I contribute regularly to the different forums dedicated to travel to Japan, like the Japan Guide which has been around forever. Regularly you come across questions from people who have travelled to Japan before, visited the typical locations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Kanazawa, etc. and are struggling to take their upcoming trip to Japan to the next level and are scouting for suggestions.
I noticed that Japanese tourists in their own country and Japanese locals do a lot of activities, interesting things, that do not immediately occur to non-Japanese tourists and they hesitate to join in. Often there is no reason for not doing the same other than being unfamiliar with it. Bringing your trip to Japan to the next level means that you should really try to experience Japan as a Japanese tourist, in my opinion, therefore not staying on the outside of Japan and just looking in through the window, but instead enter and become Japanese.
Off the beaten tourist track
Assuming that you have visited Kyoto, Nara, etc. during previous visits, the first thing I would like to recommend to repeat visitors to Japan is not to automatically turn west from Tokyo and stay between Tokyo and Hiroshima but maybe explore Tohoku, Hokkaido, Shikoku or Kyushu, or cross Japan and travel along the Sea of Japan coast. Seek out the countryside and get out of the big cities for a while and do not automatically make it Takayama, so many more towns to choose from!
A visit to an onsen seems to be on everybody’s wishlist which really makes me happy, I love visiting onsen especially the rural ones in Tohoku. See here for some blog posts of remarkable onsen that I visited. A great way to enjoy an onsen is to stay at a ryokan but this is definitely not the only way to get a good soak. In onsen towns like Naruko Onsen, for example, you can buy a “Spring Tour” ticket that allows you to visit different onsen in the town. In the more isolated areas of Japan you can often find onsen that are not more than a shed with a box to put the fee in and the best water imaginable. These are the onsen I now prefer.
Often the foreign tourists seek out onsen with private baths to avoid getting nude in front of strangers. Ryokans do sometimes offer this option but frankly I would recommend to do as the Japanese do and just enjoy the soak, nobody is looking and you’ll have all the onsen to pick from, not just a few.
Japanese tourists will travel far to sample some special cuisine. If you have watched Japanese TV, you must have seen the many programmes about food and visits to little towns and exploring the local specialities there. By now you know that Japanese food is much more than sushi, make sure that you know the local specialities of the areas that you visit and dig up the best restaurants. A great way to sample the local food is to stay at a ryokan.
Surprisingly, it seems that breakfast at a ryokan sometimes is a problem for tourists being used to something sweet or light at that time of the day. Breakfast at a ryokan is often made up of fish, miso, pickles and rice and everybody eats the same unless there is a breakfast buffet; I can wholeheartedly recommend trying the Japanese breakfast.
If you’re in a bind finding a restaurant in a town you know little about, a safe option is an izakaya style restaurant where you can try your pick from an extensive menu.
All the tourists visit Buddhist temples and enjoy the architecture and the temple grounds, I’m sure, but at the bigger Buddhist temples it is common for people to join in with the morning ceremonies and only few tourists do this. We did this at Zenkō-ji in Nagano; it really is quite the experience. You do have to get up early but this is where jet-lag can really help you out. 🙂
If you’re flying home via Narita and decide to stay at the town of Narita for your last night in Japan (recommended!) you will stop at the big temple complex of Narita-san, no doubt. At Narita-san, every hour there is a Goma fire ritual held that lots of Japanese people join. You can enter too, you’ll be surprised how few of us tourists do but it is so worth it.
Opportunities like this you can find almost everywhere in Japan, stop by the local tourist information and ask about it.
Temple stays or shukubo, as they are called in Japanese, are growing in popularity with the foreign tourists. There seems to be a misconception and a lot of people think that shukubo are limited to Mt. Koya, but that is not true, many Buddhist temples in Japan offer this option and the best shukubo I did was at Taiyoji Temple near Chichibu near Tokyo.
At a good temple stay you eat the vegetarian food (shojin ryori), copy sutra, do zazen meditation and join in with the evening and morning ceremonies, chanting the sutra, etc.. Some people mentioned that they had done a temple stay but had declined to join in with any of the activities, that is just silly to me.
