Blowing my mind in Japan
January 25, 2008 7:27 AM   Subscribe

How many ways can I blow my sheltered American mind while visiting Japan?

So I am flying to Japan for March 13th-23rd, and I'm staying with my best friend out there. I'm 25 years old, and I've spent 95% of my life in the south east.

The most important thing for me to do on this trip is to experience what its like to be in another culture that is so vastly different from ours.

While seeing beautiful temples and scenic gardens is important to me, my top priority is to do things that are really fun and really weird to me (as a sheltered American).

Help me brainstorm some things I simply MUST do in Japan that will blow my simple southern mind. Specifically, things young people do to have fun in their spare time. I mean everything from these 'photo booths' i've heard about to Karakoe bars all the way to Hostess bars and the 'sexy caburet'.

I don't care how tame or how intense it is, how clean or how seedy, tell me any ideas you can think of so I can pick what I want to see! Also, every idea is important to me, no matter how simple!

I'm starting in Tokyo and will visit Kyoto, Osaka, and Sendai.

(PS, hopefully no one feels that I am disrespecting Japanese culture with this question, I am just excited about the trip and want to open my mind to things I've never seen before)
posted by ZackTM to Travel & Transportation around Japan (32 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Take the bullet train (shinkansen) to your destinations. It's an awesome feeling. You'll never again go so fast in something so powerful and smooth and...engineered (at least at ground level). At the station, they'll have a train schedule. The schedule will tell you what time the train arrives at each destination. And then the train will proceed to arrive at said destination at the exact minute scheduled. The most awesome thing is to be standing on the platform when a bullet train comes through and it is not scheduled to make a stop there. About a minute before it shows up you'll hear a chime and an admonishment to stand away from the track. Peer down the track and in the distance you'll see the front of the train, and then it's FUCKING RIGHT THERE man, 8 or 9 cars long going by you at 200 miles an hour, just awesome. Like watching the Indianapolis 500 up close but the car is a TRAIN.

It seems trite, but it's one of my favorite things about Japan.

And oh, you got to visit Fuji-san. You think you've seen beautiful mountains, but Fuji-san has to be seen to be believed.
posted by vito90 at 7:43 AM on January 25, 2008 [6 favorites]

Ninja Warrior Fan? - Mount Midoriyama
posted by doorsfan at 7:53 AM on January 25, 2008

You want something weird that will blow your mind? Go to one of the theme cafes in Akihabara. A maid cafe, or a cosplay cafe, or a nurse cafe.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:02 AM on January 25, 2008

It'll happen from the moment you get into the airport. You don't have to do anything. Heck, I'd recommend trying to do something you find normal - you wouldn't expect it to blow your mind, but it will, precisely because you're not expecting it to be so different. Purposely planning for mind-blowing is rather counterproductive.
posted by divabat at 8:17 AM on January 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming you've got some nodding acquaintance with Japanese culture, both traditional and modern. The juxtaposition between the two can be bracing. Go to Harajuku (which you should do no matter what). This has the cosplay kids, and the insane La Foret mall, Ura-hara, Takeshitadori, and all the landmarks of pop-culture. But it also has Meiji Jingu, Togo Jinja, and, tucked away behind La Foret, the Ota Museum of Art, which is a must-see. See all this stuff.

Another bizarre thing to do is visit the underground shopping malls attached to Tokyo, Shinjuku, and Yokohama stations. These are incredibly extensive—the one in Yokohama has street signs. There's no analog in your experience. The trip to Yokohama from Shinjuku is kind of interesting because you realize you're travelling from Japan's most populous city to its second-most, but the urban landscape never stops the whole way there.
posted by adamrice at 8:18 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Take a walk around Kabuki-cho in Tokyo on a Saturday night... It's an education.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 8:35 AM on January 25, 2008

definitely check out the mediatheque in sendai. drink a belgian beer and people watch at the cafe in the lobby, then maybe check out an exhibition. also in sendai, wander down kokubuncho at a little after midnight on basically any night of the week. look for a 2 hour nomihodai (all you can drink) special that also includes some food. eat every possible type of sushi, esp. whale (kujira), urchin sex organs (uni), and the most expensive bluefin tuna you can find. It may seem counter-intuitive, but some of the best sushi restaurants will be in train stations. Go to an all you can eat sukiyaki place and eat until it feels like your esophagus is tightly packed with thinly sliced, delicious rare wagyu beef.
posted by kickback at 8:36 AM on January 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

