There is not one country on this Earth that can make me feel like Japan does. When I just hear its name, hear a Japanese word, see a Japanese book or eat sushi, I have butterflies in my stomach, just like what you feel when you hear about that guy you have a crush on.
Why do I feel this way ? Is it just because I am a huge fan of mangas and Japanese animes since I am a small child ? Was I maybe Japanese in a previous life ?
Or Japan is just that fascinating to anyone that gets interested in it. After all, Japan is a world apart, with a unique history and culture that you'd need a lifetime to learn and understand as a foreigner.
I actually spent 2 months in Japan in 2006, and to this day, it's one of the deepest and most intense experience I've had.
If like me at the time, you can barely speak a word of Japanese, you'll arrive there and feel so lost;
you can't know where you are cause everything's written in Japanese, even in the subway
you don't know what you eat or drink until it's in your mouth cause you can't read the labels and most restaurant menus are in Japanese (I remember my friend having to imitate a chicken in a small restaurant once cause we just had no other way to be understood)
you can barely talk to people as so few of them actually speak English or don't shy away from speaking it
everything is so clean and organised, people are disciplined and so polite, nobody will ever pass you in a waiting line (there even are footprints on the street floors to indicate where you should stand), but so weird and crazy at the same time! Weird outfits, weird make-ups and hairdos, weird (different from what you know) rooms & bed in ryokans, modern toilets with buttons like on a plane control board, bar and nightclubs that make you feel like you're on a spaceship, crazy places like pachinkos, bubble hotels or vertical parkings
it's so spiritual, a magical atmosphere, if you're open-minded you could actually feel the ancient spirits around you
a mix of tradition and technology that makes you feel so disorientated in a good way, and I could go on an on.
But there is not one moment you dislike. Not one moment you feel bored.
If like me you just live to travel and discover different cultures and ways of life, you need to get there asap. I know I'm going back there someday, and hopefully stay for a long while.
So here are a few things I'll do as soon as I get there !
POLKA DOTS (Nishi-Ikebukuro) I need to go to this bar, as a huge Bob Dylan fan myself, can't miss to meet the owner, Japanese bob Dylan impersonator !
KARAOKE KAN (Shibuya) The karaoke bar from Lost in Translation. You can try other places like Smash Hits (singing on stage there, in front of an audience, and lots of drunken expats).
Or try Jan Ken Pon; most nights a live cover band performs (usually disco, soul, rock or pop hits from the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s) and customers can sign up to sing in between sets.
There's also GIGABAR, for rock fans (H-T Minami Aoyama Building B1F; 7-11-4 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan; 81-(0)3-6427-5777).
I'd also love to try Lovenet in Roppongi, (with karaoke boxes), where you can even sing while in a hot tub :)
PACHINKO MARUHAN (Shibuya) (Japanese gambling on crazy machines!)
A few others things I'd do in Tokyo:
Eat and drink in an IZAKAYA in Ebisu (Shibuya-ku). Izakayas are easy to spot by the doorway curtains (called noren) and chalkboard menus propped up out front.
I want to try SAIKI for its killer sashimi plate and the raw veggies with red miso dip (1-7-12 Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 81-(0) 3 3461 3367).
There is also MOMOTARO for a late night snack (open nightly from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m.) (Ogawa Ebisu Building, Floor B1, 1-8-8 Ebisu-nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan; 81-(0)3-5428-5707 japanchickenfoodservice.co.jp).
Would love to go back to BURI, known for its sake menu (1-14-1 Ebisu-nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan; 81-(0)3-3494-7744). No english menu there, so just say "Osusume" which basically means, "Whatever you recommend".
Eat Tonkatsu ramen at Ippudo (1-3-13 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan; 81-(0)3-5420-2225)
See Sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo's National Sumo Hall. If it's not tournament season, try to catch an early-morning training session at a beya, or sumo stable. Some are more foreigner-friendly than others. Have a Japanese speaker call the day before you want to go, to make sure the team is not on tour and that visitors are permitted.
Play Go at the NIHON KI-IN's main office. You need to get off at the Ichigaya subway stop and find your way from there (it's not far and the Nihon Ki-in has a map, albeit an upside-down one, on their website). You will find lots of gobans and stones on display, plus photos from historic matches at which these pieces of equipment were used. If you're nice, somebody will probably show the famous "Yugen no ma" or "Room of Profound Darkness", the press room and the the inseis' playing rooms -- all uncannily accurately reproduced in Hikaru no Go. The Nihon Ki-in also runs a very big playing salon for the public.
Buy a second hand go game in Akashiya Shoten bookshop (Jimbocho)
Visit the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku
Take a Kendo class at the Kyumeikan Kendo Dojo (2-1-7 Akatsuka Shimmachi, Itabashi 175-0093).
Learn BATTO (sword), hopefully join a Shinkage-ryu Bujutsu Martial Art Workshop when I'm more advanced.
