Japan is special.
Each region has its own unique characteristics – from beautiful terrain, to rich historical sites – every city was an adventure. The one constant, however, is the people. I was invariably humbled by the level of empathy and selflessness that is was embodied by everyone I met. As a foreigner who doesn’t speak the native language I often found myself seeking the help of others. Whether I was in a busy part of Tokyo during rush hour or a rural village in the southern region, everyone would go out of there way to make sure I was taken care of, even if they couldn’t understand anything I was trying to communicate.
There is a lot of the world I have yet to explore, but so far, Japan is at the top of the list. I can’t recommend a trip highly enough – below are a few highlights that hopefully inspire you to make the trip and subsequently serve as a playbook to get the most out of your time there.
The great thing about Japan is that everything is extremely accessible via train. JR Rail is the de facto transit system and has amazing intra-city and inter-city transportation. The bullet trains will get you anywhere you want very quickly, making it easy to hit multiple cities in a day. Once in a city the JR pass will get you on most of the local trains which are more efficient than any other form of transportation (train lines are often more direct than roads). You can pick up a JR pass for ~$300 for week or ~$500 for 2 weeks. With that pass you can ride any train as many times as you want.
If you only visit one place…
Go to Hiroshima. It is simultaneously the most devastating and peaceful place I have ever been. The remnants of destruction, juxtaposed with innumerable peace monuments speaks to the humanity present in a place that once likely felt devoid of anything humane. I can not begin to imagine the devastation felt by the people directly impacted by the events in Hiroshima, but everywhere you look there are signs of peace, hope and forgiveness. This was a truly humbling experience – the emotions I felt are difficult to commit to prose.
One encounter I had while there will be with me for the rest of my life. As I walked through the city I saw small paper cranes folded and placed around all of the peace monuments. I finished my time in the city with a trip the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum – in there were photos, memoirs and artifacts illustrating some of the most heart-breaking stories you could imagine. As I exited the museum I noticed an employee sitting on a bench folding a paper crane. I stopped to ask about these cranes I had seen throughout the city – she told me the story of a girl who was affected by the radiation and had less than a year to live. There was a legend that whoever folded 1,000 paper cranes would be granted one wish, so this girl folded paper cranes in her hospital bed in pursuit of that wish. She reached 1,000 and got her wish, but her condition worsened. As she began pursuit of her second 1,000 she passed away. Her paper cranes became a symbol of peace – many of the originals donated around the world and to this day, school children continue to fold paper cranes as a symbol of peace. As the woman finished sharing the story she handed me the crane she had just folded. That crane sits on my desk today.
A city full of energy. No matter the time or day, there is a sea of humanity everywhere you look. What makes Tokyo unique from other population dense cities I’ve visited is the warmth that underpins the experience. It goes back to the character of the people – there is an overwhelming sense of friendliness and safety in even the most fast-paced environments that typically would exude anxiety. Shibuya crossing was the epitome of sensory overload in all the best ways. From the bright lights, to blaring sounds to the sheer magnitude of human beings, it is an experience. Right outside one of the busiest train stations in Japan, there are thousands of people at any given time crossing the street, heading in their own direction. It’s a gentle reminder that everyone has their own story – I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was coming from and where everyone was going. It’s a people watcher’s dream.
Some of my favourite experiences in Japan was visiting local markets. Crammed corridors with locals selling food, garments and art was a great immersive cultural experience. The challenge is finding markets that are actually visited by other locals and are not just a tourist attraction. One of my favourite market experiences was a group of guys selling fresh cut sashimi out of the back of their pickup truck. They had fresh fish on ice in the bed of the truck and were fileting on the tailgate. I spent the equivalent of $2 for a full meal’s worth of the best sashimi I’ve ever had.
A city steeped in tradition. The original capital of Japan, Kyoto is unique in that it is the only non-coastal major city. Kyoto is known for its extensive collection of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. You can’t walk more than 100m without seeing some ancient architecture. The city is relatively flat, with many of the major attractions sitting on the periphery of the city. Everything is easily accessible via local trains.
