This post is part of the October JapanSoc Japan Blog Matsuri (festival) — Japan Highlights.
The top seven experiences I’ve heard about, read about or seen that are unique to Japan. Yeah, I know to some the list may seem “tourist-y”, but I will be a tourist when I arrive at Narita airport with stars in my eyes. I plan to balance the Japan N00biness of this post with another one, maybe six months into my stay, with the top things to do in Japan from an insider perspective. But for now here’s my list of the top seven things I’ll be itching to do the second my plane lands.
7) Hanami, or Cherry Blossom Viewing
I’ve listed this as number seven because it’s probably hard to miss. Hanami is when people get together –usual in a park – spread a big old blanket, break out some food, maybe a nice cold beer, and watch the sakura (cherry tree) blossoms, uh, blossom. The trees are gorgeous, and it must be so peaceful to sit under a curtain of ghostly pink petals, look up and just…marvel. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is probably the most popular spot for Hanami parties, but I want to find somewhere more remote, so it’s easier to get a spot right under a tree. Says Lonely Planet: prime viewing season is from late March to early April.
6) Visit an Onsen (Hot Spring)
There’s nothing that fends off the cold creeping fingers of Jack Frost like a nice outdoor bath…whaaat? Well, what if that bath was in a volcanically heated hot spring? Yes, this is the power of onsen. I struggled with this one. It’s supposed to be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience. I’ve even read that you can bathe in tea, or take an electric bath, but…you gotta be naked in front of a whole bunch of strangers. Its high school gym showers all over again. And yet onsen are such a huge part of Japanese culture, I can’t go without taking the plunge at least once. Oh and if like me you’re thinking, “well I’m sure it’s all good while you’re in the hot spring, but what the hell happens when you have to come out? Won’t you freeze?”
I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s “yes”. However, there are indoor bathhouses too. So maybe I’ll just stick to those.
At these restaurants you just sit down and a conveyor belt rolls plates with different sushi past you and you pick the ones that look the most delicious, then pay for it all at the end. It’s like robot dim sum, but without an actual robot…or dim sum… oh man, that would be cool, but it doesn’t exist (yet) so Kaiten Zushi is the next best thing. And depending on where you go it can be cheap too.
4) Visit Studio Ghibli Museum
Studio Ghibli is the animation studio behind the genius that is Spirited Away, (one of my favourite movies of all time) Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies and many more famous Japanese anime movies. A lot of their movies are directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, who is also the executive director of the Museum. Here’s Miyazaki’s mission statement from the Museum’s official website:
This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!
A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
A museum where much can be discovered
A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!
Sounds like the kind of museum I want to visit!
3) People Watch in Harajuku on a Sunday
Ever since I discovered this website, and began my love affair with Japanese street fashion, I’ve wanted to one day go to Harajuku and see J-style in all its eccentric, creative glory. I’ve read that Sunday is when everyone goes all out and show off their best anime-inspired looks. The clothes transcend mere style: they are full out costumes. There’s also great shopping in Harajuku too.
2) Take Pictures of Geisha in Kyoto
Geisha are almost mythical to me. These women are so poised, elegant, graceful, accomplished and beautiful that I feel like they belong in a fairy-tale. They’re the poster girls for Japan. Their kimono are intricately stunning, their hair and make-up flawless — they are walking art. I think there is some confusion about what a Geisha does, because they primarily entertain men. I was surprised to learn in an interview with Liza Dalby, a woman known as the first Western Geisha, that in fact the first Geisha were men. Don’t go picturing men in drag, the word Geisha simply means “artist”, and apart from looking fantastic all the time, Geisha also learn how to dance and play instruments, most commonly the shamisen. A Geisha’s job is to entertain with her music, dance and conversation, and their dedication to their art is inspiring.
1) Learn Japanese/Find a Japanese Language Partner
I don’t intend to live in Japan for more than a year without learning the language. I love the way Japanese sounds: all the hard “K”s, the way many words end in the letter “A”, the sound “tsu”, it’s so different from the mundane English I’ve been speaking all my life. I also like the idea of being bilingual and of confusing people in North America when I come home. No one will expect to hear Japanese coming from a black girl, they’ll flip .
And to learn I’ll need someone to practice with, so once I get settled one of the very first things I’ll be doing is looking for someone who’s willing to listen to me babble in broken Japanese and tell me when I say something really hilariously wrong, maybe in exchange for my listening to their Engrish without posting it online.
Think there’s some other amazing experience that must be done when in Japan? I so want to know what it is — tell me in comments.