Five Lesser-Known Highlights of Japan

Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan

There is no shortage of things to do in Japan, but there are some activities that attract more attention than others on a first visit to Japan. Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; having a geisha experience in the Gion district in Kyoto; climbing Mount Fuji or merely viewing it from one of the vantage points around Gotemba or Lake Kawaguchiko; these are all classic experiences that your client should have at least once on a trip to Japan. However, they should by no means be the extent to which your client explores this incredible country.

There are other things to do when visiting Japan. Whether it involves getting out of the main cities or searching for a corner within those cities that your client wouldn’t normally think of, a little outside-the-box thinking on a visit to Japan will pay great dividends. The following are five lesser-known highlights of a trip to Japan. They are ideas of where your clients can visit, what they can do, and how they can spend their days after they have seen their share of sumo matches and another sushi dinner would make them explode. These ideas are by no means exhaustive, as there are always more experiences to fit into an incredible Japan vacation, but be sure to consider some of the following when planning your client’s next trip to Japan.

Exploring Akihabara, Tokyo
Dive deep into otaku culture in Tokyo

Everyone is aware of anime culture, but that doesn’t mean anime takes a central focus on everyone’s trips to Japan. Usually, traditional Japanese cultural aspects like temples, onsens, and sushi dinners take precedence over modern Japanese obsessions. However, if your client is looking for something different to do, schedule a day to explore otaku culture (meaning manga obsessed) in Tokyo. It’ll give them insight into a subculture that consumes young people the world over and will be a blast to boot.

The best spots to experience otaku culture are in Tokyo, primarily Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara. Nighttime in Shinjuku is its own crazed cultural experience, with more neon lights and people than you thought could ever exist within a confined urban space. The area’s nightlife is invigorating even if your client has no interest in otaku culture, but if they want to experience a taste of this subculture, Shinjuku can amply provide. To experience this culture in its most ridiculous form, they should head to the Robot Restaurant, to watch an evening show consisting of three-metre-tall robots, seemingly a billion laser lights, and scantily-glad space vixens. In Shibuya, exploring Takeshita Street is key and ground-zero for youth fashion innovations (think candy-coloured and impossibly creative outfits). If they merely want to lose themselves in a haven of otaku culture, Akihabara is the place to be. This area known as “Electric City” is home to all manner of manga stores, maid cafes, anime theatres, and giant video game arcades like the Gigo Sega Building, which has six stories of video games to play all through the night.

Hakuba village, Nagano, Japan
Get off the main island of Honshu

Most typical Japanese tours stick to the main island of Honshu. If your clients want to do something that’ll have even other travellers to Japan jealous, break from tradition and get them to one of the other islands, such as Kyushu to the southwest or Hokkaido to the north. If they like wilderness, Hokkaido will satisfy their desires. It contains a fifth of the country’s landmass, but only has a twentieth of its population, so wide open spaces and lush forests are the norm here.

To experience something a little closer to Honshu, but with fewer crowds and more affordable prices, Kyushu is a safe bet. The metropolis of Fukuoka attracts a lot of Chinese and Korean tourists, but fewer westerners. It’s a great place to explore castle ruins, catch a baseball game to see how Nippon Professional Baseball is different than Major League Baseball, and enjoy incredible Kyushu food, such as Hakata ramen. The island also has Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb blast that ended World War II, and the incredible volcanic crater of Aso. The island’s high number of volcanoes makes it a great place for your clients to relax in some hot springs during their trip.

If they really want to get away from the main avenues of Japan, then they should head to Okinawa in the Southwest Islands, where they can experience the beach climate and feast on the famed Okinawan cuisine, widely considered one of the healthiest diets in the world.

Shirakawa-go
Head to the mountains and experience a rustic lifestyle

If they want to stay on Honshu but stay away from the major metropolises, consider suggesting a visit to the northwest to experience the Japanese Alps. Although the Japanese Alps are havens for skiing and other winter sports (remember the 1998 Winter Olympics were held in Nagano), the region is still highly recommended if visiting in the summer. The mild temperatures, gorgeous landscapes, and picturesque villages combine into something more at home in Studio Ghibli movies, not in real life. The town of Takayama is a particular highlight. Recommended is a visit to its morning farmers market, then a trip to see the elaborate parade floats that serve as the highlight of its spring and fall  festival. Your clients can take the afternoon to head to the nearby Hida Folk Village to see how life in the mountains existed for hundreds of years prior to modernization and in the evening dine on soba and Hida beef, some of the most succulent beef available the world over.

Close to Takayama are also the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s the opportunity for your clients to spend a night in one of these villages’ hedge-roofed farm houses and get a taste for rustic Japanese life. The larger centre of Kanazawa on the coast is also worth exploring. It avoided bombing in World War II, so its historical centres, such as the large samurai district of Nagamachi, remain pristine examples of early modern Japan. As well, the convenient location next to the ocean makes it a great place to feast on sushi, with prices that are more affordable than in Tokyo or Osaka.

Sika Deer, Nara
Spend an afternoon amongst sika deer in Nara

Nara is usually a day-trip from Kyoto on most Japan tours, but it’s worth exploring at a slower pace to appreciate it fully. Nara is a historical capital to the southeast of Kyoto and it’s full of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites all within a walkable area. However, what’s perhaps most fascinating about Nara is that it is populated by large numbers of friendly deer. According to legend, the god Takemikazuchi arrived to defend the capital riding on a white deer and ever since, the people living in the city have venerated the deer as sacred. Although they are not legally considered sacred anymore, the Nara deer are still listed as “national treasures.”

In Nara Park, there are a little over a thousand deer wandering about, eager to feast on any treats on offer for them (or maps that might be sticking out of a traveller’s back pocket). Unlike deer almost anywhere else in the world, the Nara deer will not flee at the sight of humans. Your client can pet them gently and they even bow if they think they’ll get a cracker out of it. It’s well worth heading to Nara just to interact with the deer, although luckily there are also plenty of other landmarks to keep a traveller occupied while visiting the city, like Kasuga Shrine and, mostly importantly, Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building and home to the Great Buddha statue or Daibutsu.

A statue at Okunoin graveyard, Koyasan
Stay at a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain

This is probably the most eclectic suggestion on this list, but it’s assuredly one of the most unique experiences your client can have on a Japanese vacation. While many people stay in a ryokan or traditional inn on their trip, not everyone gets the chance to stay at a Buddhist temple. However, if your clients head to Koyasan, they can do just that.

There are over 50 temples on Koyasan or Mount Koya that offer rooms for guests to stay the night on the mountain. These will have to be booked in advance, however, as the mountain can get popular in the spring and summer months. While staying at a temple on the mountain, one can get to meet Buddhist monks, enjoy vegetarian Buddhist meals, and have the opportunity to engage with Buddhist rituals like the morning temple service. But your clients should not expect the kind of experience they would get at a ryokan. Although the monks love to be accommodating, they have religious duties to attend to in addition to helping guests so their time is limited.

To get to Koyasan, it’s a train ride for around two and a half hours from Osaka, a ride on the cable car up the mountain, and then a bus into the temple areas. It’s a bit of a trek, but it’s definitely worth it as your clients can get a taste of the contemplative Buddhist lifestyle, something a person can’t experience most anywhere else. The mountain is also home to one of the most famous cemeteries in Japan, Okunoin, so it’s worth exploring even if they have no interest in experiencing temple life overnight.

Japan is a destination that rewards Globetrotters who avoid the ordinary as there’s always another magical experience to discover around every new corner.

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