I've recently returned from an incredible trip to Japan. After generally opting for a European getaway it was about time I hit up the land of Ramen and Gyoza's. I am by no means an expert on the country, but here are a few of my favourites places in lil' ol' Nippon.
Referred to as the 'nations kitchen,' Osaka is truly a gourmand's paradise. Osaka is to Tokyo, is what Sydney is to Melbourne. If you're not from Australia, let's just say this means it's more grungy and less flashy.
Osaka is where you'll find some of the most quintessential Japanese culinary delights. Let's start with Okonomiyaki - somewhere between an omelette and a pancake this tasty treat is customised with a choice of meat, seafood or noodles to create an infinitely variable classic. Other Osaka staples include Hakozushi; sushi pressed flat in a bamboo box; Kitsune Udon; thick noodle soup blanketed by fried tofu and of course Ramen, but that's evidently not native to Osaka. But Osaka's archetypal street snack? Takoyaki, those odd ball-shaped octopus fritters. More adventurous diners may even try Tessa; sashimi made from poisonous fugu, or globefish. Certified chefs are trained to leave just enough poison to numb the lips. Creepy.
Staying in Namba, allowed us the perfect walking distance to Dotonborii - an electic area along the Tonbori river. Running from Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge, the Dotonbori canal comes alive at night with live music performers and plenty of shops and restaurants. Take a slow stroll along the canal simply to soak in the lively atmosphere, while a slither of old Osaka remains intact along Hozenji Yokocho. Here you will find narrow stone alleyways lined with small hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
The Shinsaibaishi arcade is Osaka’s longest shopping arcade starting from the other side of Dotonbori Bridge. The arcade boasts a wide variety of shops, both local and well-known international brands such as Zara, Bershka and H&M. Shinsahibashi is a great place to people-watch and get a sense of the local trends and fashions. The arcade is jam-packed with restaurants and cafes serving everything from green smoothies to crêpes and pizzas. Here, you’ll also find many small bars that are worth a gander.
DenDen Town (also known as Nipponbashi) is electronica euphoria, while luxury-brand boutiques can be found in Shinsaibashi and Midosuji. Amerikamura is a trendy spot for hip vintage wear, and large-scale malls can found back in Namba. All fun and much less crowded than their Tokyo equivalents.
Now, to my favourite bar in all of Japan - Bar Nayuta. Traverse five flights of unmarked stairs, make sure not to bump your head on the teeny-tiny door and you will enter a small and dark, yet, beautifully decadent bar. The bartender is exceptionally knowledgable and speaks perfect English - we certainly had many a laugh. There is no menu, however they will fix you any drink on request or just have them surprise you. They have a plethora of special Japanese whiskies, that you just can't find at the British Hub Pub. Do yourself a favour and visit this Japanese gem.
Where Japanese old-school charm comes to life. That peaceful and zen nature of the Japanese is all found here in Kyoto. Here are my top picks -
Fushimi-Inari Shrine – traverse the 4km hike along a beautiful mountain trail covered in the red Tori Gates. There’s an amazing ramen shop opposite the railway station closest to the shrine as you’re walking up but there are also heaps of vendors and stalls around the shrine if you want to sample lots of different ones.
Kinakuji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion – world famous golden temple and inspiration for the book by one of Japan’s most famous authors, Yukio Mishima. It will be crowd; realistically you only need about 20 minutes there. From there you can walk to the much more calm and quiet zen temple Ryoan-ji with its famous rock garden. There is also Ninna-ji temple if you're seeking extra templeage. When you’re templed out, visit the Gion district, but try to not venture on your own as some parts are a bit sleazy.
Many of the upmarket restaurants offer cheaper set lunch menus during the day if you to try the local Kyoto cuisine ‘Kaiseki’. The Shogun’s palace and Imperial palace are immense. Admission is free for the Imperial Palace and about ten dollars for the Shogun’s. Together they are probably a full day or half day.
Arashiyama - this is where you will find the Bamboo Forest. The area is bit of a trek via a very old, rickety trainline, but worth it. There many mini shrines and plenty of stalls with food and Japanese art. There is also a Monkey park which costs a small fee if that's your thang.
Insane. Just read on!
Park Hyatt Tokyo – the chic bar in Lost in Translation with that incredible view? This is it, and is a MUST-DO in Tokyo. There is jazz most nights playing to a very well-dressed, eclectic crowd. Alternatively, you can visit the New York Grill and Bar, albiet pricy, book the restaurant if you want a fabulous dinner overlooking a sea of neon stars and Downtown Tokyo. You can even just frequent the lobby for the view of the city – it’s 57 floors up and during the day, you get a free 360 degree view of Tokyo. You can also visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building a block away for a similar view but with infographics.
Shibuya – the suburb itself is home to some of Tokyo’s best street fashion and bars. Get off at Shibuya station and simply walk around and get lost. If you want somewhere to start, hit up Starbucks and grab yourself a decadent Caramel Frapaccino. Here, just gaze at the constant stream of crowds every 30 seconds crossing over the busiest crossing in the world (Shibuya Crossing) in what seems like 100 different angles. If you're looking for your fashion hit, Beams International or Supreme and if there is a line simply keep walking and you’ll run into plenty of cool hidden gems and coffee bars to keep you going.
Shinjuku – a mega suburb or mini city within Tokyo. Think big neon lights, mega malls, shops and crowds - the Tokyo we all envisage. Hidden inside Shinjuku is a place called the Golden-Gai (pronounced Golden-kaii), a city block which has resisted all developments and is full of tiny little bars (some with just three stools) and great ramen shops. Go there to get your bearings then find a ramen shop you like. Some of the bars are strictly not for tourists but the tourist friendly ones have signs saying so in English. It is a small slice of authentic Tokyo city life and you’ll get a feel for how locals wind down.
Harajuku Station – go here on a Sunday morning early and make a right to visit Meiji-jingu shrine. It’s an easy 10 minute walk through a huge park to a beautiful shrine that isn’t overcrowded and frequented by locals. Double back to the station and by about 10-11am there will be groups of teenagers who visit each Sunday to ‘dress up’ - think little bo-beep goths, anime inspired outfits, sailor moon and Victoriana. They are normally happy to pose for photos.
Omotesando – from Harajuku station you walk straight ahead along Omotesando which is sort of like Tokyo’s version of Collins Street, Melbourne, but mega. All the major brands are there, some with amazing architecture as well as local designers. You could spend the whole day walking up it. Make sure to visit the Prada store which is a good 2km from Harajuku station. It won several design awards.
Tsukiji Fish Market – Only for the early-riser. Arrive between 4.30 and 5.00am and line up to see the daily fish auctions and eat the freshest sushi you’ll ever have. This is where most of Japan’s fish is brought in every day and sold. There are great little sushi cafes inside the market and you’ll be able to buy premium quality sushi at a fraction of normal cost. If you can’t be bothered rising quite so early, venture there mid-morning when the crowds are gone and have a more relaxed sushi session.
Look, Japan is awesome, just go. Have you ever heard a bad word about the place? I know I hadn't.
My most imperative tip of all though? Make sure you have cash on you at all times. Despite being a highly advanced, modern society, Japan is surprisingly still cash focused and it is often difficult to find an ATM. Arigato!
Assisted by the Fabulous Stefan Lancy