Heading to Japan? Chances are you already have a good idea of the places you want to visit, but wherever you’re headed, there are a few quintessentially Japanese moments to take in along that way. Here’s our Listopedia of essential Japan experiences you need to tick off your bucket list.
1. Order vending machine ramen
From the pork bone-based broth of the tonkotsu-style ramen served throughout Kyūshū (Japan’s third largest island) to the miso ramen that’s peculiar to the northernmost island of Hokkaidō, you’ll find hundreds of variations on the country’s beloved noodle soup depending on where you place your order. And on that subject – let’s talk vending machines. Commonly spotted outside ramen shops, simply insert cash into the machine, make your selection by pressing one of the buttons to receive a card and give this to a chef behind the counter – it’s customary to hold it face up with both hands – and in a few minutes you’ll be sipping and slurping from a steaming bowl of brilliance. And, as most vending machines feature pictures, you can order your ramen topped with a hard-boiled egg, black fungus or seaweed without revealing the limits of your Japanese vocabulary.
2. See the changing of the seasons
Japan’s sakura cherry blossom season (April-May) gets a lot of attention – and rightly so – it’s a beautiful time of year when a walk through one of the country’s parks or public spaces means wandering beneath a veil of delicate pink-white petals. The viewing phenomenon – known as ‘hanami’ – is a decades-old tradition, but it’s wroth remembering that the red, orange and yellow leaves of autumn (November) are equally attractive, especially at night when many places illuminate the trees to make the canopies glow. And while Tokyo’s Ueno and Yoyogi parks make for popular cherry blossom spots, it is Kyoto’s Arashiyama district – filled with temples and a towering bamboo grove – that attracts thousands of visitors come November.
3. Uncover Japan’s historic buildings by bike
We’re all familiar with the storeys-high video screens, neon lights and larger-than-life road crossing of Shibuya, Tokyo – and it’s often the frenetic and fast-paced face of Japan that we see depicted in films. But slow down and you’ll find the bustling modernity is tempered with historic shrines, temples and palaces at every turn. Hire a bike and join the locals as they make their way through neighbourhoods on two wheels – it’s the perfect way to navigate the narrow alleys of Kyoto’s atmospheric Gion district, or follow the moat that winds its way around the recently restored castle in Himeji.