Ria spent 3 years teaching English to kids in southwest Japan. She loves helping travelers make the most of their time in the country.
Going on vacation in Japan is a time-consuming and expensive journey for most Western travelers. It's easy to get sucked into the usual tourist experiences, like Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Tower, and the streets of Harajuku. With the language barrier, it may seem like going off the beaten path to quieter and more unique experiences isn't worth the effort.
However, there are a handful of easy ways to go experience Japan the way locals do – or, at the very least, the way most tourists don't. Here are five ways to break out.
1. Rent a Car
If you hold a valid driver's license from the United States, Australia, or many other countries, you can get an International Driving Permit that's valid for driving in Japan for up to one year. Renting a car in Japan can be a little cumbersome, and it won't do you much good in Tokyo, where parking is scarce and expensive. However, if you plan ahead, it can be well worth it for a day trip into the far-flung suburbs of Tokyo, where getting to a worthwhile destination might require transferring between trains and buses – a process that can take hours, especially if you aren't familiar with the route and end up getting lost.
Of course, driving in Japan can be an adventure in and of itself, especially if you're not used to driving on the left side of the road. Japan is also much stricter about drinking and driving, so whoever is driving will have to completely refrain from drinking on any day you'll be using the car.
Renting a car gives you a little bit more comfort, privacy, and flexibility, all of which can be a major perk during busy tourist seasons at key sites. (Speaking of which – do your research and make sure any out-of-the-way places you go to have sufficient parking before you go!)
2. Find an Onsen or Mountain
Tokyo and other major cities can be incredibly crowded even during the off-season, and some sites get literal buses full of tourists at random times of day. Your best spots for relative peace and quiet are going to be mountains and hot springs. Famous onsen hot springs can be crowded, and mountains near major metro areas can get crowded in nice weather, but a little research and Google Translate can find you an out-of-the-way spot to go visit.
Japan's rainy season can be miserably humid, but it's also the best time to see ajisai, or hydrangeas. The hydrangeas in Japan range from nearly white to bright magenta, with dozens of shades of purple and blue sometimes growing on the same bush. There are also hundreds of other types of flowers to see if you go into the mountains, and many mountains also have bamboo forests.
Even if you don't normally like hiking, give it a try at least once in Japan. (The mountains are often cooler than the surrounding areas, too, making them bearable even in the summer!)
3. Get a Tour Guide
Japan has licensed, trained and vetted tour guides available, and many of them are open to doing custom tours for small groups and families. They can be well worth the price, especially if you're going into areas that aren't as tourist-friendly. They're even valuable in major tourist areas like Tokyo, since they'll know the fastest way around the buses and trains.
If you don't need a fully vetted guide, you can try meeting someone on AirBnB's guides service or another site. Some expats offer unofficial tour guide services, but keep in mind that their Japanese might not be as good as they claim. You might be better off with a local, especially if you're trying to navigate tourist areas in a busy time of year like April cherry blossom season or the August summer holidays.
4. Ask a Local . . . or an Expat
While you probably won't get much out of asking a random person on the street for their recommendation, you can try asking a hotel concierge, bartender, or other friendly local for suggestions for day trips, restaurants, and more. If you prefer to plan in advance, though, try asking in a Japan-related forum. There are city- and interest-specific forums on Reddit, too, and there you might even get some advice from English-speaking Japanese folks!
This is probably the best route to take if you're looking for recommendations related to a certain interest or hobby, like cycling, tea ceremonies or a really niche subculture. The main Tokyo tourist areas are well-covered on the internet, but sometimes new stores and activities pop up in less-traveled neighborhoods and cities.
If you're looking for fun nightlife, be warned: It's not unheard of for bars in major cities to have really high cover charges to essentially scam people out of money. If you get a recommendation for a bar, ask if there's a cover charge (chaaji) or just ask how much it is (Ikura desu ka?). If the person who invited you is very insistent that you come with them, that's a warning that you should stay away.
5. Fly Outside of Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto
It's common to stick to the main part of central Japan, since it's easily accessible by train and has tons of historical and cultural sites. However, venturing outside of these areas is the best way to see Japan outside of the shrines and shopping malls. At the end of a long day, there's nothing quite like pausing to listen to the crickets next to a quiet shrine before heading back to the little ryokan inn you're staying in.
Matsuyama, Hokkaido, Oita, Tottori, the Seto Inland Sea, and dozens of other areas are well worth traveling to, even if you have to catch an extra plane or long bullet train ride to do so. These are where you'll need to go to fully enjoy onsen, cycling, and hiking in relative peace and quiet.
Of course, the farther you go outside the tourist areas, the less English there will be. Major train stations will generally have some English signs and ticket machines, but smaller stations and bus depots may not. Have a Plan B, including a hotel option and plenty of cash for a taxi, just in case something goes wrong. You'll need to plan much more thoroughly than you would for a basic trip to Tokyo - but it'll be well worth it!
© 2019 Ria Fritz
Liz Westwood from UK on July 06, 2019:
You give great tips for anyone planning a visit to Japan.
Lorna Lamon on July 06, 2019:
I love going off the beaten path and your article is interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing.