Alternative Things To Do in Japan
by Bernice Kathryn Fonte
Have you been on trips where you enjoyed yourself and the place but felt like you have just been to the same spots as everyone else? Or maybe, you’ve been to this country before but would like to try and experience new things? You’re not alone. More and more frequent travellers are getting savvy and want to personalize their trips, but, not knowing where to start, may still end up following the plethora of guides out there. Nothing wrong with that per se, but in the spirit of adventure and to satisfy wanderlust, I’ve come up with a few alternatives below with a lot of room for tweaks to (re)experience Japan.
Explore the city (or two) on your own
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, Japan is so clean and so safe, you can leave your wallet and other valuables outside and come back to see it as is, if not cleaner/better. Kidding aside, the streets are safe for evening strolls, dining/drinking out, or sightseeing during the day. My partner and I got lucky with some great finds i.e. unique apparel and kawaii items in trendy Takeshita street in Harajuku, and good grub i.e. a cafe in the middle of nowhere in a forest-like haven somewhere near the park, and met and chatted with a few interesting locals to practice our rusty Nihonggo. Localizing is a great way to learn more about the culture or the people, if not by communication then just by observation or interaction. Find YOUR spots. Call it your very own walking tour.
Aside from visiting parks, museums or shrines like Ueno or Meiji Shrine, or getting some retail therapy in outlet stores or shopping districts in Shinjuku, you may take pictures of Japan for collecting those ‘new memories’. Mostly at night, we took photos of panoramic views of the city from different parts of Shinjuku, and fell in love with the city even more.
Visit rural Japan
While Tokyo alone will give you a wonderful time and experience, travelling to the countryside is something else. It’s a different side of Japan past the buzz and glitz of the city. It requires more planning and preparation, especially if you are staying overnight or longer; it’s not for the faint of heart. But adventure is what you are looking for, right?
For starters and within easy access from Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, some of the beautiful and charming towns to see (and there are many) that can be tackled as day trips are Karuizawa, Nara and Hakone. Just a little further, there is Shima Onsen Ryokan in Gunma Prefecture as alternative accommodation to hotels. Don a yukata all you want. If you’re going by car, go the way of the Japan Romantic Road and take in the views of parks, onsen or hot springs, mountains and countryside. Warning: you might not want to go back to the city or your country after this.
Experience Mt. Fuji
If there’s one place in the golden route to not miss, I’d say it’s Mt. Fuji. This majestic volcano, considered its tallest peak at 3,776 meters or 12,388 feet, is one of the most sacred mountains in Japan. Whether you hike to the summit, or enjoy it while canoeing on Lake Kawaguchi or Motosu, is up to you. We went during spring but not within the safe months between July and September for trekking. No matter, just staring at Fuji-san for hours while exploring the nearby villages was a lovely experience. I’m definitely seeing this again. Needless to say, I highly recommend visiting this gem.
Go on a food trip
Even if Japanese food is not one of your favourite cuisines (highly doubtful), exploring Japan on a food tour is highly recommended. Being the top country with the most number of Michelin stars, with two of its cities like Tokyo and Osaka in the most Michelin-starred cities in the world, is no mean feat. What’s more, there are some Michelin-starred restaurants that are very affordable or even cheap, it would be wrong to not try them. Top quality of food is not a question. That being said, Japan’s culinary game is so strong, you can’t go wrong dining in most any place really. Heck, I’ve never tried more delicious food from a convenience store anywhere else! Pro tip: whether or not a restaurant or izakaya made it to a food guide or a list of recommendations, follow the line. You’ll never go wrong. We found gems of places this way.
General Travel Tips:
I’ll keep it short and simple. And you may already know this, but treat this as a reminder of sorts:
- Bring enough cash especially when travelling to rural areas, where some places may not have wifi/internet or may not yet be accepting card transactions. In this case, more is more.
- Make reservations to be sure you can be accommodated, especially when travelling on peak times. Some highly recommended places or restaurants like Sukiyabashi Jiro, made more famous by a Netflix documentary, requires reservation at least a month before you go. Shima Onsen Ryokan also need advance notice. You get the point.
- Use Google Maps to get around or take pictures of the maps in case there is no internet connection where you are going. This will definitely come in handy. Take note of the Japanese names of places and how to read them.
- Plan your transportation or train schedules especially when exploring outside the city. You don’t want to be stuck in some place waiting hours for your ride home when it is late.
- Prepare some words or short phrases in the local language to facilitate understanding. Especially for rural areas, where locals may not be used to having tourists visiting, it would help to come prepared with some common questions, phrases or words in Japanese.
- Stock up on your favourite Japanese skincare and snacks/chocolate, or those you want to try but are sold at premium prices where you’re from. Japanese skincare is one of the best out there. Even their makeup and sunscreen can be easily found in convenience stores or small shops all over the city. Some of them, especially their sunscreen, may not be available or sold yet in your area or packaged differently to fit regulation like in the U.S. As for snacks or chocolate, Japan has the most variety of KitKats available, and Royce, if you haven’t tried it, is mouth-wateringly good.
- Score some fab finds in outlet stores like in Gotemba. Promos abound and good quality items or the latest products from many known brands mid or high-end can be bought at a great bargain.
That’s about it. Travel need not be one size fits all. Especially in a place like Japan, where it becomes a culture trip right at the onset. I learned as much as I enjoyed the trip and hope you do, too.