A bit astray from the Silk Road (even though some later branches stretched as far as Nara and the surroundings), Japan was not indeed in our initial plans. However, after being denied the Chinese Visa in Ulaanbaatar, we came up with this overland route to arrive to Tokyo and apply there.
This forced deviation turned finally out to be a pleasurable break after all the Central Asia countries
In addition, Japan showed us such richness and variety in food, culture and landscapes that we wound up falling in love with it, especially cherishing the generous politeness of its people and the heartfelt practice of its thousand-year old traditions.
Here you have a short list of our 20 best moments in this magic and welcoming land. We hope you can agree in some points with us…
20) Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Fukuoka):
Despite our weariness after a night “in the open”, we relished this great contemporary Asian art collection in the centre of Fukuoka. Furthermore, we had the opportunity to attend to a silk weaving workshop, in tune with our Silk Road trip.
19) Having breakfast and bento meals at convenience stores:
Although not always that “convenient” and assorted, Family Mart, 7-eleven, Lawson, Mini-Stop and other small chain shops offer very good services to modest backpackers, like a tasty cappuccino for 150 Yen or a nourishing bento (precooked food in a plastic box) for around 300 Yen. Most of them have microwaves to warm up your food.
We had most of our breakfasts and meals sitting or standing outside the stores, taking full advantage of the free Wi-Fi connection and the internal toilet.
18) Kabuki play at Kabuki-za (Tokyo):
Performed in this historical building, the show was completely new to us. It is indeed a love-or-hate experience where the lack of language understanding and dynamic plot make the atmosphere all more culturally clashing.
The curious thing is you do not need to stay for the standard four acts, but instead you can purchase a (cheaper) single-act ticket which allows you to get the general idea of this kind of theatre.
You stand on the unnumbered 4th floor steps and watch the show for about 30 minutes
More than enough for beginners! Ah, given the great demand for these plays, better to buy the tickets a few hours in advance, especially during weekends.
17) Tasting Shochu and Sake (Kyoto & Nara):
Try not to miss the delicious flavours released by these typical Japanese beverages!
Great tasting spots are the traditional Izakayas (informal Japanese gastropub) or the small family shops.
16) Our first Udon bowl in Matsue:
Cheap and nourishing, these thick wheat flour noodles were our first dinner in Japan. We would then eat them almost every day : )
15) Matsue Suitōro – Night festival of water and light (Matsue):
A very quietly charming event held in October weekends in this peripheral but bewitching city. The artisanal glowing art works and lanterns populated the central river banks and the inner castle area; and made our second night in Japan very special.
Below you have a short sample of the “percussion battle“, one of the highlights in this fascinating night festival:
14) Eating with chopsticks (hashi): although we had already tried sushi or Oriental food in Europe, we were no totally used to this “cutlery” on a daily basis and for all types of dishes. We managed quite well in the end : )
13) Umeda Sky Building (Osaka):
This twinned 173 meter high skyscraper will offer you superb 360 degrees views from the open-air deck of the “Floating Garden Observatory” on the 39th floor.
12) Capsule Hotel (Tokyo): this cheap accommodation option is an amazing experience. The “capsule” is a comfortable, individual cabin endowed with many facilities, such as TV, lamp, sockets, privacy-keeping curtain or roller shutter, etc. Definitely a must-try!
11) Daisho-in Temple in Miyajima:
One of the most important temples of Shingon Buddhism, Daisho-in is a beguiling place of endless surprises …
10) Nara Kōen (Nara):
A delightful park studded with mesmerizing sights. From the welcoming tamed deer (all over the park) to the impressive Daibutsu (big Buddha) in the crowded Tōdai–ji; from the stunning views on top of Nigatsudo Hall and Wakakusayama Hill to the beautifully trimmed Yoshikien Garden; from the pretty lanterns of Kasuga Taisha Shrine to the imposing pagodas of Kofukuji Temple.
Nara is a really enticing place to visit !
9) Kyoto’s traditional houses, temples and palaces:
Countless awe-inspiring temples and palaces (Shinto and Buddhist) will surely enchant you during your stay in Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Daitoku-ji, Nanzen-ji, Shoren-in, Honen-in and Kiyomizu-dera are only the most remarkable examples, together with the finest Kyoto Imperial Palace and the admirable Ishibei–koji Lane.
