words & photos | Aidan Hernandez
Few places stir the imagination as much as Japan – or ‘Nippon’ as referred to locally. It is a land that feels a world apart and somewhat isolated from outside influences, its customs, culture and traditions seem to tick to a different beat to the rest of the world.
With a unique approach to modernism whilst retaining a strong sense of tradition, the Japanese people are some of the most welcoming yet reserved people I have ever come across. The meticulous approach to everything they do is reflected in their cuisine, technology and arts, from the almost obsessive and ceremonial approach, to drinking tea (“Chanoyu”) to the amazing (yet somewhat crazy!) automatic self-cleaning toilets and everything in between.
The Japanese aesthetic and cultural norms are underpinned by a set of ancient ideals that include “wabi” (transient and stark beauty), “sabi” (beauty of natural ageing and patina) and “yūgen” (grace and subtlety). In western society, this would be seen as a philosophy, whereas in Japan, this is seen as an integral part of daily life.
For any avid traveller, Japan will provide a wealth of new experiences, insights in a culture to get lost in and an adventure that will make them feel that they are REALLY far away from home – take my word for it!
One can spend a lifetime to get to know the capital Tokyo, a megalopolis with thirty-seven million inhabitants, and no trip to Japan would be complete without some time spent there, however, I found that in order to get a better appreciation for the country as a whole, it’s best to explore other regions to get a proper representation of the varied geography and regional quirks of a place.
The variety of cities of the Kansai and Chūgoku regions provided me with the most striking contrasts. This included the traditional setting of Kyoto with the youthful and modernist Osaka while also witnessing the evidence of the stark reminders of Japan’s recent history in Hiroshima. These cities provide any visitor with more than enough points of interest and varied insights into Japanese culture as a whole.
Formally the Imperial capital for more than a thousand years (from 794AD), Kyoto was established in a period of Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese Influences were at their height. Known as the Heian Period, this era (largely peaceful times) is considered to be the peak of the Japanese Imperial court and it’s noted for its art and appreciation of beauty. This is definitively shown in the beautifully preserved wooden townhouses (“Machiya”) and the countless traditional temples, palaces and gardens around a city that seems to have held on to its “old ways”. At the end of the Edo period (1869) the Emperor Meji moved from Kyoto to Tokyo thus re-establishing the capital city there.
Osaka was long considered Japan’s primary economic centre, this large important port (also a former capital during the seventh century) consisted mostly of the ‘Merchant Class’ and, over the course of the Edo period (1603 – 1867), grew into one of the largest cities in Japan, serving as the epicentre of the rice trade. Historically known as the “nation’s kitchen”, a reputation that lives on to this day with the urbanised city motto: “kuidaore” – or eat until you drop!
A more recent historical event will forever echo on Hiroshima’s streets, and worldwide, when on the 6th August 1945, the city became the target of the world’s first atomic bomb attack. An event that changed the Japanese people’s psyche profoundly and leading to what is now a largely pacifist society, Hiroshima grew from the ashes of the terrible atrocity against humanity into a vibrant modern city. One that commemorates its stark history yet is testimony to the power of life over destruction.
Japanese people are fascinating and must be one of the most hospitable and polite societies (the constant traditional bows in every given exchange is an example of this). They are very respectful of personal space, so much so that at times they seem very distant. Hardworking to the point of obsession (illustrated by the fact they use a local term -“karoshi” which literally means “death by overwork”!) their rigorous approach to all their walks of life is reflected in everything they do and something that is (at times) admirable.
However, I get the impression that they are shy and aloof (and, dare I say, somewhat xenophobic); this may be as a result of years of national isolation. (“Sakuko”) where they were a closed society, secluded from the outside world thus influencing their nature to the core (think of an extreme version of our very own frontier closure and its subsequent effects on the relationship with our neighbours), or it could be the fact they consider their foreign language skills lacking to a certain degree. Whatever the case is, their introverted disposition makes you feel that you are on a different planet to all of them!
As a society, they seem to share a collective value of pride and dignity as core ideals, with this a remarkable sense of national pride and kinship – something I found worthy of admiration on a personal level.
Points of Interest
“Sometimes it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” – it’s a saying that came to mind when boarding the “Shinkansen”, or bullet train, to my next location; Japanese public transportation is characterised by its punctuality, comfort and great service. Trips between cities are an experience within themselves and no trip would be complete without hopping aboard the 320 kph carriages and zooming past some of the most memorable and unique rural landscapes whilst comfortably sipping on some green tea.
