Japan is seasonal. If you tell people you’re going to travel Japan in winter, the first reaction is most likely surprise. Ignore them. There are a number of must see sites, but the highlights of a trip to Japan come from observing its culture and traditions. Go in winter to escape the crowds of westerners on organised tours and witness these everyday rituals. Where else will the train conductor enter a carriage and bow to passengers, or will you be able to guess at a woman’s marital status by the length of her sleeves? As an added bonus you’ll have otherwise packed temples to yourself and can experience some of the best skiing in the world.
Travelling independently is simple. The Japan Rail Pass allows you almost unlimited access to the most efficient train network in the world, and station staff are more than happy to help you reserve seats in advance. The pass doesn’t cover the very fastest Nozomi train though, and using one, even accidentally, will be expensive. While any male you’re travelling with will suddenly realise that travelling on a Nozomi is their lifelong ambition, ignore them – it’s just one of three types of bullet train and riding any is an experience. From the moment they nose gracefully in to the station, exactly on time, to the realisation that you couldn’t kick the seat in front if you wanted to, you know you’re not on the first capital connect to St Albans.
Tokyo and Osaka are the two main entry points to the country, and it’s a good idea to fly in to one and out of the other (most major airlines serve both). Osaka is the gateway to Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Like most Japanese cities, at first glance it is surprisingly ugly. Urban planning is not a concept readily understood here – situated on an earthquake belt, most houses are built to last only 30 years. Despite it’s passing resemblance to Slough, Kyoto hides within it some breathtakingly beautiful temples and shrines. One downside of a winter visit is that you may find the attractions almost too empty.
Visiting one of Kyoto’s most impressive sites in the late afternoon – the many thousand crimson gates (or torri) snaking their way up the hillside that is the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, we the four kilometre route without passing another human. Kyoto also has some of Japan’s best zen gardens. At the Daitoku Ji temple complex, the absence of tourists means you can easily believe you are in the sixteenth century as you pass an educational afternoon reading phrases like “twin cones of purity melting in to a sea of nothingness” describing what look like a strip of gravel and a couple of mossy rocks.
A three-hour bullet train ride south, with a stop in Himeji to view at Japan’s premier 17th century castle, is Hiroshima’s powerful peace park containing the shell of the European style Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. Otherwise known as the A-bomb dome, these skeletal remains serve as a lasting reminder of the devastation of nuclear war. Yet, around this core, a laid back, stylish city has developed, with bars and boutiques reminiscent of a trendy New York neighbourhood. Whilst some things in Japan are expensive, other things are surprisingly cheap – haircuts, for example, seem half the price you’d pay in London. The Hiroshima guide, a funky annotated map that can be picked up from most hotels, gives you all the information you’ll need.
Another train ride to the east is Uno, the departure point for the short boat trip to the island of Nao Shima. After the frantic pace of the towns, a trip to the islands in the tranquil Inland sea forces you to pause and reflect. The island was used in Robert Benson’s James Bond novel, “The man with the red tattoo”. Despite never being made in to a film, the residents haven’t forgotten and a small James Bond museum opened in 2008. Visit if you like, but the real highlights are the excellent modern art museums and installations that have transformed and regenerated the former fishing community.
You could easily spend a week at Benesse House, with its museum, spa and French restaurant with views over the bay and a surprisingly affordable wine list. Designed by architect Tadao Ando renowned for ensuring his buildings work in harmony with the landscape, you’d be lucky to get a reservation in season, but in winter rooms tend to be available at shorter notice.
Wherever you stay in Japan, you’ll have the choice between “western rooms”, which have all the things you’d expect, such as solid walls, beds, tables and chairs, and “Japanese rooms”, which don’t. Nothing if not literal, Japanese rooms are measured in “mats” and a seven mat room will have a floor made of seven standard sized, if somewhat soporific, tatami mats. You’ll be able to see this clearly, as the room is otherwise completely empty, with a discrete cupboard in one corner containing your sleeping mat, pillow and sheets, and perhaps a small 6 inch high table. Though it may sound unappealing, a Japanese room is something to be experienced and traditional inns, or ryokan, offer the ultimate indulgence. What better way to spend a cold winter evening than sitting in your room cocooned in the slippers, kimono and haori provided while being served an exquisite multi-course banquet?
Japan has two main ski areas, Niseko and Nagano, both with excellent resorts. The Niseko resort in Hokkaido, a sleeper train ride from Tokyo, has near-perfect powder. Winds from Siberia pick up moisture as they cross the Sea of Japan. Encountering the Yōtei volcano, also known as Ezo Fuji because of it’s close resemblance, the clouds are forced to rise and cool. The result is superb low altitude skiing with a view of the sea, where you can take otherwise prohibitively steep runs safe in the knowledge that falling will be like landing on a cloud of feathers. The night skiing is particularly memorable, with purple tinted floodlights creating fairytale scenery.
