If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll understand my struggle for how to describe it. It’s full of contrasts: beautifully simple and incredibly complex, bustling and serene, disturbing and deeply inspiring, materialistic and spiritual, manufactured and truly organic.
Regardless, or perhaps because of all this, Japan is simply a magical place. I recommend that you see so for yourself.
To kick off a four-part Japan series on Be Wild | Be Well (Takayama, Kyoto, and Tokyo to come), I thought I’d share some general tips to traveling there, things I would have liked to know before I went, or helpful hints for truly experiencing the country.
- To start, watch this video:
- Learn as much of the language as possible. Japan was my first trip to Asia, so not being able to read or speak the language was a challenge (also liberating, in a way). Everything we read beforehand said that the Japanese are comfortable with English. We didn’t find this to be the case, and I wish I’d studied more of the language beforehand.
- Fly Singapore Air. We flew in the big Airbus A380 and it was the most pleasant flying experience I’ve ever had. The seats were comfortable. They give you plenty of blankets and pillows. It’s quiet. And there is a vegetarian Indian meal option that was actually quite good.
- Japan is more formal than the U.S. The women dress in heels and skirts. Many wear stockings. Few are in jeans. No one is in sweats and yoga clothes. The men are put together as well.
- Be prepared to walk, a lot. We discovered some of our favorite off-the-path finds just by walking through neighborhoods—things that you would miss in a car or traveling by train.
- But do take the trains, too. I think we may have taken two taxis (which are impeccable) the whole two weeks we were in Japan. The trains are precise, clean and relatively easy to navigate. And the trains stations alone are mesmerizing pockets of culture. For example, in the large Kyoto station we discovered a wonderful little macrobiotic cafe, Cosmic Kitchen Cafe.
- Find a local publication of where to eat. And by local, that means not in English, which makes it a scavenger hunt, but a delicious one.
- Don’t plan every meal before you go. Some of the most memorable meals that we had were ones that were spontaneous: A vegan quiche at Sfera’s cafe and a tiny yakatori place in Kyoto. The lilikoi pancakes at Moke’s Bed & Breakfast. The Hida beef sushi in Takayama. The french toast at M House.
- Go beyond Japanese food. The traditional food, without a doubt, is incredible. But the unique Japanese focus and pursuit of quality and perfection applied to other cuisines and dishes makes them some of the best meals I’ve ever had.
- Don’t go to Starbucks. Japan, especially Tokyo, has a budding artisanal coffee culture. And it’s good. Really good. Think that same focus on quality and perfection applied to coffee.
- Everything has shellfish. Okay, maybe not everything, but it is everywhere. And this proves incredibly tricky if you’re allergic to shellfish, which my husband is. If you are too, you’ll want to print out allergy cards stating in Japanese what you can’t eat. Vegan restaurants are always a safe option.
- Notice the design and presentation in everything. Even the bento boxes at the grab-and-go at the train station are artful.
- This goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Get off the beaten path. The shrines and temples are simplistically majestic, and the heralded restaurants are sure to be good, but there is so much Japan beyond what’s written about.