Expat Living: 5 things to do in Japan

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Whether you are living in Japan or travelling through; teaching, learning, or a bit of both, there are some experiences that are so totally Japanese that you just couldn’t get them anywhere else.

By no means exclusive, this list of things to do in Japan should at least give you some great ideas to get you started on your journey of expat living and discovery through this fascinating country.

1. Meoto Iwa

Wedded Rocks in Ise
Wedded Rocks in Ise

The unique blend of Buddhism with ancient Shinto beliefs is one of the things that make religion and culture in Japan so deeply interesting. A huge percentage of Japanese people still frequent spiritual sites all over the country on a regular basis, thus showing the importance of traditional beliefs in today’s Japanese society.

You’ll find beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all across Japan, tucked away between skyscrapers and car dealerships, hidden on mountain-tops and sometimes right under your very nose.

However, the most awe-inspiring and one of the most sacred Shinto sites in all of Japan is the Meoto Iwa. These spectacular “wedded rocks” rise majestically from the waves just off the coast of Ise, wedded by a sacred rope made of rice straw. They are part of the Futami Okitama Shrine.

Shinto is the name for the indigenous spiritual beliefs of Japan, of which a large part is the worship of spirits inherent in natural forces such as rivers, trees and you guessed it, rocks.

Ise, located in Mie prefecture and easily reached by train from anywhere in Japan, is also home to the Ise Grand Shrine and part of the Ise-Shima National Park. Take a visit to this sacred place and you’ll discover much about the magic of Japan and its people.

2. A Night in a Manga-kissa

Osaka City Life
Osaka City Life

Japanese culture is characterised around the world by its unique blend of old and new. The age-old traditions and customs are sharply juxtaposed by ultra-modern cyber culture and the pinnacle of technology, and so that’s where we journey next, to the big city life!

While visiting a sacred Shinto site is one way to integrate into Japanese culture, staying a night in a manga-kissa or Manga Cafe is another.

A manga-kissa is a place where Japanese people go to read manga comics, use the internet, play video games and more. You are charged for the time that you spend there and many maga-kissas, such as Popeye or GeraGera, offer discounted overnight rates on private booths. There is often a TV, food and drink, and even a shower and bathroom!

3. Eat Japanese food

Japanese food

While most Japanese food is loved by visitors, there are a few notable exceptions. Like marmite, here are a few Japanese favourites you’ll either love or hate. Developing an acquired taste for them is a major step towards becoming bona fide Japanese.

  • Nankotsu – Sometimes off-puttingly translated as “softbones”. This is one of Japan’s most popular snacks. Made of deep fried chicken cartilage, it’s the texture that’ll get you. Once you get your head around that, you may even grow to love them.
  • NattouFermented beans! Need I say more? This revolting smell cannot be accurately described here. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.
  • Takoyaki – Probably the easiest of the three to get your head around, these hot, battered Octopus balls are topped with an unusual array of sauces and dried fish flakes to taste. It could go either way.

4. The Tea Ceremony

Kenroku-en Japanese Gardens in Kanazawa
Kenroku-en Japanese Gardens in Kanazawa

One of the most fascinating customs in the world, the Japanese tea ceremony or “Way of tea” can tell you more about Japanese culture than anything else! If you are lucky enough to be invited to one, you cannot afford to pass up the opportunity.

Revolutionised by Sen no Rikyu in the 16th Century, the tea ceremony embodies the principles of respect, harmony, tranqility and purity, and is firmly linked to Zen Buddhism.

Sen no Rikyu was one of the most influential people to ever live in Japan. He taught that each “meeting” was to be treasured while it lasted, as no other would ever be the same, and developed the concept of Wabi – where the focus is not on show or adornments but on simplicity and natural beauty.

After a disagreement with his master, Rikyu was ordered to commit ritual suicide. His philosophies, however, live on, and can be seen in almost every aspect of Japanese life today.

5. Visit Hokkaido

Finally, you’ll never feel that your trip to Japan was complete without a journey to the far eastern shores of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main four islands. It might seem like a bit of a trek, but this is the adventure that’ll either make or break you on your journey to becoming Japanese.

