Japan is a great place to visit. It has a lot to offer and there’s enough to do in Tokyo alone to fill ten holidays. Some travellers might be taken in by the bright lights and futuristic appearance of the big cities and forget to look beyond the boundaries of these bustling metropolises. Some people might be turned off a visit entirely owing to the fallacy of unavoidably high costs within the country. Some folk might be overwhelmed by the innumerable choice of activities available to them and struggle for a place to start. I have put together this list of ‘top tips’ (picked up when I lived in the country) to assist any potential visitors to Japan. I hope they come in handy and go some way to helping you plan and enjoy an unforgettable holiday in one of the best countries on earth!
Contrary to what many people believe, eating in Japan needn’t break the bank. Intelligent use of low cost eateries can save the budget traveller a fortune. Use convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson and ticket machine restaurants for cheap and tasty meals. In convenience stores simply pick a meal and take it to the counter – viola, easy! You might hear the words attatamemasuka which means would you like this heating up? Hai for yes, iie for no. To avoid difficult situations when ordering food, make use of ticket machines outside of certain restaurants. Simply pop in your cash, make your choice and take your ticket to the counter. These places are cheap and usually delicious. Many other restaurants conveniently offer plastic models of their food for you to point to. To make things easier, make sure to freshen up your understanding of Japanese characters and memorise a few foodie words (chicken, pork, rice, etc) to help give you a better idea of what you’re ordering.
Extortionate hotels aren’t your only option when staying in Japan. A lot of people might plump for the capsule hotel option just to say they’ve done it but, for what you get, the cost is still quite high. airbnb and CouchSurfing are becoming far more popular in Japan and can net you a full apartment for less than the cost of a coffin-sized ‘room’ or an unforgettable chance to live with and like a local for absolutely nothing. My last stay in Tokyo was through airbnb and I cannot fault the place I stayed at or the price I paid for it. Definitely worth looking into before your trip.
Get a panoramic view
The concrete jungle vistas Japan offers are spectacular – especially at night. Wherever possible you should try and take in the big city skylines of Tokyo or Osaka from the top of a skyscraper or other soaring structure. Some hotels offer stunning views but, as you would imagine, the prices are likewise lofty. If you are in the capital, Tokyo Tower offers an observation deck which is costly at ¥3090; The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku offer a similarly impressive view free of charge.
Take a train at rush hour
Not a pleasant experience per se but a must-do if you want to get a flavour of what it’s like to live and commute in Japan on a day-to-day basis. Squeeze yourself into a compartment with hundreds of sweaty and browbeaten salarymen, feel like a sardine in a can briefly and bail at the next stop, wherever that may be! If you visit during the summer, cross your fingers that you get a fully modernised train that has functioning air-conditioning or prepare to feel the pain even more acutely!
Have a few station beers
Izakayas are great but can be costly (unless you stumble into a nomihoudai all you can drink). Station beers are a fantastic and cost-effective way of people watching and meeting locals. What are station beers, you ask? Simply purchase some beverages from the nearest convenience store and find a spot outside a nearby train station – simple as that! Japan doesn’t have any laws regarding drinking on the street as long as you don’t get too rowdy so make the most of it! Don’t be shy, approach people and they’ll be happy to come join you – even if they don’t speak English! My favourite station for this purpose? The busy Tachikawa hub in Western Tokyo.
Partake in some park life
Parks in Japan are great places to hang out. Even the most remote parks are painstakingly well maintained and pleasant to take a stroll or contemplate the day in. If there is a festival going on like Hanami (marking cherry blossom season) then hitting the park is a convenient and beautiful way to interact with locals and immerse yourself in Japanese culture. If you have time, try and check out Inokashira park in Kichijoji, Showa Kinen park in Akishima/Tachikawa, Yoyogi park near Shibuya/Harajuku and Shinjuku Gyoen.
Go beyond the big cities
Sure, Tokyo, Osaka and the like are awesome places but Japan has so much more to offer than just bright lights, musical toilets and the overwhelming hustle and bustle of big city life. Just beyond the boundaries of these metropolises lies a completely different country just begging to be explored. Surrounding locales have beautiful mountains, exquisite countryside and a different pace of life entirely. As an added bonus, the farther out of the big cities you get, the more humble and friendly the people get. Gunma prefecture, for example, just a few hours outside the capital by train, has a lot to offer and is a nice change of pace from its more manic neighbour.
Everyone raves about sushi and ramen but, for me, if you eat only one food in Japan it should be katsu. Katsu is a breaded meat cutlet that has been deep-fried and it is absolutely delicious! Budget eaters can give this culinary delight a try at Coco Ichibanya curry house – my absolute favourite restaurant in the entire world! – whereas travellers more conscious of their surroundings will easily find tonkatsu joints that provide more upper class eats. Be sure to smother your meal in tonkatsu sauce which is absolutely to die for!
Climb a mountain
You might have noticed but Japan is quite mountainous. Like, really mountainous. Make use of one of these peaks and climb it. Japanese mountains often come replete with a multitude of activities and temples dotted along the paths to their summits and you get a chance to take in local fauna, wildlife (I saw my first wild snakes on a trek in Gunma) and outstanding spots of beauty such as waterfalls and spectacular views. Japanese hikers are the friendliest folk you could ever wish to meet and will always greet you as you pass them by. Fuji is obviously the most famous mountain in Japan but my personal favourites are Mt. Mitake and Mt. Takao in Tokyo and Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane with its turquoise sulphur lake in Gunma prefecture.
Take in a sporting event
Baseball standards are quite high in Japan, football/soccer pretty poor. But Japanese fans make taking in a sporting experience worthwhile: singing and bouncing in unison for the entire game, waving enormous flags, being orchestrated by a shouting lunatic with a megaphone. Players at football games will perform a lap of honour at the end of the 90 minutes after every game and thank their fans for their support. More than you get from the overpaid prima donnas in the Premiership, eh?
Visit Harajuku on a Sunday
Many niche youth groups congregate around the Harajuku entrance to Yoyogi park on Sundays making for quite an experience. From Day-Glo orange Garu, people dressed as giant Pokémon, extreme Goths and fabulously-coiffed rockabilly complete with fancy cars you can take in a quite a few of the weird sub-cultures Japanese has to offer. Free hugs are available in abundance.
Hit the arcades
Despite being on the decline pretty much everywhere else, the arcade scene in Japan is still booming. Pop along to one and watch skilful gamers boss the most complex patterns on the many popular rhythm machines, get your ears boxed on one of the many fighting games, try your luck on the claw cranes or make yourself look utterly inhuman in one of the many pirukura photo booths regarded so fondly by gaggles of schoolgirls. Hotspots for gaming arcades include Akihabara and Shibuya. If you have packed some earplugs you might also want to check out a pachinko parlour. One of the only legal forms of gambling in Japan, pachinko is quintessentially Japanese and extremely popular. Witness hundreds of folk of all ages chuffing cigarettes and dropping ball bearings into a machine hoping for a fortune and making an ungodly racket into the bargain.
Do some temple hopping
Whether you find yourself in northern or southern Japan there’ll never be a dearth of temples for you to peruse. In the north the Kamakura region is rich with temples, as is the more far-flung Nikko which elderly Japanese will recommend you visit with gusto. In the south Kyoto is the jewel in the crown when it comes to breathtaking temple complexes.