Last autumn, I visited a friend in Kyoto - my first vacation to Japan in almost three decades.
I went without a fixed itinerary but secretly told myself to accomplish a number of things while there.
After eight days in Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto, I surprised myself by ticking off all the items on my unofficial checklist, and can now rave about them:
1. Romancing Japanese fare
I have always wondered why friends who visit Japan wax lyrical about its cuisine as if they had savoured a part of heaven.
On my first evening out in Tokyo, I stumbled upon a random sushi joint and decided to judge for myself. With one bite of a succulent salmon rice-roll that melted in my mouth, my palette flew to paradise and back, and for a few moments, I rattled off some gastronomical haiku.
Early the next morning, I headed to Tsukiji to see the world's biggest seafood market.
After witnessing mind-boggling images of giant tunas auctioned in an indescribable cacophony of sounds and smells, my breakfast of assorted raw fish and sea urchin at a nearby stall made me realise, for the first time, what real sashimi tasted like.
I visited a renowned restaurant where food is straw-grilled to perfection in front of diners. The chef seared my bonito chunks in ceiling high flames with a mastery that was a performance in itself, and when the sizzling morsels hit my tastebuds, I swear it was akin to falling in love!
I will never look at Japanese food served elsewhere the same way again.
2. Celebrating an ancient tradition
From the carnivalesque atmosphere at Tokyo's 1,500-year-old incense shrouded Senso-ji (where I picked my fortune from a canister) to cherry tree-lined Ueno Park and majestic Imperial Palace, to Kyoto's glittering Kinkaku-ji - Japan's beguiling temples, palaces and gardens are rich storytellers of culture, power and beauty that have held sway for millennia.
Through the giant torii (gates) at Meiji-jingu - Tokyo's largest shrine - I witnessed a traditional Shinto wedding procession take place, the solemn entourage oblivious to the prying eyes of curious tourists and their cameras.
I was fortunate to celebrate with hundreds in two ancient festivals that coincided with my visit, and spotted Kyoto's elusive geishas, as well as sumo wrestlers in Tokyo's Ryogoku district, rushing probably to star in their respective epic memoirs.
Whatever it is, this fluid, multi -faceted country of futuristic skyscrapers and perpetual change exists in perfect symbiosis with its legendary traditions.
3. Braving a sea of humanity
As I tiptoed behind an unrelenting crowd to catch a glimpse of the famous Hachiko dog statue and strode across Shibuya's famous intersection, miraculously dodging head-on pedestrians, I discovered one obvious Tokyo fact: Its energy is decidedly electrifying, even infectious.
Just watching Tokyoites scurrying about was no fun; I had to join in to feel the city's throbbing pulse.
Harajuku is a level up. Swept by the ebb of a human tsunami, I lost myself among trendy youth and occasional goth-lolitas.
For en masse fashionista-spotting, target Omote-sando and Ginza. This is everyday Tokyo - nonchalant, confident, one-of-a-kind and at ease with itself.
4. Embracing a bizarre pop culture
I never quite understood Japan's brazen fascination with all things kawaii (cute) - like Hello Kitty, its celebrity mouth-less cat; Pokemon; inhumanly large-breasted cartoon figurines; or the national obsessions with anime, cosplay, mascots, robots, pachinko (Japanese pinball) and mega toy-catcher arcades - until I stepped foot in Akihabara.
This quirky neighbourhood, plastered with neon, building-sized posters, boasts the world's largest collection of electronic stores. More significantly, it is Japan's pop culture laboratory where cutesy toys and fads come to life, and then take the world by storm.
Tokyo's bespectacled geeks, or otaku, congregate here and excite themselves over the latest manga editions and discuss J-pop trends, before satisfying their hunger (and fetishes) at the district's ubiquitous Maid Cafes, where costumed waitresses act as servants, and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) rather than cafe patrons.
5. Immortalising Mount Fuji and the shinkansen
My heart raced as I made my way to Tokyo Station in anticipation of my maiden ride on Japan's iconic shinkansen (bullet train).
I was so excited that this temporarily eclipsed the fact that I was on my way to see Mount Fuji. When the arriving shinkansen rattled the platform, my inner poet murmured, "be still, my beating heart".
The supersonic time machine began its journey, zooming past various cityscapes. Then in a cinematic blink of an eye, I was transported to the hot springs haven of Hakone, where I spent the next two days immortalising Japan's other grand icon, Mount Fuji, through photographs.
6. Living like a Japanese
In Hakone, I lived like a local - if only superficially.
Clad in a fine yukata (casual kimono) provided by the ryokan (traditional inn) I stayed at, I plucked up sufficient courage to forsake that one piece of modesty to master the centuries-old Japanese art of bathing - in the bu , with a dozen others - which surprisingly turned out to be oh-so-relaxing.
7. Waking up in a capsule
On my last night in Kyoto, I stayed in a capsule hotel just to try out those much talked-about beehive cells. I was slightly apprehensive at first, seeing how apparently claustrophobic they looked.
But lo and behold, with a small shelf, light-dimmer, in-built fan, and even a personal pull-out flatscreen television to complement the most comfortable bed ever, my cosy capsule was anything but a sardine can.
My stay included a sumptuous complimentary Japanese buffet breakfast, and the impeccably spotless hotel even had a spa and massage floor.
Domo arigato Japan, for all the memorable experiences!
I flew to Tokyo on United Airlines. I took the shinkansen to Hakone and Kyoto.
Book accommodation well in advance during peak cherry blossom season.
- It is cost-efficient to get a Japan Rail (JR) Pass for unlimited, week-long travel on JR trains. The pass is only available for tourists. Visit www.japan-rail-pass.com for more information.
- The best times to visit Tokyo is in April during spring, and autumn from September to November.
- The famous intersection outside Shibuya Station is a scramble walk - traffic lights turn red at the same time in every direction, and people spill out from all sides. Watch the hypnotic scene from the second-floor
This article was first published on July 26, 2016.
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