Not Your Average Travel Guide to Japan
By KEEN Adventure Guides Chelsea Parrett and Jules Davies
The Land of the Rising Sun. Nippon. Japan. Cat Lady Ground Zero. However you choose to describe this magical place, Japan is UNIQUE.
It’s hard to describe Japan in a short and concise manner, and there is a whole lot more than meets the eye to this place. There’s the impeccable cities, gorgeous gardens and shrines, distinct cultural identity, ancient architecture, and let’s not forget the mouth-watering cuisine packed full of flavor and extravagance.
But as impressive as this extensive list is, I am not here to give you the Wikipedia highlights of Japan. I’m here to talk about the fiber of this place, the in-between moments you won’t be reading about in Lonely Planet. This is not your average tour guide. We’re pulling you off the screen grabs of “best places to take a selfie” and into the streets of Tokyo, to the deep-forested mountains of Gunma and down to the beaches of Chiba. This is a non-exhaustive in no particular order list of ways to explore Japan.
FIRST, THE CONCEPT OF THE RED THREAD
To understand Japan, we must start here. For the Japanese, the concept of fate is explained by a single red string that the gods tied to our pinky fingers at birth in order to link those we must find in life. The legend symbolizes the idea of human connection and that no matter the direction we move, or decisions we make, this unbreakable thread is carried with us throughout all our wanderings. We leave a trail wherever we go. This can apply to love and partnership, but also to whomever we are destined to meet and change the world with. This is why I used the word fiber to describe what we found, the word fiber by definition is a “substance formed of threads or filament” and is what creates fabric.
Many people mistake the Japanese as timid or quiet, but in reality it is a culture boldly rooted in consideration for others.
The Japanese recognize that our paths shape lines that intermingle to construct something far more dynamic–it’s the social fabric of our communities. The safety net. The intricate web. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe the unspoken courtesy of Japanese people. Many people mistake the Japanese as timid or quiet, but in reality it is a culture boldly rooted in consideration for others. Not talking loudly in public, on the phone in crowds, or showing outward distress or emotion is a tribute for others and showcases this cultural identity of collective respect. Knowing this principle will help guide you through your interactions and experiences.
Close your eyes and imagine this… walking through the subway station at 6 p.m. after a long day of work, it’s rush hour in Japan, and you can hear a thousand footsteps around you but it’s so quiet that the culmination of each step on the tiled floor begins to sound like rain drops. It’s hypnotic. Everyone seems to be moving through space as one unified instrument. These moments feel very genuine to the spirit of Japan. If traveling here, make sure to find the time to be aware and listen.
TAKING IN TOKYO
Moving through this city can seem daunting at first, as there are countless underground levels of transit stations hidden below complicated urban landscapes of gigantic neon signs and towering side by side buildings, but after a few deep breaths you’ll find that your intuition coupled with carefully designed planning will prove to be quite easy. Besides, there’s an entire world within Tokyo’s city limits to explore so get a little lost and see what you find.
HOW TO GET AROUND
• Ride in a cab once, just for the pure fact that they are the coolest taxi you’ll ever take. Also, don’t reach for the door handle, they open automatically.
• Take the train and buy a Pasmo card vs. paying for individual rides. You’ll be using it a lot and reduces your time in line.
• If you’re lost, follow the yellow lines on the ground for quick exits or to find transit stations on the street.
• Carry a transit map. They always have English names of stops.
• Make sure you ordered a pocket wifi for your trip, having a cell phone means you are always able to Google or translate a question. Check it here. Game changer.
• Relax. It’s one of the safest cities in the world, so enjoy the ride.
WHERE TO GO:
You can literally find any niche, vibe, and style your heart can desire in Tokyo, but here are a couple of our favorite neighborhoods:
The so called “Brooklyn of Tokyo”, this neighborhood is popular among expats living in Japan. It has a casual but upscale neighborhood feel, with lots of greenery and quiet winding streets that will inevitably lead you to some incredible tiny vintage shop that makes your heart skip a beat. Quick recs:
• L'atelier Du Savon is the cutest women’s boutique. The perfect Japanese x French style mashup. Go with a friend, snag a beret, because #itsokaytomatch.
