Cultural highlights of Japan: readers’ travel tips
The Guardian – Shrines, onsens and classical theatre vie with baseball and hip-hop as Japan’s kaleidoscopic array of culture delights our tipsters on their travels
Winning tip: architectural gems, Hakodate
This summer I visited Hakodate, on the southernmost point of Hokkaido. On steep hills overlooking the harbour is the area where the outside world set up trading and diplomatic missions following the end of policy of isolation in the mid-19th century. You find colonial-style European architecture mixed with Japanese features such as sliding doors, painted scrolls and pine tree bonsai. There is even the sound of church bells from a Russian orthodox church. These buildings feel unique, not just within Japan but the world. You can go inside many of them to learn more: we visited the former British consulate for just over £2, to see historical exhibits, preserved rooms and a well-kept rose garden.
The Lion Café, Tokyo
The Japanese reverence for high-quality recorded music finds an outlet in classical music listening cafes. One of the oldest is Meikyoku Kissa Lion, the Lion Cafe, opened in 1926. It is in the sleaziest part of Shibuya, surrounded by love hotels and sex shops, but inside it’s a model of decorum. In a hall decked out like a railway dining car, punters sit at tables facing three-metre-high wooden speakers, reverently listening to classical vinyl LPs. The menu (drinks only) includes cocoa and cream soda; orders are taken in a whisper. An upstairs gallery is available for those who find the ground floor too hectic. Very, very special.
• 2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, japan-experience.com
Street hip-hop, Tokyo
Wandering through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya City, I found myself drawn to the thrum of a bass drum in the distance. At its source, flanked on one side by a graffiti mural of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and a mixing station on the other, was an under-15s’ rap battle. This southern section of Yoyogi Park (under the overpass) hosts regular freestyle rap and breakdancing competitions and is in many ways a centre for hip-hop in Tokyo, boasting a sound system and live DJs at weekends. Most notable, however, was the atmosphere: surrounded by breakdancers and hip-hop acolytes of all ages, the crowd erupted as one 10-year old battler declared himself the “hip-hope scene junkie-dayo!” Electric.
Kabukiza theatre, Ginza, Tokyo
Japanese culture doesn’t get much more refined than kabuki. The easiest way to catch a performance is at the Kabukiza theatre in Tokyo’s Ginza district. We were mesmerised by the elaborate costumes and make-up, stylised music and melodramatic plots (you can rent a captioning device to follow the story). It was equally fascinating watching the audience of kimono-wearing kabuki aficionados who whooped with delight as their idols appeared. Tickets are pricy (from £27 to £100), but you can buy single-act seats on the day, for ¥1,000-1,500 (£8-£11). Pick up a bento box from the food floor, so you don’t miss a minute.
Donuts, Tenmaya, Tokyo
For us, the ultimate cultural highlight we experienced in Japan was the food, and our absolutely favourite was curry pan from Tenmaya in the Shimokitazawa area of south-west Tokyo. It’s a savoury donut, super-crisp from the addition of panko breadcrumbs on the outside and filled with delicious Japanese curry inside. It was piping hot from the fryer and truly delicious – so unlike anything we’ve had elsewhere in the world. And under £2 each.
A night at the Nagoya Baseball Dome, with 40,000 Japanese, old, young, families and “salarymen”, cheering on the Chunichi Dragons was the highlight of our trip. The false stereotype of reserved Japanese was put to bed with hours of songs and chants and generous fans around us sharing highballs and sake. After we’d joined in as best we could with some of the chants, the Dragons fans took us in as their own, and wanted to chat about everything and anything. A real one-off experience. Tickets were bought from FamilyMart stores for £30. “Da Da Hirata!”
Steer clear of weekend crowds in Kyoto, and head for the coast by train to Kinosaki Onsen, a relaxing and pretty hot spring town. Ryokans and public baths run the length of the willow-lined river that meanders through town. I stayed at the Wakayo Guesthouse, a traditional women-only hostel run by delightful sisters Chihiro and Mizuho. Dress up in the provided cotton fukata and wooden clogs, get your 24-hour bath pass and spend your time meandering between hot spring baths, trying local food and exploring. An outdoor waterfall-fed pool on a chilly evening was a special moment. Walk or ride the ropeway to sample local coffee and great views from the mountain cafe and visit the gorgeous beach at Takeno.
Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima
The floating torii gate of Itsukushima shrine against the blue backdrop of Mount Misen and Hiroshima Bay is a sight to behold. Consistently ranked as one of the top views of Japan, this gate is located in Miyajima, an island less than an hour from the city of Hiroshima. From Hiroshima, take the JR line to Miyajimagouchi. The ferry from Miyajimagouchi to the island is free if you already have a Japan Rail Pass. I stayed at the Miyajima Guest House Mikuniya, a cosy Japanese-style accommodation with tatami flooring and futon beds. A night’s stay cost £30. The island is a romantic place where wild deer roam free.
Onsen hot springs, Kyushu
Yufuin is a spa town on Kyushu and a fantastic place for onsen hot springs. Reached by the Yufuin-no-Mori special express, a retro-styled train with picture windows that give panoramic views, the onsen experience begins with a public foot spa on the platform at Yufuin station. Adventurous travellers can set off from the centre of Yufuin in the morning, hike to the 1,500-metre peak of Mount Yufu, the volcano that towers above the town, and back down again in time for a soak in the public onsen at Kinrin lake before dinner. The walking trails on the mountain are well-marked and while there are steep sections, the lower of the two peaks is a challenging walk, rather than a climb.
• Yufuin train, jrkyushu.co.jp
Kubota Itchiku Art Museum, Yamanashi
The Kubota Itchiku Art Museum in Yamanashi prefecture offers a quintessential Japanese experience. Set in gardens designed by the eponymous artist, a cedar-beamed pyramid houses kimonos of exquisite design. The kimonos are a celebration of the natural beauty of the area, saturated in vivid colours. The museum is a testament to Kubota Itchiku’s extraordinary legacy, in particular the Symphony of Light series. He had planned to create 80 kimonos, which would work together to create a landscape portrait of Mount Fuji. Although unfinished – he died in 2003 – it is still glorious.