This week’s winning review
Mad, big and beautiful
Fancy a city break? Then head for Tokyo, the biggest, safest and maddest city on the planet. Arm yourself with a guide book, a subway map and a prepaid train card from a station and off you go. Tokyo has no real city centre but is made up of many districts, each with their own distinctive attractions.
If you want high fashion then it’s Ginza and Aoyoma. If you want to see how the youth dress then it’s Harajuku, particularly on a Saturday when young girls pose in costume – this can be combined with the nearby Yoyogi Park (especially in cherry blossom time) and the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. If you want nightlife then it’s off to Shibuya or Shinjuku (a word of warning – Shinjuku Station is the largest in the world with many exits – one false move and never to be seen again).
Food: everything from Michelin star to Izakaya (pubs) to ramen houses (cheap noodles, just remember it’s polite to slurp).
If you fancy a day away from the neon, catch the train to Kamakura where you find a lovely country setting with many shrines and the Big Buddha to visit.
Best time to visit is either spring or autumn. Avoid summer (too hot and humid) and Christmas when Tokyo closes for a week. Japan is still very much a cash society so back up your credit card with lots of yen.
- Liz Berry, from Warwicks, wins £400 worth of accommodation with spain-holiday.com
Rail’s the thing
Travel independently – public transport is surprisingly easy and a Japan Rail Pass is very good value. In Kyoto, Wakjapan (wakjapan.com) can organise a range of cultural experiences.
Walk the Old Post route from Magome to Tsumago in the Kiso Valley. It’s an easy stroll. We stayed in a traditional guesthouse. You only need to carry a small rucksack as luggage can be sent on using Takkyubin delivery service – efficiently and at reasonable cost.
The Japanese do not expect tips but would really appreciate small gifts, beautifully wrapped. They like Earl Grey tea, which is light and easy to bring from Britain.
- Janet Conradi, Bucks
Count on experience
I would suggest you stay in some of the less popular/touristy cities. Locals are invariably very helpful, perhaps responding to the fact that you have made the effort. Try Kanazawa for crafts and the castle, where we enjoyed a first-class tour from a voluntary English-speaking guide; Sendai, where the service in the old-style department stores was superb; Hakate, where the city was excellent for just strolling around. With the rail system all are easily accessible and you have a chance to see the countryside. Being taught to count in Japanese by a three-year-old on the train just put to shame my lack of Japanese. As for the lavatories – mechanisation taken to a new level. A visit to Japan is not a holiday, it’s an experience.
- David Steele, by email
Off the beaten track
Away from tourist trails, I would recommend a trip to Okayama for the temple and Kurashiki for the traditional canal-side museums and craft sellers making unique wood, leather garments and stone ornaments in the traditional way.
Hiroshima is fascinating for its history, museums and, surprisingly, the warm welcome of the Japanese who you join there. Ringing the Peace bell gave me, as an Englishman, great joy that all seems to be forgiven for one of the most terrible acts of the Second World War.
Yokahama has a modern feel but traditional boat trips around Tokyo bay, can be made without pre-planning and the vast array of different restaurants enlivens the visit in any season.
Beware of school exam times when visiting the major cities as budget accommodation is impossible to book.
Visits to Tokyo Motor show or Disneyland Tokyo can be rewarding experiences for the well travelled as they are so different from those in Europe.
- Roger Lea, by email
Sure about sushi
The range of foods and eateries is vast. The best “at a glance” book for the what’s and how’s plus dos and don’ts is Squeamish about Sushi by Betty Reynolds (published by Tuttle) – an illustrated guide to the pleasures and pitfalls of dining in Japan.
- Jeanette Davidson, Edinburgh
I visited Japan with the Japanese Garden Society (jgs.org.uk) in 2010 and we stayed in two centres, Kyoto and Okayama. A day-trip by train from Okayama took us to Matsue, where we hired taxis to Yuushien Garden. It consists of a wonderful stroll garden, peony nursery and restaurant. There are waterfalls, ponds, moss garden, teahouse and beautiful planting.
After two hours we returned to Matsue and took a short train journey to Yasugi Station from where a courtesy bus took us to the Adachi Museum. Adachi Kenzo, a wealthy businessman, built up a fabulous collection of Japanese artworks and ceramics, then had a museum built with a surrounding garden in his home town to showcase his collection.
The gardens are breathtakingly beautiful and artistic perfection in all seasons. From Okayama we also visited the Peace Park at Hiroshima and the Torii gates of Miyajima, and many more gardens.
- Alison Blake, Cumbria
A matter of etiquette
The Japanese are a gentle and courteous people. When presenting and receiving a business card (Meiji) hold it with two hands gripped between thumb and forefinger at the corners, give a slight waist bow when presenting. When receiving, again, hold in the same bow, and study the giver’s card with reverence, taking time to study it, even the Japanese language (usually the reverse will be in English). Sometimes, draw a slight breath in between clenched teeth.