• T-Site is a literal dream for anyone who loves magazines and books. Grab an espresso, view the gardens, and scroll through maker's market stocked full of random oddities (plant in a shoe!). Truly a must see in Tokyo.
• Neighborhood morning strolls.There are so many beautiful hidden gardens throughout the city. The best time to see the charm of this place is early in the morning, when the elderly are on their walks and school children are making their way to school. There is a sense of inter-generational community in Japan, it feels as if everyone is looking out for each other. Soak in these moments.
Takeshita street, in the heart of Harajuku, has got to be one of the most recognizable icons of Tokyo. Most commonly known for its Harajuku Fashion Girls, with their head-to-toe pastel outfits reminiscent of a children's doll, this place is wild. The neighborhood competes on the highest level with fashion boutiques around the world. You’re in for a real treat if you choose to spend time in this eccentric capital of expression.
• Jingumae Street has it all. Fashion to outdoor brands like Opening Ceremony, Mystery Ranch, and the KEEN Garage!
• Yoyogi Park — Go for a quick hike around the park and view the Meiji Shrine. Get your blood flowing with some yoga and handstands.
• Neko Cafes! This is one of Japan’s strangest experiences. Neko means cat in Japanese, and it literally is a coffee shop where cats live that you can pay to play with. Don’t expect much cuddling, you can’t pick them up and mostly you pay to watch them jump around but it’s definitely a bucket list to do.
WHERE TO EAT:
Tokyo has so many options, it can be overwhelming to choose where to eat or drink so here is a quick list of some of our top choices.
• Paddlers Coffee, one the coolest coffee shops in the city. This neighborhood spot has an outdoor patio under a giant cherry blossom tree and an art gallery that rotates through on a monthly basis. Also, they serve Stumptown Coffee!
• Tatemichiya, an underground punk rock izakaya in Daikanyama. Cozy environment, huge sake bar, and do not forget to order the steak fried avocado.
• Subway Sushi, literally some of the best food you can find are in Subways. People spend a lot of time in transit, so you can find any kind of food you want. Including entire grocery stores!
• AFURI in Harajuku. Known for their incredible Shozu-Yuzu Ramen, this place always has a line out the door, but it’s worth it. Sidenote, if you’re not a meat eater try their delicious Vegan Ramen. (They recently opened a location in Portland, OR!)
• TIGHT, a tiny bar in Shinjuku with only four total “seats” this place is a gem in the city. Grab a glass of Shochu and have a chat with the friendly bartender.
• Bills, a breakfast joint on the top level of a shopping mall looking over Harajuku and the Omotesando Hills. For those mornings when you just want a stellar eggs benedict.
• Sakuratei, the so-called “soul food” of Japan is Okonomiyaki. A tasty vegetable based pancake that you can cook and grill on your table or have the kitchen make. It’s BOMB DOT COM.
• Family Mart. I know, you’re shocked I’d include this on the list but Japan does convenience stores like nobody else.
Survival Tip: You’ll find some of the best snacks and quick healthy bites for on the go. Trust us.
WHAT TO DO:
Take a Kanji writing class — There’s no better way to learn more about a place than to take a class from a local. We wanted to explore the most complicated of the three alphabets the Japanese use, so we found a Kanji Calligraphy class.
Explore the bay — There are more ways to see a city than just on foot or by train, so we decided to seek a new perspective and book a sailing tour in the Tokyo Bay for an afternoon. After a short 45-minute train ride and 15-minute walk along the bay of Tokyo, we found ourselves in the heart of an industrial epicenter. Our captain, Taro, was full of informational tidbits about Japan’s exports and trade, taught us a few sailing tips, and let each of us steer the boat for a while! If you’re like us, and constantly trying to find ways to get outside and soak in the rays, this is a must-do. You won’t regret it. You can book a trip with Taro here.
Pro Tip: Visit the Airbnb Experience’s website and find your own unique way to explore the city, they have a lot of options available. This was hands down one of the best resources on our trip, allowing us to dive deeper into Tokyo with a local vs. the standard tourist driven trips or classes.
HEADING INTO THE MOUNTAINS OF GUNMA
Next up, we hopped on a bullet train to get out of the city and into the rural mountains of Gunma, a prefecture located about 1.5 hours inland from Tokyo. We chose Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku because of its stark contrast to city life in Tokyo. Nestled on either side of narrow luscious river bend sits a charming 100+ year old all-inclusive hotel built around several natural hot springs.