Definitely try The Lockup... you can probably find better pics, but it's a really wacky Japanese theme bar. Kind of like getting cocktails on the set of Saw IV. Also, a really amazing experience for me was going to the New York Bar in the Hyatt (as featured prominently in "Lost in Translation"). Words don't really do it justice, so go at night for an amazing view of the city.
posted by lubujackson at 8:39 AM on January 25, 2008

Here's something NOT to do, Don't get fooled by the "Natural" or "Legal" drugs you see being peddled on card tables at Shinjuku. As silly as it now seems, a friend and I thought it would be fun to try, and ended up holding onto the floor and curled up in the fetal position in a club, after taking half each of this horrible stuff. If I would have taken the whole thing, I truly believe I would still be in a psychiatric ward in Japan. Be warned...
posted by chromatist at 8:40 AM on January 25, 2008

If you're making your way around the country down south to Osaka, I have a few suggestions if you're willing to go a bit further out of your way.

1) Head over to Nara, and within their town are essentially domesticated deer. They're a bit shorter and stubbier than American deer, but they're as accustomed to humans as squirrels are here. It's something that's both cute and kind of strange.

2) Visit Hiroshima. There's a museum devoted to the bomb of course, and it's just mind altering to see the city in person. The city itself has been extensively rebuilt and is very modern due to the fact that the center of the city has no buildings older than 1945. Aside from the museum and the memorials, the city is not particularly depressing, almost a testament to recovery and optimism.

Other than that, I suggest just walking around and enjoying the little things. Japanese culture revolves around the train system, so when you're Kyoto, you'll see that the mall is build up directly over the station. Walk around in a neighborhood, being careful not to get lost (street signs aren't always present!), and you'll stumble upon small shrines seemingly placed randomly.

Lastly, feel free to ask questions. I found that many Japanese people were very friendly while I was visiting, and proud enough of their country and neighborhood that they'd love to explain to you why stuff is awesome and what you should be sure to visit.
posted by explosion at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2008

You need to go to Hachiko-Mae Square in Shibuya. Hanging out Shibuya is cool in and of itself. Harujuku is cool. Akihabra is cool. Really just loitering around in Tokyo is awesome.
posted by chunking express at 8:48 AM on January 25, 2008

March 23rd you can catch the March Sumo tournament in Osaka!
posted by jasper411 at 8:50 AM on January 25, 2008

There's sort of two ways to get "your mind blown" in Japan, IMHO. The first is indeed all the old temples, castles, etc. There's so much history in Japan, especially for someone in the West. In North America, something is old when it's been around for 50 years. Walking around in Niijojo or Kinkakuji and realizing these buildings have been around for over 400 and 600 years respectively left me absolutely floored. There are almost no structures in North America that old and certainly nothing with the splendor that Kyoto has to offer.

Second was is, of course, all the really weird, quinessentially Japanese stuff. Lots of good suggestions here, and I'll throw in a few more.

Go to one of the theme cafes in Akihabara. A maid cafe, or a cosplay cafe, or a nurse cafe.

I'd suggest Alcatraz ER. In terms of sheer weirdness, it was one of the strangest thing I saw in Japan. The food isn't great, but the experience alone is definitely worth it. (Website with the address in English here) On preview: I haven't been to The Lockup mentioned above, but it seems similar.

Also, Amerikamura in Osaka is pretty darn weird; it's like looking at the US through a funhouse mirror, or worse, what someone's impression of the US would be if it was derived entirely from MTV.

If you can, hit up an Onsen. Especially if you're from the south-east, visiting a real natural hot spring can be very interesting.

Have fun!
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:53 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Stay at least one night in the capsule hotel in the Asakusa district in Tokyo:

Visiting the nearby Sensoji temple makes a nice contrast:

Spot sumo wrestlers in the Ryogoku district:

and sell a kidney if you have to to see a live tournament - check local tourist offices for scheduled tournaments in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto and exhibition tournaments in Sendai

If you have free time in Sendai, ride the dragon boats at Matsushima

and join the old men hand feeding potato chips to the seagulls

or get the train from Sendai to Yamagata city - look out for monkeys at the tiny stations en route - and get the coach up to Zao volcano

DO NOT, IMHO, go to Gas Panic bar/club/hellhole. Its not " so bad its good" its just a thoroughly horrible experience.

Talk to everybody you can, don't be afraid of accepting invitations and being the goofy foreigner.
posted by runincircles at 8:58 AM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

divabat and adamrice have the right ideas, here, I think. Whenever I travel to a new and strange place, I try to do things I would normally do here (find and buy a particular book; get ingredients for a meal; go to the bank). Gets me off the tourist track and into places people live and work. Everything's so new, even the mundane is an adventure.

