By Claire Okrafo-Smart
Until this year’s Olympics was postponed, sport’s biggest extravaganza has been called off just three times in modern history, all in wartime, and the last time (in 1940) was the year Tokyo was supposed to be the host city. What a coincidence.
As COVID-19 takes hold of the world and the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organisers scramble to deal with the complicated logistics involved in holding the greatest show on earth a year later than planned, we can’t help but look back at the past and the similarities between now and what has been described by some as the Lost Games of 1940.
Just as this year’s Olympics were billed as the “Recovery Olympics” nine years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the 1940 Games were seen as a way of aiding the city’s recovery from the earthquake of 1923, which had destroyed much of the metropolitan region.
But recover from this they will, for Japan is truly a master at reinvention. The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a country where the past meets the future. From bustling Tokyo and zen-like Kyoto all the way to laid-back Okinawa, Japan is a high-tech world mixed with the politeness and respect of their past. No matter where you travel, it leaves an impression – or so I’ve found. And, while we can’t travel right now, we can still dream.
I was lucky enough to travel there quite recently and it exceeded my expectations. So whether you have never travelled there before but intend to, or you are a frequent traveller, we’ve got a collection of fun and exciting things to do in Japan for all travellers – something to look forward to when the travel bans are lifted.
1. Take the Bullet Train
There’s something wonderful about train journeys (when you aren’t on a crowded commuter train, struggling for a seat!). Pop on headphones, sit back and look out the windows at life passing by. Plus, it’s the most efficient way to get around Japan. Purchase a Japan Rail Pass before you travel.
Japanese trains are famous for their time-keeping. There was an “incident” last year on a Japanese train. It was described by a rail company spokesperson as “truly inexcusable”, prompted a flurry of high-level apologies and staff are now being trained to prevent it from happening again. The misdemeanour in question? The train departed from a station 25 seconds ahead of schedule.
2. Japanese Photo Booth
Hopping inside a Japanese photo booth, or purikura, is a quick, yet memorable experience.
You can find photo booths in many arcades and they cost around 400 yen (£3); once you’ve taken your pictures, head to the editing screen and make your eyes bigger, your cheeks blush, your smile more white and you can add captions before it prints it out for you.
In the end, you’re left with an inexpensive and ridiculously “Japanese” souvenir that’ll make you laugh each time you see it.
3. Dip in an Onsen: a Japanese Hot Spring
Japan has a lot of volcanic activity, so there are onsens all around the country and they are a staple in Japanese culture.
The most magical onsens are outdoors and if you visit Japan during the winter, taking a dip in an onsen is a must, as there’s nothing quite like immersing in steaming water when the air outside is so chilly!
4. Japanese Cooking Classes
There is definitely something to suit all tastes, even if you are vegan or vegetarian. If you visit Tsukiji Fish Market (known as Japan’s Kitchen) you will prepare and taste the freshest sushi ever; slurp down a proper ramen noodle bowl (ramen has become the most popular Japanese dish among tourists in recent years), and learn how to make an authentic Gyoza (pan-fried dumpling).
5. Fushimi Inari Shrine
If you’ve seen “Memoirs of a Geisha”, you’ll recognise the famous orange gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Photo Tip: The beginning of the pathway is packed with people stopping for pictures. Keep walking past the crowds until the path starts going uphill. You will be able to get a picture without anyone obstructing your shot. You will also reach a lookout point and be rewarded with a view overlooking Kyoto.
6. Glimpse Mount Fuji
Seeing Mount Fuji in all her glory is at the top of many travellers’ Japan bucket list (however, it’s good to know that this iconic mountain is known for being shy and often hides behind the clouds). Mount Fuji is open for hiking during the peak season of July and August when the mountain huts are also open.
7. Tea Ceremony
There is a specific art form to creating the perfect cup of tea and the Japanese have made that perfection. Probably the best cup of tea you’ll ever have.
When to Travel?
Spring is considered by many as a great time to visit Japan for its comfortable temperatures, cherry blossoms and little chance of rain.
One thing you should be aware of though is the so-called “Golden Week” which falls in the springtime and is made up of 4 national holidays which fall into a 7-day span. This means many Japanese people will also be travelling around the country and accommodation and tours are often booked far in advance.