a travel guide to japan
Japan's neon lights and loud J-Pop music work in rhythm as you walk through the streets of Tokyo. Almost intoxicated from a long flight and a lack of sleep, you stumble around the streets peering into windows. Excited by what you see, you find the city to be a bit strange. Restaurants have food wrapped in plastic outside, and large "Hello Kitties" are everywhere when night falls.
Welcome to Japan, a world of its own, and a country more diverse than you ever thought it would be. One part mountains and farmland, one part big city with large skyscrapers, Japan has been attracting backpackers for decades.
The appeal of the country is found in its contrasts. One day you may be hiking mountain trails on a sunny afternoon and the next you are singing karaoke in a beer bar on a rain soaked evening. That is why we love Japan and what makes it so unique compared to other countries in East Asia.
Japan can be an expensive stop-off, but that is only if you don't know where to go or what to look out for. Once you do, Japan will open up a world unlike any country you have backpacked across before.
Japanese culture is steeped in history. Yet, Japan continually absorbs new elements every day from other areas of Asia, Europe and North America. The country is often shaped by the various fads that arrive through music or television. It is entertainment that influences a lot of Japanese fashion and often young men and women will attempt to emulate their heroes. Japan has also been on the cutting-edge of modern technology, and seeing what Japan can develop next is always a fascinating game.
Places to visit
Tokyo can be overwhelming at first as the busy city is chaotic and pulsating with life, but thanks to the city's train and subway networks, it is one of the easiest cities to get around. Culturally, Tokyo has a number of sites to visit. The Imperial Palace is the number one stop. Still in use today, the palace is the site from which Tokyo spread centuries ago. The city's most famous shrine is the Senso-ji Temple, dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of compassion, the shrine is a dominating structure, especially when lit up at night. If you have arrived in Tokyo from Southeast Asia, you may find it slightly more expensive, however, visiting these sites and staying in one of the city's many hostels will save you plenty of money during your trip to the Land of the rising sun.
Fukuoka is one of Japan's largest cities and lays in the southern region of Japan. The city is home to a number of cultural sites, but it also possesses a great beach that is perfect for warm sunny days. The top tourist site to visit is Fukuoka Castle. The 17th century castle can be toured and there are a variety of areas – inside and out – that can be seen. Outside of Fukuoka, you will find the amazing Nanzoin Temple and the Reclining Buddha statue. Believed to be bigger than the Statue of Liberty in New York City, the Reclining Buddha showcases the religious figure lying down on top of the temple.
Sapporo is located on the northern island of Hokkaido, it is Japan's fourth largest city. Known for its world-famous beer of the same name, Sapporo offers backpackers a completely different experience than the southern half of the country. The city hosts a number of winter festivals, including the Sapporo Snow Festival. The region is far more mountainous than the south and the rugged terrain offers backpackers the chance for excellent hiking, cycling and climbing during months without snow. If you do find snow on the ground however, skiing and sledging are popular events. Mount Moiwa is the best destination for those looking for an outdoor activity and you can hike it or take the aerial tramway to the top. Once there, look down on Sapporo in all its glory.
The smells of Japanese restaurants escape the front doors and spread into the streets. It isn't difficult to find an aroma that attracts you into one of the neon lit or traditional looking Japanese restaurants. Take off your shoes and have a seat on the floor where you will be served by very attentive wait staff. But what to have? How to choose?
Of course, Japan is home to sushi, and you have probably tried it before. Well, you haven't tried anything until you've eaten authentic Japanese sushi. Whether it is in a restaurant or available at a street food cart, sushi is a must-try while backpacking in Japan.
If you are looking for cheap food while living out of a backpack, there is nothing cheaper than ramen. Yet, this isn't the ramen or Pot Noodle you know back home. Japanese ramen comes in a variety of delicious flavours and is quite filling. There are also restaurants that specialise in serving only ramen. What you get is nothing like what you find anywhere else. It is truly an experience eating at a Japanese ramen bar.
Sake is maybe the most famous drink from Japan, but the country does some great beers & lagers too. Sapporo, Kirin Ichiban and Asahi are tasty, and found all over the country. One of the coolest things about Japan is you will find beer in vending machines, so it isn't difficult to get one late at night.
What to see?
Mount Fuji is often at the top of the list for backpackers in Japan. Backpacking veterans believe there is no better way to see the sunrise in Japan than atop Mount Fuji. Climbing it isn't too difficult and there are rest stops along the way. If you begin your climb as the sun sets in the early evening, you should be able to reach the summit by sunrise the next morning.
Located southwest of Tokyo, you will find Hiroshima, the city that American warplanes dropped an atomic bomb on in the summer of 1945, ultimately ending World War II. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is dedicated to all those people that lost their lives during the nuclear attack. It attracts millions of people each year, and is a reminder of why working for peace is the most important task we face today.
Not far from Osaka is the historic city of Kyoto. The must-see city is full of life, which is partly due to it being spared during World War II. The 17th century Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace are both places that shouldn't be missed, and not forgetting the beauty & wonder of the Geisha's (Memoirs of a Geisha is ones of my fav books/films).
Nightlife can vary in Japan depending on the city you are backpacking through. According to experts, there are over 80,000 bars in Japan. Many open after the sun goes down and some of those may only attract a few people every night, due to the sheer volume of choice. Japan does have some great bars, but it may take awhile to find the perfect one.
If you're in Tokyo, there is no better place for clubbing than Roppongi. The area has some of the city's best nightclubs and you will be up all night dancing and drinking. Roppongi's most popular club is Womb, a four floor dance club that buzzes with life. Near Roppongi is Shibuya, which is a little more low-key and you can enjoy the quiet bars and cafes located in the area.
Nights can be never ending in Japan as people tend to stay out late. It isn't uncommon to find people snoozing at work or on public transport the next day thanks to a great night out.
There are quite a few volunteer programs offered to backpackers wanting to lend a hand in Japan.
Japan has a large number of English schools that teach children and teens the language. English is seen as an important tool to obtain a solid university education and land a good job in the future.
Volunteering at an English school is possible and a simple Google search will turn up a number of options. One reason schools may be unlikely to take on a volunteer, however, is due to strict visa rules surrounding those that work there. It is worth messaging an English school and what starts out as a volunteer position could turn into full or part-time work for you while backpacking.