Being the first real chance to use my camera to capture significant new areas, I had it almost incessantly at the ready, only interrupted by the ever-threatening rain. In a surreptitious blind shot, I caught T’ew unawares. He heard the shutter, knew what had just transpired, and gave me a reproachful smile. I checked my luck on the small LCD screen. Nailed it. This is why I try to catch these candid shots when I can.
Seated slumped on a stone ledge, his own camera in his hand, but staring blankly at the muddy earth at his feet, he wore a ragged look of sheer fatigue. Looking up from the image, I laughed out loud and asked if he was wearing out as I turned the display toward him. Quietly negating my postulation, he assured me that he was still up for more exploring. It was clear though that we both shared a bit of boredom and a slight disappointment in the events of the day.
I had come to the realization that this was not where we should have ended up. The scores of tourists ought to have told me that these were places worth seeing. In fact, the current attraction had been identified as a UNESCO world heritage sight. Despite a series of quality photo opportunities, there was a minimal feeling of interest. The fatigue of the past few days of walking was catching up with me, and there was no feeling of awe to override it.
I am concurrently posting an article with Reach to Teach about the ways to spend an excellent weekend in Japan.
Despite the negative tone, I must assure the reader that Japan is a destination worth visiting, but for me, this was not the way to do it.
In a much-needed revision, I present here how NOT to enjoy a weekend in Japan.
If you’re like me, you’ve taken a job teaching English in Korea for much more than just teaching English! South Korea is in an excellent location to make short trips to other countries. Flights that would feel like short domestic hops in the United States, Canada, or Australia will put you in very different countries, but you can easily overlook the differences if you stick the regular BS the tour guides tell you. Recently, I used a long weekend to travel to Japan. With cheap flights readily available, a few days is well worth the trip. Here are a few pointers on capitalizing on the opportunity.
First of all, you’ll need to realize that regardless of where you go, you can have an incredible experience. The cheapest flights will take you into Osaka-Kansai. Indeed, Osaka and Kyoto are chock full of cultural heritage sites that won’t give you the slightest look into what Japanese culture is really like.
I decided to visit Osaka and Kyoto because I was on a tight budget, and I let myself fall into the tourist trap that practically ruined my vacation. There were far more locations than I was able to see, and the one’s I saw were far too many already. I ended up missing all the good stuff by focusing on what the guidebooks told me were best.
Here are a few places go if you want to meet all the gawking tourists (of which, you are of course, one), and where all the smart vendors will go to capitalize on their deep-pocketed ignorance.
This massive wooden structure sits aloft in the mountains overlooking Kyoto. First established in 778, the temple has been rebuilt multiple times and renovated even more, so it looks like any wooden building. The current structure dates back to around 1631 in the early Edo period, but it’s so easily overlooked that I didn’t even recognize that I had walked past it until I turned around on the far side of the valley and recognized it from pictures on websites that told me I should go there.
The Kiyomizu stage provides a great look at trees. There are thousands of them. They have lots of green leaves. It’s pretty cool. You can see a bit of the city in the distance, but even with light haze, it’s only moderately impressive (much less so as you battle for railing space with other tourists wielding selfie sticks).
Kiyomizu directly translates to “clear water,” from which spring three fountains that represent three types of fortune: health, longevity, and wisdom. It is customary to drink from only two, as hoping for all three is considered greedy. You can taste this water at the fountain of feathers if you want to stand in line behind a hundred other dweebs who either just want to tell their slightly lamer friends back home about it or actually believe such superstitions.
Around the temple, there are many walking paths and natural areas to explore, and these are actually the only things worth seeing. If you successfully detach yourself from the group and follow unmarked paths, you may find yourself transported to a distant world of peace and tranquility where mysterious statues and somber cemeteries impart of a sense of wonder and awe no tourist-choked wooden building could.
The entire area around Kiyomizu-dera is full of extortion shops and uninteresting trivia.
Nara is a lesser-known city to the east of Osaka. The first attraction is the myriad deer. There are literally hundreds of deer ambling all about waiting for you to feed them nutritionless crackers sold by a dozen aloof vendors. While interesting to look at, great to photograph, and moderately fun to feed, quickly the only feeling they gave me was the reek of their ubiquitous shit littering the sidewalks.
The first sight I visited was an enormous pagoda that houses a 53-foot tall bronze Buddha. For 500 yen (about $5), you can follow the herd into this immense structure to snap a few photos of this big demi-god and his sidekicks. I’m sure I would have been impressed had I been alone, but introverts like me shut down those feelings that would allow wonder and awe when we’re being tripped by small children, bumped by old people, and waited on by the next wannabe photographer wanting their 5-cent shot.
As I was flying out of Osaka, I saved this stop for last. There are a several worthwhile sights here, but the most popular is probably Osaka castle. It was so popular, I didn’t go.
Another place you should be sure to avoid at all costs in Osaka is Shinsaibashi and the areas around Namba station. In Shinsaibashi, you will find the largest shopping center in the area. A block off the main thoroughfare at Shinsaibashi station, you will notice that you have come under a high vaulted roof, a sign that you entering a part of the world you cannot afford to exist in. Along this strip, choked with zombie-like consumers, you will find every kind of shop from overpriced food to overpriced apparel to overpriced sporting goods. Though the goods are modern and cosmopolitan, the area dates back almost 400 years as a shopping district. You would never guess that if I hadn’t told you because any historical significance has been wiped away.
Now that you know exactly what NOT to do if you want to experience Japan, here are a few tales of moments when I felt that I actually did get a chance to see the country.
Approaching the station where we had begun the morning’s wanderings around Kiyomizu-dera, I spotted a small bar/hotel serving sake. I remembered a comment T’ew had made about a well-deserved imbibing of sake after a long week, so I proposed that we make a mid-afternoon stop. With plenty of time to spare, we decided to go for one drink.
The bar was empty except for two bartenders. The narrow establishment opened at the back to a small lounge with couches and low chairs. The radio lightly pumped in eclectic downtempo tunes I could swear have come up on my Pandora stations more than once. One spoke moderately good English and welcomed us to have a seat at the bar (which conspicuously lacked an actual bar on which rest our feet). We each ordered a sampler of three of their favorite sakes, two sweet and one dry. Slowly sipping the potent liquor, we shared our reflections of recent events in our lives. After dragging out the three small glasses for over an hour, we finally headed back to the station to hit one more tourist spot before returning to our host’s home. I don’t remember the name of that bar, and I probably couldn’t point it out on a map. Yet, that will probably be the place I remember most from that day. That brings me to my first way to enjoy Japan:
Find a random sake bar, and share a drink with a friend.
After leaving our next recommended tour spot, we agonized over a 30-minute train ride that turned into a 4-hour epic due to an accident somewhere along the tracks. Unable to connect to the internet, we couldn’t warn our friends whom were were supposed to meet that we were going to miss our planned time by a couple of hours. When we finally got to our station, we both agreed that food was a top priority. On the way out of the station, I noticed a grocery store with premade meals in plastic containers. I suggested we stop, we did, and we picked up a surprising amount of teriyaki chicken and sushi for less than $10. In a mad hunt to find an internet connection, our dinner crammed in T’ew’s backpack, we shared an umbrella through the drizzling evening. Finally stopping at a convenience store with spotty wifi, we made contact. We were only a few blocks away. With only a couple wrong turns, we spotted our friend outside the predetermined bar. After meeting the owner of the bar, we headed up. In a nerd’s dream, this bar sported half a dozen gaming systems and TVs around a full bar. We snagged a spot on the couch where our new acquaintances were playing Mario Cart on Wii. With classic Nintendo music blasting from the speakers, we sipped proffered drinks and broke out our low budget dinner. Fulfilling all hopes, the food was delicious. Trying not to cram the food down my throat too quickly, I watched the animated race-battle with an excited yet relaxed mind. We got to know these new acquaintances while they raced and we munched. For my second tip on how to enjoy Japan:
Pick up a cheap meal from a grocery store and enjoy it over some video games with new acquaintances.
Though I noted our extended train journey with a feeling of annoyance, I look back on that trip with more fond memories than unpleasant ones. Disobeying the advice of a station attendant, we decided to take the train from Kyoto the opposite way toward what we thought was a simpler route back to Osaka. Little did we know that this direction would be almost blocked because of the accident. While we sat in confused frustration for over an hour as the train crawled from one station to the next, making 10-, 15-, or even 20-minute stops at each one, we grew more tired and displeased. However, as we were approaching what would be the location of the bottleneck, T’ew showed me how to be a true traveler and asked a man reading the subway map if they spoke English. Surprisingly (to me), he did. Over the next few minutes, we would get to chatting with him and his girlfriend, both tourists from Taiwan. There was enough Chinese on one of the JR websites to inform them what was going on. Learning the cause of our delay greatly put us at ease, and having some new acquaintances to share the moment with made it quite pleasant. It wasn’t long before they departed to find a restroom at one of the stops. I don’t think we ever got their names, but I’m glad our paths crossed. When we finally reached our transfer point, we settled into comfortable seats on the express train back to Osaka. It wasn’t long before T’ew got me talking about my old life. In far more detail than I ever imagined myself describing it, I explained the past six years of my life to his apparent amazement. I hardly shut up until we met with our friends at the video game bar. Those who know me will know that this was a special day. For my final tip on enjoying Japan that I believe applies to any destination you find yourself in:
Make a bad decision, get lost, and go with the flow.
What I learned more than anything from that trip is that destinations don’t actually matter all that much. Whether you are traveling 5 km or 5,000, you are likely to meet people and see things that will surprise you, enthrall you, impress you, and satisfy you. All the huge temples and beautiful vistas are great, but they’re all the same. The moments you share with friends, new or old, are not.