Japan: The 20 things that will amaze you

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Never – not for a single moment – will you ever be bored in Japan. This is a country of contrasts, of sights so foreign they won't make any sense at all, of tastes and sensations and cultural habits that seem so extreme, yet they are always gentle, welcoming, and enjoyable.

Japan is a country of old and new, of ancient temples that abut glittering high-rises, of teahouses and immaculate gardens that sit next to punk clubs and electronics stores, of mega-cities and rolling hills, of peaceful reflection and maddening crowds, of indecipherable language and friendly faces.

There's so much to enjoy on a trip to Japan, so much to be amazed by. Even the smallest parts of everyday life, from a ride on the Tokyo metro to the purchase of a can of soft drink, can be experiences you'll be talking about for years.  

Every element of life in Japan seems to have been polished to the finest degree. Chefs spend years learning how to cook rice. Tea is drunk with rich ceremony. Rooms are decorated with spatial harmony in mind. Everything is thought out and cared for. It makes for one of the best travel experiences the world has to offer.

1 STAY TRADITIONAL: RYOKAN 

There's no bathrobe supplied when you stay at a Japanese ryokan, or guesthouse. Instead, guests are given traditional yukatas – a sort of casual kimono – and slippers to wear throughout these beautiful and highly sophisticated establishments. To stay in a ryokan is to immerse yourself in Japanese culture: you'll sleep on futons on tatami-mat floors, eat sumptuous meals, relax in manicured gardens or onsen hot-pools, and be waited on with professional, polite service. The best place to do this is in Kyoto.

2  DRINK SAKE 

Here's the confusing thing about the drink we know as sake: in Japan, it's not called sake. There, the word "sake" is a catch-all term for any alcoholic liquor. The fermented rice wine the country is famous for is actually known as "nihonshu". And, as with most aspects of Japanese life, nihonshu is taken extremely seriously, with a huge amount of variety present as you cross the country, tasting as you go. One of the best places to sample nihonshu is in the town of Takayama, where some of the country's oldest breweries still ply their trade. 

3 SEE OKINAWA  

Are you in Japan, or Hawaii? You may have cause to ponder when you first arrive in Okinawa, the southernmost part of Japan, a chain of islands that's a world away from the bright lights and big cities of the main part of the country. Okinawa, which used to be a country called Ryukyu, is all about natural attractions, from lush forests to high mountain peaks to the coral reefs that lie in the warm surrounding waters. It also boasts a unique culture  heavily influenced by US occupation during the 20th century. 

4  VISIT ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE 

Photographers, welcome to paradise. This is one of the most photogenic spots in an already very photogenic country, a winding pathway leading through towering bamboo plantations in this  district of Kyoto. The whole of Arashiyama is worth a visit, in fact, as it's dotted with temples and pleasant country walks, but the main attraction is the bamboo grove, and the chance to take "that photo".

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5 SHOP SPECIALIST STORES 

It doesn't matter what you're into: from printed fabrics to kitchen knives, designer vintage clothes to electronics, wood-block art prints to the plastic models of food that sit in displays outside just about every restaurant, you'll be able to find shop after shop that's dedicated to it in Japan. There are plenty of amazing shopping districts, though some favourites include Koenji in Tokyo for clothes, Sennichimae Doguyasuji in Osaka for kitchen utensils, Nippori in Tokyo for fabric, and Asakusa for those weird plastic foods. 

 6 SEE  HIGASHIYAMA TEMPLE DISTRICT 

The Higashiyama district of Kyoto is the Japan of your dreams – an ancient city that has been perfectly preserved, a warren of temples, shrines, pagodas, gardens and traditional shops. You'll see all sorts on the paved streets of Higashiyama, from immaculately dressed geishas to merchants to business people to tourists. A stroll through this area is one of Japan's quintessential experiences.

 7 EAT OKONOMIYAKI 

While Japan has become world famous for sushi, there are many other cuisines that make its culinary scene one of the best in the world: from yakitori, grilled skewers of meat, to fried cutlets, noodles, and curry. One of the best, however, and one of the cheapest, is okonomiyaki, which means, "what you want, grilled". Okonomiyaki, a bit like a savoury pancake, are made throughout the country, often in tiny restaurants you'll share with only a chef and a few other customers. With its mix of egg, noodles, seafood and meat, you're unlikely to be hungry after sampling it.

8  EXPERIENCE SAFETY 

Petty crime is almost non-existent in Japan – in fact the crime rate in general is the lowest in the industrial world, and it's continually getting lower. There's a feeling you get in Japan that nobody would ever dream of harming you, that you'll never be threatened, even in infamously seedy areas such as Roppongi or Kabukicho. It makes for an amazingly freeing travel experience once you realise you don't have to worry about where you put your bag, or where you store your money, or what time of night you go out. 

