Ten things to do in Japan by Natasha Pulley
My first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, will come out in paperback in July. The main character is Japanese and I wrote a lot of it in Tokyo, where I lived for a year and a half. These are some of the things I’d recommend to anyone heading for Japan, whether it’s for a week or a year.
- When you first arrive, find a hotel in a skyscraper and have a cup of coffee right at the top. Cerulean Tower in Shibuya is a good one, but there are lots. Tokyo is vast, and it’s sometimes very difficult to picture where you are. Seeing it from above helps with a sense of direction.
- Don’t be scared of the metro. It’s massive, much bigger than the London Underground, but everything is signposted in English. The only station to avoid in Shinjuku, which is about a kilometer long and impossible to navigate even with a smartphone.
- When you’ve settled down, find an izakaya. It’s a Japanese-style pub and from the outside they don’t look like shops at all; wooden sliding doors, no windows. But Google where they are. If you think Japanese culture is all about quiet and politeness, think again. You often have to shout your order across the room, and when it arrives, it’s sometimes on fire.
- While you’re there, order umeshu. It’s plum wine and it’s incredible. Ask for the sweet stuff.
- Learn some Japanese. It’s hard but worth it. There are language schools if you’re staying for a while, or course books if you’re not, but either way, you might get a few free drinks out of it, not to mention a lot more good will. Forget Google Translate; download the Imiwa? app, which is an excellent dictionary, and free. Bear in mind that the Japanese way of saying things is never the same as the English way, so literal translation won’t work – you’ll come out with Jabberwocky nonsense if you try.
- Go to an onsen. They’re public spa-baths. It sounds horrific to sit naked with a bunch of strangers in sulphurous volcano water, but actually it’s amazing, and a lot of hotels in mountainous areas have them onsite. In Yokohama there’s even a 24 hour one where you can sit on the roof of an eight-storey hotel with a footbath and watch the fairground.
- Go on the bullet train (the shinkansen). It’s expensive, but incredible. It’s about three hundred and twenty miles from Tokyo to Kyoto – which is the same as from Cambridge to Devon – and the fast train does it in slightly over two hours. It runs on time to the minute. As do all metro trains.
- Read some books. Try Natsume Soseki, who wrote nutty stories around the turn of the century. You’ll get a dose of Tokyo history and a good feel for the local sense of humour. Botchan is my favourite.
- Get into an argument with someone about the tea ceremony. Many people cheerfully claim that it takes twenty years to learn how to make tea properly; counter-claim that this is obviously untrue, and enjoy the fireworks that ensue. You might even get taken to a tea ceremony so they can prove their point.
- Most of all, keep calm. It’s hard to be a foreigner in Japan sometimes, but if you need help, just ask for it. When I lived there I was a) once bitten by a monkey b) twice lost in the red light district and c) in the habit of going running at midnight in the summer. I never felt unsafe, and even random strangers were willing to give directions or sympathise about the monkeys.
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