This article was contributed by Dean Wormald, creator of Japan Travel Mate, a Japan photo blog and travel guide.
Find a festival
There are thousands of local festivals throughout the country at all times of the year – from massive events like the Awa Odori dancing festival in Tokushima, which draw over 1 million visitors a year, to small neighbourhood festivals with a few hundred locals.
A classic example is the cherry blossom festival, where parks are full of food stalls and people enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Often there are other events at the festivals, like the samurai parade and battle re-enactment at Okazaki’s cherry blossom festival.
Listings of local events in English can be found on the official prefecture or city websites.
Hire a bicycle
Many Japanese people get around by bike, even in the big cities. It’s a very convenient way to see local areas. Many cities are flat and easy to cycle around, especially Kyoto.
Seeing the city by bike often leads you down backstreets and laneways, away from the main tourist routes. You’ll see everyday life in Japan first hand – exemplifying both subtle and profound differences in the Japanese way of life – and are guaranteed a memorable experience.
Most cities have bicycle rental outlets at very affordable prices. As bikes are so common, there is always somewhere to park your bike – outside all the tourist hotspots and shopping areas.
Although Japan is a densely populated country, it never really feels busy. This is because people are considerate and respectful, and daily life in Japan can be quite harmonious.
Key tips are to be quiet on trains (even talking the phone is frowned upon) and don’t eat or drink while walking the streets.
Learn (a little of) the language
While you can travel Japan without speaking a word of the language, learning just a few simple phrases opens up endless possibilities. Find an online Japanese tutor or someone locally – speaking with an actual Japanese person is the most effective way of learning.
Practice a few simple sentences, like “Do you have…?” (arimasuka? ??????) and “Can I…?” (iidesuka? ??????). These are the most flexible and useful for travelers, allowing you to say many handy travel phrases, like:
- Do you have… wireless internet? = “wifi (wireless) arimasuka (do you have)?“
- Do you have… an English menu? “eigo (English) menu (menu) arimasuka (do you have)?“
- Can I… leave my bags here? = “bagu (bag) azuketemo (leave) iidesuka (can I )?”
- Can I… take a photo? = “shashin (photo) tottemo (take) iidesuka (can I)?“
- Can I — use the bathroom? = “toire (bathroom) tsukattemo (use) iidesuka (can I)?“
Stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn)
The ryokan is a traditional Japanese 17th century inn. The rooms contain low tables, tatami straw floor mats, sliding shoji screens and futon bedding. Many of these inns provide dinner and breakfast, often a multi-course traditional Japanese cuisine, with local and seasonal specialties.
While ryokan are generally a little more expensive than normal hotels, it’s a cultural experience, not just a place to sleep. Stay at least one or two nights during your trip, taking the time to relax, just like travellers along Japan’s cross-country roads did hundreds of years ago.
Many ryokan include a hot spring onsen or other type of public bath – these are great for soaking those travel weary muscles. Make sure you shower and rinse yourself before entering the bath, keeping the water clean for other bathers.
Bow at the main torii entrance gate, purify yourself at the temizuya water basin and pray at the main shrine.
- Bow once at the torii, then avoid the central path from the main gate to the shrine, this route is reserved for the gods – you wouldn’t want to appease the gods of fortune or longevity!
- Purify your hands and mouth at the temizuya water purification basin.
- In front of the main shrine hall, throw a coin into the box then ring the bell. Bow twice then clap your hands twice. Place your hands in a prayer position, give silent thanks, then bow one final time.
Get more details on the shrine and temple rituals.