Check out the Kimono shop in Daimaru's Department store (10th floor), and buy a Yukata (lightweight cotton robe). Can also buy a Yukata at Oriental Bazaar, a tourist magnet on Omotesando Street.
Take a lesson of IKEBANA (flower arrangement) at the OHARA SCHOOL, or just observe it if I'm on a budget :)
Experience a tea ceremony (Sadō) at HOTEL Chinsanzo, or at Nadeshiko while wearing a kimono :) (2-7-24-2F Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo)
Learn SHODO (calligraphy) (HISUI TOKYO ARt School)
Spend some time at Yoyogi park (Shibuya), very entertaining to watch people do their things.
Spend hours in a manga library like the one in Meiji University.
Visit the Meiji Shrine again (Most famous shinto shrine, dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor Meiji who opened Japan to the West). On Sunday mornings you are likely to see a traditional wedding procession. - Take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku station.
Go to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, probably the most beautiful garden in Tokyo. Best during cherry blossom season. And be sure to hit all the major gardens: English Landscape, French Formal, Japanese Traditional (with teahouse) and the curiously named Mother and Child Forest (Haha to Ko no Mori). There's also a lovely Taiwan Pavilion; go inside and look out the second-story windows.
Go to Hama-rikyu garden, which was a feudal lord's retreat during the Edo period. Located at the mouth of the Sumida River, Hama-rikyu is also a stop on a passenger ferry line that you can take up to Asakusa or out to Odaiba.
Visit the Tsukiji fish market (The world's largest, busiest fish market) - check this website to see if public access is permitted that day. No visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast. (Sushi Dai (faded green doorway curtains and very long line out front) or Daiwa-Zushi, just as good. Expect to pay between 300 and 800 yen per generously cut, amazingly fresh piece. Order the chu toro (fatty tuna).
And of course go back to the Shibuya Crossing (famous intersection just outside Shibuya station). Then, follow the trendy teens into Shibuya 109, a big shiny mall with more than 100 boutiques, for a look at the latest in disposable fashion. Or go back into Shibuya station to the TOKYO FOODSHOW (located in the basement of the Tokyu Department Store next to the east exit of Shibuya Station) where you can eat delicious local food (local tastes: grilled eel, fried pork, tiny fish salad, octopus on a stick, seafood-and-rice seaweed wraps, mochi cakes and much more).
KINKAKU-JI (The Golden Temple)
FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE
HARU COOKING CLASS
NARA (Japan's oldest capital)
TODAI-JI - Buddhist Temple, where you can see the famous Daibutsu statue (Great Buddha).
- Eat at SAKURA BURGER (north of Kintetsu Nara Station).
- Visit the Nara National Museum, world-class museum of Buddhist art
- Just bike around.
NIKKO for its Onsen (Hot spring baths)
Nasu Onsen Spa
KOBE (for its world-famous delicious beef)
- Go to Estrela Go Cafe & Bar (Entering the place, if you didn't happen to notice the kanji for "Igo" on the signboard as you walked in, you'd think you were in any other small but modern bar in Japan. But the occasional 5x5 or 9x9 board on the bar gives away the fact that there's an entire room devoted to Go upstairs, and that the owner is Hideki Enda 9p.) (Naniwa-machi 4-14, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0022, Japan, Telephone: 06-7173-1353)
CHUBU REGION for the Mount Fuji
The Mount FUJI
KASHIMA for the Kashima-jingu Shrine
One of the oldest shrine in Eastern Japan. A place where you can learn "the way of the bow".
it is believed to have been built during the 6th century B.C. by Japan's first emperor.
Wonderfully filled with silence surrounded by a Shinto shrine, this unique environment allows you to concentrate, watch and even practice the way of the arrow in absolute peace. You can watch people practicing in regular bases or if you are fortunate enough, you may even get to watch a tournament.
And finally, because I have this thing for samurais, I'll have to visit one if not all of these places:
Some famous samurai and hometowns/places strongly connected to them:
Miyamoto Musashi - Mimasaka, Okayama; and Kumamoto City, Kumamoto
Saigo Takamori - Kagoshima City, Kagoshima
Tokugawa Ieyasu - Okazaki City, Aichi
Sakamoto Ryoma - Tosa, Kochi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi - Nakamura-ku, Nagoya
Fukuzawa Yukichi - Nakatsu City, Oita
Ashikaga Takauji - Ayabe, Kyoto; Kamakura, Kanagawa; and Ashikaga, Tochigi
Hijikata Toshizo - Hino, Tokyo; and Hakodate, Hokkaido
A few other places that are "samurai-significant":
Sekigahara, Gifu - The Battle of Sekigahara
Shiroyama, Kagoshima - The Battle of Shiroyama
Kamakura, Kanagawa - Capital city during Kamakura Shogunate
I really can't wait !