The Summer Olympics in 2020 are heading to Tokyo, providing a great excuse to visit this unique country – if ever you needed one. Only a 10 hour flight from Sydney and with a two hour time difference, Japan is close enough to reach in a day yet offers a fascinating glimpse of a vastly different culture.
Here are some of our favourite experiences, attractions and top tips for a visit to Japan.
What to do in Tokyo when you’re not watching the Olympic Games
Head to a themed diner
Cheesy? Maybe! Japan takes themed cafes to an entirely new level, and you’re bound to find one that suits your tastes. From vampires, to monsters, Victorian butlers, sci-fi robots and Alice in Wonderland, Tokyo has you covered.
Catch a Sumo match
Both a martial art and ancient national sport, official sumo tournaments – also known as a basho – are held six times a year. Originally designed as a performance, a number of traditional rituals still take place before matches begin.
Tournaments are full-day affairs, but many people attend later in the day when high-ranking wrestlers take to the floor. For the best view, take one of the ring-side floor seats – though they are the most difficult to obtain and come with an added safety risk!
If your visit doesn’t coincide with a tournament, try a sumo exhibition or head to a sumo heya – where the wrestlers both live and train.
Visit the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is remarkably uncrowded thanks to a stringent application process required months beforehand. However, the palace that still remains the home of the royal family is worth viewing from the outside at least. The relaxing East Gardens are also part of the imperial complex and make a great rest spot.
Shop at Tsukiji Market and Harajuku
Tsukiji market is a culinary delight where you can shop for fish, taste street food or dine in a local cafe. It’s crowded and chaotic, but a quintessential Tokyo experience. By contrast, Harajuku is a renowned fashion district famous for boutique shopping. There’s a collection of favourite teenage brands, as well as more sophisticated stores like Louis Vuitton.
The area is also home to the famous Meiji Shrine, built by Emperor Meiji who is widely considered responsible for modernising the country. It’s situated in an attractive forest that you can explore during your visit.
Experiencing the Japan that lies outside of Tokyo
Cruise the Inland Sea
Did you know that Japan is actually made up of thousands of islands? Not only that, but there are a number of cruise ships willing to take you on an epic voyage around these islands to explore the history, culture and landscape that they hold. The cruise route is known as the Inland Sea of Japan, and includes opportunities to visit famous destinations such as Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima while also taking in lesser-known spots away from some of the tourist crowds.
Cruises usually vary from around five to 12 days in length, although can be significantly longer if they include stops in other countries too. You can take your pick of luxury cruise liners with international dining, fitness facilities and evening entertainment included on many.
Spend a night in a Ryokan
Described as a traditional Japanese Inn, ryokans are an opportunity to embrace Japanese culture and offer an experience not found anywhere else. Life at a ryokan centres around hot springs and relaxation – topped off with wonderful Japanese hospitality. They’re not just popular with tourists, locals escape to ryokan’s to de-stress too. Here’s what you can expect during your ryokan stay.
- Your host, or nakai-san, will show you to your room, prepare your first cup of tea and ensure you’re well looked after.
- Remove your shoes as you enter and exchange them for Japanese slippers, but don’t wear them on the Tatami mats.
- You’ll be given yukatas, or robes, to wear for the duration of your stay.
- You’ll likely sleep on a traditional Japanese futon that’s made up during your evening meal, and you might have low tables and chairs in your room too.
- Bathing in the onsens (hot springs) is an essential part of the package bound to leave you feeling rejuvenated – but etiquette applies! Onsens are split into male and female baths, no swimwear is allowed, and there are specific rules about showering and where to leave your towels. But don’t worry – your nakai-san will make sure you know what to do.
- Breakfast and dinner at least are provided, usually presented immaculately, and the evening meal can be quite the affair.
If staying in a ryokan isn’t for you, onsens are available elsewhere and are just as rejuvenating. Pick the right one, and you might yourself sharing the bath with monkeys, who seem to get just a much pleasure from a long hot soak as we do!
Attend a Japanese tea ceremony
In Japan, they don’t simply drink their tea. It’s served and consumed in a traditional ritual with huge attention to detail. The preparation of the tea is a spiritual process and an art that takes years to master. Choreographed movements are designed to show the utmost respect for guests and ensure their enjoyment. The experience usually takes up to four hours, providing two servings of green tea and light refreshments. As guests, you’re asked to observe a number of traditional customs – such as not making chit-chat as well turning and wiping the bowl when you drink.
Have a cherry blossom hanami
The cherry blossom in Japan is much more than just a pretty spectacle. It’s been celebrated for decades and is usually marked by a hanami with friends. Literally translated as flower viewing, a hanami is akin to picnicking under the stars on a blanket – except you’ll be setting up under Japan’s famed cherry blossom trees. While you can enjoy this tradition anywhere during blossom season, Mount Yoshino and Himeji Castle are especially popular.
Visit Mount Fuji
Japan sits in a highly volcanic area and about two thirds of the country is mountainous. Mount Fuji takes the crown as the country’s tallest mountain – standing at 3776 metres. It’s an active volcano, though it’s last eruption was in 1707.
If you’re keen to view it from a distance – take the train from Tokyo to Osaka and look out for it around 40 minutes into the journey. For a close up inspection, consider heading to Fuji Five Lake or to Hakone for some hot springs luxury. For the truly adventurous, you can climb the mountain in July and August.
Eat traditional Japanese food
Japanese food extends far beyond sushi – although that’s a fantastic meal in itself and one worth trying fresh when at the coast. In Japan, restaurants may choose to specialise in one dish, which means you’ll have a version perfected over years and served with close attention to detail. Cuisine varies according to regions and seasons, so you’re guaranteed a variety of taste sensations as you make your way around the country.
You’ll also find yourself pleasantly surprised at just what you can get from a cheap vending machine. Unlike the west where vending machines are usually reserved for sugary snacks and fizzy drinks, in Japan they serve up the widest array of foods you could imagine, both healthy and cheap. You can also get all number of practical things from a vending machine – such as an umbrella if you’re caught unprepared!
Take the bullet train
While riding a train is something you can experience almost anywhere, the Japanese bullet, or shinkansen, is something else! The bullet train can take you from Kyushu in the very south right up to Hokkaido at speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour. Foreigners are able to buy rail passes to keep the cost of travel to a minimum. Train travel in Japan is almost always punctual, and the bullet covers major destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto making it super easy to explore more of this remarkable country.
Our FBI travel advisers are on hand to help you book your flights, arrange your internal transfers or put together your entire itinerary. Reach out today with your ideas and we’ll make them a reality.