A few years ago, when I was working with a leading Indian publication as a special correspondent, my editor sent me on a trip to the land of the rising sun – Japan – to cover the country’s tourism and how it had bounced back after a devastating Tsunami. I was excited, obviously. And more so because Japan is one country that I always wanted to visit. Needless to say, post my trip, I was mesmerized beyond words.
It was July end. I spent a good time on Google finding out what was the weather like in Japan around that time. Apparently the monsoon was due there, so packing an umbrella made sense. I was travelling in Business class in Japan’s national carrier Japan Airlines (JA), which is one of the best in the world. They’d pamper you with champagne on arrival, serve you gourmet cuisine and has wonderful in-flight entertainment, too.
I, along with other delegates of my trip, reached Narita Airport, Tokyo in mid-morning and headed straight to the Yamashita Park in Yokohama, passing by the Tokyo Disneyland, buildings of innumerable auto giants, through intriguing underwater tunnels. Now Japan, as we know, is an archipelago, that is a group of islands, the four major ones being Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. So it’s only natural that almost every city will be surrounded by the sea. We kept playing peek-a-boo with the sea and reached the lush green Yamashita Park. This 797,830 sq ft public park is famous for its waterfront views of the Port of Yokohama. It was established in 1930. It provides a wonderful backdrop to clicking some beautiful photos against the rich blue sea and mammoth ships harboured there.
Our lunch destination was on the 70th floor of the Landmark tower that gave mind-boggling views of the Yokohama bay area. The royal buffet at the Royal Park Hotel, with a variety of delicacies such as seaweed rice, pineapple fry, is something you don’t want to miss.
For the night, we decided to stay in the Royal Park Shidome Hotel but not before a trip to the Asakusa Kanon temple in Tokyo in the afternoon. Not many know that the maker of the famous Canon camera named his company Canon as he was a devotee of this Buddhist shrine. The Asakusa premises is a happy place with young women roaming around in floral kimonos. At the center of the premises is a dragon fountain, where locals wash their hands and purify their souls with the holy water. Adjoining the temple is a huge market selling beautiful umbrellas, bamboo wall hangings, pretty wigs, tiny wooden dolls, Japanese fans, hair accessories, silken scarves, kimonos, and all things fancy. The market leads to the Asakusa Subway Station from where we boarded the metro back to our hotel.
Talking of the metro, it’s one of the best and fastest in the world. Now, what do you expect from a country that specializes in bullet trains? Even CEOs of big companies avail the metro to and fro office in Japan.
We headed to Hokkaido the next morning. Our destination this time was Sapporo. From the New Chitose Airport, Sapporo we headed straight to the Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill. At this place in Toyohira-ku, Sapporo, the bronze statue of Dr William S. Clark is situated, and known as the symbol of frontier spirit of Hokkaido – he was also the co-founder of the famous Sapporo Agricultural University. The restaurant and the adjoining souvenir shop from where I bought fragrant lavender soaps is a huge draw. There is also a tiny beautiful Chappel on the hill.
For lunch, we went to a nearby hole in the wall eatery at Jozenkai, and while the place was swarming with Japanese men and women of all ages hogging on spicy Indian butter chicken and Naan (incredible, isn’t it?), I settled down to experiment with cold soba noodles with mashed radish, yam potatoes, vinegar, seaweed, mushroom and soya bean with sides of sweet corn and a chilled glass of Haskep berry sorbet. Sounds grand, right? Tastes even better I say! Sapporo is also famous for its draft beer, so when here, it’s a sin to not down a few mugs. We did the honours, too, and it was the best beer that I ever tasted.
Onsen magic: Onsens are one of the most enigmatic things in Japan. And Sapporo hosts hundreds of such Onsens or hot springs in the Jozankei valley. Not only will you find Onsens by the roadside but there are numerous hot spring resorts with luxurious pools containing steaming hot natural mineral water gushing out straight from the ravines. Wondering if you must carry your swimsuit? Certainly not. Onsen bathing has some strict rules and must be done with purity in heart. You have to shed all your inhibitions (read clothes), next take a good shower in the open shower cubicles equipped with soap and shampoo, and finally, walk into the pool. Do not be surprised to find many such other onsen revellers naked inside the pool. But fret not, nobody is going to stare at you. The Japanese believe in minding their own business. Men and women have separate bathing areas though. Onsen or hot spring baths not only relaxes you but are also known for the treatment of chronic anaemia, frozen shoulder, and arthritis. These resorts are expensive but you don’t have to stay in one to enjoy onsen magic. These resorts run free shuttles from downtown Sapporo to Jozankei which is about a 40-minute ride.
Eclectic nightlife: When in Japan, you wouldn’t want to miss walking down the Ginza — Tokyo’s famous entertainment district that features branded stores, boutiques, restaurants, theatres, and night clubs. Party lovers, this place is for you! Packed with such similar kinds of shops, bars, eateries and karaoke shops is Sapporo’s popular entertainment area, Susukino. It’s is an experience in itself to watch the gigantic neons and glitterati here in the evening.
Food and stay: In Japan, you will find a host of multi-cuisine restaurants, from where you can eat your comfort food. But when in Japan, it’s best to taste their variety of local delicacies such as the different types of sushi, namely Nigiri, Sashimi (salmon or tuna), Maki, Uramaki, Temaki, and Tempura rolls. And if you are a noodle lover, you definitely wouldn’t want to miss the Japanese favourite Ramen noodles. The noodles is usually eaten boiled in a broth of chicken. Now that’s tickling my tastebuds already as I have had the opportunity to taste some of the best ramen in both Tokyo and Sapporo. Japan is also known for its variety of desserts and sweetmeats so don’t hesitate to stop by a confectionery. The dessert section in most buffets is also varied and exciting.
Hotels in Japan offer two kinds of stay. One is the usual hotel room that we see everywhere, the other is those floor level futon mattress rooms with low seaters, tatami mat flooring, sliding wooden doors, and Japanese crockery. For comfort, however, it’s best to opt for regular rooms with mattresses that we are habituated with. To experience a truly Japanese way of life, you can go for a traditional room. While making your hotel booking, make sure you specify your preference.
What to see: The Yamashita Park by the harbour in Yokohama, the Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill, the Otaru Canal, Mt Tengu and the largest glassworks factory in Otaru, the Clock Tower, the TV Tower and the Odori Park in Sapporo. For more info on attractive spots, hotels and hot spring resorts, you can log on to: www.jnto.go.jp
Best time to go: If you want to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, go in April and May. To see Sapporo turn into a winter dreamland, catch the Sapporo Snow Festival in the second week of February.
The weeklong trip to some of the best cities of Japan was certainly one of the best vacations of my life and given a chance I would want to go back to the country once again to explore it more (and also for the ramen and sushi). If you, too, have been wanting to experience the beauty of Japan then it’s time to take the plunge ASAP. Rest assured, it’s going to be worth your bucks. So, get set and go… Bon Voyage!