Kyoto is at the top of japan-guide.com's must-see list. It is an amazing place, filled with awe-inspiring historical treasures and cultural experience.
At the same time, I've had a much greater feeling of discovery and adventure just hiking through the nowheres of the Japanese countryside or getting to know friendly strangers.
In this post I'm going to go through a few examples of the adventures I got into, purely thanks to speaking a little Japanese and going 'off the beaten path'.
I used to live in a town on the North East of Japan, where much of the coastline consists of small towns and villages. Last year I went back for a two week holiday. I managed to get away for a few days at a time on hikes along the coast, with no map or destination, just a direction and a bicycle.
I have no way to articulate the sheer scale views afforded by these little excursions. If you've ever played point-click adventure games like Myst or its sequel Riven, you may have some idea of the type of vistas I'm talking about. Epic natural beauty, punctuated by roads and bridges that only add to the grandeur.
Even more interesting are the people and places I discovered on these hikes. Everything from man-made tunnels through cliffsides, mountain temples and caves with blue-green lagoons to (fully stocked) vending machines in the most unlikely and difficult to reach places.
There's no wikitravel page or lonely planet entry for any of this. The area looked pretty, so I got a backpack together, stopped at the combini for supplies and just started walking. Pure, unfettered adventure.
Note: Unfortunately, these locations are probably not going to be as uplifting and beautiful as I remember them for at least a few years. 頑張れ東北！
Posessed by demons
While I was living in Japan I would try to be as friendly to anyone who took the time to speak with me. Out one night, a man who turned out to be an elementary school teacher tried to practice his English with me.
It turns out that he was also involved with the local shrine, so he invited me to his house to see a full-dress rehearsal of a Kagura performance at his house. Thankfully I brought my camera and thought to record some of it:
Kagura was traditionally a posession by Japanaese spirit-gods, but thankfully the dancer here stopped short of climbing up the walls and twisting his head off.
This was a great experience that I wouldn't have got if I had just played it safe and stuck to where the guidebooks told me to go.
The Japanese Underworld
While working as an English teacher in North East Japan, I'd always heard wild and merry stories about Kansai, the tasty food and the super aggressive-friendly people. I had to see this for myself, so I made a one week pilgrimage to this promised land.
I went there by overnight coach and so smelling pretty ripe after a fourteen hour journey, the first thing I wanted to do was find a public bath.
A few minutes after sinking into the relaxing, searing-hot water of the bathhouse, a Japanese man asked me where I was from in about the roughest Japanese I had ever heard.
I managed to stumble through the conversation, explaining where I was from and that I was in Osaka for just a week and wanted to see if all the things I'd heard about the place were true.
Over the course of this conversation, I noticed that a) this gentlemen was covered in tattoos from the neck down, and b) he was indeed missing a pinky.
For those of you who aren't family with Japanese Mafia (Yakuza) customs, these are tell-tale signs of a fully-fledged Japanese mafioso.
On the one hand I was terrified, but on the other, my thinking was 'Hey, this is Japan, how bad could it be right?'
So my friend here, lets call him Taro, asks me if I'd like to go on a tour of 'The Real Osaka'. Thinking back now, it was almost completely insane of me to say yes, but to be honest saying no may have ended worse.
Thankfully the experience was fairly tame. After a short tour of the city and a stop at an office where Taro picks up a package (I didn't ask what was in it) we go to an very old area of Osaka known as Tobita. Here he introduces me to a number establishments termed 'Kazari Mado' or 'Decorated Window'. If you've ever been to Amsterdam, you've got a pretty good approximation of the sort of shops I'm talking about.
Taro then said his goodbyes and disappeared into one of these little shops. Valuing my moral and physical health, I decided to pass up the opportunity to partake in the wares of said shops. Instead I found an unlikely little ramen place slap bang in the middle of the district with the seediest clientele I've ever had the pleasure of dining with. Really good ramen though, especially after the long journey and the bath.
That was the start of my Osaka adventure, and the week that followed is packed with interesting little adventures like the above. None of them happened at the major tourist sites, they were all chance encounters with friendly strangers that lead to intriguing experiences. You can't find any of that in a package tour.
Choose your own adventure
Some of the above may not feel entirely relevant to a visitor only going for a couple of weeks. To those people, I'd say that learning a little Japanese and visiting the countryside will go a long way towards discovering your own Adventure in Japan ™.
I am not suggesting that hiking through a mountain coastline while posessed by a mountain demon alongside a Japanese gangster is the way to have a good time. While my particular adventures may be a little risky for your average traveller, going off the beaten path in Japan, even just a little is a really good thing to do in Japan.
This is true for two reasons. Firstly, Japan is Safe. While I personally push this assertion to breaking point, the vast majority of people will only ever encounter friendly, curious and slightly wacky Japanese natives in their travels. While crime does exist in Japan, it is orders of magnitude less frequent in Japan than in other countries, developed or otherwise.
Secondly, Japan has fun stuff to discover. 'Fun' is subjective, but coming from any sort of European background, Japan has this sense of exoticism and mystery that is difficult to pin down. After you move past the plastic 'export culture' promoted by the government (think geisha, haiku and cherry blossoms) you get on the ground and start discovering the real interesting stuff, first-hand. I'd argue that you can only really do this by learning a little Japanese, pushing your comfort zone and meeting real Japanese people.
Compared to experiences like these, visiting tourist-filled areas like Kyoto and Kamakura are dull and lifeless. While I appreciate the historical and cultural value of the locations and artefacts, I can't bring myself to say that actually visiting had as strong an affect on me as some of my own adventures.