Japan. It’s a mystical country unlike any other destination in Asia. With a sense of style that far surpasses its neighbors, exotic foods, and an island chain that extends almost 2,000 miles, Japan is full of surprises. It could take a lifetime to discover all this wondrous country has to offer, so where do you go on your first visit? Here’s my list of awesome things to do:
Shinkansen Bullet Train– As soon as I saw this train, I immediately fell in love with it. It’s futuristic retro shape and cool design make you happy as soon as you see it zooming into the station. At speeds over 200 mph, the Shinkansen whisks you across the country nearly as fast as taking a flight. It’s ridiculously comfortable and you can leave your tray table down as long as you want, plug in your computer, drink sake or take a nap. With the Japan rail pass, you can ride almost anywhere in the country with the Shinkansen and other JR trains. This magical pass costs about $250 for 7 days, but can pay for itself on your first trip. It can only be purchased by non-Japanese residents outside Japan. It is the best travel investment you can make if you want to visit other parts of Japan besides Tokyo.
Have Kobe Beef -What’s cooler than eating Japanese Teppanyaki? Eating the best steak in the world in the town it comes from. Most carnivores agree that Kobe is the beef by which all others are judged. Kobe is a special breed of prized Wagyu cattle that comes from the town bearing its name. Since only 3,000 are certified as Kobe a year, a steak can be very expensive. The good news is that the closer you are to the source, the better the price. There’s lots of restaurants in Kobe offering a chance to sample this melt-in-your-mouth experience for much less than you’d pay at home. Plus you get bragging rights. Try Steakland near the train station for a high quality steak that won’t break the bank. The lunch menu is even a better deal.
Karaoke in Japan is nothing like a sing-along night at a US bar. First, you don’t have to listen to bad singing from people you don’t know; instead, you rent a private room and listen to bad singing from people you DO know. Your space is rented by the hour and comes with a sound system, video screens and little hi-tech tablets that allow you to queue up your favorite songs IF you can figure out how to use them. Waiters are on hand to keep your drinks flowing and help you navigate the controls. We rented the actual room that was used as a filming location in the movie Lost in Translation. Since there was only two of us, we brought in our friends on Facebook Live to share in the fun. Japan has a great phone network so streaming live videos is a breeze. Singing Elvis Costello was not quite as easy.
Hiroshima is the city that famously became the 9-11 of Japan in 1945. When the Japanese refused to surrender to the Allies in WW2, the US dropped an atomic bomb right into the center of the town and then a second one on nearby Nagasaki. The results were terrifying. Buildings and people were vaporized. Radiation sickness and injuries from the blast killed tens of thousands of local residents. Seventy plus years later there’s a park, a museum and a portion of the only building left standing as a memorial to those affected by the bomb. To visit the museum, see the video testimonials from the survivors, and view melted objects and the ruins is a sobering experience. In spite of these horrific events, Hiroshima has put itself back together and is a lovely city with great parks, museums, a vibrant culture and an easy-to-get-around tourist bus that is included with your JR Pass. The beautiful Itsukushima Shrine is a UNESCO world heritage site and is only one of the many places to see in this lovely town.
Mount Fuji is the perfect image of a post card mountain. It’s actually volcanic in origin and can on a clear day be seen on the train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. For a closer view, take a bus to Fujikawaguchiko from Shinjuku and join a tour, rent a bike, get a paddle boat or go skiing. There are three resorts that offer a chance to ski on one of the world’s most famous mountains. If you miss the winter season, there’s still plenty of places to snap the perfect selfie, visit an ice cave or explore the five pristine lakes in the area. Take the aerial tram across from the lake, then follow the steps to the top of the building for even more amazing views of Fuji.
Kyoto is temple headquarters for Japan and the equivalent of what Rome is for Catholic Churches. The city is huge and can be a little intimidating to navigate so investing in a one day bus pass ($6) can be very helpful getting you around to the main sites. There are 17 UNESCO sites in Kyoto, so it’s unlikely you’ll have time to see them all, so it’s best to decide which ones are the most important to you and plot a route that minimizes backtracking. Kyoto is also known for its development of amazing gardens which have significantly influenced landscaping throughout the world.
Sakura– The blooming of the cherry blossom trees in Japan is a major celebration of life and spring and one of the most beautiful times of the year to visit the country. It takes only two to three weeks for these blossoms to open and fall off the tree, so timing is everything. During that time, the buds burst like popcorn into beautiful flowers from all shades of colors from pure white to flamingo pink. The Tokyo area blooms around the first of April. Estimates are released each year for the best viewing dates but the Sakura occurs earlier in the south than the north, so if you barely missed the season, chances are you can still catch it a bit further north. Hanami is the tradition of getting a group together and celebrating the blossoms on a big picnic blanket with food and drinks. During the season you can also find cherry blossom ice cream.
Themed Restaurants– The Japanese love to commit to themed restaurants that probably wouldn’t make it in a lot of other places. Whatever you’re into, there’s a good chance someone is serving food in the setting you imagined. Animal restaurants allow you to eat a meal with cats, dogs, goats, owls or even hedgehogs. Maid restaurants feature young uniformed waitresses singing and serving hamburgers decorated like teddy bears in a room that looks like a Hello Kitty movie set. Have you been missing prison? There’s a restaurant that serves you your meal behind bars. There’s even ninja and sumo themed restaurants. Perhaps the most well known of all the themed restaurants is Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Words can’t really describe this “dinner theater” (it’s really just drinks and snacks) that offers all the Japanese weirdness you can handle. LED decorated vehicles weave between the audience stands with monster and robot costumes, dancers, stunts, lights, fog, and elements that look like they’re borrowed from Power Rangers and every Japanese science fiction movie from the 60s. The plot? I’m pretty sure that no one knows what any of it means, but you’ve never seen anything quite like it.