REDISCOVERING THE MAGIC OF JAPAN
Words and images by Steven Fernandez
The mention of Japan during 2011 conjured up images of tsunamis and radiation leaks more than those of cherry blossoms and great shopping. Armed with a basic Japanese phrasebook and a pair of chopsticks, I took to one of Asia’s most enchanted destinations to prove that despite recent adversities, Japan hasn’t changed…
Japan is a land of contrasts – it is peaceful and pulsating, traditional and transcendent, conservative yet contemporary. The chaos of Tokyo’s red light district Rappongi is adjacent to the tranquillity of the Asakasa imperial gardens and is an example of how urban madness is interjected by the harmony of oriental bliss. I found this contrast to be as prevalent in the people as modern Japanese culture supports the existence of multiple personas.
Office job Tokyo-ites may spend their days in the corporate high rises from 9 to 5, but their weekends in Harajuku are filled with colour and splendour. The cosplay-zoku subculture of the Japanese youth is a fascinating fusion of gothic, lolita, punk, anime and cartoon themes that make them an absolute must-see on a Sunday afternoon in West Tokyo.
Despite these sporadic expressions of individuality, Japan functions with a degree of precision and accuracy that makes travelling incredibly simple. An example of this brilliance is the Shinkansen bullet train – an innovation in transport that shifts commuters between cosmopolitan centres at over 350 kilometres per hour. The smooth and comfortable rail allows travellers to move swiftly between centres such as Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo, leaving no excuse for staying put.
Severely discounted Shinkansen bullet train passes are available for tourists to purchase outside of Japan and can be arranged with any travel agent prior to departure. A piece of advice for first-time Japanese travellers – if your train is due at 1:57pm and it’s not there by 1:58pm, then you have the wrong platform!
As the veins of the Japan Rail network extend well beyond the urban jungles of Tokyo and Osaka, anybody wanting to experience the real Japan should venture out into the placidity of quaint villages that dot the countryside. Of particular interest to many travellers is the region around Mount Fuji and the opportunity to see Japan’s most iconic landmark framed by cherry blossoms.
Within the six-week climbing period between early July and mid-August, a Japanese sunrise from the summit of Fuji is a lifelong dream achieved. For climbers with stiff joints or those who prefer to relax, bathing in the hot springs of a traditional Japanese onsen is a delightful way to spend an afternoon.Arguably Japan’s most famous calling is the cuisine.
For seafood lovers, a visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is like a child’s first trip to Disneyland. After arriving at 5am to witness the lively tuna auctions a 7am breakfast of salmon, squid, prawns, tuna and live jellyfish will provide the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste. For those who don’t fancy a fishy feast, at dusk there is still a vast array of delicious meal options across Japan. Having the opportunity to compare the famous cabbage and beef okonomiyaki omelettes of Osaka and Hiroshima is one that cannot be missed. Put simply – as yummy as it is, sushi is the least exciting food option available in Japan!
When it comes to temples and spiritual enlightenment, Tokyo’s younger brother Kyoto is the place to go. Equally exciting and accessible, Kyoto’s Zen gardens and Japanese shrines make it one of the most charming cities to explore by bicycle. The iconic Golden and Silver Pavilions are located in Kyoto, although it’s the delicate shrines preserved amidst beautiful bush walks that are more likely to appeal to those in search of something spiritual. Walking through the red arches of the Fushimiinaritaisha shrine in Eastern Kyoto was a highlight of my trip and the closest I came to a “Zen moment”.
For the explorer the joy of Japan is in the journey. Although the attractions are obvious, the experience is unique. On an adventure to prove how recent disasters haven’t hindered the travelling experience, I found that they have strengthened the Japanese spirit. For the traveller the appeals are still there – Harajuku kids, Fuji climbs, onsen hot springs, seafood breakfasts, bush walks and Zen gardens all through the ease of a bullet train. However, the magic is hidden beneath the surface and must be discovered for the full experience. During a time when Japan needs tourism for continued recovery, I urge you to go discover the magic for yourself.