adventuring out of tokyo
May 13, 2010 7:23 AM   Subscribe

1.5 months in Japan and I'm loving it. Now that I'm used to the neighborhoods, and had a few great mini-travel experiences, I want to push myself and my time here more. Help me plan adventures?

My time in Tokyo, how do I explain? It's been everything. Delicious, confusing, sometimes rainy. My favorite haunts are Ueno (for its park and people-watching), Shibuya (doing the karaoke and izakaya things with friends), and Jinbocho (used books oh my! so many). I also had an incredibly whimsical 2-day trip to Kanazawa where my friend with better japanese and we stayed at cute tiny monk-hostel, made sushi friends, followed around rivers and stared at statues.

But now that my uni classes are kicking in, I find myself in a routine of commute to school on weekdays and whooparty!@ on the weekends. It's not bad, it just is (i'm going with the flow here, even if that flow makes me a gaijin yknow). After a bout of poor alcohol-infused decision making, however, I think it's a good time to re-evaluate my goals. There's some solid Japan-related knowhow and enthusiasm here, so I thought it would be good to ask you all for some worthwhile directions to wander in, places to see, people to meet, etc.

So any ideas for adventures that I could accomplish, ideally in a weekend? Here are some adventureinterests:
- I like meditation, yoga, peaceful quiet places. Beautiful non-touristy places to explore?
- I'm a fan of coffee shops, friendly people & literary folk. I've heard people are friendly and outgoing in Osaka, any way to plan a trip around that (with my limited Japanese, as well?)
- My favorite author is Haruki Murakami. Anything Haruki-related, hell yes
- I'm writing an anthropology thesis on train suicides. While not a train otaku or particularly morbid, I'm curious how I can learn more outside of ethnographic interviews/riding the Yamanote.
- The intimate hostel experience from Kanazawa is something I'd love to replicate elsewhere. How is couchsurfing?
- Other things that make me say 'sweet!' -- Sheep, folk music, fishing?, radicalartypeople living cooperatively, onsens (Odaiba's was great), old movies, sculpture..

posted by elephantsvanish to Travel & Transportation around Japan (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, I lived in Kobe for a year so my advice will be slanted that way, but....

Yes, go to Osaka. Actually, go to the Kobe-Kyoto-Osaka trifecta. One of my favorite things about Japan is how different the people/language/culture is just a few miles away. Kobe and Osaka are practically connected, yet you can still notice different tendencies as far as attitude, speech, and fashion (my favorite!) Oh and food.

In Osaka, eat some takoyaki on the street. Go to HEP and shop. Kobe is the place to do your cafes and sweets thing.

One thing I always thought was interesting about train suicides was which lines people used. In the Kansai area, there is the public JR train and the private Hankyuu line. My host sister at some point told me more people committed suicide on the public one because then they don't have to pay the Hankyuu company (I might have this wrong, you might already know about this, anyway it would be interesting).

Kyoto is full of great temples. Touristy, yes, but some of them are more out of the way. I recommend one called the Daigoji temple (it was awesome).

Japan is also full of fun little things to do. Try to take a tea ceremony class, or find somewhere to do some shoudo (calligraphy).

One thing you are sorely missing out on as a typical gaijin is the connections to the people. Some of my favorite people in Japan include middle aged women (my host moms) or grandmas. How you go about meeting people is a little tricky. What about being an occasional assistant for a children's English class? I volunteered at one once, and it was fun (and I don't even like kids). If you play an instrument, there are local orchestras - I was in one and met a wide age range and made a bunch of friends. Having conversations with different generations of people is incredibly interesting. I don't know how good your Japanese is so YMMV, but it's something to consider.

I will keep posting advice if I think of it...
posted by mokudekiru at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2010

In 2007, a friend and I stayed in a temple at Koya-san for a couple of nights. It's a small town with a temple complex and a large, old cemetery. There are no hotels - you book a room at a temple, which acts as a hotel, and you're expected to attend a Buddhist ceremony in the morning before breakfast, but that's all. They're well-known for their vegan cuisine, and the food is fantastic. You can explore the temples and the cemetery, or hike several old pilgrimage trails if you like. It's full of Japanese tourists, but not many Westerners know about the place.

Bring insect repellent. The mosquitoes are killer in the depths of the forest in the cemetery. Getting there by train is fairly simple once you figure it out - you take the train to Osaka Namba, then get a smaller local train to Gokuraku-bashi, then take a cable car up the mountain, then catch a bus to central Koyasan.
posted by telophase at 9:45 AM on May 13, 2010

I need to run to work, but you might look into a weekend in Miyagi (reachable by shinkansen). There's an island off the tip of the peninsula (around the end of the bay from Sendai/Matsushima) called Kinkazan. There used to be a hotel there, but when I was there, there were trees growing through the roof. There is, however, a shrine on the island with hotel-esque accomodations, at guests are invited to the 6am morning prayers. It's a beautiful island covered with hiking/deer trails, filled with deer, and very, very peaceful. It takes a while to get there, but it's worth the trip.

