Japan packs a wallop of cultural wealth, natural beauty and modern oddities into its compact geography – so you can travel from the metropolis of Tokyo to a remote hot spring in a matter of hours. Lonely Planet Magazine outlines some of the best activities to make the most of your trip, and where to find them.
Best for sumo: Arashio Stable
It’s humid in the Arashio sumo stable. Damp seems to emanate even from the slapping and feet sliding across the sweat spattered, dirt practice ring. Perspiration glistens on the bodies of the stable’s rikishi (wrestlers) of varying rank – from the coltish teenager whose flat abs betray his age to the most senior of this stable, whose imposing demeanour matches his formidable mass. Up close, these giants are solid. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t survive the practice drills in which they repeatedly charge, slam their foreheads into a senior rikishi’s shoulder and push his more than 17 stone bulk across the ring.
Six Grand Sumo Tournaments occur during the year across Japan. Check the official Japan Sumo Association page for schedules and locations. The booking page is in Japanese – if you don’t speak Japanese, there are organizations that can help, such as Japan National Tourism Organization.
Best for people-watching: Harajuku, Tokyo
Anime (animation) superheroes with architectural hair, goth Lolitas frothy with lace, and kids in full-body animal outfits: this could only be Harajuku, the neighbourhood whose name has become synonymous with images of cosplay (costume play) kids dressed up in outrageous fashions. Sundays on Jingubashi, the bridge outside Harajuku station, are the domain of cosplayers inhabiting their alter egos. Though each has her reasons – and the majority are girls – many are bullied or marginalised socially, and find an escape and a tribe in their motley collective masquerade. Day-to-day life in Japan can be oppressively rigid, and cosplay is a creative reaction against the pressures. And really, who wouldn’t rather be a weekend warrior-princess with fabulous hair?
Metropolis Magazine, Tokyo’s free English-language weekly, covers what’s on and is distributed at numerous points around the city.
Best for temples: Northern Higashiyama, Kyoto
Known as ‘the city of a thousand temples’, Kyoto actually has more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. Even along the poetically named Path of Philosophy – a popular stroll in spring’s sakura (cherry blossom) season – several temples are within easy reach from the path. Some of Kyoto’s architectural treasures, such as gold leafed Kinkaku-ji, are gorgeous icons of the city. But innumerable small temples exist in neighbourhood alleys, while a tiny shrine might reside in the nook of a wall.
Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion is one of Japan's most popular attractions. Arrive early to avoid the crowds.
Best for a night out: Shibuya, Tokyo
Shibuya Crossing, Friday night. Dusk has fallen, pedestrian lights turn green and a wave of humanity converges in the middle of the five-way intersection before dispersing again in all directions. Three sharp-suited guys toting briefcases stride by before ducking into a dark, convivial izakaya (Japanese pub serving food), Gonpachi. Greeted with shouts of ‘Irrasshaimase!’ they are ushered to a table, sit cross-legged and get down to business: pitcher of beer, perusal of picture menu. Summoned by the buzz of a tabletop button, a waiter appears and kneels with handheld computer, taking the order for edamame (soya beans), barbecued chicken skewers, sashimi (raw fish), braised black pork and seaweed salad. Now the banter begins as social straits are loosened.
Discover some of Tokyo's best restaurants and bars.
Best for cuisine: downtown Kyoto
Savouring the subtlety of a cloudy sake, it’s easy to forget it comes from simple elements. As do the intricate dishes that make up kaiseki-ryōri (multi-course meals), a cuisine designed to be appreciated not only for its taste, but texture, contrast, beauty and harmony with the season. The feast might begin with a wooden spear of bite-sized steamed dumplings in candy colours. To follow is an endless procession of delicate dishes using fresh, seasonal foods with exquisite presentation. Kaiseki-ryōri is Japanese food at its most refined, best eaten in the cultural capital, Kyoto, and served in specialist restaurants. Once the kaiseki-ryōri plays out its last act with green tea and sakura mochi (sticky rice cake), the Japanese phrase ‘gochisōsama deshita,’ (‘thank you for the delicious feast’) doesn’t sound hyperbolic at all.
Best for Onsen: Yunomine Kii Peninsula
All good walks in the woods in Japan must meander to an end. In the best scenarios, sinking neck-deep into water almost too hot to stand brings any journey to a delicious close. Fortunately, the forests and mountains of the Kii Peninsula are home to hot springs (onsen) that have been used for thousands of years. The land of Japan’s spiritual beginnings seems a fitting place to be inducted into the cult of onsen. Ritual purifications have always been integral to Shinto practice, and pilgrims on the Kii Peninsula would stop at notable onsen to perform their ablutions. Tsuboyu Onsen is one such landmark, and the only Unesco World Heritage hot spring in which people can bathe.