Japan may be a tiny island chain, but it’s filled to bursting with the most diverse and exciting sightseeing that you’ve ever experienced. I lived in Japan for three years growing up. I was lucky enough to experience a wide diversity of locales and experiences. I hiked through a caldera on Miyake-jima, viewed the ice festival in Hokkaido, listened to a firsthand account of the atomic bomb drop in Hiroshima, and bathed in traditional public baths without a stitch on. And yet, there are still things that I add to my list of things to visit in Japan. Apparently even three years wasn’t enough.
That’s why it makes me a little sad when people visiting Japan only do classic tourist things. I’ll hear over and over again about the Shibuya Scramble crossing, or the Tokyo Tower, or Ghibli Museum. But Japan is so much more!
So, for you adventurers who want to get off the beaten path, here’s a quick guide. Take the opportunity to get to know the true scenery and culture of this fascinating country.
A Little Bit About Japan
Japan is made up of four major islands, which together are about the size of California. However, Japan has about 4 times the population of California. Most of those people are concentrated in bustling cities, leaving wide stretches of isolated forests, small fishing villages, and great destination skiing. Although Japan has been an insulated culture for most of its history, ancient imports from China shaped religion and language. Exposure to western culture began in the 1500’s when traders and missionaries started arriving. However, they were soon evicted and trade was cut off with anyone who wouldn’t take back their missionaries, which left trade only with the Dutch.
After the second World War, Japan’s economy boomed, becoming a poster child for free trade and technology. Japan is now the third largest economy in the world. Although its borders are open, and travel to and from Japan is hugely popular (for both business and tourism) Japan still retains a distinctive and unique culture. In fact, culture may be one of its biggest exports, and our dreams of Japan are dominated by fantastic ideas of samurai, geishas, and ninjas. In order to truly dive into the culture and history when you travel to Japan, here are some ideas:
Stay at a Ryokan
Ryokan are traditional Japanese accommodations, closer to a B&B than a hotel. They’re available in budget options or more luxurious varieties. Most are family-run, and they’re almost always your best bet in more remote areas. Some have western-style rooms, but most will have more traditional layouts, with tatami mats, futon beds, and shoji walls. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, you’ll have a lot more luck here than with hotels or even hostels. And it’s certainly more comfortable than a capsule hotel!
One of the favorite holiday options of the Japanese people is visiting onsens, natural hot springs where people come to bathe and commune with nature. Japan is home to a huge amount of geothermal activity, and onsens are a long-standing tradition. What’s especially nice about adding an onsen or two to your travel itinerary is that it will often take you out into the country, to enjoy spectacular views and beautiful nature scapes. Most onsens come with wonderful stories of their origin and healing properties that range somewhere between fact and fantasy. If you want to learn more about the tradition of onsens, check out this interesting article.
Now, just so you know, most traditional onsens are places where you bathe naked. Although the population is segregated, this can be uncomfortable for most westerners. I actually went to my first onsen when I was about 13. Just imagine the awkward self-consciousness of that experience! But it’s completely normal for the Japanese, and it won’t take long for you to adjust.
Find Some Volcanoes
Speaking of geothermal activity, have you ever thought about doing a volcano tour in Japan? At the intersection of 4 different tectonic plates, Japan is the hub of more volcanos than just about anywhere else in the world. This activity is signaled by earthquakes and tsunamis, frequently, but you’ll also find a wealth of volcanos. Mt. Fuji, Japan’s most famous peak, is itself an active volcano, which accounts for its beautiful shape. You can also visit notable volcanoes like Mt. Aso, which features a steaming blue lake and even a village built in its volatile center. Or there’s Mt. Usu, in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The last time it erupted was actually a year after I visited it, in 2001.
Get Your Fill of Cute and Cuddly Animals
Japan loves cute animals, as evidenced by the popularity of Sanrio and Disney. However, the love doesn’t just extend to cartoons and stuffed animals. Japan also cultivates destinations that feature real-live cute and cuddly animals. For example, you can find Zao Fox Village, Tashirojima, an island where cats outnumber people, a bunny island, and Miyajima, where thousands of deer wander across every path, and will even approach guests to beg snacks and pets. So, if you’re looking for an up-close animal encounter, search Japan’s animal options.
Visit Famous Gardens
Two of Japan’s most distinguishing characteristics are its philosophy and art. These two disciplines come together in their gardens, centers of meditation and stillness. One unique tradition is their famous rock gardens, which have stood for thousands of years, and range from strictly traditional to startlingly avant-garde. You can see Ryōan-ji, one of the most famous and ancient rock gardens, in Kyoto. You might even come away with ideas for your own zen rock garden.
Check Out the Festival Schedule
One of my favorite things about Japan is the festivals. Although the culture seems very buttoned-up at first glance, no one parties like the Japanese. Their festivals happen all the time, and they feature elaborate parades, great street food, and amazing cultural presentations. Much of the time, my family and I stumbled by accident onto these various festivals, like a fertility festival in Hokkaido (try explaining that to your pre-teens) or the Juban festival just down the street from our home. However, you can schedule your travels around some spectacular festivals, like the famous horse festival Soma-Nomaoi in the Fukushima Prefecture, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and features parades, races, and elaborate traditional dress.
You can find amazing festivals in every season in Japan, but the biggest concentration takes place in late May, during a time called Golden Week, when most schools and workplaces will have time off for the festivities.
Are you planning a trip to Japan? Tell me about it. What are you most excited about?