Around the age of 11 there was an article in my school newsletter inviting people to join an exchange trip to our sister school, an elementary in Fukuoka. At this time I knew nothing about Japan and had actually been studying German in class, but as a very shy kid I think my mum saw an opportunity to encourage me out of my shell. So with her and about fifteen other eleven or twelve year old kids we’d never met, we set out on a journey of cultural discovery. Little did I know this would be the beginning of my on again, off again long distance love affair with the land of the rising sun.
Fast forward twelve years to the autumn of 2015, a friend and I had arrived late night into Iriya Station in Tokyo without having put any thought toward how we would get from there to our hostel. With no wifi or English signs, we were at first rather suspicious but in the end relieved when a local offered to show us the way to our hostel. And I don’t mean he drew directions on a map, or pointed the way. He personally escorted us for about twenty minutes to our hostel, walking in the complete opposite direction to where he should have been meeting friends for dinner. Though I wouldn’t recommend following a strangers lead, lucky for us the area was fairly bustling and he turned out to be a good sort. That being my third visit to Japan, I thought it’s about time I share the quintessential Japan experiences that I think are must do’s for any first time visitors.
You may also be interested in Getting My Feet In Japan.
Stay In A Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style guest house which might typically include sliding paper doors and tatami mat flooring for example. Pictured above is the lounge bar of Toco Guesthouse, the hostel that lovely local directed us to late that night. Set up by a collective of friends in a quiet but convenient area of Tokyo, it’s a modern way of showcasing Japan’s cultural and design heritage in a way more suited to backpackers or solo travellers. Perhaps it wouldn’t be defined as a traditional ryokan but it certainly gave us a similar experience. This is one of the best ways to enjoy Japanese culture and hospitality.
Enlighten Yourself In Onsen
On my first two trips to Japan I never managed to make it past the nerves of being naked in my pubescent body, but by the third visit I was ready to experience all Japan had to offer. My friend and I set an entire afternoon aside to visit Tokyo’s Onsen theme park; Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari – it’s the Disneyland for hot pools. There’s indoor pools, outdoor pools, wading pools, mixed pools (where swimsuits are worn) and a full food hall and gift shop to take a break from all that tiring relaxation. After shaking some initial nerves, the experience was enlightening and liberating. You haven’t done Japan until you’ve done Onsen!
See also Overcoming Onsen Anxiety in Tokyo.
Most people know the tragedy of World War II and the atomic bomb that flattened much of Hiroshima, but how much do you know about other aspects of this fascinating country and people? A great place to start is the Tokyo National Museum of Nature and Science and the neighbouring Tokyo National Museum. On my most recent visit to Tokyo I was also intrigued to learn how Japanese people would have lived many years ago at the Edo Tokyo Museum. Of course a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Memorial should be in your itinerary too. Wherever possible I suggest hiring English language headsets to make the most of your visits.
Eat Real Japanese Cuisine
Not just Sushi. The Japanese diet consists of quite a lot of seafood and meats, but even as a vegetarian I enjoy many traditional dishes, like Okonomi-yaki (savoury pancake) and Ramen (noodle dish) made with vegetarian options. Eating well is easy too, with road side diners located throughout neighbourhoods.
Visit A Shrine Or Temple
If you’ve been doing your research you’ve probably heard of Kyoto’s grand Fushimi Inari shrine. This is the famous shrine with many red tori (gates) lining the path up the mountain. Of course it’s far from the only one! Senso-ji temple is also very popular, located in the Asakusa area of Tokyo.
Hike In Nature
Much like New Zealand, Japan is bursting with mountainous landscapes, lush forest and volcanic zones, and many great walks are accessible on a day trip from major tourist destinations like Tokyo. Try Hakone National Park for views to Mt Fuji on a clear day and Mt Mitake for a rural bush hike.
Ride The Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
Having purchased our Japan Rail Passes before arriving in the country, we were prepared to be amazed by the efficiency and speed of the rail network. Nowhere else have I witnessed commuters pushed into carriages or an entire bullet train cleaned by crew in about ten minutes flat. If you are even thirty seconds late, you are likely to be waving your train goodbye from the station platform. Though the trains can be expensive you may make some savings with a JR Rail Pass and even if not, you’ve got to try this once. At these high speeds it’s like floating through air and even if just for an hour you can enjoy some sort of Jetson’s style transportation.
Wander Kyoto’s Old Town At Dusk
One of the most magical things you can do in Japan is walk the streets of Gion, Kyoto’s old town, at dusk. Use your imagination to go back in time as women dressed in full Geisha attire pop in and out of wooden stores along the old brick roads. Then pop in yourself for dinner and a drink. This area is very popular so check in advance if you can book a table for dinner to avoid disappointment.
Experience The Tea
The precision, the delicacy, the flavours, no experience can quite compare to that of a Japanese tea ceremony. I’d wanted to go a bit further afield this time so we went about as far west as possible to a smaller city called Matsue. This is where we discovered Meimei-an Tea House, perfect to enjoy a quiet moment in the city and soak up the serenity of tea amongst the trees.
Stay Up All Night
To really get a sense of many Asian countries you need to go out at night because often it feels like that’s when the party is just getting started. Take to the streets of Dotonbori in the evening and experience the hustle of the city at night, or even squeeze in some late night shopping. Now you can also start to spot the night clubs opening up for dancing later that night.
For me what makes Japan so enticing and what keeps me coming back is that unlike many other destinations these days, it is still completely foreign. Japan isn’t hugely westernised and it really feels like you’re in a different country, especially if you leave the big cities. Everything is so different – the sights, smells, sounds and tastes and the people are unbelievable, putting 110% effort and creativity into everything they do. If you’re looking for a country to immerse yourself in a different culture, Japan is a superb choice.