State College, PA | Summer, 2006 | 21 years old
It has come to my attention of late that there have been a number of publications trading on the theme of “you must experience a given set of a specific category before you die,” which is simultaneously a noble and a rather unsettling sentiment, given that, no matter how good a given film may be, most of us prefer not to be reminded of our own mortality by something that is, in the big scheme of things, basically irrelevant. The other major problem with a name like that, I’ve realized, is that they promote procrastination by presenting these big, great experiences as one-day projects (as in, “one day I’ll finally see The Princess Bride”). To my few but loyal readers, I will apologize in advance for being a bit more guide-booky than I generally have in the past, but I hope that everyone will be able to look beyond such matters and indulge me in a little bit of what I think is actually kind of important, if perhaps a little self-indulgent (but what guidebook isn’t?).
As such, I’ve realized that it’s high time to put such worries behind me and simply give evidence of why I’m still associating myself with a country I’m so publicly cynical about. I’m going to avoid the truly obvious things, like seeing a sumo match (though, really, unless you plan to bet you’re better off finding a training stable and asking permission to watch while they practice, since it’s just as exciting and you get a much closer view), but at the same time, some things that should be obvious seem not to be, and for that reason I like to think that I’m justified in pointing them out.
Without further ado, then, I present the awkwardly yet accurately titled: About a Dozen Things You Need to Experience in Japan at the First Opportunity that Presents Itself.
1. Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is known primarily for being Japan’s biggest and most wholly intact castle. Yes, there are others, such as Osaka Castle, but Himeji is noteworthy for the additional reasons that it was never the site of any actual fighting, and that all of the reconstruction was done as accurately as possible to the period it was built during (which can’t be said of Osaka Castle, leaving many purists up in arms).
The castle itself is a bit off the beaten path, in the city of Himeji – naturally – which is about a 3,200-yen round trip by train from Osaka, but the trip is very, very worth it, even for those who aren’t all that interested in historical significance. The castle is a marvel of architecture, not only in its internal design for use in war, but also in its location and appearance: it is built atop a hill, and its design is successful in what Frank Lloyd Wright is so famous for, centuries before he was born, inasmuch as it appears almost “organic” in its integration with its surroundings.
However, this is not to say that the building isn’t still imposing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: despite the thick groves of trees surrounding the grounds, it is always easy to see most of the structure, and indeed, the castle is readily visible from many parts of the city itself, most particularly the main street, which runs essentially directly toward the castle.
There is a small fee for entrance to the castle grounds, which goes ostensibly toward the upkeep, and it’s certainly more than worth it. The city of Himeji itself is largely unremarkable, with a large trade, it would seem, in antique shops. There is perhaps a bit of poetic justice in a town most famous for a centuries-old building having a great deal of stores that sell old things, but at the same time, my experiences may simply be limited by the short time I spent there.
I suppose it’s simple enough to make a case for a building’s significance when it’s placed on money, and this is obviously the case with Byodoin. The temple – or at least the building itself, as it was originally a nobleman’s palatial manor later converted into a temple – turned 1,000 years old in 1998, and it is certainly telling that it is still in such good condition.
The temple is located in Uji, Kyoto (accessible via the local-only Uji line on Keihan), and really isn’t very far out of the way for anyone who lives in the Kansai region, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to get as many visitors as it deserves. Certainly, it isn’t for everybody, as it’s much more so an art museum nowadays than anything else – quite literally, in fact – but that which is there is very impressive, and even more so once the renovations have finished. It houses a great deal of Buddhist art, as well as simply being a beautiful building. It’s perhaps not quite as interesting or as exciting as Himeji Castle, but still worth checking out.
Oddly enough, this is one of the few things on this list – and by far the least expected – that can be found outside of Japan: there is a replica in the Valley of the Temples on Oahu, Hawaii.
3. Arashiyama, Kyoto
At first glance, Arashiyama, a town on the northern end of the Kyoto prefecture, seems to be little more than a tourist trap, with a quaint little town filled with souvenir stores and restaurants surrounded by temples, temple complexes, and period clothing (though I’m told that, as far as old-timey stuff goes, the cormorant fishing at night – which uses fire to draw the fish to the surface – is quite a sight). However, with a little bit of effort, it’s possible to find quite a bit of actual intrigue, even for those burned out on souvenir shops.
First, and perhaps most obviously, is the bridge for which the town is so famous. The bridge itself is long and gorgeous, and the views it provides of the surrounding mountains are at least as impressive, with Japan’s Springs full of the well-known cherry blossoms. However, what most Westerners aren’t aware of is the fact that Fall is just as impressive a season, as far as tree colors go: Kyoto is famous within Japan for foliage that erupts violently into shades of red and orange that are more frequently associated with crayons than with trees in the United States, and a mountain full of trees covered in varying shades of such colors is certainly not one to be missed.