Never, never, scratch yourself, bend or fiddle with the giver’s card. Do not use a handkerchief to blow your nose in public. Japanese men keep a folded hankie in their pockets to use when dabbing or drying their hands after a bathroom break.
There is no tipping in Japan, even in taxis. Allow the driver to open and close the nearside rear door when entering and exiting (This is done via a mechanical lever near the drivers thigh). Enjoy, it is a wonderful, busy country, exciting and traditional.
- Geoff Rawes, Gwynedd
My son’s wedding in Tokyo was a full-blown traditional Japanese affair, with lots of music, dance and poetry. At one stage, the sake was introduced, served in small saucers to be held between finger and thumb. I must have dipped my thumb, then wiped my eye, for the next thing I knew was that my left eye was scalded and streaming – the right eye stayed normal.
There is, as I discovered, more to sake than meets the eye – it comes hot or cold, still or sparkling, sweet or dry. The best place to experiment is the Sake Plaza, where you can read all about it, and taste through the range. For 525 yen (about £3.40), you can choose five different variations, each presented in a tiny cardboard cup.
- Arthur Taylor, by email
If arriving at Narita Airport, try de-jetlagging in Narita itself by visiting a temple in the Japanese gardens. Once the stresses of modern Tokyo begin to tell, head to Nikko, a short train ride away. Here there are elaborate five-storey pagodas and shrines scattered through beautiful gardens and the tranquil imperial villa with contrasting low-key domestic architecture. In Osaka, the old capital Nara has a temple complex where locals feed wandering deer.
Winter highlights include ski resorts in Hokkaido but more easily reached is the Olympic area Nagano. Here day trips, including passes, can be booked in the railway station information centre. A winter side trip can be made to nearby Yudanaka, where the host at the Uotoshi Ryokan spoke English, and presented a breakfast of dreams: 12 different beautiful and delicious dishes. Close by, after a short forest walk, you can watch snow macaque monkeys disport in the hot spring.
- Pete Coultas, Yorkshire
Speak like a local
Study a map to decide your route and overnight stays. Useto plan your rail journeys; it gives all the times, platform and the train’s number. With a J R Rail Pass, free reserved seats are bookable up to 15 minutes before departure and J R buses are free.
Japanese people are polite and a few words make a difference; sumimasen for apologies or excuse me: konnichiwa, a daily greeting, works wonders, and remember, ichi, ni, san is 1,2,3!
Use noodle bars for lunch: about £5. ATMs are available at main post offices. There is virtually no tipping anywhere.
- David North, Isle of Man
Child’s eye view
What can you say about this country – it’s amazing. We took our two children, then aged four and two, and from the moment we stepped on to the plane, we knew we were in for a good time.
Origami animals were quickly made and passed down the plane to soothe the youngest, and once we landed we were whisked through immigration to save the children getting worked up after such a long flight.
The different sights and smells in each place were fascinating and we even ended up being stranded in a typhoon in Tokyo. The bullet train was spotless and efficient and we were fascinated by the old temples and modern gadgets on offer. Our children were particularly impressed with the singing lavatories and pedestrian crossings which gave us bursts of Robert Burns’s Auld Lang Syne!
The food was wonderful, too, from noodle sandwiches to green melon bread. We stayed in a traditional ryokan and the children were soon adept at using chopsticks and taking off their kimonos ready for a dunk in the Japanese bath! Toyko was fascinating with its neon lights and mobbed railway stations; Kyoto was a real contrast with lots of green and geisha girls.
- Rebecca Hay, by email
Eat what you see
If you like food-based theme parks you need to go to Namja Town in Sunshine City in Tokyo. The ice cream selection is mind-boggling with squid and horse flavours (not together) at the extreme end of the taste spectrum. The Gyoza Stadium has the best and most varied selection of gyozas (dumplings) too.
Visit the town of Numazu, in Shizuoka, where on the busy seafront there is an aquarium specialising in deep sea creatures. Here you can see darkened tanks of bio-fluorescent fish, prehistoric sharks and the giant crustaceans that live on the ocean floor. After gazing in wonder at these terrors you can move on to the restaurant next door and taste them. The deep sea platter looks horrific but tastes amazing.
- Phil Corbett, Sussex
The imperial palaces in Tokyo and Kyoto are a must see. Special tours lasting just over an hour and involving the use of audio guides are given around the beautiful private grounds. The best part is that they are free. The tours aren’t well advertised and must be applied for in advance by phone, internet or in person so the groups are often small. Find out more at:.
- Maria Hickey, Essex