Is Japan top on your bucket list? Whether you are visiting Japan for the first time or not, it is not an easy place to get around since English is not widely spoken and the food, rules, and habits are unique to them. Nevertheless, it is rewarding to get away from the cliché touristy routes in the west and experience the extraordinary and exotic far east.
First of all, do not confuse Japan with China or any other Asian country; they are very different from many points of view. Of course, Japan took a lot of cultural aspects from China such as Buddhism however, they have developed their own special culture and language.
Cliches and Realities While Visiting Japan;
Getting lost in Tokyo
I believe the best way to discover a place is to get lost and be guided by our own instinct, and Tokyo is one of those places. Tokyo is one of those truly dynamic cities with lots of attractions and places to visit. You would need a minimum of two weeks to see the main tourist places and a lifetime to find out everything. It .
I love getting lost in Tokyo because every time I go out of the metro station, I find myself in a new and completely different place: Akihabara, the anime town; Shinjuku, the crazy district;, Shibuya, the young city; Ueno with its countless stalls and beautiful park; Odaiba with its sandy beach, and the list goes on.
Soaking yourself in the Japanese Onsen Bath
Onsen is the essence of Japan. Even if you do not like spa and wellness, you MUST try Onsen when you visit Japan. In a nutshell, I can explain it as a hot spring but it is quintessentially Japanese.
Onsen has always been part of their daily lives since ancient times. As many of you might know, Japan is the land of volcanoes and earthquakes so they have a lot of hot water sources and they make use of them very well.
Onsens are often located in very picturesque places such as, in front of Mount Fuji, in the middle of a snowy forest filled with naughty monkeys or facing the ocean. A downside that scares most of the foreigners is that you have to be naked in order to enter!
Trying any food without understanding what’s really written on the menu
Some restaurants are willing to write their menus in English but at the same time, many do not really care so you will have to order from a menu written completely in Japanese. This often happens in small restaurants and izakaya (Japanese pubs) but fear not!
Many places have food models outside the shop window or photos in the menu. What I advise you do is to just order something that looks edible and try it. Do not ponder too much as the food is always delicious!
Visiting temples and shrines
Japan has a lot of temples and shrines, a bit like the churches in Europe, right? It is a wonderful experience to enter one of those and spend some time there especially in cities like Nara and Kyoto. The atmosphere inside is very peaceful.
Even though the temple is in the middle of a bustling city like Tokyo, once you go beyond the temple’s gate, it becomes calm and quiet, which is perfect for meditation!
Trying on a kimono
I bet that you have seen a kimono at least once in your life and I am also pretty sure that you wish you could wear one. In the most touristy spots in Japan, you will find kimono rental shops where you can rent one for a day and wander around Japanese ancient temples like in the past.
Best way to immerse oneself in the country’s culture.
When you think of Japan, I do not think that many of you would come here just for hiking. The cliché image is more like city life and samurai but yeah, Japan is full of beautiful mountains that are waiting to be discovered by tourists.
It is nice sometimes to get away from the usual tourist routes and try something new from the mainstream. If you are staying in Tokyo, there are many options such as the majestic Mount Fuji, Mount Takao or Mitake which is one hour from Shinjuku by train.
Near Kyoto, you could try the holy Mount Koya, which oozes with history and ancient temples.
Experiencing the chaotic but super efficient train system
I am in love with the Japanese train system. I come from a country where the trains are by default delayed for at least 15 minutes. It is the norm (that’s right, it’s Italy) but in Japan, they never come late and if you have to board another train on another line, do not fear, you will arrive always a couple of minutes earlier so that you can safely get on it and move on.
A funny fact is that Japanese actually do not think metro trains and trains are different so you can go out from the city but still have the same trains you find in the city center.
Thinking you are in an anime
I guess some of you readers have watched or like watching anime and if you do, you will have this weird cliché images of Japan. Some, of course, are wrong but some are entirely true.
Girls wearing cute sailor uniforms, anime girls featured in every advertisement, even on street signs, and the lively festival aka matsuri that takes place near the temple. Well, all of this is true and you can easily experience it when you come to Japan.
Planning a trip to Japan? These are the places to visit:
1. Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto
Even though they are touristic, cliché and any other negative adjectives you can find, you have to visit these three cities. There is a reason why some places and attractions are popular among people and the reason is that they are beautiful. So do not hesitate to visit them!
