5 Things guide books don’t say about Japan

Firstly, I have to admit it’s been years since I’ve used guide books, but still I doubt they suggest any of these below. You also need to remember that guide books cater to people’s expectations, so of course all guide books dedicate precious pages to things like Tokyo Tower, the Imperial Palace, Hiroshima memorials, how to get to those places, where to eat, places to stay, how much it costs, best time of year to go, who the bus drivers are, and etcetera. Consequently, you don’t get the bits of information that can make your trip special. When you go back to the office people will ask “Did you go to the [insert stereotype location]?”, but with this brief guide you can say, “I also discovered a really cool place that you can…”

So, below is a list of five things that guide books don’t say about Japan, and are things that can make you the envy of your friends and make you seem like a seasoned explorer.

A Japanese couple at Shirakawa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


1. Japan is an experience, not a postcard

If you want to photograph the Eiffel Tower, you can go to the miniature versions in Seoul or Las Vegas, and job done. If you want a picture of the Sydney Opera House, buy a post card, so you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars going to those places. That is to say, ‘experience’ and ‘visit’ are to different things. So, how can you ‘experience’ Japan? Here is a list of simple things you must put on a to-do list:

  • Stay in a capsule hotel (but spend most of your stays in a regular ‘business hotel’)
  • Spend a night or two in a temple in Kyoto
  • Don’t just have Asahi Super Dry, also try Kirin and Yebisu (Yebisu’s my favourite Japanese beer)
  • Eat in the franchise eateries like Yoshinoya or Coco at least once. These cater for the lunchtime office worker crowd, and allows you to get something akin to the office-worker experience that you hear about. Or get a lunch box (bento) from a convenience store
  • Take your traveling companion to a love hotel for an hour or two
  • Take any inner city train (Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka) at about 7.50am on any weekday, and at about 10.30pm on any Friday evening.
  • Take a Japanese friend or two, or be taken out to an izakaya (Japanese pub-restaurant)
  • Attend a festival or major religious event (there are lots of these in every month somewhere in Japan).
  • Travel only by and everywhere by train.
  • Get geeky (it’s ok, your friends aren’t looking). Indulge your inner geek at tech places like Akihabara, Tokyo; browse the amazingly large book stores; guys can visit a maids’ cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo, or Osu Kanon, Nagoya.
  • Get a haircut. The whole approach and execution of a haircut is a very different experience than in an anglophone country. In the anglophone countries electric shavers are overly used and can leave you with a lot of prickly hair sticking to you all day, but not a real Japanese cut.
  • Try the rice. In most Asian countries, including Japan, a different type of rice is used, it’s known as ‘sticky rice’. It clumps together much more easily than rice grown in Canada, the US or Australia, making chopstick use much easier. Sticky rice is perhaps a little sweeter than long grain or brown rice, and Koreans believe they have the best rice in the world (and so do the Japanese, and the…)
  • Watch Sumo on TV once or twice (in English) before seeing it for real in Tokyo (mid Jan), Osaka (mid March), Tokyo (mid May), Nagoya (mid Jul), Tokyo (mid Sept), Fukuoka (mid Nov). Seeing sumo on TV allows you to learn a little about the tournament, the order of appearance, who to look out for, and how they do the bouts.

Nagoya Castle in Autumn.


2. Visit small castles & temples.

The smaller and more remote castles and temples are so much better than the inner city ones. The war has decimated the original castles and most of the major temples and shrines in the major cities. So, for instance, whilst Nagoya castle looks like an image fit for a postcard, it’s made of concrete and has an elevator. The smaller Inuyama Castle is hundreds of years old, still made of timber, there are English-speaking volunteer guides to tell you about the local history and significant battles that changed the future of Japan. Inuyama Castle isn’t too difficult to find, and so totally a story you can brag about when you return home. One more thing about Inuyama Castle, because it is a genuine period castle, no footwear can be worn inside. You’ll be given slippers to wear, and a bag to carry your shoes in.

Religious objects in Jokoji Temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

Sutra books, prayer beads, sashes, and bell infront of the statue of Buddha inside the Jokoji Temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism.


3. Unexpected things

I’ve tried to compile a comprehensive list that most Westerners (North Americans and Europeans) would find handy.

  • Wear shoes that are quick and easy to slip on and off. Many temples, shrines, and pub-restaurants require you to take your shoes off to enter.
  • The ingredients used in food is different to what you’re used to. So even if you go to a ‘Western’ restaurant, expect the food to cater for local tastes. One example I can think of is thinking a white ball was potato salad, but it was actually egg salad. Potatoes are very rare here. The most extreme example comes from South Korea. During my first visit there in 10 years, I forgot that anything red is hot and spicy, including spaghetti bolognese.
  • People are polite and they do their jobs. A cleaner actually does cleaning, and they take pride in it (Japan is pretty much graffiti-free, and people don’t want to graffiti anything). Sales staff, hotel staff, train waiters, station staff, everyone works hard and tries to help you as much as it is in their capacity; a very different experience to what you might get in Italy.
  • Most banks in the city centre can do international currency exchange. However, I’d still organise money at the airport on arrival.
  • Paying a tip can imply that the service wasn’t that good, and the staff should use this extra money to improve something.
  • Americans love guns, Britons love tea, Australians love beer, and the Japanese all (without exception) have a serious fetish for food. You’ll find good quality restaurants almost everywhere; but especially look for the nighttime restaurant districts.

A group of patrons leaving a restaurant in Kyoto and waving down taxis.


4. The best places / events are not always the most famous.

You and all your friends probably know about Tokyo Tower and the memorials in Hiroshima, but there are much better and more interesting places than these. My list of the ten best attractions are summarised:

1. Kinkakuji pavilion (or Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, any time of year (picture shown below).

2. Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto, any time of year.

3. Fushimi Inari Temple, Kyoto, any time of year.

4. A town festival, any where, but many are in early summer. One example is the Kuwana City Ishidori, held on the first weekend of August. Also see the ‘festival’ blog tags.

5. A cultural event. most places, particular times of year. One example is the World Cosplay Summit, Osu Kanon & Sakae Nagoya, first weekend of August.

6. Cormorant fishing, Kyoto and Inuyama, May to October. Cormorant (or ‘ukai’) fishing uses these birds to dive for fish. These birds have a string tied around their necks so they can’t swallow fish, but can catch them, and then spit them out for the fisherman.

7. Try sushi in a little old looking Ma & Pa restaurant in an out-of-the-way place, or upscale looking place in the most central parts of Nagoya, or Osaka. But best to avoid any place from Tokyo to the north, as there may be radiation concerns. Also avoid any road-side sushi franchise restaurants; some of these can be simply cheap and not that special. In fact, any restaurant that has a line of about 10 people is apparently worth going to. Get there at about 11.30am (or earlier).

8. Fashion shopping; Shinjuku in Tokyo, Sakae in Nagoya, Namba in Osaka; from about 10am to about 8pm (weekdays) and closing later on Saturday evenings.

Young women out shopping on a Saturday evening.


5. How long to spend in Japan

A few days isn’t enough. A week isn’t enough. Don’t believe that month is enough either. Staying at least for a full calendar year, and attending every festival you can find, meeting local and expat friends and going places makes the stay much more meaningful. The Japanese work like clockwork; there are so many wonderful annual events to see and do. While you are here, you really, really need to keep active in your hobbies, or start new ones. You can learn pottery, calligraphy, a martial arts (not just the standards like karate, judo, and others), cooking, flower arrangement (ikebana), and lots more.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto.

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