Certainly one of the most iconic images of Japan, a geisha embodies the dedication, grace and tradition of ancient Japan. Dwindling in the face of modernisation, there are thought to be only 100 maiko (apprentice geisha) and 200 geiko (matured geisha) remaining in Kyoto, considered the birthplace of the cherished culture.
A career woman, a performance artist, a talented companion and a beautifully articulated conversationalist - geisha must train in special schools to learn Japanese cultures, such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, traditional music and dance, as well as learn how to present themselves in the typical nape make-up, vibrant kimono and elaborate hairstyles.
Other than booking an evening at an ochaya (tea house) with a geisha, your best way of encountering these professional entertainers is to walk around Gion Corner in Kyoto. As the geisha leave their home at around 5:45pm for their evening engagements, nestle yourself between Shijo-dori and Kennin-ji Temple in Hanami-koji-dori at around dusk to catch a glimpse of these delicately made-up ladies. As the sun sets, the street and side alley come alive with magnificently preserved machiya restaurants opening up to serve Kyoto-style kaiseki ryori and sake, a great end to a culture-filled day.
Stark in its dramatic make-up, bizarre with its exaggerated performances and yet utterly compelling with its elaborate costume designs and tragic plots, kabuki is a wonderful peephole into Japan’s artistic culture. Dating back to the Edo period, kabuki is a dance drama that features an all-male cast, who use highly stylised movements and a dynamic stage to set the scene and convey emotions. Most shows are only snippets of an entire story and often start in the middle of the plot, thus creating some confusion for visitors unfamiliar with kabuki. Offering English headsets, the recently reopened Kabuki-za in Tokyo’s Ginza district is the most accessible theatre for visitors. Perfect for those low on time, the theatre offers single-act tickets so you can get a strong shot of the experience, or for those who want the whole experience, stay for the duration (4 hours or so) and pick up a bento to snack on during the intervals.
Give your vocal chords a good workout with one of Japan’s favourite pastimes, karaoke. Most establishments provide ‘karaoke boxes’, which are private rooms equipped with a karaoke player and microphones, as well as neon flashing lights and walls plastered with glow-in-the-dark designs. Besides countless Japanese songs, a reasonable selection of English songs is usually available, especially in the Jumbo Karaoke Hiroba in Kyoto. Though open between 11am and 6am, consider spending an evening in the karaoke rooms, as with a very reasonable all-you-can-drink price plan, even those who are a little shy will be belting out the words to their favourite song in no time.
High riser, Tokyo
Towering over central Tokyo, the Park Hyatt has continued to draw in moviegoers and discerning travellers for over a decade after appearing in the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation. Occupying the top 14 floors of a 52-storey skyscraper, follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and stay in this 5-star high riser oasis. Presiding over the city, once you’ve gotten used to the elegant rooms, decked out with king-size beds, walk-in closets and a deep soaking tub, spend some time in the famous bar before heading up to the contemporary and sophisticated New York Grill on the 52nd floor, to press your nose up against the floor-to-ceiling windows at sunset.
For those prone to vertigo, the traditional low-level ryokans may be a better fit with their calming water gardens, warming hot baths and delicate paper-thin walls. Staying in a ryokan is the perfect way to experience Japanese culture first hand, and at Yoshikawa Ryokan, an inn that was built over a century ago, the balance is drawn exquisitely between refreshing minimalism and luxurious comfort. With only 8 rooms, the ryokan is a small, family run establishment with a fantastic on-site restaurant, known as one of the best places for tempura. Having feasted on the delicious treats, head to Kyoto’s Imperial Palace Park, only a stone’s throw away.
Michelin-starred restaurants, Tokyo
Having surpassed Paris to become the city with the most Michelin-star rated restaurants, Tokyo is one of the most exciting dining cities in the world. From Japanese contemporary cuisine to French fusion, chefs are paving the way in the capital with experimental flavours, imaginative presentations and an acute attention to detail. Hidden in a little alley behind the Bishamon shrine in the heart of Tokyo, Ishikawa is a Michelin 3-star restaurant with only 4 private rooms and 7 counter seats, which are all overseen by head chef Hideki Ishikawa. Your divine meal will progress through stages of ultra-seasonal ingredients, paired perfectly with a superb glass of wine or sake from Ishikawa’s birthplace of Niigata. Categorised as ‘Ishikawa-style’ cuisine, as it is only bound by the chef’s own imagination, revel in the dishes of char-grilled eel with sweet onion, rice cooked with prized matsutake mushrooms and turtle tempura with gingko nuts.
Traditional roots, Kyoto
Though Tokyo’s Michelin-starred restaurants are turning to laboratory-like experiments with new flavours and techniques, restaurants in the former imperial capital still look to the past for inspiration. Having reigned supreme for nearly 1,200 years, the city has developed a unique culture of food from simple sweets to the stunning kaiseki ryori courses, an elaborate multi-course dining style popular among aristocratic circles. Using only the freshest and most local seasonal produce, vegetables and tofu dominate the courses, making it one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. A common way for visitors to enjoy kaiseki is by staying in a ryokan; however, high end ryotei, luxurious traditional restaurants in the Gion district of Kyoto, also offer this fantastic experience.