Anyone who knows my friend Bob knows how much he loves all things Japanese. He's been studying the language for years in Washington, with Japanese language partners and in classes. He's even learning how to write kanji, one of three Japanese alphabets. The most complicated one from what I can tell.
Every time I turn around, Bob's off on another trip to Japan, including the time he rented out his apartment in Washington a few years ago and lived in Tokyo for several months, going to language school there and traveling around.
Having never been to Japan, I decided to let Bob talk about what it's like to travel around Japan solo. Usually, he splits his time during his vacations in Japan, visiting friends and then heading out on solo jaunts to explore new places. He's in Japan now. He answered my questions before he left. (btw, the women pictured at left are NOT geisha, but maiko. Find out the difference)
How many times have you visited Japan?
This trip is my tenth. Each time, I go someplace new that I found in my Lonely Planet guidebook, or that someone recommended.
What places do you like the best?
favorite places are Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyajima and Beppu. Tokyo may be too
crowded and modern for some people but I have found much to enjoy. In
the spring, for example, the cherry blossom trees around the Imperial
Palace are truly spectacular.
I like the parts of Tokyo where you can see the remnants of old Japan. Asakusa, a popular area with an ancient Buddhist temple and five-story pagoda, is a good place to get started. It's also where you can find all kinds of tourist gifts.
to Shinjuku station, literally the busiest station in the world, is an
area called Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane. It's a maze of alleys
filled with tiny restaurants that were built after World War II and
serve tasty yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick).
For a sample of
great Japanese tradition, I would recommend visiting the old kabuki
theater in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Kabuki plays can last all day
but you can buy a ticket for just part of a performance for an hour or
think no trip to Japan can be complete without a visit to Kyoto. It's
where you can see the most of old Japan, with its many temples, shrines
and gardens, and possibly, a geisha in the Gion district.
Miyajima is a
small island near Hiroshima that is said to be one of the three most
beautiful places in Japan. I would agree. It is famous for its gorgeous
torii, or entrance gate, to a Shinto shrine sticking out of the water,
and deer that wander the streets.
Beppu is in the far western part of Japan, in Kyushu, and is known for its numerous hot springs. In addition to the mineral water baths you can also take mud and sand baths. Beppu's collection of nine bubbling hot springs, known as "hells," are not for bathing. Just for viewing.
What do you like about going solo?
I can pursue my own interests without fear of possibly boring my travel companions. For example, I'm interested in the period of Japanese history when the first foreigners arrived. I have visited museums in port cities such as Shimoda, which is where the first Americans came, and Nagasaki, where the Dutch engaged in trade. (Bob has Dutch roots)
Also, a few years ago, I discovered a music club in Tokyo called Kento's, with a live band that plays mostly popular American music and where the customers are always dancing and having fun.
later discovered there are Kento's clubs in cities throughout Japan
that play American music from various decades, from the 50's through the 80's, and possibly more, and have visited some of them in places such as Osaka and Kyoto.
I imagine that most people wouldn't travel overseas to hear American
music but I think the bands are terrific. Plus, I enjoy seeing people
in Japan appreciate what may be our best export: music.
Do I need to speak Japanese?Depending on how much you venture out on your own, it can be challenging at times not speaking Japanese, but you can still get around. During my first visit to Tokyo, I took an organized tour.
The reception staff at major hotels usually speak English. And on most trains,
including the bullet trains (called the shinkansen) station stops are
announced in English. Finding places in Japan can be a real challenge
since many streets don't have signs and the address numbers are not in
consecutive order. I can't explain why. However, the police at the
neighborhood stations, called koban, can be very helpful and point you
in the right direction.
Japanese restaurants have English menus that can help a lot. (By the way, the Japanese word for menu is menu.) Even if they don't have English menus,
many restaurants have plastic representations of the food they serve,
which you can point to.
Yes, I've seen those here and in other countries. Very handy!
The Lonely Planet and other travel books have some Japanese phrase books that can help in asking directions and ordering food. A few simple phrases can go a long way. However, you can usually find someone who speaks some English, especially in places like Kyoto, which welcomes foreign visitors.
Any funny stories?
Once, I was trying my best to order some train tickets in Japanese at the station but apparently confused the words "unreserved seat" (jiyuseki) with "ten seats" (juseki). (gawd, I HATE when I do that, order 10 seats just for me!) Since there were four legs of the trip and the clerk thought I wanted 10 seats, she gave me 40 tickets. It took awhile to sort that out.
The creative use of English on signs and t-shirts can also be pretty funny. For instance, an ad for my hotel's bar says, "Enjoy abundant liquor in relaxing atmosphere." Near my hotel is the "Ooze Charm Cafe."
I know what Bob means. I wish I'd kept a list of all the signs and t-shirts with odd English wording.
Other things to do in Japan.
1. Maiko (apprentice geishas) in Kyoto.
2. Cherry trees.
3. Memory Lane
4. Poster at the kabuki theater.
5. Torii, or Japanese gate.
6. Plastic food.