Next, there is the Iwatayama Monkey Park, affectionately nicknamed “Monkey Mountain” by the foreigners I hung out with. As the name would suggest, the park – yes, there is an admission fee, as with essentially anything else in Japan – is a mountain, and it is inhabited by a great deal of monkeys. Even for those who foster less excitement at the thought of visiting our genetic cousins, the climb up the mountain is worth it for the view of the area – Arashiyama is a very flat town, at least as far as building height is concerned, and the view of the area’s development juxtaposed with the hills jutting out of the ground, untouched by construction, is an interesting contrast more than worthy of a few photographs.
Finally, well off the beaten path in Arashiyama, beyond where the quaint tourist town ends, and far past where the road becomes outright rural, is Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, so obscure that even many of the locals had never heard of it. Far north along the roads, and right before a tunnel, you’ll find a small bus stop (Otagidera-Mae, of course) and what appears for all the world to be a rather small and unassuming temple. The outside is, of course, nothing to write home about – the standard two Niou statues, guarding the temple with their angry and fearsome stares, are as by-the-book as they come – but once you step inside and see another set of Niou, much smaller and with much more Charlie Brown-esque proportions, you realize you’re somewhere special.
Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji has a surprisingly long history: it’s over a millennium old, and has been destroyed multiple times by both fire and flooding, and has moved from its original location to a rather unassuming location in what was perhaps an attempt to hide from the wrath of nature and civil war. To make a long story as short as possible, in 1981, a famous sculptor offered to donate his talents to the temple in a rather unusual way: he offered to teach anyone who would come how to carve stone, and as a result the temple now has over 1,100 amateur statues, many of them rather tongue-in-cheek, or in some cases, downright silly. There are many reasonably ordinary statues, but there are also a very large number of more creative types: an upside-down Buddha, standing on his head; a surfer; a photographer; old men pouring each other drinks, or telling a secret; a saxophone player. Despite the obvious similarities brought about by what was obviously taught – the vast majority of the statues have heads nearly half the total height of the statue – there is a great deal of variety among these tiny statues, and between the entertainment value of exploring the statues and the peaceful tranquility of the moss-filled grounds, Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji is easily one of my favorite places in Japan, if not anywhere.
Taiko is one of the other entries that can be found, to some extent, in the United States, but it’s much more common in Japan, and besides that, it’s just plain cool. There’s a certain tribal joy to a half-dozen people playing a group of drums ranging in size from “pie pan” to “the size of the person playing it” in exquisite unison, and, as odd as it may seem, the lack of melody or anything beyond rhythmic textures can be oddly relaxing, despite the fact that many of the bass notes produced by the larger drums are so powerful that they tend to rattle your entire chest.
Those outside of Japan would be recommended to try to find some sort of Japanese festival in their area – Philadelphia, for example, has one annually in Fairmont Park, and features such drumming every year.
5. Local, independently owned restaurants
The last entry of the first half of this list is also the last entry that’s grounded in the more “traditional” Japan: any visitor to Japan would do well to try at least one locally-owned, non-chain restaurant, often the more obscure the better. Their prices tend to be very reasonable, and the food is inevitably amazing. Of particular note is anywhere specializing in udon, but this is in large part due to my belief that sushi is somewhat overrated (which is itself in large part due to my not being particularly fond of seafood). Kitsune udon is a popular soup, almost always delicious despite its seeming simplicity (the only things in it beyond the noodles and the soup itself are a sheet of fried, seasoned tofu, chopped green onions, and often sesame seeds), and often there are variants available as well, my favorite having essentially a beef donburi topping of shredded beef, cooked onions, and ginger.
There’s a whole lot more to Japanese food than sushi, and understanding this simple fact can open the doors to a wide variety of deliciousness.
6. International chain restaurants, just once
At the same time, oddly enough, there’s also more to Japanese food than, well, Japanese food. No major restaurant chain has made it in the Japanese market with any degree of success without some significant changes, be they major or minor. Domino’s, for example, sells themselves as a luxury item – their specialty pizzas have things like asparagus and crab legs on them, and can cost upwards of the equivalent of $35 or $40. McDonald’s sells “Fish dippers” four for a hundred yen – think “Fish McNuggets” – and offers ketchup not in packets but rather in little plastic tubs sealed with foil. Wendy’s offers pork sandwiches, and their chicken – much like the Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken’s – is dark meat, which the Japanese market tends to prefer.
The little differences add up, and can certainly be a little annoying in some cases (like if you happen to prefer white meat chicken), but they’re almost always at least a little interesting.
7. Any given giant arcade
I know I’ve already written an article gushing about the joys of the Japanese arcade industry (long story short: well-maintained, up-to-date arcades that are easily accessible by foot, or large enough to make a specific trip worthwhile), but it’s definitely worth pointing out that the Japanese arcade industry refuses to accept the Western idea that they’re only for adolescent and young adult males.
The larger ones tend to have sections for any given demographic, with a wide variety of easily-accessible games on the ground floor – air hockey, crane games, and easy-to-grasp videogames, like racing games, light-gun games, and gimmicky music games like Samba de Amigo – and progressively more complex stuff as you head upstairs, often with a little alcove for “traditional” button-and-joystick arcade games (fighting games, puzzle games, scrolling shooters), one for more difficult music games, and a variety of other novelties spread out (like a game where you have to land a passenger airplane, or a dog-walking game, or one where you play the role of a firefighter). There is quite literally something for everyone there, and if there isn’t, by some unusual chance, these complexes also tend to have other activities like pool tables and bowling available.
