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It is the hardest question to be asked about Japan: “What do I have to see”? Given that every time I visit I find new ‘not to be missed’ places and experiences it is almost impossible to provide anything approaching an adequate answer. However, just to see if I could, I thought I would write some of them down and see if of all the myriad of extraordinary things to see and do in Japan I really could distill it down to just 10 ‘not-to-be-missed’ items. So, in no particular order, here we go:
1/ 4 am ramen after a night out in Osaka
Perhaps it says something about me that this is the first item I could come up with but there really is nothing like it. Osaka is an incredible place and definitely worthy of my not to miss in Japan list; an absolutely electric city with more energy than an 8 year old high on Sunny D. As the sun goes down the city comes out to play as salarymen pour out of the offices and into the bars and hostess clubs. The neon starts flashing and so the entertainment begins. You can have a lot of fun out in Osaka but after a night bar hopping there is only one way to round everything off – a steaming bowl of steaming cha-shu ramen noodles with a portion of gyoza on the side. This is truly food of the gods. There are no two ways about it. Add extra spoons of fresh crushed garlic, some chili spice and start slurping. And of course, order an ice cold nama biru to wash it all down with. This is the place to meet the locals; always intoxicated and always good natured. For me this is the perfect end to a great night out. Definitely one of the top 10 things to experience in Japan.
2/ Sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
This may not be for everyone. Well, I shall rephrase that. This really is for everybody but it is getting up there that might not be! Fuji-san is a true symbol of japan; a majestic, soaring volcano with a near-symmetrical form. At 3776 metres (12,388 feet) this is no walk in the park. The overnight climb is long and hard and although quite do-able for anyone with a reasonable level of every day fitness. Determination is the order of the day. There are four paths to choose from (Kawaguchi, Subashiri, Gotemba, Fujinomiya). Gotemba is the hardest climb by virtue of being the longest, the 5th station located just 1400 metres. At 2400 metres Fujinomiya is the shortest route but my personal favourite (and I have been up it 6 times) is Subashiri, which takes you up through the final forested areas before breaking out onto the barren slopes of volcanic rock. Be prepared for this climb. Make sure you have a warm hat, gloves, multiple layers (so you can add and remove as your body temperature changes), a torch, a climbing stick – you can get a wooden one at the 5th station and get it branded as you reach each mountain hut along the way – sturdy walking shoes or boots, plenty of water, some snacks and plenty of ‘gaman‘, meaning determination in Japanese. The climb is hard and you will get very short of breath towards the summit. But when it comes, the sunrise is breathtaking. In 2002, when I climbed with two customers from the States we watched the sunrise over Japan on the 4th of July. A special moment for them and a moment of such beauty as the world lights up that it brought tears to my eyes.
Climbing season runs from 1st July to 31st August. If you are going to be in Japan at this time and you are up for a challenge, then nothing beats ‘hinode’ sunrise from the roof of the Land of the Rising Sun!
3/ Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
Unsurprisingly (especially to anyone who knows me) food features heavily on my list of top things to do and in Japan you are spoilt for choice. However, without question my must-be-done-at-all-costs eating experience is a sushi breakfast at the world’s largest wholesale fish market. Tsukiji is like nowhere else on earth. I am sure this would not be allowed anywhere else in the world as it is chaos. Organised chaos but certainly a crazy place. If it comes out of the sea the Japanese will eat it and at Tsukiji you can see it all – most of it still alive. If you don;t like the site of fish wriggling their final wriggle then this is not the place for you! However, if you want to find out where all that sushi comes from then it is an essential stop. However, amazing though it is, I am more interested in eating it than looking at it. There are an array of restaurants to choose from but my favourite without question is Okame. Less famous than its next door neighbour Daiwa Sushi, Okame is in my humble opinion, the best sushi to be had anywhere. You will find this gem of a restaurant in building number 6 (you will see the numbered buildings when you visit). Don’t be fooled by the queues outside other places. They owe this to guidebook entries and TV coverage, not the quality of their food! Order the 2000 yen set meal and if you are still hungry top this up with a few extra items off the menu. With seats for just 13 at the counter you may have to wait but persevere and you will have a guaranteed top sushi experience.
4/ Visit to a local bathhouse
Getting naked and jumping in the tub with a load of strangers probably isn’t at first mention the most appealing holiday activity for us reserved Brits. However, take the plunge and you will not be disappointed. This is without a doubt the single thing I miss most when I return to the UK after a stint working over in Japan. Bath houses come in all shapes and sizes. Some are natural hot spring, other just heated water from the mains. They can be huge complexes with 20 different baths, and saunas and steam rooms ; or they can be tiny one tub affairs in the narrow back streets of an old neighbourhood. All have their unique charms and after a single visit you will be hooked.
The Japanese have a saying – hadanaka no tomodachi – literal translation, ‘Naked Friendship’. And the bath house really is the perfect place to relax after a long hard day at work (or out seeing the sights). They are extremely friendly places. You will always encounter Japanese who want to chat and learn about where you are from and what you have been doing in Japan. A visit to a bath house is a vision into the heart of Japanese society and this single experience can help you get closer to the true essence of the Japanese than any other single thing. In short, you just can’t beat it! My favourites are the local places, still used by many for their daily scrub. If you go often enough you get to know the grandmother on the door and the regulars from the area. If you are worried about bath house etiquette you can scrub up on it by reading here. So don’t be shy! Find a bath house, pack your towel and off you go.
Okay, that’s it for part 1. I meant to put up 5 items but got carried away. And of course, these are just my personal tastes. If you disagree (or have some fabulous ramen restaurant tips for me or your own favourite bath house) then let me know! The thing in Japan is, you can never know it all.