Travel: Japan

From a travel standpoint, Japan has it all; ancient temples and castles, cities buzzing with activity, sleepy farming/fishing villages, great food, cultural experiences, and you can’t even imagine how interesting a 7-Eleven or a vending machine can be. It’s extremely safe and the people are friendly and helpful.

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I’m often surprised that more people that I meet haven’t been there or aren’t planning to go. Many feel intimidated because of the culture differences and language barrier, but those things aren’t really an issue at all. The people are really nice and understand that you’re far from home, so they’ll show you how to do something you’re unfamiliar with, or they’ll find someone that speaks English to help you. It’s a further flight than perhaps the Caribbean or Europe, but you can find flights to Tokyo or Osaka in the spring and fall that are the same price as going to Europe.

 

japan-map

 

There are five main areas, from North to South:

  • Hokkaido – The large island in the north, popular for hiking, winter activities, and for Sapporo beer
  • Honshu – The biggest island which includes famous tourist destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto
  • Shikoku – An island famous for its temple pilgrimage route
  • Kyushu – The island at the southern end where Nagasaki is located
  • Okinawa – The chain of small tropical islands south of Kyushu, famous for being where The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi was from (interestingly, there’s a prefecture named Miyagi)

 

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The torii gate off the coast of Miyajima island, near Hiroshima at the southern end of Honshu. When the tide comes in the gate looks like it’s floating. The temple that it belongs to, Itsukushima, also looks like it’s floating at high tide.

 

I obviously haven’t been everywhere and seen everything in Japan, I was on Honshu for the duration of my trip, but I saw a lot of unmissable sites:

  • Kyoto (most major temples are excellent but I thought Sanjusangendo was an exceptional site)
  • Fushimi Inari (a forest path covered by red shrine gates, just outside of Kyoto)
  • Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo
  • Himeji Castle (a world wonder in my opinion)
  • Todaiji Temple in Nara (the world’s largest wooden building with a gigantic Buddha statue inside)
  • Check if there is any sumo wrestling on when you’re there
  • Shibuya intersection at rush hour (there’s a Starbucks with a second floor at the intersection, it’s a nice spot to sit and watch the intersection)
  • Grocery stores and 7-Elevens (lots of cool stuff in there)

 

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Sumo wrestling!

 

Those are the “main sites” that I saw, but there are a lot of great things to see:

  • Tokyo: Akihabara at night, the national museum is interesting, Shinjuku area/architecture (there’s a building you can go up for free to the 47th floor, for city views, can’t remember the name)
  • The temple on Miyajima island near Hiroshima (built on stilts, looks like it’s floating at high tide)
  • Osaka: The castle and moat are amazing, also the Dotonbori area at night
  • Matsumoto Castle is good too
  • Hiroshima bomb related sites and museum were more interesting than I expected, and Hiroshima itself has a lot to offer
  • Nikko shrine outside Tokyo is supposed to be good
  • If you’re into ninjas you can go to Iga or Koga, the ninja museum in Iga was neat
  • Kurashiki is a city with a well preserved old town where you can see traditional architecture (and they have a nice modern art museum too)

 

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A busy looking street in Osaka
Food to try:
  • Japanese curry (different than Indian curries)
  • Okonomiyaki (Pancake with pork and cabbage, Hiroshima has their own style called a Hiroshimayaki)
  • Sake (rice wine, both regular and sweet versions available, and try the plum sake)
  • Takoyaki (deep fried octopus chunks with mayo/sauce on top)
  • Nakau (a fast food place where you order from a vending machine, then sit down and they take your ticket and your food arrives in about 1 minute)
  • Hyaku-en sushi (means 100 yen sushi, about $1 per plate, on a conveyor belt)
  • U.F.O. instant noodles
  • Matcha green tea and various green tea products
  • Red bean deserts (I don’t like them too much but they’re very traditional)
  • Pork cutlets are popular too
  • Mr. Donut (try to get their spongy/rubbery donut)
  • Natto (if you’re feeling brave and want a cultural experience, it’s fermented soybeans, which creates a slimy sauce)
  • Omu-rice (an omelette with rice inside and a really nice sauce on top)

 

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Keep an eye on the rooftops for the uniquely styled shingles (and you might see the occasional crane doing a funny pose)

 

Other tips:
  • Try to find an English language newspaper while there, or check out the Japan Times online before you go
  • The best times to go would be in the spring to see the cherry blossoms or in the fall to see the maple leaves turn bright red, avoid the summer as it’s extremely hot and humid unless you’re in the mountains
  • Look for waterfalls, it’s a very mountainous country and can be rainy
  • There is apparently a ramen noodle museum somewhere
  • Banks can be tricky to find but 7-Elevens have ATM machines in them
  • Check which festivals are on when you’re there, there are lots throughout the year
  • Keep an eye out for funny signs, either funny translations or funny cartoon characters
  • It’s an expensive place, so if you need to eat cheap try Nakau, 7-Eleven (yes, they have sandwiches, rice balls, or entire meals in take-out containers), grocery stores, or McDonalds (and you’ll find unique things here that you haven’t seen before)
  • I think the Kumamoto area is almost back to normal after the recent earthquake, I’m not sure how bad the damage was but I read that the castle might take a long time for renovations
  • Some people like onsen, the public hot water spring baths (be prepared to be naked with other people though, and they may not let you in if you have a bunch of tattoos, it keeps the yakuza (mafia) out)
  • If you’re into history, the site of the battle of Sekigahara might be neat to see, a big turning point in Japan’s history
  • Baseball games are apparently really lively
  • Try some skiing in Nagano
  • Visit some villages that still have streets lined with traditional houses

 

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At the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

 

Transportation:
  • If you’re going to be moving around the country a lot you can get one of these rail passes (they’re only really worth it if you’re moving around a lot, otherwise you can just buy as you go and avoid the expensive Shinkansen, unless speed is important):
  • There are a bunch of discount airlines, depending on your itinerary it might be best to fly and then take local trains
  • I’d avoid renting a car unless you’re with someone that can read Japanese

 

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Another shot from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

 

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A small restaurant and bar called an Izakaya

 

Keep in mind that Japanese people often refer to prefectures, like provinces in Canada or states in the U.S., when discussing the location of something; try to get the name of the closest big city. Or you can memorize the prefectures, but there are 47 of them. Also keep in mind that the capital city of the prefecture might have the same name; so if someone tells you that something is in Nara, it would be good to confirm that they’re talking about the city and not somewhere in the prefecture far from the capital city.

You could almost visit this country for your whole life, just getting deeper into the details or out of the way places. Maybe visit sites associated with Musashi Miyamoto (an undefeated swordsman who travelled around fighting duels), check out the temple where the 47 Ronin are buried in a quiet area of Tokyo, go scuba diving in Okinawa (and check out the strange underwater rock formations that resemble pyramids), stay in a capsule hotel, see the thatched houses in Shirakawa Go, do a waterfall tour, do a UNESCO world heritage site tour, travel the coast looking at rock formations and arches, visit firefly viewing areas, view the snow monkeys, watch the sea eagles on Hokkaido, stay in a small town and visit the market…the list goes on and on.

 

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