Interestingly enough, though the standard price of Japanese arcade games can vary from fifty to 200 yen – both of these being uncommon prices, compared to the usual hundred-yen buy-in price – and seems a bit high to foreigners, it is practically unheard of for even the most specialized game to cost more than 200 yen. Compare this to Dave & Buster’s, the perhaps obvious counterpart to this sort of complex, and you’ll soon realize that their five-dollar price tags on certain games undermine their own attempt to become somewhere to go for an evening on at least a semi-regular basis: twenty dollars will last an hour or two at Dave & Buster’s, but two thousand yen will almost inevitably have change left over even after a long amount of time spent at, say, Round 1 (a chain of these larger game centers).
8. Osaka’s Kaiyuukan Aquarium
Osaka’s Kaiyuukan aquarium (readily accessible from the Osaka-ko subway station) is noteworthy primarily because of the combination of a huge ferris wheel outside of it and – more importantly – the fact that it contains one of the world’s largest single fishtanks. The collection of fish and other marine life is impressively diverse, as well, and includes a sunfish, various otters, and the ever-popular penguins.
Admission is a bit on the pricey side – around 2,000 yen – but it is definitely the sort of attraction that is worth visiting once. Thankfully, the interior is also very, very tourist-friendly: all signage is available in both English and Japanese (though, oddly enough, as you progress through the aquarium, the English gradually turns to the proverbial “Engrish”), and the visitors’ pamphlets are also available in English. Also of minor note is the fact that, at the end of the year, a large Christmas tree-shaped series of lights is constructed on the front of the building, and illuminated at night.
Truth be told, it’s a great thing to visit if you’re already in Japan, but compared to much of the rest of the list, I must admit that it isn’t worth the trip abroad in and of itself.
Karaoke is, in many ways, available in the United States, but not commonly in the same form you can find it in within Japan. While many Japanese bars do have karaoke available, the real draw is in the businesses who specialize in it, offering a plethora of soundproofed rooms, each with a pair of microphones, a good sound system, and a big-screen TV to display the lyrics and ridiculously generic “music video” footage of people walking and driving around places. There is also a remote control for choosing a song with the aid of the phone book-sized song lists, and, most impressively, a little touchscreen device that allows users to search by artist or title.
Beyond the convenience and impressiveness of such a huge list of available songs with such ease of searching, the best part of spending a night at a karaoke place is that it tends to be cheap – you can spend two or three hours there for, often, less than a thousand yen, and that includes (generally nonalcoholic) drinks. The toughest part, really, is convincing the shyer members of your group to actually pick a song and sing it.
10. The Night Market
Japan has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, even at night in big cities. As a result, particularly when you’re with another person or two, staying out after dark is remarkably nonthreatening. The practical upshot of this is that in ever major urban area (and even some minor ones), you’ll find a large group of young adult merchants plying their artistic wares, musicians who do it just for the sheer joy (rather than, as is often the case in the United States, because they’re homeless and need donations), and the occasional magician. There’s something rather heartwarming about people coming out at night to do what they like, simply because they can – it’s easy to forget that Japan is known not for its personal freedoms, but for the restrictions placed on adults, strongly recommending that they do whatever possible or necessary to blend in with the crowd.
On weekend nights, it appears, the crowd looks the other way.
11. The Kobe Luminarie
Finally, we come to the Kobe Luminarie, a spectacle put on by the city as a memorial to the victims of the Kobe earthquake of 1995. It is easy to compare it to Christmas decorations and other similar occasions involving millions of tiny light bulbs, but as strange as it may seem, there’s more to it than that – a substantial amount of the city is absolutely covered in little light bulbs of various colors in ornate patterns, and they’re lit up in the evenings for the second and third weeks of December (the 2006 Luminarie is from the 8th to the 21st of December). The most unfortunate part of the Luminarie is how difficult it is to describe in mere words: only photographs really do it any amount of justice. Luckily, the web site for the Luminarie (www.kobe-luminarie.jp) has a small assortment of past years’ main street decorations, but even those fail to capture the immense scale of the entire thing.
As for getting there, the Luminarie is easy enough to find from Kobe’s San-no-Miya JR station: look for the solid city block of lights, and the enormous crowds to view it, and then just get in line to be one of the average five million visitors to see it. I said that Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji was my favorite part of “classical” Japan – this is by far my favorite part of the modern one. No one in the Kansai region in December has any excuse to miss it.
The thing about traveling is that it’s so easy to put it off for some other time, some far-off place where you think that you’ll suddenly no longer have any responsibilities to worry about. My recommendation is that you work under the assumption that it only gets harder from here, and just go and see and do what you’ve wanted to see and do. There’s no greater regret than the one caused by what you never got around to.