8) Bathing in a traditional onsen in the forest (Hakone):
We almost lost our senses in the soothing atmosphere inside Hakone Yuryo onsen. This is a first-class establishment (not so expensive though, 1400 Yen per person) dazzlingly enclosed in the Fuji-facing Hakone thermal forest and pleasurably equipped with internal and external hot spring pools and saunas.
Better after sunset to enjoy the contrasting temperatures inside and outside the water.
Women and men are assigned separated spaces and people wander naked inside. In the traditional way!
7) Daibutsu and Ten-en hiking course (Kamakura):
Do not underestimate the relaxing beauty of Kamakura. We spent a very agreeable half-day there. Start with the visit to the imposing Daibutsu (Big Buddha) to then take the pleasant trail towards Kita-Kamakura, passing through interesting temples in the forest, such as Sasuki-Inari-Jinja, Zeniarai-benten and Jochi-ji.
After exploring the fascinating Kencho-ji, follow the continuing road behind until you enter again the thick woods and the trail almost vanishes in the dense vegetation…conclude your visit with the well-worth Tsurugaoka Hachimangū.
6) Arashiyama bamboo forest (Kyoto):
Quite a classic in Japan, but still worth mentioning as a great, powerful sight, in spite of the massive presence of tourists. Try to go there as early as you can!
This is our entrance into Arashiyama forest:
5) Tsukiji Market in Tokyo: a sleepless night waiting for one of the 120 available reflective vests giving access to the glorious tuna auction scheduled every week day at 6 am, was one of our most peculiar situations in Japan.
The situation is actually paradoxical: you have to start queuing at around 1 or 2 am to be sure you are among the “lucky” persons admitted daily. If selected, at around 3 am you are then escorted into a waiting room where packed as sardines (you are in a fish market after all : ) and sitting on the confined floor, you are abandoned until 4 30 am, when a fish trader comes in and funnily gives a speech about the FAQs related to the tuna realm, politely replying to some questions from the “prisoners”.
Finally at 5 40 am the first 60 people (1st group) is guided into the market auction area, where you are allowed to stay only 35 minutes, until the second group takes the place.
You should then finish your “watch” with a sushi breakfast at one of the market stalls outside. Another long queue to overcome though!
4) Riding a bicycle in Tokyo:
Equipped with a “courtesy” small bike provided by the hostel Aizuya Inn, we entirely crossed the megalopolis for tens of kilometres, feeling a great sense of powerful freedom and safety across the city arteries.
Although you often do not have cycling lanes, you are always given priority and respect by the vehicles.
Even if we had to repeatedly share the sideway with pedestrians, that never caused any trouble to us
Bikes have their own official parking spaces (for which sometimes you have to pay) and are rarely left outside these areas. Japanese style!
3) Crossing Japan by hitchhiking:
Apart from very few exceptions (especially in big cities like Osaka and Tokyo), we always managed to get a lift from a very kind driver. Since transport fares are very high in Japan, we figured out that was a profitable and challenging way to move around.
With a bit of patience and persistence we overcame the first reluctant reactions and gradually sharpened the best techniques to become more successful. In particular, according to the specific circumstance, we tried the following approach types: “ambush” at the red traffic light; courteous “convergence” at the highway service areas or gasoline stations; or the classic written panel on the road. They had all provided some results at some point!
In total we covered with hitchhiking almost 2000 Km using 28 different vehicles along the itinerary
We have to acknowledge that Japanese drivers are unbelievably helpful and sometimes bring you directly to your destination even if they do not have to pass by there! Another side note is that we got much better luck with women than men, above all if accompanied by kids. Perhaps a sense of motherly responsibility towards needy vagabonds : )
2) Couchsurfing with locals:
Again the economic barriers forced us to also change the accommodation strategy. If until Japan we had used the famous hosting platform only twice in 7 months, there we summed up 15 nights with 9 different hosts in “only” 25 days.
A bit hindered by our being a couple (hosts tend to prefer individual guests), we nevertheless succeeded in finding friendly and generous helpers providing us with sleeping facilities at no cost.
Besides the enormous savings, we also relished the great value of closely interacting with locals in their day-to-day intimate spaces
In Japan you will typically get a simple floor futon (mattress) to share between two or even the nude tatami in some cases : ). It is just a question of rewarding flexibility!
Despite its peripheral location and tiny size, this little island in the Seto-nai-kai (Inland Sea) houses a huge art reservoir. Thanks to the Benesse Corporation in the last 20 years Naoshima and the surrounding islands have become a foremost cultural pole attracting visitors from all around the world.