When I was in Japan a while back, I spent an hour in convenience store near Kawasaki Station marveling at the packaging and goods. Later that day I ordered tacos and margaritas at the Yokohama El Torito, just to see the Japanese take on an American take on Mexican food. Great view of the harbor, too.
posted by notyou at 9:03 AM on January 25, 2008

Going to a bank and exchanging money was one of the funnest things I did when I was in Japan.

Also, go to every bakery and eat their melon pan.
posted by spec80 at 9:14 AM on January 25, 2008

Go to a Don Quixote. It's like Walmart on crack. There's a giant one in Osaka with a ferris wheel on top.

Also, keep in mind that alcohol is plentiful, cheap, and apparently perfectly acceptable to drink any time of day. As your attorney, I advise you to keep a mild buzz on at all times. Stumbling into a Don Quixote after a few lunchtime shochus was probably one of the most mind-bending experiences of my life.

But as many people have mentioned, simply being in Japan is a mindfuck on its own. You're in a world much like the one you knew back home, only everything is five years in the future and everything is a completely incomprehensible language. It's a distinctly odd feeling being surrounded by signs, lights, posters, billboards, people shouting, pa announcements, general city hubub and not being able to understand a word. It's simultaneously information overload and Zen nothingness.
posted by Gortuk at 9:14 AM on January 25, 2008 [7 favorites]

If it were me:


1 (-2) Day-- Shinjuku, Shibuya (best for night-life),Omotesando, Harajuku --nice night life, lots of crazy crazy young people, great people-watching
2 Day-- (morning) Asakusa for traditional style Japan, (afternoon) Ueno for Ame-yoko shopping, (evening) Akihabara for electronics and anime


no notable places, just eating: takoyaki, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, sushi with red miso soup, etc. the downtown is eating central (kuidoare)


very tourist-y---for a good reason. go to as many temples as possible. be as quiet as the locals are. bask in the silence; it is beautiful.

If you have the opportunity, go to an onsen (hot spring). Enjoy!
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 9:21 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the bakeries. I had never connected Japan with astonishingly good bread products until after I went.

Also, go to a Denny's at least once.
posted by tkolar at 9:27 AM on January 25, 2008

Ok, here's what I think, based on the amazing expertise that I amassed having visited Japan all of once, for a grand total of three weeks. (So yeah, what I'm saying is take this with a grain of salt.) I think that Americans tend to play up the weirdness of Japan in ways that maybe aren't so great. It's a really different culture than what we're used to, but it's not some freaky-deaky alternate universe peopled by strange folks with whom you have nothing in common. I think that travelers sometimes seek out the weirdest, most mind-blowing bits of Japan and therefore end up kind of exaggerating the weirdness of the place. So definitely go to Shinjuku and Shibuya and Harajuku, but I'd also seek out more sedate neighborhoods. When I was in Tokyo, I spent a lot of time in Jiyugaoka, which is a pretty awesome neighborhood. There's lots of shopping and restaurants, but it doesn't have the frenetic pace of the more-popular tourist destinations in Tokyo. Maybe some Tokyoites can suggest some other good places to walk around and get a slightly-less-mind-blowing, but still good and educational, Tokyo experience.
posted by craichead at 9:49 AM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

er, Don't go to a Denny's. After ~2 months of living there (in 1992) I finally broke down only to easily meet the MOST FUCKING DISAPPOINTING moment of my life in finding that the Grand Slam was nowhere on the menu.


Shinjuku: Yellow Sub hobby stores, top of the Tocho (Tokyo City Hall) free observation decks.
Shibuya: everything . . . but Pompadour (bakery with red sign) fresh Batard (loaf of soft, sweet French bread) and a 1L of Koiwai Lact Coffee is a slice of heaven for me.
Kanda: Jimbocho used book sellers
Ikebukuro:Sunshine City underground mall (maybe), Tokyu Hands store
Shinagawa: you can "drive" the Yurikamome automated train to Odaiba if you wait for the head car and let one or two trains leave. VERY mind-blowing!
Odaiba: all the malls and crap. Closest thing to an pristine engineered anime-like metropolis that I've seen
Ginza: Sony Building (including the basement), Hakuhinkan toy store, Ito-ya office supply store (coolest art store on the planet, that I've been into at least)
Kyoto: there's a lot of cool temple compounds you can walk through in the N center of the city.
Sendai: the Matsushima area is reasonably scenic.
Ueno: Motorcycle stores on the NE side, but for the A MOST mindblowing experience head through the Ameyoko under-track shopping corridor that is immediately south of the station that stretches half-way to Akihabara, especially on a week-end.

