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Japan Travel Guide


flights to Japan

In spite if it's bold, distinctive and very successful infiltration into western popular culture, Japan remains a mystery to most outsiders, who regard much of what they consume as a style, an art form, a ritual or a commodity. From Fuji to Manga, Sumo to Sushi we have diluted our notions of Japanese lifestyle into bite-sized chunks of entertainment and commodities. Subsequently, our perception of the country has been reduced to a colourful, indecipherable Disneyland where myth merges with reality, people are crazy or proud and almost everything has a price. In many ways it is the Japanese themselves who are responsible for these misconceptions, they are, after all masters of the art of trade and commerce; a race of workaholics who can corner a market before their western contemporaries have so much as finished the first board meeting.

The city that most epitomises Japan's 'new age culture' is it's capital, Tokyo, a metropolis as far away from the quintessential Japanese city of your dreams as you could imagine. There is good reason for this. The city has virtually been destroyed twice - once by an earthquake in 1923 and a second time by US air strikes during WWII. In truth, the very fact that Tokyo not only survived, but went on to rebuild itself to such phenomenal proportions is proof positive that you are in Japan. Once the initial surprise has passed and you start to examine the city more closely, you realise just how Japanese Tokyo really is. Ignore the looming office blocks, car jammed overpasses, glitzy hotels and neon clad entertainment emporiums and look to the streets themselves. There you'll find an underbelly, where tradition is still alive and kicking, where myriad tiny stores sell groceries, where women in kimonos bow to each other on the sidewalk, where beautifully manicured bonsais stand in tubs and children play old-fashioned games down winding alleys. The city is filled with joyful pockets of history - ancient temples, elegant gardens, ponds filled with coy carp, teahouses and intriguing little shops selling traditional crafts.

The former capital of the country is the anagrammatically named Kyotoc, which remains a centre of culture today. Here, you'll find the magnificent Imperial Palace and the elaborate Sanjusangen-do Temple with it's 1001 statues of the goddess Kannon. Miyajima is the locale for the sacred place of Shinto and one of the most beautiful coastal areas in Japan. To keep the island pure there are no dogs allowed and no one is supposed to be born or die there. An hour away Hiroshima stands as a solemn reminder of man's inhumanity to fellow man; with it's Peace Memorial Park and Atom Bomb Dome standing as grim monuments to the tragic loss of life.

The modern city of Kobe blends European and Japanese styles and cultures and has a wealth of superb restaurants many of which serve the delicious local delicacy Kobe Beef. Many of the best cafes and restaurants are situated along the famous flower road with it's riotously colourful flower clock, which showcases seasonal blooms. Nearby Osaka remains proud of it's oceanic heritage and besides being home to the largest Aquarium in the world - with it's colossal central tank housing whale sharks and manta rays - it is also home to the gods of the sea who are believed to reside at the Sumiyosh Taisha Shrine. Built in 211AD in honour of the Empress Jingo, it is the oldest example of shrine architecture in Japan.

On an unusual note, Japan's obsession with the west is epitomised by the town of Huis en Bosch a functional replica of a Dutch town complete with windmills, dykes, cheese shop and a reproduction of the Dutch Royal Family's house. Unsurprisingly, the town is home to no less than 10,000 Japanese cloggy-wannabes. Another unusual place of interest is the Art Park in Sapporo (that's right it isn't just a beer), which combines open spaces, commissioned works, workshops, exhibition by established artists, showcases and concerts and was conceived as an international forum for artists. If you visit Japan in January, May, July, September or November, be sure to check out the national sport, Sumo. Matches are held in Tokyo (Jan, May, Sep), Osaka (Mar), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (Nov) starting around 10am and running till early evening, with the top wrestlers appearing after 3.30pm. Entrance fee is between 1000yen for basic seats and 7000yen for a balcony, although it has to be said that the nearer the action you get the more you will appreciate this ancient martial art.

The Japanese archipelago is nothing if not fascinating. I doubt as a westerner I will ever really understand the culture or truly appreciate the wonders of the country as a whole. But for a pleasant shock to the system it works on many levels - offering a taste of ancient tradition and mythology with all the creature comforts that we in the west have become accustomed to.

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