I'll try to post more later. Feel free to memail me if you've got any questions.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:53 PM on May 13, 2010

A couple other suggestions, now that I've got a minute:

From what I understand, the Chuo Line is more of a suicide haven than the Yamanote (there are stations where the rapid line doesn't stop, and barely slows down as it barrels past), if you're trying to find more information. To really get into it, you're probably going to have to hunker down on Japanese, particularly if you want to try to interview anyone.

As for good places to check out, I have a bunch of favorites in and around Tokyo, and a lot of them have to do with the outdoors. If you like sculpture, you could try the Hakone Open Air Art Museum, which has a good amount of outdoor sculpture. Hakone is also pretty nice for a day/weekend trip, though it is a bit of a tourist trap. Avoid it on major holiday weekends.

If you get down south to Kamakura, not only is it filled with beautiful temples and pretty nice people, there are hiking trails on the mountains surrounding the city. Most of them are accesible by entering temple grounds and continuing through to the back. Absolutely beautiful views of the ocean.

Continuing with hiking, check out Ookutama, in western Toyko. From, say, Ochanomizu Station, if you get the express for Ome in the morning, it'll take maybe two hours to get out there. My personal favorite is Mitake-san (there's a station on the Ookutama line, get off there). From the station you can hike up or take the funicular train, and the summit of the mountain has a small shrine. The road to the shrine is lined with minshuku and ryokans, though it's not a big tourist draw. The last time I was there (in the fall) there was an outdoor Noh performance by torchlight. There's also an excellent visitor's center which provides amazingly detailed English hiking maps that cover the whole area around Ookutama. From Mitake, there's a pretty easy day-hike along the ridges to the actual lake/reservoir. It takes about 6 hours or so, and brings you to the lake. Cross the lake on the pontoon bridge, and grab a bus to Ookutama station. There's a sento (public bath) near the station, which is a great way to recover from the hike. You can do the whole thing in one day, or make a weekend out of it as well. The whole region is beautiful, and definitely pretty far from the big city.

For the radical art thing, you might want to check out the Design Festa which is a collaborative group that organizers a huge annual event at Tokyo Big Sight. Their building is in Harajuku, in the back streets (a friend used to live behind the building, and said they were pretty interesting neighbors).

Last one, if you like quiet, non-touristy, you might check out Sengaku-ji near Shinagawa. It's the shrine of the 47 Ronin (you can follow the link on Wikipedia), and aside from being inside the Yamanote line, it's a remarkably quiet, peaceful place, filled with the smell of burning incense. The people who go there are mostly older Japanese people, and they're usually surprised to see foreigners there, and will most likely try to communicate with them. I've had some great conversations there with old guys who took bus tours from the deep countryside to check out Tokyo.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:10 PM on May 13, 2010

I stayed at Koya-san once, and it was pretty neat.

Miyagi sounds like fun, and if you venture up that way, why not check out Hiraizumi, or go hiking to a hidden hot spring in Kurikoma National Park?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:04 AM on May 16, 2010

As far as weekend trips you can take, I highly recommend Nikko. It's got some temples and stuff if you're into that, but I mostly just enjoyed the scenery. It's not too far out of Tokyo (I think it took about 2 hours from Kita-Senju). There's a lot of information about it online, since it's a really popular tourist destination.
posted by you zombitch at 12:11 AM on May 17, 2010

So many questions and so many wonderful places.

couchsurfing in Japan: as you know already life is a little more closed, and it takes longer usually to be invited to people's homes, and a lot of people are monolingual. Sooo there are a lot of foreigners on CS, but I have had some awesome AWESOME Japanese CS hosts. If you want some recommendations, memail me.

Kansai: Man, do I miss Kobe. This is my favorite of the trifecta because it is just so damn quirky, easily navigable, and always with something new to do. I would give a weekend to each of the three cities. Kyoto makes me tired because of all the tourism.

meditation and stuff: A lot of temples offer zazen retreats, exactly 2 to 3 days of vegetarian food and lots of meditation and waking up at 4am.

onsen: definitely go to Nikko! Odaiba isn't even a real onsen, but rather a heated water amusement park. I hope you will be staying until winter and can enjoy the rotemburo outside under the stars in the snow.

fishing: you can go fishing from Oarai, in Ibaraki, about 2 train hours north of Tokyo. There's also some good beaching and surfing (much less crowded than Kamakura) and some historical places in nearby Mito.
posted by whatzit at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2010

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