Leave Western culture and the big cities behind and journey into Japan’s rich past as you cross beautiful Aomori Prefecture and arrive on Hokkaido. Here you’ll discover an abundance of beautiful scenery, countless national parks that are perfect for hiking and other outdoor activities, and very few tourists to get in the way of your awe-inspiring photos.

Hokkaido is also home of the Sapporo brewery and the Yoichi distillery (which is fast gaining critical acclaim on the world whisky scene), as well as being the last place on earth to see the Ainu – Japan’s native population.

The Ainu have undergone centuries of discrimination and persecution and are only now beginning to be accepted as an integral part of Japanese culture. There are traditional villages such as Nibutani where you can visit the Ainu and learn about their unique language, religion, music and cuisine. Very few Japanese people make this journey, and even fewer tourists.

Pull it off and no-one can deny that you know your stuff when it comes to Japan.

Good luck! Ganbatte!

Other Suggestions:

  • Karaoke the Japanese way – In a private room with all your friends and a seemingly endless choice of songs.
  • Catch the annual Sumo Championships – An experience you’ll never forget.
  • Stay in a ryokan! – A traditional Japanese inn typically located in scenic rural areas and often containing an onsen bath
    complex.
  • Drink Japanese-style – Nomihoudai, or “All-you-can-drink” is the most common way to drink socially with friends. You pay for the time, not volume of alcohol. Try not to abuse the privilege too much.

Plan Your Trip to Japan

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Booking accommodation in Japan

Booking flights to Japan

  • Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).

Tours in Japan

Author Bio: Roy Kerr is a writer, touring motorcyclist, and general lonesome traveller. He studied Creative Writing at University in Bath, England, graduating with 1st Class Honours. He has gone on to travel through 58 countries, and counting… He is the author of the travel blog, Notes from the Road.

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Can you add any other things to do while living in Japan?

11 thoughts on “Expat Living: 5 things to do in Japan”

  1. It’s even better when you combine Nomihoudai with Karaoke, the cheapest and most fun way to get the party started in Tokyo 🙂 And I do agree with ryokans, easily the best way to spend a night in Japan, even in Tokyo!

    1. The best Ryokan I’ve ever stayed in was in Wajima, near Kanazawa on the Noto peninsula. It’s right on this deserted but perfect beach and Wajima has all these crazy little places like a ceramics and chopsticks museum.

      There are also some great ones in the Japanese Alps region.

      I’d be interested to hear what a Ryokan in Tokyo was like!

  2. A shrine inside the ocean! Impressive! And I would love to see the Ainu and participate in a tea ceremony. I love what Rikyu said because, though some meetings might feel the same, if you’re present and engaging, at least most of the time there will be something different.

  3. The concept of Wabi is so representative of Japanese culture, simplicity and beauty. This time Japan has escaped us on our rtw trip but we can’t wait to visit. What a fascinating place!

  4. Hi Roy,

    Osaka looks like it comes from a computergame on that picture. I really need to visit Japan soon ass it is so much different to europe, where I come from. Great pictures!

  5. I am going for 10 days to Hokkaido in January on a wildlife photography tour. Very excited, but nervous about the extreme cold (I’m from the subtropics). We will be mainly staying in Ryokan and I know they will have to extract me kicking and screaming from those hot baths!

  6. Hello Roy,

    I have been living in Japan for over a year now and I have not done #1, #2, #4, and #5 omg. Going to Hokkaido requires a significant amount of planning if you will do it by yourself (I really find travel tours agency here in Japan to be very expensive with Hokkaido tours).

    This is our last year here in Japan but Hokkaido is still not in my bucket list. Weird right?! As I think that there are plenty of destinations in Japan which isn’t as expensive as going to Hokkaido but gives you a surreal experience. We originally planned to go to Sapporo Snow Festival but we ended up in Shirakawa-Go and Takayama which was AMAZING. If you are interested, you can read my blog post here: http://www.travelinboots.com/japan/gifu/shirakawa-go-light-up-event/

    Sincerely,
    Ada

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