1. Climb Mt Fuji
Mount Fuji, is Japan’s highest mountain at 3776 metres (12,389 feet) and just 100km from Tokyo. Often snow-capped, it’s open to the public for climbing for two months in summer from July 1 to early September. The mountain has 10 stations for climbers from the base to summit, and for hardcore hikers, the 19km Old Yoshidaguchi Trail is the road less travelled. There are four routes, and most climbers catch a lift to mid-levels by road and the climb to the top takes 5-6 hours and you can spend about 90 minutes walking the crater rim before a 3-hour descent. But be prepared, it’s cold and altitude sickness can occur. That said, it’s not a difficult climb and many opt to overnight in a hut halfway up and set off again pre-dawn to reach the summit for sunrise. If you’re pressed for time, there are shorter walks lower down.
2. Drink at the Lost in Translation bar.
Perhaps the reason Bill Murray looked so maudlin was because he’d just paid $50 for a wagyu hamburger with fries in the Tokyo Park Hyatt’s New York Bar. But it’s still worth a visit to gaze out over this massive city from 230 metres up on the 52nd floor, where the cocktails are seriously good and you can drink wine from director Sophia Coppola’s dad’s California vineyard. Francis Ford Coppola rose or zinfandel is about $20 a glass.
3. Shibuya Crossing
The Scramble, as it’s known, is Tokyo’s most famous, and reportedly the world’s busiest intersection is like the love child New York’s Times Square combined with London’s Abbey Road, and an extraordinary place to watch an actual sea of humanity as it rises and falls, surging from every direction as the lights change. Try your luck getting a seat at the 2nd floor Starbucks in the Q-Front building (which alas, had its giant video screen turned off).
4. Scrub up in a bath house
The rituals and etiquette of communal hot-water bathing are well worth the experience and the de-stressing is helped by the fact that many bath houses have features such as saunas – a bedrock sauna (ganban-yoku) where you lie on a large, heated stone is the best – massages, and if you’re really lucky, an outdoor spring (rotenburo). While still an essential part of Japanese life, it’s beginning to disappear as new homes are built with baths. There are two types: onsen, which use volcanic spring water, and sento, which is tap water.
Saya-no-yudokoro in central Tokyo has a Japanese garden, traditional feel and lovely open-air hot spring bath rich in sodium chloride, as well as 14 other types of baths, plus a ganbanyoku hot stone bath (720 yen extra). Entry is 830 yen ($9), plus 310 yen to rent face and bath towels and it’s open until 1am.
Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a big theme park hot springs bath house with Edo-era trappings and an open air ‘big common bath’, a Japanese garden-themed Foot Bath you walk down on pebbles to massage your feet, a ‘Doctor Fish’ foot bath, where small fish eat away the dead skin cells, the Kinu-no-Yu (bath of silk) with tiny bubbles to help you relax and a low-temp Himalayan rock salt sauna, along with plenty of other distractions once you’ve had a good soak, including fortune tellers. Entry is ¥2,480 ($26, inc Yukata robe and towel), weekdays and it’s open 11am to 9am the following day (last entry 7am).
5.Visit Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market for the tuna auction
Around 3000 tons of seafood pass through Tokyo’s central wholesale market daily and Tsukiji is the world’s biggest and business fish market. The 5am live auction is the Wall Street of tuna, with prized bluefin selling for over $1 million. Visitors aren’t allowed every day, so you need to check the schedule and get there before 5am in order to register – it’s first-come, first-served, with no reservations – because visitors are now limited to just 120 a day in two groups of 60 at 5.25am and 5.50am. The market is over by 9am, and after a visit, a sushi breakfast at one of the nearby sushi bars – the ever-reliable Sushizanmai Honjin is open 24 hours. If it’s in season, try shirako (cod sperm).
6. Tour a sake brewery
While Niigata to the north is Japan’s most famed sake region, there are around a dozen sake breweries surrounding Tokyo and many now offer tours in English. The brewing season generally runs from November to April, peaking over the December-January period.
The Ishikawa Shuzo brewery is a 45 minute train ride from the city and started making sake in 1863 and. The tour takes you through the 100-year-old kura buildings, the traditional storehouses where they brew “Tamajiman” sake. The tour is free but reservations are required. For details email them ([email protected]) or check out the website here. There are two eateries on site, a soba buckwheat noodle restaurant, and “Fussa no Birugoya”, a beer restaurant where you can try the local stuff, “Tama no Megumi,” fresh from the Mukougura beer factory with pizza and pasta.
7. Go sumo
There are three big sumo tournaments in Tokyo annually, with the next two-week extravaganza hitting the mat September 13-27 at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall. You can buy tickets for general admission on the day for about $24 and the prices go all the way up to $130 for box seats closer to the ring, where you have to take off your shoes and sit on a cushion. The contests begin at 9am and builds through the day, with plenty of rituals to fill in the time between bouts that can last just seconds. Of course it’s easier to swing by and grab some of the action during the day and there’s English radio commentary 4-6pm.
Outside of the tournaments, you can visit a beya (sumo stable) for an early morning tour. They’re almost daily in October and offer demonstrations and explanations of various aspects of sumo culture. See here for details.
8. Dine at the famed Jiro Dreams of Sushi restaurant
Sukiyabashi Jiro is a small Tokyo sushi restaurant run by 90-year-old Jiro Ono, made famous by the 2012 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s now nearly impossible to get a seat there for the 20-course omakase menu, which costs around $AU330. It can be a challenging experience, since you’re expected to eat it all in under an hour and no-one speaks English, so if you’re not feeling confident, aim for one of the world’s top 10 restaurants, the elegant French-influenced fine diner Narisawa, for a 10-course tasting menu that might include grilled fugu fish, bread baked at the table, a spectacular cheese trolley and impeccable waiters with speaking equally impeccable English, plus a wine list offering the best from Japan and France. Lunch is 20,000 yen ($220), dinner 25,000Y ($270).
9. Try Japanese whisky at Shot Bar Zoetrope
Shot Bar Zoetrope is one of those wonderful expressions of Japanese obsession. Its owner, Atsushi Origami, has two great passions: cinema and whisky. He got the late Japanese art cinema director, Takeo Kimura, to decorate his small bar, which stocks more than 300 whiskies, including old bottles from now defunct Japanese distillers, as well as rare Japanese rums, brandies, grappa and craft beers by Minoh in Osaka. You won’t find any sake or shochu there, but the single malt whiskies start at a very reasonable 700 yen (about $8) rising to about 6000 yen – and you can have half shots and watch silent comedy films on the big screen. The bar is open until 4am (closed Sundays) but be warned – it’s cash only. large screen plays a continuous selection of comedy films from the silent era.
10. Grab a gadget
Japan is home for two of the world’s biggest electronics companies and the place to see their next big ideas first hand.
Sony’s tax free Ginza store is a toyshop for techheads, with all the latest gear available as overseas models. The staff speak English, show them your foreign passport for an 8% discount (Japan’s consumption tax) and they offer warranty services on gear, as well as showing off tech that might not have made it to your corner of the planet just yet.
Panasonic’s showroom in Odaiba is even more impressive: two floors of tech and museum-like interactions including a science museum called RiSuPia, which is free for under 18s. You can trial new products, explore the Olympic and Paralympic games exhibition, which highlights the company’s technological support for sport, and relive your childhood via Nintendo, from the original to the latest versions.
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