Top tip: be sure to purchase ‘Japan Rail Pass’ before arriving in Japan, however, as these cost- effective passes allow unlimited travel using most of their train services for set amounts of time (one, two or three weeks) and, although expensive, they will save you money in the long run if you intend to explore the country in depth.
Temples & Shrines
Set in a valley between lush green mountains, Kyoto is considered to be the cultural and historical heart of the country, one to experience countless World Heritage treasures including the most ornate Bhuddist Temples and traditional palaces set amongst the most sublime of gardens. One of the sites not to miss is “Kinkaku-ji” known as the Golden Pavilion; a temple which seems to float on a body of tranquil water reflecting its gold leaf covered splendour, or head over to the Zen “karesansui” (dry landscape) gardens of “Ryōan-ji” said to facilitate contemplation and meditation.
A word of warning though – do not expect to feel very ‘Zen’ in Kyoto. Unfortunately, there are normally mobs of tourists at most of these places making them hard to fully appreciate and take in their sereneness amongst the frenzy of selfie sticks. It is best to see these sights early in the morning during weekdays, or alternatively, visit one of the lesser known (but still charming sites) like “Daitoku-ji” whose complex covers over 23 hectares or the magical bamboo groves of Arashiyama giving you enough space to ‘contemplate’ in peace!
“Fushimi Inari-Taisha” is another essential; a shrine complex consisting of thousands of red ‘“torii” gates set as an arcade along a pathway winding up a mountain side. Hundreds of stone foxes (“inari”) amongst the shrines with views over the city will be sure to make this one of the most memorable and photogenic sites in Japan, be prepared for a bit of a hike though – the experience will be well worth it!
Gardens & Sakura
There is a clear appreciation for the changing seasons here and none is more striking or emblematic than cherry blossom (‘Hanami”) season. The tradition of flower viewing dates back to the aforementioned Heian period, it is a good example of how the Japanese celebrate the beauty of nature. Spectacular blooms of blossoms (“Sakura”) sweep across the country during March/April and are so ubiquitous, that they are used as an official measure of the changing of seasons over here!
Groups of people congregate on mats under the most picturesque clumps of cherry blossom trees with picnics and have a good old party – sake included! It is probably the only time you will see locals being loud and outgoing for that matter – similar to a ‘Llanito” on the 10th of September – it’s time to let loose and paint the town red (or pink in this case?!). Celebrations tend to be short lived though as within a few days one watches the petals fall and drift away in the spring breeze – a melancholic reminder that all life must come to an e
nd and thus Sakura blossoms often symbolise a life well lived: short, fleeting, and beautiful.
There are countless opportunities across the country to view full blooms at varying times, however, Kyoto provides some top spots, and one of the most memorable places is a walk known as the “philosophers path” which is a stone path that follows a canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees in an old district of the city. The path culminates (if you walk northwards) with the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Temple with its beautiful moss gardens guaranteed to leave you feeling introspective for the rest of the day!
Museums & Memorials
Speaking about ‘introspective’; walking by the remains left in the epicentre of an atomic bomb detonation is sure to be a humbling experience. The “A-Bomb Dome”, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, is what remains of a former Exhibition Hall. It was one of the only remnants of what was a city flattened by the effects of the nuclear blast; a shell of a building left standing to this day as a symbol of peace.
This landmark is surrounded by a large park with many memorials to honour almost 220,000 lost lives with the most touching example being the Children’s Peace Monument where thousands of origami paper cranes are offered around the monument in memory of a young girl who died from radiation-induced leukaemia after folding just under a thousand cranes, wishing for world peace – the crane being a symbol of peace itself.
The sombre Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is also located in the park and is dedicated to document the events of the 6th August 1945 and its consequences. The exhibits are very graphic and thought provoking and embody much of the grief felt by people a
ffected by the bombing and its after affects, but serve as a strong reminder to all to never take peace for granted.
Also near Hiroshima, as a worthy side trip; hop onto a ferry across over to Miyajima Island for what is one of the most iconic sights in Japan: “Itsukushima-jinja” or the floating vermilion torii (shrine gate) that seems to float on the surface of Hiroshima Bay – well worth it for that latest profile pic! There are also nice temples and hikes through some woodland complete with free roaming and overly friendly deer running around to complete a day out.
Walk back in time and stroll around the streets of the Gion district in Kyoto, and keep your eyes peeled for an elusive Geisha (or “Geiko” as known locally) walking to their next appointment! The streets in this entertainment district light up in the evening with Shimbashi streets being one of the most atmospheric and beautiful (particularly in Sakura season). Canals lined with traditional wooden houses and exclusive teahouses (“ochaya”) and restaurants play host to entertainment from highly trained Geiko (apprenticeships tend to last over seven years!) who engage in light conversation with their guests, serving drinks and performing traditional music and dance (not as their stereotype suggest).
