POSTED BY Ivor Stankov | February 9, 2015
Label: Adventure Travel, Asia, Competition, Food Travel, Travel Tips
When I was young I became immersed in Japanese culture. At first this was through simple things like anime, but then later when my family unexpectedly took in a Japanese exchange student. Through my newly founded sister I was exposed to Japanese food, music, language, and custom, and my intrigue only heightened as I grew older. So last summer, as I flew fifteen hours from London to Tokyo, I sat at the edge of my seat.
I spent ten days in the company of my Japanese sister, who took me on an adventure through Kyoto and Tokyo. We set off for Kyoto on my first day and spent three days there. With the bullet train from Tokyo Station it only took about two hours to arrive.
Kyoto isn’t as urbanised as Tokyo and there are a lot of remnants of an older Japan. It’s the perfect place to experience a more traditional culture. My sister described Kyoto as Wabi-Sabi – a mix of the old and new. A couple of key locations to visit in Kyoto are the Gold and Silver temple, Rukon-ji and Jisho-ji respectively. The Gold temple I thought was grander, but the Silver more beautiful, as it was more enclosed and its gardens gave a true feeling of serenity. Also, the red shrine, Fishimi Inari-taishi, is a must-see. This large shrine is featured in many Japanese films and artwork and contains paths arched by thousands of beautiful red torii (gates to transfer those who pass through them from the profane to the sacred).
The last temple we visited in Kyoto was Kiyomizu-dera. This is Kyoto’s largest temple and sits on a high hillside that overlooks the city. The view was breathtaking, and the surroundings even more so. The streets leading up to the temple have a traditional Japanese look and feel, and this is the best place to buy souvenirs in Kyoto.
TIP: When visiting temples in Japan, make sure you bring footwear that is easy to take off and put back on – you will often have to be barefoot (or in socks).
We also visited Gion, which is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district. Here you can have a traditional Japanese dining experience, including service and entertainment from real Geisha. There is also a Geisha theatre where tickets for tourists are much lower than those for locals.
Heading back to Tokyo marked one part of my journey complete, but there was still more to experience. I would describe Tokyo literally as an ‘urban jungle’ – especially as in the summer it’s extraordinarily humid. My days in Tokyo were filled with shopping, eating, and experiencing those oddities one can only find in Japan.
I am interested in Japanese fashion, and it was very easy to find things I liked in Harajuku and in the side alleys around Shibuya. A lot of high street stores were also interesting, as they had clothes that aren’t available in other countries. Generally, I found Tokyo to be more expensive than London, but I really liked what I was buying. I would suggest visiting Laforet Harajuku, which is shopping mall that sells a lot of cutting-edge fashion. Also, if you go to the bottom floors there is an assortment of shops selling Lolita fashion – which can make for interesting accessories, gifts, or souvenirs.
Food in Japan was even greater than I could imagine. I don’t recall eating one unflattering meal, and I even thought to myself: “how am I going to enjoy food when I get back to London?” My favourite meal I discovered was Okonomiyaki, which is like a cross between a pancake and an omelette, and is sometimes referred to as ‘Japanese Pizza’. For toppings, anything goes, and different regions in Japan are known for using specific toppings.
Tip: It’s good to be adventurous with food in Japan, because even if there is something you don’t usually like, it may be prepared in a way that could change your mind.
Probably the strangest experience I had in Japan was in a Maid Café in Akihabara. I always thought that these places were kind of fetish-y, but it was more cringe-y than anything else. The maids try to act cute when they’re really not, and try to get as much money from you as they can. The worst part was when they started singing – haha! My sister had never been to one before, so it was an experience for the both of us.
(image caption: Oh, I also found that in Japan, I am French toast (kind of)!)
Ten days passed too quickly, but I was glad that I managed to experience a lot of what I was dreaming about for the past ten years. I am already planning to go back there, and on my next visit I would like to see more of the rural side of Japan, especially the seaside.
By Ivor Stankov