9 SEE  AUTUMN COLOURS IN NIKKO 

The Japanese are passionate admirers of nature, whether that's the brief glimpse of cherry blossoms in April or the celebrated arrival of snow in winter. One of the most popular annual pilgrimages is to a town called Nikko, a few hours outside Tokyo, to see the autumnal colours as the region's foliage changes to a riot of reds and oranges and yellows around October. Accommodation will need to be booked early.

10 TRY VENDING MACHINE CULTURE 

At first you think it's an anomaly: a huge bank of vending machines selling a colourful array of just about everything in existence. Seems kind of cool, right? But after a while you realise these things are everywhere: at every train station, on every street corner, in every hotel lobby. They sell soft drinks and beers, hot soup, coffee, snacks, T-shirts, flowers, toys, umbrellas, underwear… Pretty much anything, really.  

11 EAT ROBOT RESTAURANT 

This is the epitome of everything that's ultra-modern and crazy in Japan: a restaurant that looks more like a sports arena, with grandstand seating well below street level in the seedy Kabukicho district of Tokyo, where food is served in bento boxes and is but a mere sideshow to the main event, which involves bikini-clad women riding 10-foot-high robots around the room having laser fights to the tune of "Gangnam Style". You have never, ever, seen anything like it.

12 SEE SNOW MONKEYS 

Throughout the country, in high mountain areas of snow and ice, possibly the coolest animals in the entire world are just waiting to be found. 

Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, have a variety of habitats, but the most popular place to spot them is in the hot springs that dot Japan. There, the monkeys just hang out in the warm waters and do their best to look like little furry old men. They're a photographer's delight.

13 WATCH SPORT 

 There's an almost fanatical passion for sport in Japan, whether traditional forms such as sumo and martial arts, or imported games like baseball and soccer. Rugby is also becoming popular, with Japan hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. A sumo tournament is a spectacle, equal parts skill and size, grace and gluttony. At the baseball, sit and be amazed as one section of the crowd goes quiet to let the other cheer, and then vice versa when the opposite team bats. 

14 RIDE TOKYO METRO 

The scale is almost unimaginable. More than 6.5 million people use the Tokyo Metro every day. There are nine lines, and 179 stations; more than 2700 trains use them. And the craziest thing is that there's a whole separate underground network, the Toei Subway, that has an additional 2.5 million rides a day. The Tokyo Metro is an attraction in itself, a window into the daily life of this amazing metropolis.  

15 SEE HIMEJI-JO CASTLE 

This is the most spectacular example of traditional Japanese architecture, a castle complex in the hills west of Osaka that dates back to 1333. Himeji-jo is a UNESCO heritage site, and by far the most visited castle in Japan. A five-year-long renovation of the 83-building castle complex has recently been completed, meaning this beautiful site has rarely looked better.

16 DO FUJI-Q HIGHLAND 

Like roller-coasters? Like really scary roller-coasters? Like really scary roller-coasters with amazing backdrops? Then you're going to love Fuji-Q Highland, the theme park at the base of Mount Fuji. Fuji-Q has seven roller-coasters, including four that will take your breath away: the Fujiyama, which was once with world's fastest; the Dodonpa, currently the world's fourth fastest; the Eejanaika, which inverts 14 times; and the Takabisha, which has a 121-degree freefall.

17 VISIT GHIBLI MUSEUM 

Studio Ghibli is to Japanese animation what Pixar is to the Western version of the art form: a powerhouse of creativity and popularity, where the bulk of Japan's best animated films are produced.  Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, in the outer suburbs of Tokyo, showcases all that the studio has produced, from technology and fine-arts museums to a bookstore and theatre. Even for those new to anime, this is a great way to spend a day.

18 STAY KOYA-SAN TEMPLES 

There's no better place to experience the ancient, traditional side of Japan than Koya-san, a mountain town in Wakayama, south of Kyoto. Koya-san is sacred to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and is home to 117 temples and shrines laid out across beautifully wooded hills. One of Japan's quintessential experiences is to spend a night at one of Koya-san's temples, rising early to watch morning prayers before eating a traditional monk's breakfast.

19 EAT SOBA NOODLES IN MATSUMOTO 

You won't believe the love and attention and skill that goes into making a seemingly simple buckwheat noodle until you've visited Matsumoto. Set in  Nagano prefecture, a bullet-train ride from Tokyo, Matsumoto is a city that has dedicated itself to achieving perfection in soba noodles. Whether eating them hot or cold, solo or as part of a banquet, to taste soba noodles in Matsumoto is to understand why everyone is so obsessed. 

 20 GO TO QUIRKY FESTIVALS 

Japan plays host to hundreds of festivals every year, many of which cover standard themes like food, seasons and religion. However, the country is also home to some of the strangest celebrations around. We're talking the "Crying Sumo" festival, where wrestlers hold babies and see which one cries first; or the succession of festivals around the country where almost-naked men run around in freezing water; or the belly button festival in Hokkaido, a celebration of, yes, the belly button.

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