Having done my fair share of traveling, I prefer to avoid tours. The real problem with them is that you don’t control where you eat and drink and potentially linger, if you find that sweet spot to chill. To moi, sites are secondary and so is a schedule. I prefer to tarry where I fancy, checkmarking-the-tourist-attractions-off be damned. If you are healthy enough to walk, you can take the train and get close to most destinations. Japan will really sink in as you walk from the station and admire the architecture and cleanliness. The people are, in large, wonderful, although I met one American who did not agree (he had been in Okinawa … if that means anything to you. It’s a bit more Americanized … which is to say ‘sick of us’.).
For eats, you want to hit ramen shops and izakeya’s. Ramen shops will hook you up with fried rice, gyoza (dumplings) and ramen. I suggest you get ramen that looks cloudy and spicy. They do provide pictures for practically everything. Learn the word for spicy (karai). My favorite is tonkotsu (pork) ramen.
If it’s party time, hit an izakeya (drinking hall) and grab a daijouki (big beer). There enjoy a baffling menu of American- and Japanese-style finger foods to share. Long wood tables for sitting with others you don’t know and Japanese lanterns everywhere … oh yeah, you’re in it now!
If you want to take your drinking up a notch, search out beer gardens. These are often all you can eat and drink establishments on the top floors of tall buildings, i.e. hotels and skyscrapers. The goal here is clear: fun via drinking.
Other great food dishes are shabu shabu, sukiyaki, and yakiniku. Many restaurants combine the shabu shabu and sukiyaki dinners, so you can try both in one go. They consist of cooking meat and veggies in a flavored broth at your table. Yakiniku is simply grilling meat and veggies at a grill in the center of your table. Yummy, smoky goodness … but keep your eyes on your kids’ fingers … no, I’m not kidding.
If sushi is a must, go to a family sushi restaurant. I always ordered custom sushi as I prefer cooked fish. They will gladly sear tuna and salmon and season it for you. I learned this trick watching Japanese families order it … not my idea! By the time I left Japan the fourth time, my definition for sushi became “anything with rice”.
Also, you haven’t ‘done’ Japan until you hit a karaoke box. Karaoke bars are fine, but the box is where we ended up most of the time. They are rooms you rent by the hour that have couches, tables and a karaoke machine. You can bring your own beverages and food or order from their menu.
Few of us have more than a week to spare for vacation and you can’t see the whole country in one trip. That said, you really should see the following:
In Kyoto, Kyoumizudera, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, Fushimi-Inari Taisha (or “the 1000 torii gate temple”) and Nijo Castle with the Nightingale floors.
In Hiroshima, the memorial there. Aside, a relative of mine once witnessed Japanese tourists visiting the U.S.S. Arizona in Hawaii and thought, “What? Are they here surveying their handwork?” All I could reply was that I visited Hiroshima and my mindset was anything but smug.
Of course, there are many other amazing places, among them are Nara, Osaka Castle, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Nikko, etc. There are also numerous hot springs in which to soak … we went to Hakone where some places had numerous springs, including tea, milk, salt, wine, coffee …. oh my!
So this is terribly abbreviated, but a good primer. When my in-laws visited, we did Tokyo and Kyoto, mainly, and also stopped at Fuji and Hakone. It was a good circuit without being overly ambitious.
Try to give yourself time to relax and get to know the people, no matter where you travel. For me, those exchanges become the most memorable. Jyaa ne!!!