Our thoughtful hosts phone ahead to ask whether we prefer sashimi or teppanyaki for dinner. Because I don’t like seafood, let alone raw seafood, the obvious choice is teppanyaki. But it’s our first night in Japan, and our hosts are locals, so we opt for sashimi, for the experience. We’re collected from our hotel and led through a maze of bustling subway tunnels, into an unassuming restaurant and through to a private dinning room. Our hosts offer to order for us, and we’re more than happy to oblige. A selection of speciality dishes appears. The company is charming. I make myself a promise to try whatever I’m offered. The food is good, although it’s not surprising given where we are. Suddenly a plate of white, translucent sashimi is placed in front of me. I take a mouthful and realise the room has fallen silent. Three pairs of eyes are looking at me expectantly. I swallow, and offer, ‘I like that. What is it?’ Blowfish.
With just seven days in the country, we didn’t even scratch the surface of what Japan has to offer. But boy did it leave a lasting impression.
Where to stay
Japan offers a wealth of accommodation options for all budgets and tastes. These hotels are featured here simply because they are where we stayed.
Hotel Granvia Osaka. Located directly above the JR Osaka train station and in the heart of downtown Osaka, you’ll find countless dining and entertainment options as soon as you step outside of the hotel. Upgrade to the Granvia Floor Guestrooms for a larger room and entry to the Granvia Floor Lounge, where you’ll enjoy services such as private check-out, complimentary tea and coffee and baked goods, a library and business facilities. The service at this hotel is impeccable. As a business hub, Osaka doesn’t receive as many tourists as some of Japan’s other cities, so this hotel was delightfully Japanese.
Park Hotel Tokyo. This business hotel is situated in the district of Shiodome, and is an easy walk to Shimbashi Station. The entry-level rooms are spacious by Japanese standards, and offer spectacular views of the surrounds. The hotel has a modern, international vibe, which matches the feel of the area.
Shinkansen. With a travelling speed of 270 kilometres per hour and a flawless safety record, a ride on a Japanese bullet train is an experience not to be missed. The Tokaido line links Narita airport, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and offers passengers a glimpse of Mount Fuji. The high-speed journey between Tokyo and Osaka takes about four hours, and is the best way to travel between the two cities. Pay a little extra to reserve a seat; the non-reserved cars can fill up quickly.
Ginza, Tokyo. Located in central Toyko, this is the city’s most famous shopping and entertainment precinct. Here you’ll find department stores, luxury designer boutiques, galleries and restaurants. The area comes to life at night.
Akihabara Electric City, Tokyo. An assault on the senses, this district is one for the technology and electronics obsessed, and the anime, manga and retro-gaming fans. This is where you’ll find electronics that are being tested in the market; those that you may be buying in two years’ time back at home.
Sashimi. If my introduction to this article didn’t convince you, Japan is the place to eat sashimi, for obvious reasons. I recommend the experience, but not necessarily the blowfish. Sample that at your own risk.
Japanese sweets. The Japanese understand the appeal of beautiful presentation and packaging, and they showcase this best with their sweets. Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you’ll find it difficult to ignore the enticing cabinet displays. I recommend ordering something simply so you can watch your purchase being wrapped: a show in itself.
Osaka Castle. Originally built in 1583 during Toyotomi Hideyosh’s rule, the castle was destroyed and rebuilt under Tokugawa Hidetada in the 1960s. The main tower was burned down in 1665 by a lightning strike, and wasn’t reconstructed until 1931. What you see today was modernised further in 1997. Its secondary citadels, stone walls and surrounding moats are impressive, and Nishinomaru Garden is home to 600 cherry trees. Entry to the castle is open to the public.
Umeda Sky Building, Osaka. At 170 metres tall, the view from the open-air rooftop offers a spectacular, uninterrupted 360-degree view of the city. Worth every bit of the JPY700.
Tokyo Imperial Palace East Gardens. Japan’s imperial family resides in the palace, so it is only open to the public on two days each year. The gardens are open year-round on most days of the week. If your itinerary permits, be sure to plan ahead by checking the opening days when you arrive in the country. Here you’ll find moats, guardhouses, what remains of the castle tower and a Japanese garden.