Buddhist pilgrimages are probably not the first thing you think of to do as a tourist but the interest is certainly growing. The most famous pilgrimage in Japan is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples which is 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete on foot. A shorter, more manageable pilgrimage for a tourist is the Chichibu Pilgrimage in and around the town of Chichibu close to Tokyo. This pilgrimage is about 100 kilometres long and can be walked or done by public transport in a few days. There are many other pilgrimages around Japan, you probably already visited some of the temples of the Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage without you being aware.
Festivals (or matsuri as they are called in Japan) are fun and diverse; if you have a chance, book your visit to an town or an area around a festival.
The New Year holiday, like Obon in August, is maybe not the best period to visit Japan as transportation is packed beyond capacity and almost everything is closed on New Year’s Day, but it gives you the chance to do hatsumode on New Year’s Day or shortly thereafter like virtually all Japanese people do. Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, you typically buy good luck charms and drink sweet sake. It also includes queuing up for an hour or so to get to the front of the shrine to say your prayers, but that is all part of the fun. I’ve now spent New Year in Japan twice and each time doing hatsumode was a unique experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.
Above are just my suggestions to make more of a trip to Japan. Let me know your ideas in the comments.
We didn’t stay at Yuyado Daiichi Onsen but drove by and stopped for a soak, most onsen allow day spa access for a few hours a day for a modest price. It is a great way to enjoy the famous onsen although some of these places have great rooms and cuisine that you don’t get to enjoy. At Yuyado Daiichi Onsen we paid ¥600 which was a very fair price considering the many baths.
There were so many rotenburo to enjoy; we were lucky to have arrived early as it did take time to explore all the baths. As I was the only one in the baths for some time, I shot the following video:
We found this great AirBnb in Tokyo (Higashimurayama-shi) with good access to Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Kawagoe by train! The place was a whole traditional Japanese house with tatami areas, a cosy kotatsu table, large kitchen, bath, a garden and two bedrooms upstairs. And only at a 5 minutes walk from Seibu-en train station. We had used AirBnb around Tokyo before but never found such a nice, spacious place.
Located at less than 5 minutes from the house, Lake Tama has a great sunset view of Mount Fuji. In the other direction is a forest for a great hike with a nice link to the My Neighbor Totoro film by Hayao Miyazaki.
And did I mention that it is next to Seibu-en amusement park? 🙂
Look at these beautiful doors of the futon storage in the bedroom, amazing!
Close to Kotan Onsen and also on Lake Kussharo is Wakoto Onsen which is located on that tiny peninsula that is so recognizable for Lake Kussaro. This rotenburo is a bit more secluded and even though it was just as cold when we visited Kotan Onsen, the windchill was a lot less and we didn’t feel like we were freezing.
The view was excellent but the water was a bit dirty with clumps of algae that floated around and occasionally stuck to our bodies. All in all, it was a great experience and both Wakoto and Kotan rotenburo are recommended!
Along Lake Kussharo in the tiny town of Kotan, the locals have created a rotenburo (outdoor hotspring) bordering the lake. We visted this December with a temperature of -5 C in a gale that must have had a windchill factor of -20, or so.
Disregarding the outside temperature, I got into the bath and enjoyed a nice soak as the water had a great temperature. However, getting back into my clothes was freezing cold but I wouln’t liked to have missed this experience for the world!
Access to the rotenburo is free of charge.
The other day we visited Koshikawa Onsen, a tiny, old building along the 244 leading to the south-east out of Shari, Hokkaido. It is an unmanned onsen and you pay the 200 yen fee by putting the coins in a box. It seems the be mainly frequented by locals and travellers who have heard of the place. The building looks a bit run-down but the bath is nice and the water is hot.
I do treasure these tiny onsen as anybody can go to the big baths of Yufuin or Hakone, but in my romantic view this is much closer to the way onsen were used in the past before it was all about the souvenirs or the drinks. There are still the leftovers of a much older Japan out there for those who bother to look.
The 33 temples of the Bandō Sanjūsankasho (“The Bando 33 Kannon Pilgrimage”) form together with the 33 temples of the Saigoku pilgrimage and the 34 temples of the Chichibu Kannon temple pilgrimage, a 100-temple Kannon pilgrimage.
