Japan’s singular fusion of ancient traditions and high-tech sophistication makes it one of the world’s most alluring travel destinations. To experience this heady combination of old and new, first head to the former capital of Kyoto, then onto Tokyo, the country’s ultramodern capital city.
Ancient Arts in Kyoto
It’s been said that if Tokyo is the door to Japan's future, then Kyoto is a window to its past. Kyoto was the seat of imperial power for more than 1,000 years and is often considered the cultural heart of Japan. A legacy of architectural craftsmanship is evident in the roughly 2,000 atmospheric temples and shrines dotting the city as well as machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) that line the historic Gion district. Wandering Gion’s cobblestone alleyways at dusk, keep your eyes open for a white-faced, kimono-clad geisha. The name is given to young women trained to entertain guests using the Japanese arts of music, dancing and engaging conversation.
To experience traditional music and dance firsthand, visit the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater where masked dancers reenact ancient legend. Another form of revered performance art in Kyoto is a classic tea ceremony. Most tea masters begin training as a child, learning the highly-ritualized etiquette of preparing and serving matcha, or green tea. Be sure to book a reservation well in advance; no visit to Kyoto is complete without it. For a hands-on craft experience contact Kyoto Artisans Concierge (an affiliate of the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts), which arranges atelier visits and crafts workshops with local craftsmen. There are more than 55 activities to choose from including Nishijin weaving, Yuzen dyeing, zen gardening, lacquerware and ceramics, bamboo craft making and more. You can also shop for artisan-made souvenirs at Nishijin textile district, Kyoto Handicraft Center or Japan Handmade.
For an introduction to Japan’s technological prowess, hop on a Shinkansen bullet train for a high-speed ride from Kyoto to Tokyo. Designated as Japan’s capital city in the late 19th century, Tokyo is a modern megalopolis with the most densely populated city center and the busiest metro system in the world. From its hyper-technical toilets to its legion of neon-lit skyscrapers, Tokyo is an innovative hub full of energy and ingenuity.
Head to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, to explore the Mori Building Digital Art Museum founded by the digital art collective teamLab. The interdisciplinary group of artists, scientists and designers uses more than 500 computers and 470 projectors to create large-scale digital art installations designed to stimulate all the senses. To interact with a humanoid robot, drop into nearby Miraikan – The National Museum of Emerging Science & Innovation, which spotlights cutting-edge science and futuristic technology using hands-on exhibits, robot performances and 3D movies in a dome theater. Even if you’re not familiar with the Japanese anime metaseries Gundam, it’s still worth shooting down to Odaiba’s waterfront to visit the nearly 49-ton, 65-foot robotic Unicorn Gundam statue, which enacts a physical transformation four times a day.
Back on the mainland, the electronics district of Akihabara is brimming with cacophonous arcades full of gamers and fans of anime and manga. It’s also where you’ll see young women dressed in manga-inspired French maid outfits working in the neighborhood’s cosplay maid cafés.
In Shibuya, get lost in a crossroad scramble at Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Crossing—one of the world’s busiest intersections where hundreds to thousands of people swarm the streets every two minutes under a dizzying sea of neon video screens. While in the neighborhood, pop into one of Purikura no Mecca’s high-tech photo booths. They are big enough to fit the whole family and offer a variety of fun filters that make for an amusing only-in-Japan souvenir.
For a bird’s eye view of it all, make your way to the Sumida district to ascend the tallest free-standing tower on the planet: the TOKYO SKYTREE. It has two observation decks with panoramic views over a city that honors tradition but is decidedly forward facing.