My favourite experience in Kyoto was stumbling through old alley-ways filled with little shops. Most of these corridors could barely fit two people side by side, however, Japanese are very slim, so I’m sure these walkways were spacious for the majority. During one of my jaunts I noticed a few beautiful watercolour paintings hanging outside a small doorway. As I stopped to look, a man invited me inside to see the rest of his collection. His paint studio consisted of a small wooden bench, a candle and a stool. His English was fairly strong so we talked for some time – as I departed he gifted me a couple of paintings to bring back home. I tried to pay him but he would not accept much, we finally settled on a small “gift”. Only in Japan can you find yourself haggling to try and give someone more money than they want…
I couldn’t help but find a place to get a tattoo. Even though tattoos are generally still taboo in the culture, some of the best artists in the world are in Japan. I found a shop in Kyoto, called them and got on standby for cancellations – on my last day, they called. What an experience that was… The artist didn’t speak a word of English, so 90% of our communication was non-verbal. I wanted to get a dove, so I typed it into google translate and showed him – he looked at me a little funny but agreed and started sketching. I found this odd, so I translated the Japanese characters back into English and realized that he thought I wanted a pigeon. As it turns out there isn’t a good direct translation to Japanese for the word dove. So instead I showed him a picture. He gestured to ask if he could go free-hand; I agreed. So I laid down on the bench, no stencil, no drawing, just this man and his tools. He turned on some deep house music, turned the lights down and got to work. I didn’t look until he was done – it’s my favourite of all my tattoos, and by far one of my favourite memories.
Kyoto is situated in the central part of Japan, making it a great place to set-up home-base for a few days and do day trips to neighbouring regions. Every day I woke up, walked to the train station and picked a new destination.
I did a day in Kobe, which was beautiful. A coastal city with sprawling forests and small mountains. I spent most of the day hiking, stopping once quickly for coffee – there was too much to see. I do not usually eat red meat, but in Kobe I had to try. Yakiniku is a traditional format for eating beef – it comes raw with a small cooking surface on your table; you can either cook it yourself or your server will help. Naturally I left it to the experts – it was incredible. One unique part of Kobe was the density of Dutch architecture. It was almost surreal to be tucked away in Japan and see the design characteristics of Amsterdam. As it turns out, the port of Kobe was a foreign settlement and a majority of settlers were from the Netherlands.
Another coastal city, just a short trip from Kobe, but worlds apart in its culture. Where Kobe was tranquil as sprawling, Osaka was hyper-caffeinated and vertical. Bright lights and commerce was everywhere you looked. It was less my speed, but I’m happy I experienced this. After about 12 hours I felt like I had been up for days and needed to retreat back to my Airbnb in the quiet corridors of Kyoto. The best part of Osaka was the food. They have unique takes on specific dishes, but restaurants are everywhere, and everything looked amazing. I landed on Okanamyiaki, which is affectionately referred to as a Japanese pancake. I think of it more like a Japanese pizza because it’s a base of cabbage and you choose your toppings. Naturally I went heavy on the vegetables and seafood, sans sauce. It was amazing…
A short train ride from Kyoto filled with peaceful parks, deer (yes, deer) everywhere and tranquil green spaces. Nara was as serene a landscape as you could ask for, brining parallels to my early childhood reading of Narnia. Part of me feels like CS Lewis made a trip to Nara at some point, drawing some inspiration from the wildlife and green space.
On the far outskirts of the Kyoto region, this bamboo forest is everything it was made out to be. About a 5 minute walk off the train and you are immersed in vertical sticks of bamboo, almost completely blocking out the sun. You are sure to encounter a foot stampede of tourists, but if you’re lucky enough to duck into some short paths, away from the chaos, it’s a pretty remarkable sight.
This ‘mountain’ isn’t exactly Mt Fuji, but with a small trek to the summit nonetheless, and the view from the top is worth the 2-3 hours of glute-burning ascension. With some temples along the way and winding pathways, the hike is a fun one. The only thing that humbled me more than the awe-inspiring view from the summit was the 5-year old children racing past me on their way to the top – I clearly am not cut out for long hikes.
One thing I really wanted to experience was an onsen (traditional Japanese bath house), but because of my tattoos I was denied entry, everywhere. This cultural dissonance also meant I had to wear long sleeves almost everywhere I went, proving to be extremely problematic when going to the gym. The first time I walked in I was in a t-shirt – by the reaction of the staff you would have thought I walked in completely naked. I was quickly escorted out. I returned with my tattoos covered, but that also meant that for two weeks I worked out in a gym kept at 80+ degrees Fahrenheit in a hoodie. Needless to say I burned a lot of calories.
All-in-all, Japan brought emotions from every point on the spectrum. I laughed, cried, and most of all was at peace. The landscape was breath-taking, the history was heavy, the food was amazing, and the people were simply incredible. I can’t urge anyone enough to go – it will change you for the better.