The particular aspect is that art is in perfect symbiosis with the surrounding natural environment, in an almost seamless camouflage
We arrived from Takamatsu with a 50 minutes ferry dropping us at Miyanoura. From there you can easily walk along the coast or rent a bike. On the way you will be certainly marvelled at the creative sculptures near the beach (notably the renowned Yellow Pumpkin).
You have then some first-class museums (a bit costly to be honest), like the Benesse House Museum built by architect Ando Tadao. But the island flagship is the Art House Project scattered all around the Honmura area. The project consists of six main installations in different buildings, one more enthralling than the other. A great spot!
♦ Curious sights ♦
But the list does not end here! We have also gathered a special section containing minor sights which drew our attraction as first-time tourists in Japan:
- Drive on the left side: opposite to Europe.
- Flat tips plugs: found only in Japan so far.
- Vending machines everywhere: you can find them in any corner of the country. In addition, you can often buy alcoholic products or ice creams.
- Anti-pollution / bacteria masks: it seems that Japanese are very worried about the air pollution or any human-derived contamination : )
- Limousine taxis: great Japanese style! They are almost the common rule in the country, with very good-mannered and well-dressed drivers professionally holding the steering wheel with white gloves. Pity we never tried them : )
- Decibel counters: next to construction sites, they helpfully gauge the noise intensity in the surroundings.
- No public bins on the streets: we could not fathom how cities were always so clean! Another enviable example from the Japanese!
- Strict adherence to norms in public stations: visible at many levels, but in particular when going up and down from and to stations (they keep the left to ascend and right to descend) or waiting for the coming metro or train (rigorously in queue).
- Progressive fares in public transport: fees in metros, buses and trains are calculated according to the distance. For example, every stop in the subway increases your final cost. In case you have bought a ticket of lower value, you will have to “adjust” the fare at the exit.
- Kitkat and ice-cream with green tea (matcha) flavour: a blockbuster in Japan!
- Manga caffés (kissa manga): quite an institution in Japan, they are upper floors multi-purpose spaces where you can read, connect to Wifi or even sleep (as a last resort option). However, they charge you the stay per time tiers. General thresholds are 5, 7, 12 or 24 hours. Indeed, we did not find them so convenient.
- Erotic mangas in convenience stores: quite a curious sight!
- Manga Museum (Kyoto): very interesting place for Manga lovers and beginners!
- Ring to hold the phone: stuck on the rear side of the mobile phone, it is halfway between a trendy and useful contraption to keep a solid grip on the device.
- Fancy slippers for women: really bad taste!
- Customer service robots: we did not have the slightest doubt Japan would be among the pioneers in that!
- Over politeness: try to enter any shop and you will be greeted and revered twice or three times by each employee inside!
- Top-class bathrooms: free everywhere, toilets are also incredibly clean and functional. The W.C. has always advanced electronic options to turn on music, warm up your buttocks or sprinkle them after the operation.
- Shibuya street crossing: supposedly the busiest in the world (believe it or not : )
- Smoking rules: surprisingly people are not allowed to smoke in open spaces (there are prohibition signs everywhere), apart from some indicated areas. Conversely, many bars and restaurants permit to smoke inside.
- Plastic dish replicas outside restaurants: very handy when you don’t understand any Japanese and you want to get a rough idea of what you are gonna eat !
- Religious symbols and rituals: you will soon get familiar with all this world. Showy Torii, weirdly dressed divinities, hands clapping in front of the temples, elaborated blessings with water from holy pools, etc. Just explore any temple, Shinto or Buddhist, to get a vivid idea!
- Pachinko addiction: only enter at least once any of the tons pachinko (pinball game) points in any city. You will feel numb right after few moments!
In short, Japan is truly a world to discover. 25 days are certainly not enough to properly savour all its pure and intact traditions; its thousand different flavours and above all the extreme kindness of its people. Explore the most renowned sights but do not neglect peripheral locations (e.g. Matsue) with many genuine and authentic aspects to fully grasp the Japanese culture and lifestyle.
The only disadvantage is the expensive cost of living there, which could make a backpacker’s life quite uneasy. Give it a go with couchsurfing and hitchhiking
Japanese are very generous and will try to offer you some help any time. ). In the end with a 30 euros / day budget we managed to excitedly relish the core of this splendid country. In the cheap but true way!
Besides, the country looked to us so safe that you don’t have to worry so much about bad intentions or situations (although they always can happen, of course). Not the paradise for a backpacker but quite close : )