August 2018 Plans
May 8, 2018 6:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm a poor traveler—I tend to bounce around between famous sites/museums, not actually meet any locals, and then leave feeling like there wasn't much point—so how should I do better if I have this August off? Ideally in Japan (I speak some of the language).

I'm tempted by the 88-temple-pilgrimage in Shikoku, but I'm worried that'll end up being more of the same (not to mention that I bet it'll be miserable walking around Shikoku in August). Should I sign up for some sort of class? If so, what are some particularly cool classes where I could pick up at least the rudiments in a month?

For that matter, if I'm taking a class, it doesn't have to be in Japan...Houston or elsewhere would be fine. (I'm so decisive!)

So for those keeping score at home: (1) What should I do with my August so that I walk away with an experience I'll remember (fondly); (2) If that something is a class, what's a cool skill to learn, and where might I learn it at reasonable cost? And ideally in Japan.
posted by sphys to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I believe July and August are the only two months out of the year where you can climb to the top of Mt. Fuji if that was something that interested you. It's kind of a long hike, but I went on the night hike a few years ago, and watching the sun rise from the top was pretty awesome.

And if you're in Japan anyway, you might want to give AirBnB Experiences a look. I did a couple of these when I went to Mexico City and they were some of the highlights of my trip. They've got tours, classes, food stuff, outdoor stuff, all kinds of things. The tour guides are pretty much always locals, so you can get a little bit more of a sense of the city you're visiting from people who actually live there and ask them about the best places to check out on your own.

When I lived in Japan (on a military base), I took a sushi making class, some shodo classes, and an ikebana class at the local rec center. They were a lot of fun! And my mom took some classes on gift wrapping, tea ceremony, and washi paper crafts and she had a really good time with those as well. Those were all skills that you could at least get at least the basic jist of it down in a month's worth of classes, although nearly all of them are of the "lifetime to master" variety.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:47 AM on May 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I spent one August in Kyoto and it was amazing, if very very sticky. Your standards may vary, but I spent my nights in a hostel with no air conditioning and no showers (you got a token for the public baths down the street) and it was fabulous but I was 18 and being 18 makes up for a lot. I had a JR pass and a guidebook and I was conversant in Japanese at the time but it was truly one of the best experiences of my life.

If I could drop out of my life for a month (sorry husband and kids) I would absolutely go back to Japan and wander. Having something structured like the 88-temple-pilgrimage would be even better.
posted by lydhre at 6:48 AM on May 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I haven't been in Japan in August, but for most of the country, it seems very hot.
But I've always dreamt of going to Hokkaido and visit the Ainu people there. By visiting, you would also support their unique culture. Since it is still just a dream, I don't have any actual suggestions but there is a Visit Hokkaido website.
(I saw a Shikoku 88 documentary and it looks amazing and also a good way to meet people, but probably very hot in August).
posted by mumimor at 6:53 AM on May 8, 2018

I'm in an ideal position to do the 88 temple marathon right now, but I have absolutely no inclination to confirm the "more of the same" suspicion that I also have. I've been to every single prefecture already, and one thing I do know is this: after Kyoto and Nara, the temples and shrines you see generally don't get any more interesting. 88? Yeah, no thanks.(Not world heritage? Not made of gold? Stop wasting my fucking time!) Visit every prefecture in a month. Do that instead! That's a plan I can get behind.

August is absolutely the wrong time to be feeding silly tourist rackets like the 88 list. Get thee to Tohoku or Hokkaido! If I were in your position, I'd buy the 18 Kippu and ride to all the scenic spots in Hokkaido, even though it takes quite a while on those local trains. No better way to meet other travellers and see the "real" Japan though. Furano is the place to be in August, flowers as far as the eye can see. Otaru has a lovely railway museum with a cafe-in-a-carriage at the front. Noboribetsu is out of this world too. I could go on...

For crafts: off the top of my head: Kyoto handicraft centre is a wonderful place to try out lots of different crafts. There are also opportunities at museums like this one where you can try something out. I would recommend testing the waters first before signing up for a month of it.

Check out Couchsurfing too. It's not quite the community it once was, but their shiny app has a "meet travellers near me" kind of function. Works well with Japanese locals as well as travellers too. Feel free to memail me if you have any brain-picking urges.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 7:10 AM on May 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Staying with people who live in the area you are visiting and/or having a specific, non-tourist reason to be there are good ways to feel like you've actually engaged with a locality rather than just passed through like a ghost, in my experience. Volunteering vacations, immersion language schools, or similar structures might serve an equivalent role in places where you don't know people/can't find a home stay or don't have a pre-existing reason to visit?