On the way back from Niseko, rouse yourself from the bunk or your sleeper train at Utsunomiya and take a trip to Nikko in the early morning. This way you’ll arrive before even the most determined day-trippers arrive from Tokyo, and you can explore the lavishly decorated Toshogu shrine without bumping into another soul.
In central Honsho, skiing in the Nagano resort can be combined with a visit to the “snow monkeys”. As the most northerly living non-human mammals in the world, their survival has in part been credited to regular bathing in the naturally hot and mineral-rich water that bubbles to the surface. In winter you can see hundreds of monkeys, with their frozen whiskers on red faces, relaxing in the steaming pools.
The small town of Shibu Onsen makes a good base for monkey watching, and has a number of traditional ryokan. It’s also excellent for spa lovers, who can save a lot of money with a little imagination. It’s not just the monkeys who get to bathe in the mineral rich water, and in “onsen” towns across country everyday bathing takes on a ritualistic quality. Hotels and guesthouses in these areas will either have private pools that can be reserved for use by family or friends, or single sex communal baths. Onsen-goers first wash themselves completely, sitting on a small plastic stool away from the baths. After being careful to remove every trace of soap, they can then submerge themselves in the pools of various different temperatures and soak away.
Tokyo is a great place to finish any trip to Japan, as there are very few must-see sights. You’ll want to ascend one of the towers to get a view over the sprawling metropolis and beyond to Mount Fuji. The Metropolitan Government Building is free, but the Mori tower combines views with an excellent gallery and bar. You should also visit the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, featured in Lost in Translation and on which the remodelled Oxford Circus is based, and DisneyLand, if only to hear the Country Bear Jamboree sung in Japanese.
Tokyo is also the best place to experience the otaku, or “geek” culture. Otaku covers everything from manga to the latest in consumer electronics and online gaming. Manga (Japanese comic books) are read by people of all ages, and the industry was worth $3.6bn in 2007. Heavily laden with iconography, the uninitiated reader will have a hard time fathoming the story. Some of the symbolism is straightforward, for example sparks fly between the eyes of two characters when they are fighting. Other symbols are more complex. Cherry blossoms can be used to suggest a calm scene, and when characters are being honest with each other or sharing a secret, they may press their index fingers together.
In Tokyo’s Akihabara neighbourhood, you can experience the full range of otaku delights, although you may be fighting for pavement space with adults dressed as their favourite comic book characters. When you’re tired of wandering the streets you can visit a “maid” café where girls in cute outfits (think layered petticoats and bunches) allow their adult customers to regress to their childhood by serving them milkshakes, and encouraging group sing-along’s. In spring and autumn, these are crowded with tourists, but in winter it’s not uncommon to see groups of Japanese visitors energetically playing games of scissor, paper, stone. You’ll be encouraged to join in, and we got to the semi-final before realising the last move wasn’t just punching the air.
Walking around Tokyo, but especially in the Harajuka neighbourhood, you can observe the tribes of urban youths whose elaborate outfits reflect an interesting mix between individual self-expression and the desire to conform to a group identity. A common tribe to spot is the “gothloli” or gothic lolitas, who appear to be imitating the style of a Victorian porcelain doll, but are dressed primarily in black and white. A linked tribe are the “sweet lolitas” who wear similar style clothes, but with lace and bows, and the black replaced by soft pastels. Take as many photos as you like – it’s the ultimate in flattery.
Finally, as you explore Japan, you’ll realise the waste in thinking Japanese food starts and ends with sushi. Different areas are rightly proud of their regional delicacies, such as the beef in Kobe and octopus balls in Osaka. In Tokyo, visit a food-court to marvel at the perfect melons or strawberries, packed in bubble wrap and retailing for more than a three-course meal in London, and rise early to taste the freshest tuna in the world at the Tsukiji fish market.
The city has more Michelin stars than Paris, including the tiny Kanda – a three star set in a suburban area with only eight seats where the Gordon Ramsey of Japanese cookery displays his talents less than a metre away. For those on a budget, izakaya are a sensible choice as they combine set food menus with all you can drink deals for up to 2 hours. This means on your way out you’ll be sufficiently lubricated to step in to a karaoke booth for the ultimate Japanese experience.
So ignore the winter skeptics, shun the organised tours, and book your flights. Make sure you buy your Japan Rail Pass before you leave, pack light, and prepare for a few weeks of sensory overload. It will be cold and you won’t see the cherry blossoms, but you’ll have got much closer to understanding the real Japan.
Check out our tips for having an indie travel experience in Tokyo.