For Tokyo I would suggest Shinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya and Asakusa; for Osaka Shinsekai, Umeda and Dotonbori; as for Kyoto, Kiyomizudera, Fushimi Inari Taisha , Arashiyama and Higashiyama and Gion (yes, you can see Geisha and Maiko here, I promise).
2. Nara, The Ancient Capital
Of course, if you are going to visit Kyoto, you cannot miss the alluring Nara, the ancient capital of Japan before Kyoto. Nara is an open-air museum. Everywhere you go, you find some important landmarks and museums.
Wander around the beautiful parks, visit the temples there and feed the deer.
Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as Japanese would call it, is one of the most famous and important symbols of Japan abroad. You can catch a view of this stunning mountain from a distance or go on a hiking adventure. If you are not interested in hiking, then visit the nearby city of Fujiyoshida and its iconic Chureito Pagoda.
Another city not to miss when in Tokyo is Kamakura- a capital in the ancient times when Japan was divided into countless small states. In Kamakura, visit Big Buddha’s temple or Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine or stop at Kita-Kamakura and visit the beautiful Zen temple of Engakuji for a more tranquil trip.
There are also other minor temples nearby that can offer beautiful views of the Japanese autumn like the Meigetsuin.
5. Japanese Castles
Another thing I love about Japan is the castles. I have visited 3 of these castles and loved all of them.
Unfortunately, it was customary for the winning feudal lords to burn down the castles of their enemies, thus many of the castles we see today are just reproductions. Nevertheless, there are 12 castles in Japan in its original state from the warring states’ period. Some of them are Himeji, Hikone, Matsumoto and Matsue castles.
Perfect to visit when it is autumn. Nikko is one of the best preserved ancient places in the whole of Japan. It is located northeast of Tokyo (3 hours away by train in Tochigi Prefecture).
The site is pretty huge. There are many attractions to see but mainly old temples, beautiful statues, nice lakes, mountains to hike and evocative landscapes.
There is a very Japanese red bridge that stands at the entrance of Nikko’s temples and shrines. Exactly how you would imagine Japan.
7. Nakasendo, Ancient Route From Kyoto To Tokyo
This is basically the old route that in the past, Japanese used to reach Edo (nowadays Tokyo) or vice versa. On this route, there are some old Japanese towns that have maintained the original buildings as well as the old time Japanese atmosphere.
Some extra travel tips:
How To Navigate Japanese Cities
Japanese cities are definitely one of the hardest to navigate without a proper internet map, and offline maps of Japanese cities barely exist. Google does not allow you to download one nor do other apps? They are also too complicated: too many roads, lines and, shops.
I highly recommend you get an internet sim card to be sure you are getting on the right line or the right way. I would recommend an internet provider called Sakura Mobile which is cheap, efficient and tourist-friendly.
Suica and Pasmo Card-
If you are in Tokyo or other major Japanese cities, be prepared for some chaos The metro is not a single line but many and all of them are owned by different companies. E.g: Tokyo metro lines (Marunochi, Ginza, Chiyoda lines), then JR lines (Yamanote, JR Shonan Shinjuku line, etc), Odakyu line, Keio line, etc.
All of these lines require a different ticket and you have to find their own special entrance to the metro station. So to avoid this problem, I strongly advise you get a Suica or a Pasmo card, which will allow you to travel with all of these lines without buying a new ticket whenever using another company. They are a bit like the Oyster card in London: you can check and recharge them at the counter near every metro station’s entrance.
Good Manners in Japan
Japan is one of those countries with numerous rules to follow, that is if you do not want to be as an annoying gaijin (foreigner). Observe these rules when you visit Japan.
• Speak in a low voice
• Do not speak on your phone
• Be aware of special seats for pregnant women and old people
• Always QUEUE UP before boarding a train, please do not skip the queue.
• Do not push nor kick anyone, they will make space for you
In Restaurants Or Shops-
• Bow to show gratitude or to greet
• Say “Gochisousama deshita” whenever you finish your meal
•Say out loud “Sumimasen” to call the waiter/waitress.
• Put the money in the designated container at the cashier and take the money from the shop assistant with both hands.
I hope this experience inspires you to visit Japan.
About the Author;
Federica is a serial traveler from Italy currently living in Tokyo, doing an academic exchange. For more on her adventures, visit depaysee.com.
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Have you visited Japan? Share your experience here.