Seven years ago, Nottingham model Dean Newcombe moved to Tokyo for three months and ended up staying for a year. Within six months of waving farewell, he was back for good. “Tokyo has a habit of grabbing hold of people,” he explains. “I felt like I hadn’t even come close to scratching the surface.”
Even now, the city is full of surprises. “I’ll suddenly be introduced to a temple that’s just behind my house. It’s not famous at all but completely spectacular because all the wood was carved by hand hundreds of years ago. When I first arrived, I thought that everything would be pristine. But downtown Tokyo has ancient temples all mixed up with outdated and ultra-new buildings, which is part of the charm.”
These days Dean is a presenter for NHK World TV, the Japanese equivalent of BBC World. Its travel documentaries are an excellent resource if you’re planning a trip to Japan, or simply want to learn more about a country that rarely makes it onto the main channels. For those of us who don’t have three months or seven years to explore at leisure, here are Dean’s tips for experiencing Japan like a local.
Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest tower in the world and Tokyo must be one of the only places where you’ll see urbanisation stretching out in every direction. It’s especially beautiful at night with all the twinkling lights. There’s an artificial island in Tokyo Bay called Odaiba, which is a good day out and a popular date spot. The best way to get there is on the new Yurikamome train line, which offers great views as it takes you across Rainbow Bridge.
As well as shopping malls and food courts, there’s a hot springs theme park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari with 14 different kinds of bath, including one where fish nibble the dead skin off your feet!
When I have friends in town, I take them for monjayaki, a pancake with vegetables, meat or seafood mixed in with the batter. It first became popular after the Second World War when food was scarce. It’s a fun meal because you usually cook it yourself and eat it straight from the hot plate with a tiny spatula.
Radio Times Travel offer: 11-day escorted tour to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Takayama from £2,599
THE SPIRIT OF KYOTO
Kyoto is really bike-friendly so last time I was there I rented a mamachari, which is a typical bike with a basket. Kyoto was the imperial capital for over a thousand years and is known as the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines”. There are supposed to be over a thousand Buddhist temples alone. You can see dozens of Shinto shrines [Japan’s indigenous faith], temples and their lovely gardens in a couple of days on a bike.
The Japanese are mad about food and each town has its own dish. When you say to somebody, “I’m going to such-and-such town,” instead of replying, “Go and see that temple or this museum,” they always say, “Try the such-and-such”.
In Kyoto, try obanzai. This is the traditional style of homecooking, but you can find it in buffet restaurants. It’s super-healthy because the ingredients are mostly seasonal organic vegetables. Apparently university studies have proved that the vegetables in Kyoto have more nutrients than any other vegetables in the world.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Yakushima is an island in the warm, subtropical waters off Japan’s south coast and a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s not the easiest place to get to, but it’s worth the effort. It feels a million miles away from Tokyo, like you’ve stepped back in time or stumbled into Jurassic Park. Its mountains are almost completely covered in mossy forests.
The only places that aren’t forest are beautiful tropical beaches with crystal-clear water where you can snorkel with fish. There’s a famous hike to an ancient cedar tree known as Jomon Sugi, which is said to be more than 2,000 years old and the oldest tree in Japan.
It’s spectacular, as are many of the trees you encounter there. They were the inspiration for Moth Forest in the anime film Princess Mononoke.
Hyper Japan Festival is at Olympia in London from 15th to 17th July. Day tickets are £15 to £17 or £43 for a three-day pass. For tickets, go to: hyperjapan.co.uk
NHK World TV is available on Sky (channel 507), Virgin Media (channel 625), Freesat (channel 209) and TV Player and its travel documentaries are also available on demand at: nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/vod/
Radio Times Travel offer
11-day escorted tour of Japan, from £2,599. This exciting escorted tour will reveal an intoxicating mix of history, tradition and culture, spectacular works of nature, and the contrasts of blisteringly modern 21st-century Japan. You’ll find so much to discover – from Kyoto’s temples and snow-capped Mt Fuji to the eye-popping sights of Tokyo, with its breathless pace. Read more and book.