If you have time, but I guess you don't, I'd head up to Hiraizumi from Sendai. Cultural center of a slightly different, proto-historic Japan.

Fuck I miss Japan. :(
posted by panamax at 9:54 AM on January 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Go out to eat anywhere. A friend of mine remarked that he has never been to a bad restaurant in Japan, and I have to agree with him. Just go down some dark alley somewhere, or a chain on a brightly lit street, find an establishment that's open (there will be a red lantern, a curtain, or a flashing light), and order anything. You'll be amazed at the courteous service, exquisite presentation, and unequalled devotion to gastronomic quality. Food really is the religion here, and experiencing that alone should blow your mind. Yes, even Denny's, as mentioned above, is amazing. It's been almost two years here, and I am still blown away regularly.

Also, see how many public restrooms you can count before you can find a place to sit down on a city street. I bet you get to 100.
posted by greasepig at 9:59 AM on January 25, 2008

Last time I was in Japan I had my mind blown by the Yokohama Joypolis, which is Sega's tremendous arcade/theme park. There is also one in Tokyo, though I haven't visited it. I had no problem navigating it with barely any knowledge of the Japanese language.

Aside from far-out arcade games (Typing of the Dead, a hand-cart simulator, etc) there are also ride-film type attractions that were a bit more expensive, but featured things like bumper cars with tennis ball bazookas attached and a haunted house ride where you got to actually shoot at the ghosts with a light gun.

Also I would reccomend stopping and having lunch by the Godzilla statue in Hibiya Park, when I was there (again, ten years ago, maybe it's changed), there was a McDonald's right there, and it was one of the most perfect juxtapositions I've ever seen. It's not a particularly large statue, but it is nonetheless a statue of Godzilla.
posted by Durhey at 10:34 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

finding that the Grand Slam was nowhere on the menu.

Yeah, I had to construct a French Slam out of side orders. It was really really worth it, though.

In general I have to agree with others who say that going out of your way for a mindblowing experience in Japan will just get in the way of the inevitable blown mind you'll experience just navigating daily life in a culture that just does things ... well, differently.

My travel page from Osaka has some examples of this. Check it out for pictures of:
  • A freeway offramp that cuts right through the middle of an office building
  • An extraordinary solution for making two parking spaces into four parking spaces
  • A household toilet that plugs into the wall and has a water basin built-in
  • Pictures of one of the hundreds of homeless tent camps in public parks
You won't find these listed in any tourist literature, but they all represent moments in Japan where my "normal" was radically shaken.
posted by tkolar at 11:02 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I visited Japan last year. Having a fairly substantial amount of interest in Japanese pop culture, there actually wasn't a huge amount of culture shock for me. Actually, after leaving Tokyo for more rural areas, I was actually shocked at how similar rural Japan was compared with, say, rural Wisconsin.

But there was one completely unexpected and bizarre cultural moment. They have Shakeys Pizza in Japan. We went to the one in Harajuku, where all the young punks hang out. They have the same old-timey signs as the ones I remember from my midwestern youth, the same old-timey music, the same spaghetti and mojo potatoes. At first, it just seemed like a wacky contrast to the Japanese environs.

But there was one crucial difference, discovered when biting into my first slice. While the crust and sauce were identical to the ones I remember from the Shakeys of yore, the pizza was topped with squid and mayonnaise.

My mind was blown.
posted by eschatfische at 11:15 AM on January 25, 2008

posted by arimathea at 11:51 AM on January 25, 2008

Second catching the Sumo tournement. I've never been, in Osaka, but twice to the Tokyo. Don't listen to the people who say you can't get in -- I bet Osaka's as easy as Tokyo. Just go early (first thing in the morning isn't necessary) and get a ¥2000 general admission ticket, then move down from up in the nosebleed section, where you're supposed to sit. Sumo has a long tradition of spectators sitting in seats not theirs -- if the owner shows up, just move. You won't be able to get onto the floor, but you'll be close enough to see everything.

You'll get more ideas at Ed Jacob's Quirky Japan, and I'd add shopping at Muji to this list.
posted by Rash at 12:07 PM on January 25, 2008

Nara may be OK, but skip the Mikimoto Pearl Island usually on the same itinerary; it's nothing but a tourist trap.

