In terms of things to see and do, I cannot think of a country that offers as much diversity as Japan. It has a cultural dualism of zen and the zany, leaving visitors to oscillate between the two worlds, often just streets apart, without getting dizzy.
I’ve never been to a country that can separate itself into so many easily defined areas, and I doubt there’s another: the Cat Island of Aoshima, the Art Island of Naoshima, the Rabbit Island of Okunoshima, and the Deer Islands of Miyajima. To have even one of these eccentric, thematic islands in one country would be a unique offering, but the abundance of them puts Japan in a league of its own. As a visitor you feel completely spoilt.
Each city I managed to visit also had inside itself a dichotomy where peacefulness resides next to intense pockets of chaos, particularly in Osaka and Tokyo. The world’s largest city, Tokyo, is like a hundred different cities smashed into a singular expanse of area – it’s so condensed, you could drop whole countries into the same-sized space and it would only be half filled.
In contrast with the intense urban life of Tokyo, is the historical old-world city of Kyoto, where Geisha’s are often spotted meandering through the narrow alleyways of Gion. It’s the place you head to if you’re looking for quintessential Japan: the Golden Temple, the retina burning splendour of Fushimi Inari Taisha, and the seemingly infinite stalks of bamboo at Arashiyama, used as a film location for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Its clear-cut differences can be found not only from city to city, but from street to street, and building to building. You don’t have to search for long to see examples of these contrasts.
There’s usually a big difference between night and day in the big cities too. After daylight, out crawls Japan’s underbelly. A glare of naked bulbs, hundreds of flashing adverts and billboards cast a mesmerising glow across the streets. In a metropolis like Tokyo, there’s nothing you can’t find, it’s a city made for epicureans, for better or for worse. Head to Shinjuku any night of the week and you’ll see a youth sub-culture of women posing as Lolita. There are even clothing shops to supply women wishing to dress like young girls – a far cry away from traditional kimonos.
One of the funniest ways to see how eccentric and full of contrasts Japan can really be is by looking up at restaurant façades.
Dotonbori – Osaka’s famous ‘foodie’ street.
I don’t think we need to guess what this place specialises in!
In fact you don’t even need to look up, the lights are so bright, and the battery-powered figurines so big and gaudy it’s impossible to miss them. When the whole point is to attract the attention of passersby, bigger truly is better….apparently.
I’m not sure about you, but this kind of advertising has the adverse effect on me. I undoubtedly question the quality of food in a restaurant if it needs to have a massive mechanical crab gyrating above the door (the pincers really do move to imitate a real crab – it’s rather creepy!). My theory could be completely wrong though, so please don’t take any notice, it’s just a hunch and nothing more. I’m usually drawn to smaller, intimate places which seem to whisper in my ear, ‘mamma’s little kitchen….’
Either way, you won’t be in short supply of good food. With more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet, Tokyo is the gourmet capital of the world. But don’t worry, good food doesn’t stop for budget conscious travellers either, the options are endless all over Japan.
Indulging in Sushi at the world’s largest fish market.
Spending longer in Japan and need inspiration? Read my 2-week itinerary.