Temples, sushi, traffic – there’s more to Japan than that, right? For today’s travel guide to Japan, we brought in long-time Japanese ex-pat Kathryn to share her insights on this amazing country.
So much is written about the two sides of Japan – the traditional and the ultra modern but for me the beauty lies in the everyday. The best things in Japan aren’t found in guide books but by walking (or cycling) around and detouring down fascinating side streets and poking your nose into the most unobtrusive of shops.
Must go in Japan
You don’t really feel like you are in Japan until you’re in the middle of the chaos that is the Shibuya crossing, with video screens on every side of you. If you really want to test your endurance for sensory overload, head to Shibuya 109 where the cool kids shop for fashion. Otherwise, get a window seat at one of the coffee chains for awesome people watching.
So many people recommend I visit Kamakura but I ignored them thinking it was nothing but temples. Wrong! Sure there are heaps of temples if you are into that kind of thing but the town has a hippy beach vibe –lots of laidback cafes and clothes stores mixed in with the traditional stores selling sembai (rice crackers) and matcha (green tea) ice cream.
The Japanese toilet
Japanese toilets are an experience in themselves. Multiple water squirting options (including the “female” one), heated seats, deodorizing and discreet water flushing sounds to hide any embarrassing noise you make.
Must do in Japan
Miss the last train home
Miss the last train on a Saturday night and hang with the locals on the streets of Shinjuku. Kabukicho is the red light district but mostly safe enough for the lone female traveler. There’s every kind of bar imaginable, but for cheap entertainment, just grab a beer or two from the conbini (convenience store).
Host boys with huge hair work the streets for customers, drunken salarymen propping each other up while groups of young and old Japanese party hard.
If you get tired, there are a few options – a private booth at an internet café, complete with recliner chair (some even offer manicures), a love hotel with a wacky theme or a human-size locker in a capsule hotel. Many capsule hotels are male only so if you want to take that option, it might be worth pre-planning.
There is always a festival on in Japan, whether it’s one of the major religious festivals with elaborate gold mikoshi (portable shrines) carried by men in lion clothes or a small neighborhood events. And, of course, there is all the festival food – usually on sticks – from whole fish to chocolate coated bananas.
If you are freaked out by the thought of getting buck naked in a bath of boiling water with complete strangers, all the more reason to head to an onsen. You’ll soon get over yourself and your body issues. There are a few rules regarding onsen bathing – wash thoroughly before getting in the water is the main one, and there are usually posters with cute pictures to guide you.
Must eat in Japan
You can’t go to Japan and NOT eat ramen. These huge bowls of steaming noodle soup are the best. Good places have queues out the door. Buy a ticket from the machine and hand it to the guy behind the counter. Choose between shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and tonkutsu (pork) miso broth. Every area has it’s own speciality and every one in Japan has their favorite store.
When you’ve tried sushi in Japan, you’ll be spoiled for anywhere else. The place is to go is Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. The fish is fresh off the boat and into the market that morning. The preparation, as you’d expect, is expert. If you’re an early bird, you can watch the fish auctions first thing in the morning.
Okonimiyaki is sometimes called “Japanese pizza”. I have no idea why – it’s more of a cabbage-y omelette, topped with delicious sauce and mayonnaise. Osaka style is all mixed together, Hiroshima style is layers – try both to decide which you prefer.
Cultural tips for Traveling in Japan
Lugging a huge bag onto a crowded peak hour train is sure to make you unpopular and a lot of stations don’t have easily found elevators. Instead go to the takuhaibin counters at the airport and have your bags delivered overnight to your hotel.
Travel on the cheap in Japan
Tabehoudai and nomihoudai (all you can eat/drink) can save you a fortune.
Get a JR pass before you travel. Transport costs in Japan aren’t cheap so with unlimited train travel you can save heaps.
The Nishinari area in Osaka is full of old hotels turned into cheap backpackers. If you’re looking for something a bit nicer, Airbnb is always a good bet. Here’s an entire house in Osaka for $37 USD per night! If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking.
It’s a great place to stay to explore not only Osaka but also for day trips to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.
Do you have any Japanese travel tips to share? Questions for Kathryn?
P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously