What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Japan? Expensive? Exotic? Efficient? Elusive? As a traveller who keeps finding herself returning to the country with the same backpack each time, I have come to think of Japan as the land that offers Endless Exciting Encounters.
If you’re in need of convincing, allow me to take you through my top justifications on why you should backpack your way around this amazing land! Ikimashou!
1. The best way to stretch your yen
The first E I mentioned above is unfortunately true. Japan is Expensive. Or to be exact, it could be. So really, backpacking is the best way to stretch your budget. Instead of spending a substantial (a big word, I know) amount on a hotel room that you would spend just a few hours in, book a bed in a dormitory of a hostel instead.
Credit: Armand on Flickr
Still, it doesn’t mean that you should resort to instant noodle or canned sardines from home either. Get a day pass for the local transportation network, walk everywhere, visit charming public parks and interesting spots for free or at minimum fees, stroll along the traditional market (shotengai) for cheap street delicacies and eat where the locals do!
2. Converse with the friendly and helpful locals
Backpacking also means that you’re left on your own. In Japan, this could be overwhelming, especially when you attempt to figure out the street signs and maps (even Google maps), which, unless you’re proficient in kanji, could throw off your sense of direction. But don’t worry! Ask the locals whenever you’re unsure – starts with a polite sumimasen (excuse me), a magic word that can go a long way – they will always point you in the right direction, even if they don’t speak in the same language as you do.
Credit: Liwa Liu
This could actually lead to a wonderful conversation (err, maybe exchanges of simple words and gestures are more like it) like my experience in Kanazawa during my third Japan trip, when a group of elementary schoolchildren let me tag along on their school assignment (something to do with reading maps correctly and getting to assigned checkpoints) and made sure I got to Kanazawa Castle before continuing on their way.
3. Getting a glimpse of the real Japanese people
To backpack is to do away with the luxurious pampering usually associated with the glamour and clamour of traveling. In a way, it makes you more spontaneous. And when you are, you’ll go beyond the surface of the country and dive into the everyday lives of its people. In Japan, this means you’re in for a treat: be prepared to have your pre-conceived notions about the Japanese verified or busted, or both.
Credit: George Alexander Ishida on Flickr
On my last day in Osaka during my third Japan trip, I went into a small mom and pop’s wagashi (sweets) shop that I passed every day for a skewer of dango (colourful sticky rice balls – the cheapest thing I could find). The owner was an elderly man, and I didn’t really attempt a conversation because as we all have been repeated warned about, Japanese could be quite reserved, especially with strangers.
But after the usual small talks, he started telling me about his travels around the world. He pointed out various memorabilia collected from the journeys, neatly displayed all around the shop; some of them were downright rare and exotic! The shop owner must be at least in his 70’s, but obviously he hadn’t outgrown the joy of traveling. Laughing, he said that he’d like to go to Cuba for his final adventure.
Credit: Reginald Pentinio on Flickr
It might be a coincidence, but encounters like this are not uncommon for backpackers in Japan. In the end, this kind of interaction make you realize that beneath all that you’ve heard about the country and its people, the Japanese are human beings with their own dreams, worries and struggles, just like you and me.
4. Soaking the local cultures and customs
Japan is an old country. And that means it is so culturally rich that you’ll never run out new discoveries even if you spend years in the country. So instead of letting the slim prospects of catching a glimpse of a young geisha in Gion or a traditional wedding at some famous shrine to distract you, why don’t embrace your backpacking spirit and leave the overrated attractions behind?
By default, backpacking forces you to widen your horizon by exploring the non-mainstream options. The best thing is: you don’t really have to go far to do so. Sometimes, it could be a street festival you chanced upon on your way to your next destination, like the one I encountered in Miyajimaguchi en route to Miyajima Island.
Also, backpacking makes you alert and receptive to recommendations; a Japanese friend insisted that I must visit the Tori no Ichi Festival, where I learned about kumade, a good luck charm that is usually purchased by shop and business owners to rake in good fortunes. I even had the chance to witness the blessing ceremony held before the excessively decorated kumade changed hands!
Credit: Yoshikazu Takada on Flickr
5. Japan is not just Tokyo and Osaka
Credit: Eric Microseism
Japan is not all about the cityscapes. Made up of constellations of islands mostly dotted by mountain ranges, it is a land of valleys and troughs, long sea lines, rugged cliffs, emerald green rivers and quaint, charming little villages with centennial farmhouses and modern dwellings next to plots of paddy fields.
