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City guide to Cool Japan – Historic and extreme modern

Japan is divided. Here is how to get pleasure from both worlds

Make it in Japan. Mind-blowing moments are endless and those moments are unforgettable. You will always remember first seeing a kimono-dressed geisha, eating a kaiseki meal or belting out karaoke in a booth, lost in a Translation style. It’s the unexpected that truly astonish – from the slopes of Mount Fuji to the beaches of Okinawa. One thing is for sure; Japan is like no place you’ve ever been before. This is Cool Japan.

cool japan
Garden of Japan

Japan is divided. On one side it’s the modern urban that is most visible – extreme fashions, futuristic gadgets and avant-garde architecture. On the other side it’s the historic and ancient temples, Buddhist retreats and traditions on the countryside. Here is how to get pleasure from both worlds – your guide to Cool Japan.

Tokyo. This is a hectic and overwhelming playground, but also oases of high culture and Zen-like calm, often just a few steps from the chaos. There is no real centre, rather a collection of sub-centres and the most efficient train and subway system in the world. Trains are never late, vending machines are everywhere, and food doesn’t always lie still on your plate.

Up in the Sky. Tokyo is the country’s largest city, where rumbling expressways weave between concrete high-rises, and streets are chaotic with cars, commuters and multi-storey shops. Get the best view, and see how big this city really is, from Tokyo Skytree, 634 metre/2.080 feet high. Check out tickets at

Fashion. Omotesando is a boulevard in Tokyo where to find the world’s top fashion labels. Next door is Harajuku, streets selling alternative fashion by undiscovered designers. Fashion in Japan is cool.

Bullet trains. Japan’s shinkansen trains are the safest and fastest in the world. You will feel like you have stepped into the future.

Art. National Art Center in Tokyo is the biggest museum in Japan. Have four storeys of undulating glass set in generous grounds. Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre is a new building where you will find free tourist information, roof terrace and café on the eight floors. Art is part of cool Japan.

Kyoto. For 1,200 years Kyoto was Japan’s capital, and remains the nation’s cultural heart. The best time to visit is spring, especially when the cherries are in blossom. Kyoto has numerous annual festivals. In Kyoto, a kaiseki meal at a ryotei (a trad high-class restaurant) isn’t cheap, but worth the splurge. As you sit on tatami mats a kimono-clad waitress, who will bring dish after dish of seasonal delicacies. Whatever you’re served, it’ll be a meal to remember.

Osaka. The economic hub in the Kansai region, 30 minutes by train from Kyoto. Japan’s third-largest city. A network of train and underground lines and bus routes make navigation the city easy. You’ll need two or three nights to do it justice, especially if you want to absorb its raucous street life, delicious cuisine and affordable-yet-quirky fashions. The Osakans are known for their sense of humor, food and entertaining nightlife.

Sweet Fish a la Japan

Mount Fuji. Japan’s most famous mountain and also the highest, at 12,388feet/3,776 metres renown for its spiritual significance. Since the mountain is covered in snow most of the year, the climbing season is limited to July and August. A saying goes that that there are two kind of fools, those who never climb Fuji and those who climb it twice.

Temple. On the top of Mt Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddism in Japan, stand more than 100 temples. About 50 of them function as shukubo temple lodging where tourist are welcome to stay, eat the vegetarian cousin of the monks and participate in the morning meditation

Geisha is female entertainment. Kyoto remains the best place to experience geisha, known as geiko in the local dialect. You can see a geisha dance performance or tea ceremony or even have your own maiko, a young geisha who learns the art of geisha.

Ryokan. Immense yourself in Japanese customs by spending a night in traditional inn, where you can stay in a room with straw mat flooring, dine traditional local food, change into a cotton kimono after taking a bath, and finally fall asleep.

Samurai. A samurai is a well-trained, highly skilled warrior, who serves his master with absolute loyalty, even to the death. The word samurai means, “those who serve”. You can be samurai for a day at the Edo Wonderland amusement park in Nikko,

Sumo. There are six tournaments held each year in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, each lasting for 15 days. You can also eat chanko nabe; the stew wrestlers eat to bulk up. Try a sumo restaurant in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo.

Onsen. A visit to an onsen hot-springs resort is a very special experience in Japan, and breaks up a hectic Tokyo-Kyoto itinerary. For real relaxation – and a few walks and boat trips on the lakes – you’ll want three nights in Hakone, but you’ll get a taste with even a one-night detour. In 90 minutes on the train from Tokyo, you can be in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, an area home to majestic Mount Fuji, the symbol of the nation.

The meal deal. You’ve just arrived in Japan, and you have no idea where to start – enter the izakayas, Japanese gastro pubs. These are the everyday joints for drinking, snacking and socialising, and unlike most restaurants, which often specialise in one type of cuisine; izakayas offer a wide choice of options, from sushi to tempura. In Tokyo, the unmissable breakfast is sushi at Tsukiji fish market after an early tuna auction.

Get going. Outside Tokyo few people speak English. But if you look lost or confused, someone will come to your aid. Many places display their dishes with pictures, so you can point at your chosen one. Some also have English-language menus. Just ask for it with this phrase: ‘Eigo no menyu ga arimasu ka?’

More to read: Check out old Tokyo

Make it Happen!

Touch Down: Numerous airlines operate indirect flights. For direct flights try All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines and Emirates.

Stay: Japan is not as expensive as you might imagine. Rooms at traditional style minshuki inns (Japanese B&B) costs less than 40 euro / 31 pound per person. For more comfort, try Park Hyatt Tokyo.

Eat: Japanese cuisine is hugely varied, from noodle soup to kaiseki, Japanese haute cuisine. For something extraordinary, try Takazava. For those who have eaten here, claims it as one of the best restaurants in the world. Chef: Yoshiaki Takazawa.

Play: Ginza district is the capital’s place to see and to be seen. Chanel and Dior boutiques line the avenues and late night cocktails in bling bars are not cheap. This is the country’s most expensive stretch of real estate and some streets are closed to traffic on weekends.

Mini Guide: If you have time for only a few days in Japan, spend them in the current and former capitals. Spend at least two nights in Tokyo – for the museums, sumo wrestling, department stores, fish market and nightlife. Then off to the peaceful grandeur of Kyoto, just over two hours away by bullet train, for its temples, geisha girls, teahouses, gardens and shrines. Aim to spend at least three nights, preferably in a traditional ryokan or minshuku. Safety: Japan is one of the safest countries for foreign visitors. Theft is still amazingly rare. Etiquette: Take your shoes off anytime you enter a home, public bath, Japanese style restaurant or inn. Don’t place your chopsticks vertically in your food, or use them to pass food. Both indicate death.

Gudmund Lindbaek
Gudmund Lindbaek
Journalist founded King Goya online travel magazine. Meeting people for engaging stories. I´m off to uncover the best strategies for long life living. This is part of my venture “Around the World in 80 Lanes” – about travel, run sprint, staying fit! I just want a tiny slice of adventures to feel alive, and then excited to return home.

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