These services are expensive and exclusive, traditionally requiring an introduction from an existing customer, so the best way to experience it is through the cultural show held every day at Gion Corner theatre aimed at foreign tourists; the show is a concentrated introduction to several traditional Japanese arts and include short performances of a tea ceremony and some hypnotic “shamisen” playing.
Japanese Gastronomy is synonymous with eating raw fish, however, there is much more to explore beyond the Sushi. Perhaps more than any other country I have visited before, Japan was a revelation in terms of variety, quality and presentation of food with enough to challenge our own local Mediterranean inspired diet. The Japanese leg of my trip was a bit of a culinary adventure where some of the places I went to were specifically renowned for their regional food… I guess that says it all!
Okonomiyaki (Osaka & Hiroshima)
Conveyor belt sushi restaurants have their origins in Osaka, however, there are other more distinctive local dishes to be had in these parts. “Takoyaki” are essentially little dumplings balls made of an egg batter and filled with octopus pieces. Locals go mad for them, buying them in their dozens and are readily available in street stalls making them the perfect finger food for ‘on the go’.
Another regional favourite is “okonomiyaki” which is derived from the word “okonomi” which translates to “what you like” and “yaki” which means “grilled”; these savoury pancakes consist of a number of ingredients ranging from fish, meat and a variety of vegetables which tend to be cooked right in front of you. Topped with distinctive dried bonito flakes, the flavour combinations to be had are almost endless and sure to fill up the most ‘sumo-like’ stomachs!
There are two different types of the dish; the Kansai or Osaka style, in which the ingredients are all mixed into a batter and then grilled and also the Hiroshima style, in which a small crepe-like pancake is grilled and then other ingredients are layered on top. The Hiroshima style uses much more cabbage and tends to have noodles and is normally topped with some seaweed flakes.
This is Japan’s answer to our very own Moroccan inspired ‘Pinchitos’. Much like we do over the hot coals, yakitori involves cooking various types of meat and vegetables on skewers usually served by street vendors in small carts called “yatai”. The Dotonbori area in Osaka is a good place to try some; this is the mecca for all things street food. Some of the most creative neon-lit billboards (including a giant mechanical crab!) and buzzing crowds make this an “only in Japan” experience. Head into any of the “Izakaya” (gastropub) dotted around the streets to enjoy an ambience more similar to our ‘tapas’ bars than you may think!
For the most refined of tastes, “Kaiseki Ryori” or Japanese Haute cuisine is sure to satisfy. With origins from the simple meals served in the tea ceremony, this elaborate dining style became popular with aristocratic circles. With more courses than a Heston Blumenthal affair, this meal will be sure to make a dent on your wallet (up to £200 a head!) but the subtle blending of seasonal ingredients with the most artistic of presentations will be a once in a lifetime experience guaranteed. Neighbourhoods in Kyoto like Gion or Pontocho are good locations to satisfy the most demanding of palates. A slightly more accessible alternative would be to enjoy a kaiseki dinner served by hosts at a traditional homestay called a Ryokan.
Where to Stay
What could be more insightful as to how the other half live than staying in a traditional home in a foreign country? Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that originated in the Edo Period, which tend to feature classic tatami matted rooms, paper screen sliding room dividers and traditional wooden baths – a welcome change to the monotony of your typical B&B! Imagine sipping on some green tea, with views over the most exquisite manicured gardens dressed in your very own “yukata” (or “Kimono”) as your hosts serve you some delightful courses of food! It’s definitely an experience to splurge on; if only once!
On the other end of the spectrum, are the “sleeping capsules” of Osaka. This type of budget accommodation was aimed at businessmen (who were too drunk midweek to face their wives, I’m guessing!) and consist of stacked self-contained units that tend to feature beds, ventilation, internet access and even TVs! Not for the claustrophobic though, although they are surprisingly comfortable, most do not offer any windows or the like, so you will have to make do sleeping in a sci-fi inspired cocoon! The eccentricity in some things Japanese is unbelievable and sleeping in a capsule is definitely up there as an experience in my books!
I had always been fascinated with Japan long before I ever touched down in the country. It was one of the only places that on first arrival I knew I would have to visit again! There is something enigmatic about the place and its people, so foreign, so unashamedly quirky that makes it one of the most refreshing destinations to explore.
Sushi for me will never be the same again and my expectations for hospitality and friendliness have now reached a new level. It’s a withdrawal inducing destination that will offer every person unique experiences and discoveries around every corner. The most common question I tend to get asked about my travels is “What was your favourite place?” – care to take a guess?