I’m writing this series based on random stuff I find interesting.
But why not make a article or two that has some practical value?
Here are some points and tips to consider if you’re thinking of visiting Japan as a tourist.
Get Out of the Tourist Traps
This is advice that rings true for pretty much everywhere in the world. High-traffic areas for tourists tend to be crowded, way overpriced, and just not as cool as other options off the beaten path.
By and large, meal prices in Japan are reasonable given the quality of the food. But prices do vary from store to store, district to district, and region to region.
I recommend taking the effort to break away from the one-stop tourist strips and find some real local fare, for a better fare!
See Some Lived-In History
Related to this notion of tourist areas, I recommend against going to Kyoto for your first trip. Kyoto is famous for housing some of the country’s oldest buildings, yet so much of it feels manufactured when you’re there. See a temple, wait in line, take a photo. Rinse, repeat.
Instead, I recommend going to a place like Kamakura, which is close to Yokohama. You get access to cultural artifacts from as early as the 10th century, and it’s much better integrated in the town. And the buildings look older, as they age more naturally than the fastidiously primped Kyoto temples.
Even in Kamakura, I recommend getting away from the main strip near Kamakura Station. You can just get lost and see what you find in a random neighborhood.
My wife and I recently stumbled on a traditional cemetery with graves dating to the 11th century, some of them for major dignitaries of medieval Japanese history.
The train stations adjacent to Kamakura station also offer plenty of beautiful historic places to traverse and explore.
Also, in terms of lived-in history, it’s nice if you can visit Japan during a national holiday. Often there’s a festival to see, or a traditional dance, or a ceremony, or some other activity for residents (and guests) to partake in older aspects of the culture.
Really: Get Lost!
Japan is one of the safest places to live in the world, and not just in terms of violent crime. Even stuff like pickpocketing and petty theft are extremely rare. They do have organized crime gangs, but unless someone is wading into their rackets, they know better than to mess with foreign citizens. As such, it’s perfectly normal for 5 year old children to travel alone.
This is a huge boon for tourists, as it allows you to wander around without fear of stumbling into an unwelcome situation. So when I recommend you get lost and explore random parts of a neighborhood, I mean it!
Thankfully, if you’re well and truly lost, the smartphone is a life saver for those who can’t speak the language. If you need to get back to a station, GPS will be your guide. Otherwise, relax, and find some cool places and people off the beaten path.
Don’t Worry So Much About the Language
Japanese is a really tough language to learn, and most residents there don’t speak enough English to be helpful to tourists.
Still, the language gap is not that big of a deal. Japanese people have zero expectation for you to speak their language. If they see a foreigner, they typically give an English menu, or a picture menu, or have some other way to ensure a smooth process.
That can be frustrating for people who want to flex their language skills, but it works for most tourists.
Even if they can’t hold a conversation, most people want the business, and so they make it work.
In Tokyo, many signs are written out in Roman letters. Street signs, signs in airports and train stations, stop announcements on a bus, these all either provide English translations (東京駅 -> “Tokyo Station”), or Roman transliterations (東京駅 -> “toukyou eki”).
This is often not the case if you travel into the countryside, so I wouldn’t recommend doing that unless you have a guide. Otherwise, the navigational signs are pretty friendly.
Do Be Open to Cultural Differences
Japanese people take pride in visitors enjoying what the country has to offer its guests, particularly those who are open to experiencing Japanese culture.
Not to mention, Japan is a wealthy society full of cutting edge technology and amenities. But despite its somewhat Western overlay, Japan has a very different culture from what most Westerners are used to.
The busiest parts of Tokyo are far more organized than midtown Manhattan—but it’s according to their particular customs and expectations.
It takes a little getting used to, and a lot of paying attention to what others are doing.
Perhaps this section deserves its own article later on.
But for now, just know that the best way to be is open-minded, flexible, and ever-curious.
Such a mindset will be rewarded tenfold with a trip jam-packed with memorable experiences!
More to come later!
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