Land of butter-smooth fish, super fast shinkansen, oodles of steaming ramen eateries, Carribean-esq beaches, snoring salarymen, litter free streets and uber cool culotte wearers, tech-savy hyper-stores and remote onsen villages – like the peaks and troughs of the volcanic landscape itself, Japan is overwhelming yet beguiling.
To start head to Tokyo. Spend at least five days there. And get off the beaten track, stay somewhere in the suburbs. I would recommend Nishi-Ogikubo – full of tiny tiny bars all jostled in to a few condensed streets just off the JR station. Here you can’t go wrong for a relaxed night of drinking. Forget tourist tacky Golden Gai, this is the real deal.
Get yourself a Japan Rail pass if you want to saunter around the constituent islands that make up Japan’s ‘mainland’. It also includes travel on the JR lines in Tokyo, a hassle free way of navigating the sprawling, mid-rise mass.
Also get shopping. Japan is unexpectedly chic – think East London but without the hassle and with the world renowned Japanese service. No query is too small and if you find yourself lost in minutes some kind pint-sized soul will be there with a brolly in hand ready to guide you, but not in English mind! Head to Omote-sando away from the horrendous Harajuku nightmare nearby. LaForet is the Selfridges of this area. Ebisu, Naka-Meguro and around these slightly quieter areas offers painfully cool one storey shops dotted around so that the experience of finding boutiques both well known and obscure is as intriguing as the vendors themselves.
Nagasaki is worth a trip down south for the bars alone. All hail the sweet potato concoctions balanced on rustic wooden shelves behind the bar staff, all labelled by price. You’ll thank them for that after a few. Just pop the cash in the bowl in front of you. The trams around the town are totally Instagram-able in pop colours of lemon yellow and sea green. For some culture the Glover Gardens are a lovely way to spend the afternoon, with great views over the port and travelators for the less mobile.
The art islands of Naoshima and Teshima are incredible. So worth a trip. Hop on a rental bike (warning: the hills are rather steep) and stop off at the sights along the way. Beaches are dotted around for quick dips, some with washing facilities to cool off after the incline. The ferry is cheap and goes from the port town of Uno.
Osaka is another huge town (with a mere 18 million inhabitants) and to get a clear picture of it all head to the ferris wheel. It sits on top of HEP Five, a shopping centre. You can even plug your iPhone in and play tunes as you rotate. Then, as always, head to the bars and grab yourself some fried-things-on-sticks. Japanese cuisine does have its local delicacies – and my favourite Osakian treat was the rather basic breadcrumbed ‘cheese’ with 4 types of sauces, washed down with a pint of Kirin.
Don’t drink the wine there. It is expensive and rubbish. Otherwise everything else in Japan is worth a go.