In Kyoto, take a tour of the old Imperial Palace. Reservations required and you MUST be on time, they're very picky about it.

The great thing about Japan is that you can wander absolutely anywhere, day or night, without fear. Take advantage of unscheduled time to discover unscheduled places.
posted by beagle at 2:36 PM on January 25, 2008

How about indoor skiing?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:00 PM on January 25, 2008

Ok. I've been living in Japan for 6 years, now, so I feel somewhat obligated to offer my two cents. I'm quite a bit older than you, so our interests are likely skewed, but let me make some suggestions, or agree with some others made already (these are not terribly 'mind-blowing', but...) :
-yes, absolutely go to a sumo match. Ask your friend to get tickets for you in advance, if you aren't comfortable with the general admission idea. I went to the March tournament 4 years ago, and the cherry blossoms were in bloom around nearby Osaka castle. It was a great day.
-yes, go to an onsen. Definitely try to find a rotenburo (most respectable onsen will have one), which is an outside bath with a view. One of my most memorable experiences in Japan is sitting in a rotenburo in Toyama, which looked out onto a lake, with snow-covered mountains in the distance, and the snow lightly falling.
-try natto. I don't care for it myself, but I'm glad that I've tried it enough times to know that it isn't just a psychological block.
-In Kyoto, go to ryouanji on a weekday morning (get there as they are opening the doors) and contemplate the rock garden before the hordes arrive, and also to sanjusangendo (time is less important). Of course there are a gajillion other temples to see, but these are my 'don't miss' picks.
-If you are a creative type, spend a couple of hours in a Tokyu Hands store.
-yes, go to see the cosplay kids in Harajuku/Yoyogi Park on Saturday Morning. I didn't think gawking at people in odd outfits would be much fun, but it was.
-yes, stay a night in a capsule hotel. Enjoy the bath, put on your yukata and buy a beer (or sake) from the vending machine.
-take an overnight bus somewhere (between Tokyo and Kyoto, say). These are *special* buses with nice, reclining seats, 3 seats across, with 2 aisles. Cheaper than the bullet train, though I definitely recommend doing that at least once, too. (btw, if you're moving around a lot, the JR rail pass is *definitely* worth the price, but you must buy it before you leave for Japan)
-you could try the parasite museum or the instant ramen museum in Tokyo.
-While in Kyoto, try to go to a traditional Kyoto restaurant, one that serves a mouthful of 50 different things (sorry, I don't have a recommendation).
-definitely, get out of the city for at least a day. Ask your friend for some help with this, but take an express train for an hour or so outside of any of the cities listed on your itinerary (but perhaps esp. Sendai), then take a local train and get off somewhere that looks interesting and wander around for a while (make sure you know the train schedule so you don't get stuck there). It's 'the country', so it's not exciting, but it is different [I guess I disagree with eschatfische on the similarity - at least not in the details].
-go to the food floor (usually the basement) (NOT the restaurant floor) of any big department store and wander around in awe of all the food you can't even imagine what the contents might be.
I could go on, but I probably shouldn't. I haven't included any links because I think all of this can be found pretty easily by googling. You also say you have a friend here, so I'm sure they can help.
Good luck!
posted by segatakai at 9:21 PM on January 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

- Take the subway during the morning rush hour. It's an experience and you'll get a good start on the day.

- Find a nice izakaya where you can eat and drink with some salarymen after work

- Visit Tower Records and hang out at some of the listening stations. The Shibuya location has 6 floors and you're bound to find something that you like. The second floor is my favorite with a variety of j-pop, j-punk, j-indie, j-country, etc...

- Go grocery shopping

- Visit lots of conveniences stores. They're ubiquitous and a perfect place to stop on the way back to the hotel for some late night snacks.

- Eat like the locals. My favorites are ramen, udon and curry shops.

- Go clothes shopping in Shibuya. The prices should blow your mind.

and some of my pics might add some inspiration:

Japan 2004 - INcludes Tokyo
Tokyo Nov 2006
posted by cjw333 at 10:51 PM on January 25, 2008

We went to Sanrio Puroland. It's...kind of a Hello Kitty theme park. We were the oldest people there who weren't parents, but it was definitely a memorable experience.

We could spend hours in just a normal grocery store there, taking pictures of all the food we never imagined existed. Yogurt with marshmallows! Milk in toothpaste tubes! Green tea Kit Kats! (In fact, we made a point of finding oddly flavored KitKats as we traveled around...Japan has so many bizarre flavors that we don't get in the U.S.)
posted by GaelFC at 9:29 AM on January 26, 2008

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