The best way to see them all? Yes – by ditching those unnecessary luggage and travel light! After all, you need to hop on trains, take express buses, manoeuvre a bicycle and walk a lot to see the length and width of the country. Believe me, you will want to make many pit stops, hence it’s best necessary to travel with this kind of flexibility 😉
Credit: Akira Tomita
6. Because Japanese food is much more than sushi
Credit: James Cridland on Flickr
I have been frequently asked if I ate a lot of sushi during my Japan trips. The answer is nope, not a chance. To be honest, the only time I had it in Japan was during my fourth trip, and it was because I was too tired to go search for other eateries. Backpacking has prompted me to be adventurous with what I eat, and that’s not because just because I’m tightening my belt (budget).
Credit: Christopher Laurent
Wandering along the alleys of the city you’re traveling in, it’s so easy to get enchanted by the posters and fake food models of mouth-watering local cuisines. Even as Muslims with strict dietary restrictions, chances are you’ll find something that is Muslim-friendly. If not, there’s the depa-chika (basement level of large department stores), a food hall with various types of good quality food at rock bottom prices, especially near store closing time!
7. Claim your personal space on the road less taken
Many popular cultural attractions in Japan are now swarmed with tourists that keep increasing each year. Most of the times, it’s really difficult to appreciate their true essences when you’re fighting for space with a thousand others with the same intention as yours. So ask yourself – which is more important: ticking off that must-go attractions on your list and have a really bad time just to accomplish them all, or letting them go to explore the less-known ones instead?
Backpacking gives you this freedom. And Japan has no shortages of little charms if you would take your eyes off the famous temples, shrines, pagodas and castles. One year, I had a lousy time in Arashiyama, navigating its crowded streets and futilely trying to get a decent picture of its famous bamboo groves. It traumatized me enough that I avoided the tourist-prone area like a plague when I returned the year after. Instead, I took the less popular train line to get there, where a walk on a solitary path along the Hozu River awarded the view of (the famous) Togetsukyo Bridge all to myself!
8. Well-connected transportation network
Backpacking is not as hard as it used to be, and Japan is probably one of the most backpackers’-friendly places on Earth. One of the reasons would be its world-famous, widely connected and efficient transportation network. It is so amazing that in theory, you can get to pretty much anywhere in the country without driving a car or taking a taxi.
Credit: neverbutterfly on Flickr
There are various train, bus and train/bus passes available that are not only economical for your trip, but would tremendously save you the hassles of purchasing tickets each time you wanted to board a train or bus. Not to mention that they wouldn’t cost you extra if you decided to take a detour. Or two.
Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr
Did you catch on that I said in theory? Yes, because even with the wide network, in reality it is relatively easier to get to some places, especially the more densely populated ones, than the others. I found it the hard way when I was in Hokkaido earlier this year, where in the countryside, trains only run once per hour (buses are about the same too). That threw off some of my major plans, but hey, isn’t that why you backpack anyway? 😉
Credit: sodai gomi on Flickr
9. A whole new definition of backpackers’ hostels
Space is indeed limited in Japan, which is why accommodations could be expensive for travellers. But just because you’re backpacking, that doesn’t mean you have to rough it. In the past decades, backpackers’ hostels have been mushrooming all over the country – catering to no frills domestic and international travellers, who wanted a roof above their head, a bed to crash at night and a bathroom to wash up.
Credit: Kai’s Hostel
You can bet that the Japanese never compromised when it comes to quality. The hostels are always clean and comfortable, while some even make efforts to set their establishments apart from others through unique designs and architecture. The staff are friendly, helpful and efficient, the ambiance cheery and your fellow backpackers are always willing to socialize and make friends. Even so, privacy is highly respected; in the dormitories, each bed comes with a personal curtain, while the shared bathroom is always single-stalled.
Did I mention that the hostels usually have free toiletries (shower cream, shampoo AND conditioner) too? Now you don’t have to lug those around – less things in the backpack!
10. It’s still one of the safest countries in the world
Credit: elmimmo on Flickr
Well, there’s no way you could get zero crime rate anywhere in the world and have that 100% sense of security. Japan might have some undesirable traits, but let’s admit it, compared to other high risk countries, it is a fairly safe place. Maybe it’s the culture of its people, in which it’s been ingrained that no one should disturb the community’s harmonious ways of functioning. It could also be its law enforcement efficiency. Or maybe it’s both. But either way, it’s good news for us backpackers.
Credit: spinster cardigan on Flickr
Still, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the usual precautions as you would anywhere else. When unintentionally finding myself in one of the seedy sides of Osaka city at night a few years ago, I decided to pull out from the chance of an adventure. Sure, take risks during your backpacking trips, but only calculated ones. That night, the cost was too high for me to afford it.
Did I convince you yet? I hope I did! Japan is such a wonderful country that is not unlike atightly closed treasure box, but once you lift up the lid and take a peek inside for yourself, you’ll be enchanted for life.
What are you waiting for? Hoist your backpack up and go see it – now!
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