It’s Time to Go to Japan!
Japan is a country where everyone is polite and the streets are clean; it’s has so much to offer the tourist. If you haven’t done much travel in Asia, Japan is a great place to start because it has all the exoticism of Asia, but at the same time is meticulously clean and relatively easy to navigate.
The biggest problem that it presents is the expense. It’s not cheap, and there really aren’t too many true budget options. Even hostels will run you at least $50 per night and if you want to have a more traditional stay for a night or two at a Japanese Inn, called a ryokan, you’re looking at spending upwards of $200 per night. However, we’ve traveled extensively throughout the country and have found some of the best hotels and other types of accommodations to recommend to you.
Many tourists do the big sights in Tokyo and maybe in Kyoto, but to me the best parts of Japan are the small towns and villages and the public baths in the mountains, places like Nikko or Shirakawago. Here you can really begin to meet the people and see how they live their daily lives.
The only way to get around is to fly or to take the trains. Both will cut deeply into your budget. To fly or train from Tokyo to northern Honshu, it costs about $350. Many People buy the Japan Rail Pass, which is a fantastic deal, however, it’s best to fly into Tokyo to take in the surrounding sights for a few days before you activate your rail pass to get around to some of the other places. If you are good at sleeping on trains, you might want to try taking a night train, as well, then you will be saving on accommodation prices.
One of the best parts about traveling in here is that the Japanese love cameras. You can take photo after photo of all the people you come across. It can be a photographer’s dream. In fact, the Japanese love all kinds of art and even have art islands!
My top ten things in Japan that are not in either Tokyo or Kyoto…because hey, there is so much more to see!
1 – Snow Monkeys
Not far from Nagano (a day trip from Tokyo) there is the Jigokudani Monkey Park where Japanese macaques gather to rest in the hot springs. Since it is a park, there is an entrance fee and a short walk to the viewing area. The monkeys come down a few times a day, mostly around the time that the ranger is going to fee them, once in the morning about 9:00 am. And once in the afternoon after 3:00. You can get very close to the monkeys, but of course you don’t want to touch or feed them. They are wild.
2 – Sapporo Snow Festival and the Sapporo Beer Factory
Sapporo is the capital city of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. You can get there by flying, taking the bullet train, or by ferry. I have done all three and all have their merits. The ferry was an overnight affair where we slept on platforms. It was quite comfortable, and we hung out with the surrounding folks.
The Snow Festival held in February has many attractions, good food, ice sculptures, and lots of places to get warm and drink a sake or hot chocolate. The people are in a friendly mood, and it’s easy to strike up conversations as you shiver together in a drinking tent.
The Sapporo Beer Factory offers tours, has a shopping mall attached to it, but the best thing to do here is go to the Mongolian BBQ restaurant. You go in for a limited amount of time and it’s all you can eat. You have a couple of choices which food you want to barbeque, and I suggest the lamb. Once you are seated, the beer is unlimited and the waitress will also get your burner going and bring you tray after tray of food. It is smoky in the hall, so they put all of your belongings in plastic bags to protect them from the aroma. Get to know the people at your neighboring tables and enjoy!
3 – The Nebuta Festival in Aomori happens each year in August
The parade starts after it gets dark, and they drag or carry huge paper lantern floats through the streets. They are lit up and hauntingly beautiful. The rest of the fest is typical Japanese, and eating the corn on the cob with a sesame sauce or yakisoba are great treats.
4 – Cherry Blossom Season
Starting in the south around February, you can follow the cherry blossoms all the way north. They hit Tokyo around the beginning of April. People drag out their hibachis and blue tarps so they can kick off their shoes and picnic under the trees. If there is a canal or river, you will often see boats poling down them under the blossoms as well. Do some research to find the best spots; one of my favorites is Hirosaki Castle, northern Honshu.
5 – Staying at a traditional ryokan
Even though this is not a budget activity, it’s one to experience. To stay one night will probably cost around $200 per person, but this usually includes a full traditional Japanese meal. As you enter the ryokan and take off your shoes, you are shown to your tatami room that is sparsely decorated. There will be yuukatas and slippers provided for you and it is perfectly normal to spend the day wandering the grounds in that attire. Many times your dinner is served in your room, and then when you are finished, someone will come in and set up your futons to sleep on.
One of the best ryokans I’ve stayed in, especially if you go in the winter, is the Aoni onsen in Kuroishi-shi. To get there you must ride a snowcat from the parking lot, and once you arrive there is no electricity. It’s completely lit by oil lanterns. It’s very romantic and cozy.
6 – Having a Japanese bath (onsen)
There are traditional Japanese baths in every community throughout the country, but the best ones are always in the mountains that host a rotonburo (outdoor bath) as well as the various indoor ones.
At the onsen, you are required to scrub, scrub, scrub away all your dirt and grime before you enter the baths. Then you wander to and from the steam room and from bath to bath. There are also relaxation rooms, massages, and many other amenities, but the very best part is just lounging in the hot water outside.
7 – Sushi
As you can imagine, sushi can be found anywhere, including the airport if you are just transiting through. One experience you shouldn’t miss, though, is going to a fish market early in the morning where you can see the fish being auctioned off, then cut up right there and made into delicious sushi. However, much more prevalent are the sushi-go-round places or as a popular brand and what I call “pink sushi” where you can pick up the sushi you are interested in right off of the conveyor belt.
8 – Climbing Mt. Fuji
To climb the mountain, you must be in the Tokyo area in July or August. That’s the only time the weather allows the climb. Mt. Fuji with its white-capped view, famous the world over, is not a pretty mountain when you are climbing it. Much of the path is through old lava rocks that are difficult to walk through, cut your shoes, and wreak havoc on your feet once they wriggle inside. The best part of the climb is stopping at the huts that have roaring fires, where you pay a fee to have a stamp burned into your souvenir walking stick. You can also buy bottles of oxygen to help you climb, or if you get too tuckered, you can pay to spend the rest of the night in a bunk reminiscent of the one in “Snow White.” Many people climb at night with the goal of reaching the summit by about 4:00 a.m. when the monks toll the bells to welcome the sunrise. It is invigorating after the hard slog up the slope, but luckily the way down is much easier and faster, just a little hard on the knees.
9 – Toshogu Shrine
A World Unesco Heritage Site, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko is one of the prettiest complexes in Japan. It is only a day trip from Tokyo, so it’s pretty convenient as well. After getting off the train, you take a bus to the bottom of the hill where the shrine is located, and there you can walk through a number of buildings and around the grounds. All are beautiful and well worth it.
Japan is a great winter destination. All over the more northern parts of the country are a plethora of ski areas. They are well-groomed, and usually have a variety of runs, to include half-pipes and sledding hills. The eating facilities always serve traditional noodles and there’s nothing better to warm up to a bowl of curry udon. Usually, you need to decipher a vending machine to get a ticket that you take to the lady at the counter where you pick up your food. The slopes are packed, but unlike many U.S. or European destinations, you rarely encounter shoving or line-cutting.