I've also found that the times in my life where I travelled more on a shoestring and needed help from people along the way, rather than being comfortably self-sufficient, led to more of these sort of interactions that you are noticing the lack of. Members of less privileged groups (thinking especially of my trans friends here, for example) have to balance this with safety concerns of course.

In any event, I think it's great that you are looking for ways to not just be a tourist in the places you visit - excellent question!
posted by eviemath at 7:16 AM on May 8, 2018

Travel guides cover the things that are famous, historical and that everybody loves. Obviously, if you come to Maine, you should have lobster and spend time near on on the water. But if you hate boats, go admire the ocean and enjoy a lobster roll, then go hiking. What interests *you*? I like just walking in new places, taking pictures of interesting graffiti, getting a sense of the architecture and how people live. I really love traditional crafts and would love to visit Japan for that reason. I have also found that taking a good tour gives me a much better understanding of places with historical or other significance.

When I traveled as a young person, staying in hostels was fun, I met other young travelers, made friends and had adventures. 30+ years ago, using the Let's Go travel books meant I met other travelers. I met locals in pubs and by staying at B&Bs. I have some specific hobbies and interests, and try to pursue them when I travel; I meet people and it gives me a sense of direction.

It's okay to travel, find a beautiful location, sit and drink coffee and pay attention. Some people like to be busy, see the top sites, and move on; you can choose.
posted by theora55 at 7:45 AM on May 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I dunno about you but taking some kind of cooking class in japan would be a very good talking point for a future interview/date/conversation. Or training for any kind of martial art. Oh, I went to japan and learned karate. Oh, I trained under one of the top ramen chefs in japan. Oh, I spent my vacation talking marketing strategy with the head of Toyota brands.

I think the best classes are advanced in a hobby you already have. Like, for me, maybe advanced video game playing or advanced social-media-surfing.

No but really, a cooking class would be very cool.
posted by bbqturtle at 7:56 AM on May 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

If I had a month in Japan, I'd find a way to do a longer-term set of taiko classes or workshop. Playing taiko is immensely fun and a good way to bond with people, because wadaiko-style playing is extremely cooperative. There are one-off classes in the big cities that allow foreigners, but if you'll be there for longer, you could see if you could get into a multiweek session or intensive.

Alternately, if the weather didn't suck, I'd take a really leisurely approach to the Kumano Kodo route, which I think looks prettier than the 88 temple pilgrimage. Or a multiday hiking tour in the Kamikochi area, since it's stunning and August is warm enough to do that. Long hikes are also a good way to get to know people, and Japan has a lot of infrastructure along major trails to allow you to stay indoors and not schlep around a tent.

WWOOF-ing? August would be REALLY REALLY HOT to do farm work, but it involves a homestay and you'd get to know a family and their town really well, and it seems like a unique experience.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 8:31 AM on May 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you have a month, then it's just about right for the 88-temple pilgrimage. I also think that if you actually *walk* most of the way you would be able to actually meet and interact with people.

It will be hot, but the pilgrim garb will protect you from the sun (I generally keep totally covered up whenever I spend a day walking around rural Japan, although I must admit that I nearly passed out from the heat last July walking up to the top of Glover Gardens in Nagasaki). Drinking as much water as possible will help, too.

You can also do homestays and farmstays. Just Googling a little should bring those up.

A friend of mine also operates tourism outfit that does cycling and walking trips. He's now based in Nagoya, but he typically takes people to his country home in northern Nagano. He also does trips up and down the Inland Sea (where the majority of the 88-temple circuit is).

The only thing I would worry about is that everything in Japan is PACKED because of the explosion in tourism. So that's going to be your biggest challenge is finding a place to stay.

When we (my family) plan our trips around Japan we typically book about six months in advance now

Of course, you could get around that by backpacking. It perfectly safe, and you can just set up a tent in a public park. Practically every town has its own municipal hot spring, so you can bathe in one of those.

If you're doing the 88-temple circuit, and alternate journey could be walking from Konpira over the mountains to Kochi. That would take probably four or five nights and would be really interesting.
posted by JamesBay at 5:00 PM on May 16, 2018

I think the Kumano route looks interesting, too. There's also a route that goes from I think Shingu to Shirahama that would be an interesting multi-day walk. I'd like to do it.

The Inland Sea region where most of the 88 temples are is heavily industrialized, with steel mills and gas plants and that sort of thing. I prefer Kochi, and if I had a month I would explore Kochi, take the ferry from Uwajima to Beppu, and then walk over the volcano to Kumamoto. Then, take the ferry to Shimabara, walk up Unzen, visit Obama, go to Nagasaki...

If I had a month.
posted by JamesBay at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2018

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