BEFORE YOU GO:
The tradition of onsen culture in Japan is a spiritual experience for its people. There lies a deep respect for others and their own relaxation, so make sure you are acutely aware of your energy that you bring to an onsen. Additionally, as a way of excluding the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) it was not acceptable until recently for any person with tattoos to enter. This still is the case in some onsens and bathhouses, but you can find ways to either minimize the sight of your tattoo or cover it up. It is also good to call ahead and ask about their policy, as many places are loosening up these rules due to the fact that many tourists or non-Yakuza Japanese have tattoos.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT:
Days started by waking up at sunrise to soak in the forested hot springs with the river flowing 10 feet away and ended in the same setting. The cold bitter air clashing against warm silky water full of rich nutrients felt like a dream. We found ourselves pondering how much time we spend in our daily life moving, thinking, preparing, and stressing about our work or home but that at Onsen our sole duty was to rest and revitalize the inner fire. This recognition of self-care is one of the most admirable aspects of Japanese culture. Strangers come together to bathe, tend to their bodies, and enjoy serene moments in nature with the intent of reflection, healing, and peace. Imagine a world that promoted more of these qualities, what would we learn about ourselves and each other?
• Upon arrival you’ll be given a Yukata (traditional cotton robe) to wear for the duration of your stay.
• Your room will have tatami mats, and no bed setup yet. After dinner they visit your room and set it all up for you along with tea for digestion.
• To find the open air hot springs, you will walk across the suspension bridge over the river. Talk about picturesque…
• There are several hot springs to choose from. A couple communal ones, and one women’s only area. Remember, it’s a nude hot spring and bathing suits are not allowed. They will offer you a cotton dress if you’re not comfortable being naked.
• Your meals will be at specific times in order to clean and prepare your room, and each meal is an incredible spread of Japanese dishes - buffet style!
CATCHING WAVES IN CHIBA
The next spot on our list was another change of pace, from the cold mountains to the sunny warm air of Chiba, just two hours southeast of Tokyo. Another easy transit via bullet train led us to the quiet coastal city of Katsuura, a small fishing town known to have one of the largest fishing markets in the country and a decent surf swell.
WHERE TO STAY:
We wanted to stay somewhere with a lot of personality, as wildly themed hotels are a THING in Japan, so we chose the Mikazuki Resort Spa + Aqua Palace. We were searching for a place that felt like a genuine Japanese spot, and would be not catered to tourists. Boy did we find that. This place was like jumping into a time portal back to the late ‘80s combined with a Disney cruise mashup of Vegas and a Japanese Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) but made for kids and the elderly. It was amazing to peer into the way Japanese families vacationed together, the overall feel of this place was one of community. One of my favorite moments was sharing a giant windowpane sauna with a plethora of people from every generation overlooking the ocean at sunset, a rare gem.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND THERE:
• A myriad of pastel tiles and fake flowers in the pool areas, and flamboyant, patterned rugs lining the entire hotel
• 25+ private individually themed karaoke rooms, and a bowling alley connected to a massive arcade
• Mandatory colorful mumus designated by gender that all guests must wear
• A seven-level Aqua Palace with soaking pools, steam rooms and dry saunas, a grotto pool and many more tubs and slides to explore (plus a daily LED light show)
• The most outrageous dining halls with crystal chandeliers and the freshest seafood you could imagine
As fun as the hotel was, we really wanted to get ourselves into some adventure and find some waves. About 5 minutes down the beach we found a friendly Surf/SUP shop called Malibu Point. With surfboard rentals, kayaking, SUP classes, yoga, and the dopest little retail shop we knew we were in the right place. This is the perfect spot to spend a few days shredding the waves with the locals.
At the end of the day, there’s no right way to travel through Japan other than with an open mind and an adventurous spirit.
Portlanders Chelsea Parrett and Jules Davies bring a sense of fun to every adventure. Chelsea is a self-described “professional slash-y" working as a photographer, stylist, and art director, and Jules is an outdoor lifestyle, travel, and fashion photographer. Follow along on their adventures on Instagram at @julesville and @chelseaparrett.
Travel Shoes to Pack for Japan