Experience Japan: The armchair travellers guide

By Kashiking on February 9, 2017

Whether you’re headed over here and looking for places to visit in Japan. Or even if you jet want to experience Japan from the comfort of your own home- this is the article for you.

We’re going to take through all the things you shouldn’t miss when you step foot on this mysterious Island.

Experience Japan……The Traditional

On our journey through Japan, let’s start with the traditional. Ask most Japanese people what religion they are, and you’ll most likely get “no religion” as a reply.

The truth is Japan is a mix of Buddhism from India via China, and it’s own Shinto. These are so ingrained in the Japanese culture that a lot of people here don’t see it as a “separate religion”. You can see evidence of Buddhism and Shinto everywhere in its temples and shrines.

So your first port of call to experience Japan is in its Temples and Shrines. But which ones should you go to?

There are a lot to choose from (over 2,000 in Kyoto alone!). Heading to one of the local shrines dotted around pretty much anywhere can be fun. And if you go around New Year, you’ll be treated to sweet sake and local hospitality.

Outside of the temple/shrine ‘capitals’ of Kyoto and Nara, there’s a great option in Yamagata. Risshaku-ji (known simply as Yamadera, or ‘mountain temple’) is perched up in the mountains and has been a place of pilgrimage for a thousand years!

Just check out the picture (courtesy of wikipedia) and you’ll see the incredible vista from this place.

experience japan at yamadera

The other obvious choice is to hit the Shikoku Pligrimage (Shikoku Junrei). This is a trail of 88 temples and most Japanese visit at some point in their lives.

Shikoku also boasts some of the best local foods which brings us neatly to our next experience Japan tip.

Experience Japan: The Culinary

We’ve already put together a quick list of the best food in Japan, but the cuisine must take a place at the centre of any experience of Japanese culture.

The number one tip for people wanting to enjoy Japanese food is leave your preconceptions at the airport when you arrive.

Be prepared to try something different with a completely open mind (when my close-minded, 70-year-old father came to Japan, it was a disaster!).

Here’s some of the highlights….

Seafood diet– of course, we should start with the fish and seafood. Where can you find the very BEST seafood in Japan?

For crab and squid, head North to Hokkaido– depending on the season you can enjoy the freshest of the fresh, snow crab, horse hair crab, or hanasaki crab.

How about sushi? You’ll probably find any of the conveyor belt (kaiten) sushi chain restaurants up to scratch. But if you want to go to the real sushi areas, try Shizuoka , Tsukiji Market, Tokyo (though this is moving for the 2020 Olympics!:-)) and Fukui along the Japan sea coast.

Be shellfish– the oysters (kaki) in Japan are huge and the best places to go for these bad boys are Hiroshima, or Lake Hamana, Shizuoka.

What about scallops I hear you ask. And yes, the scallops (hotate) are phenomenal. The local supermarkets’ offerings are pretty good to our untrained taste buds. If you want to hit the real high spots, however, then Sapporo is your place. Why not grab some while you’re up in Hokkaido trying the crab!:-)

The downright weird– OK so earlier I mentioned being prepared to take a challenge. Here’s what I was talking about (the squeamish, or even ultra politically correct should skip this section!:-)).

Angler fish look like aliens! More like the kind go thing you avoid, rather than eat. But they actually taste pretty good and have untold health benefits (though that may just be a trick to get you to eat it!:-)). One of the best spots for this is Oarai in Ibaraki.

The cool thing is you can also check out the whirlpool near here too.

Another delicacy is raw horse meat (yep, you read that right). You might be against this ethically but again, it tastes really nice. Surprisingly tender, and the best place to go is Kumamoto in Kyushu. Which also has some of the best hot springs in Japan. This brings us to our next experience Japan helping.

Experience Japan: The Steamy

The hot springs in Japan, oh yes! As a fully dedicated marathon runner, I know all about the soothing healing properties of hot springs. Here are the BEST places.

We mentioned Kyushu, and the real hot spring capital is Beppu, especially the quaintly named 8 Hells of Beppu. There are actually 2,000 onsens here! Take your pick, though the hot stone and sand hot springs are well worth paying a visit.

Outdoor (gotenburo) hot springs are the best – feel the cool sea breeze as you soak in the hot bath……bliss!!!!

Another notable area is Hakone – here you can get views of Mount Fuji as you take a bath. Now that is REALLY Japanese!:-).

The fact is though, there are great onsens pretty much everywhere. If you want just the onsen experience you won’t have to go to far. If you’re looking for that special view from your bath tub then you will have to venture further afield.

Experience Japan: The Bizarre

On most websites, bizarre Japan means showing maid cafes in Tokyo, or lots of people sleeping on the trains. So we’ll avoid that well trodden ground here.

What are the truly strange events in Japan?

The naked man festival – The Hadaka Festival is held in Saidaiji Temple in Okayama (actually there are lots but this is the main one). And it truly is bizarre.

Thousands of men wearing traditional loin cloths (not completely naked thankfully) fight over shingi (‘lucky’ sticks) which are thrown into the crowd by a priest.

They then battle to get hold of the shingi and stick it into a special pot of rice. Any man who does this successfully will get luck for that year.

The festival is held in mid-February so plenty of sake is consumed to ensure survival.

Onbashira– From the the bizarre to the dangerous. This festival held every six years in Lake Suwa, Nagano has been going for 1,200 years.

Lucky it’s only very 6 years, otherwise even more people would lose their lives.

The purpose of the festival is to ceremonially cut down 6 huge fir trees, ride them down the mountain, and then use them to renew the Grand Shrine at Suwa.

The riding of the great firs is an amazing spectacle and a show of courage by those taking part. Unfortunately pretty much every time someone gets badly hurt.

This festival is actually split into two parts, one in April, on in May.

The Festival of the Steel penis– The Kanamara Matsuri takes place near Kawasaki. It celebrates the male genitalia (of course!) and takes place at the beginning of April.

There is actually a long history behind this with one story about a demon biting the penises off of two young men so their wives went to a blacksmith to get some replacement ones made of steel. Interesting!!!

The festival has become a bit of a tourist attraction and is used to raise AIDs awareness these days.

Definitely quirky Japan at it’s best. Though we label them as a reserved people, the Japanese can be amazingly open about bodily activities that other countries folk get all shy about:-)

That’s all folks

There’s soooooo much more you could include here. Sumo, kite flying, tea ceremonies, the nightlife of Tokyo, Osaka….. the China town in Yokohama.

But this has been a little slice of experience Japan. If you have anything to add, drop it in the comments below. What experience do you think should be included here??

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