Japan is a great travel destination for those seeking beautiful landscapes, interesting historic sites and a strong culture embedded in every corner. Due to its diverse geography, Japan is an option for alpine, beach and urban holidays. Moreover, its advanced technology, strong aesthetics sense and polite population contribute to making Japan one of a kind. It is indeed one of the most different, mind-blowing and friendly destinations you can experience. During my 3 week-visit to Japan, I explored several regions and tried to live as many local cultural experiences as possible. Here are my Top 5 experiences in Japan:
5. USING THE RAILWAY IN JAPAN
I chose to move around Japan mainly by train due to the extensive railway network and the frequent train service between popular routes. Local work commuters, students and foreign visitors use the train everyday as their preferred means of transport. It is efficient, modern and easy to use. Figuring out the schedules, railway stations signs and announcements in Japanese was quite a challenge but certainly tons of fun. Also, the station platforms and the trains were great places to experience Japanese culture and social behaviour.
My most memorable ride was the Tokyo-Nagano ride on the Shinkansen bullet train. The sleek needle-nosed train looked very futuristic when driving past the traditional countryside areas.
4. TASTING REGIONAL JAPANESE CUISINE
Because I believe food is a significant part of a country´s culture, I always give importance to experiencing the destination´s cuisine. With this in mind, I visited a wide variety of local food markets, bars and restaurants; usually leaning towards the most authentic options where no foreign tourists were in sight. Eating my way through Japan and observing locals dine with family and friends was one of the best ways to experience Japanese culture.
Japanese food is very varied, healthy and delicious! There is definitely much more than the famous sushi or ramen bowl. Some of my favourites were Kyoto´s fresh Tofu, Hokkaido´s spicy and hearty soups, the fresh sashimi at Tokyo´s Fish Market and the many Yakitori and grilled vegetable skewers.
3. HIKING IN BEAUTIFUL KAMIKOCHI
I wanted to experience rural Japan at its prettiest with the least number of foreign visitors possible. So I chose Kamikochi in the Nagano Prefecture for its stunning (and somewhat remote) location and extensive hiking trail network. This densely forested valley in the Japanese Alps was one of my favourite places in the country.
From flat easy trails along the Azusa river bank to steeper alpine climbs, you will find a trail to suit your hiking experience. Ensure to have your eyes wide open to watch out for black bears. That´s right! There are frequent sightings in the surroundings, so it is advisable to carry a “bear bell” with you.
2. DISCOVERING TOKYO´S SHIBUYA NEIGHBOURHOOD AT NIGHT
That modern urban image of Tokyo with large flashing neon placards on the busy streets frequented by eclectic styled Japanese youngsters is probably in Shibuya. It is a vibrant district offering plenty of shopping, leisure and food options. Also, it is where you can be part of the organised crowded Shibuya crossing.
I visited Shibuya in the evening when the streets and the crossing were buzzing with locals and foreigners. Along the streets and inside the many video gaming malls and quirky fashion store, you get a sense for the young and rebellious atmosphere. This is an area where trendy street style and futuristic aesthetics meet.
1. EXPERIENCING THE TATEYAMA-KUROBE ALPINE ROUTE
Experiencing the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route in the Japanese Alps was fantastic. This Alpine Route consists of a combination of transport means to ascend from around 700m at Shinano Omachi to 2450m at Murodo Station (base of Mount Tateyama) and descend to 475m at Tateyama Station. Its forest, alpine and volcanic landscapes are very beautiful.
Providing a very early morning start, you can complete the route in one day or reach the mid-point at Murodo Station from Shianno Omachi and return the same way. However, if you have a spare day, I recommend spending 2 days with an overnight at Hotel Tateyama. This way you will have more walking time on Mount Tateyama trails.
For those of you who like connecting with Nature without the hiking effort, this is the place to experience the alpine landscapes. Also note there is the opportunity to visit the impressive Kurobe Dam as it lays along the route.
During my 3 weeks in Japan, I visited many other rural and urban areas not mentioned here but very worthy of a visit and a separate blog post. These top 5 experiences do not necessarily reflect my favourite places in Japan but the most enriching and authentic moments of my visit. After all, I travel not only to see and photograph pretty sceneries but to experience a different culture, lifestyle and activities.