Now free Android apps for all three of these pilgrimages are available from the Android store.
Of the three pilgrimages, at a mere length of 100 km, the Chichibu 34 Kannon pilgrimage is best suited for the tourist who can only dedicate a limited amount of time and would like to walk the pilgrimage. And as Chichibu is, undeservedly, still largely undiscovered by the majority of the tourists, you have a chance to enjoy a lovely area of Japan that is less than an hour from Tokyo by train.
See also here.
The pages describing my experience of walking the Chichibu 34 Kannon temple pilgrimage on this blog remain popular and this makes me happy as that means that a lot of people are looking to get more out of their trips to Japan, decided to get out of the big cities and get a taste of the real Japan. I’m therefore happy to announce that I’ve written a free Android App that works as the perfect travel assistant specific for the Chichibu 34 Kannon Temples pilgrimage.
The Henro App is based on my own experience walking the pilgrimage and it is what I would have liked to have with me when I was doing the pilgrimage. Some of the temples are difficult to find. Even though there are some signs and stone markers guiding the pilgrim, especially in the Yokoze area, I found myself walking with both the books in my hand constantly looking at hand-drawn maps that were put together a long time ago and not always accurate or reading descriptions that were a bit confusing at times. I really felt like I wanted to have all the details of a temple and up-to-date maps easily accessible on my phone or tablet and even have the possibility to use GPS to indicate your current location or use for navigation to a temple.
Well, here it is is, a perfect pilgrim’s assistant and I have packed it with loads of details about other tourist attractions in Chichibu as well; so even if you don’t use it to do the pilgrimage, you’ll get plenty out of it when you visit Chichibu and it comes at a price you cannot beat. Available now in both English and Japanese (日本語版). 🙂
Check out the video on YouTube to see what to expect.
With departures to Europe leaving Narita airport late morning or early afternoon, this means that a last night in Tokyo always results in getting up very early to catch the first Narita Express trains to be in time at the airport to make the flight. Of course it is not unthinkable in Tokyo that an earthquake or a typhoon knocks out the train traffic for a few hours, so that is why we typically stay the last night in Japan in Narita town rather than Tokyo and lately this has become the last two nights as Narita with Naritasan in its centre is actually a very nice place to visit!
Of course this is not a new idea and loads of tourists are doing this, profiting from the relatively cheap hotels and the convenience of a free shuttle bus to the airport that most, if not all, Narita hotels provide.
Narita town is as nice as any Japanese town but with some very good restaurants, especially the unagi restaurants are famous. At the heart of Narita town lies the big temple complex of Naritasan which makes a visit to Narita worthwhile from a touristic point of view too.
One thing the pamphlet only hints at is the unique chance Naritasan offers to join the devotees and visitors in the Goma ritual. Normally if you want to join in at a Buddhist temple in the morning ceremony, you need to get up pretty early. I would still recommend that you do this to give extra substance to your visit to Japan, but the great thing with the Goma ritual is that it is held every hour from early morning to late afternoon. I see so many tourists watch the ritual from beyond the glass wall, but it is just a matter of taking your shoes off, putting them in a plastic bag and sitting down inside to be part of it. When they hit that enormous taiko drum, you’ll jump like everybody else!
And when the ceremony is done, make sure to hand your wallet or camera or anything you would like to be blessed to the monks who will hold it in the smoke of the ritual for a second.
It is so easy to come back from a trip to Japan and have only stood at the window glimpsing in. Like a visit to an onsen, joining in at a temple ceremony should be high up on your lists of things to do for a successful trip to Japan. It is not difficult to join in and I can assure you that it gives a great feeling of satisfaction. Typically there are no thresholds other than our own hesitation and insecurity and I haven’t seen the tourist guide yet that explains any of this, they’re always just going on about who build this and when, but leave out so much practical information. We had a great experience at Zenkō-ji temple in Nagano and lots of other places but with so many foreign tourists and visitors at these places, I’m always the only foreigner joining in, and I’m telling you, you guys are missing out! 😀
Make sure to pick up one of the business card sized note that contains the mantra to the Fudo Myo-o deity that is chanted during the Goma ritual, see above for the text in Roman characters and translation.