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  • Ryan Cowden

4 Must Do Experiences In Japan

When visiting Japan, your visit will assuredly include time spent at the many stunning temples, shrines, gardens and even maybe a castle or two. But there is so much more to a experience in Japan on a visit.

But what are a few things that I loved about my recent trip to Japan? It is so hard to pinpoint just 4, but here are 4 things that are perfect for a first time, or a repeat visitor, to Japan!

1) Stay in a Ryokan that includes dinner and breakfast.

Below: Ryokan room set up after dinner for the night

What is a Ryokan you ask? These are traditional inns and can be found throughout Japan. During my trip, I stayed in two of them. One was a more modern low rise building in Kanazawa while the other was in the heart of historic Kyoto's Gion neighborhood. Upon being greeted at the entry of the Kyoto Ryokan, there was a place to change into wooden slippers before you entered the interior. In the rear of the building, there was an entirely enclosed, verdant green garden with a small water fall. Around the garden were the individual quarters, at the door of which, you changed out of the wooden slippers and into thin cloth slippers for inside your room.

Above: Menus and a place setting in the ryokans.

Above: Breakfast setting in a Ryokan; Below: dinner setting in a Ryokan

The floor of the room was covered by traditional tatami mats while the centerpiece at this time of day, was a low table in the center of the room where your dinner and breakfast were served to you, kaiseki style (think multiple little tapas plates). At both ryokans, admittedly, there was something that I wouldn't call a favorite, but I tried everything and enjoyed all of it regardless.

After tea and the clearing of all the small plates, the attendant returned and broughout out the floor mats an set up a "futon" to sleep on for the night. With the sound of the water falling in the garden outside, it was one of the most sound nights of sleep I had in my two weeks in Japan!

Above: Tranquil garden in a Kyoto Ryokan


2) Visit an Onsen

An onsen is a hot mineral water spring, and have also been an integral part of Japanese life for centuries. So widespread is the experience, you've probably seen photos of snow monkeys in steaming pools, steam rising around them and snow on the ground nearby. Everyone gets in on the act when they can!

Our onsen visit was at a major resort on mountain above the town of Takayama. Being in the low season, it was a quiet time to visit. There are two ways you typically can experience an onsen, and being a land of rituals, there are of course "rules" to your visit and it depends on which way you plan to experience it, as to what the rules are. Clothing, or no clothing, visible tattoos or necessary covering, bathing requirements prior to entry and how to use the adjacent cold water buckets. These were just a few of the ritualized steps and rules, all of which will be made clear. Many ryokan also have a small onsen onsite as well, not just big resorts.

After 45 minutes in and out of the thermal spring water, I was absolutely relaxed and my skin was soft. If you can envision a zombie walking in a yukata/robe down a hotel corridor in slippers, you wouldn't be too far off in imagining me making my way back to my room, where I promptley crashed out for 45 minutes.

Definitely put a visit to on onsen on your list while in Japan, it is a must!

Photos: Enjoying a private onsen experience in the green mountains above Takayama.


3) Visit the Markets and Market Districts

Markets in general are one of my favorite places to get a glimpse of the local vibe and there are of course a variety worthy of a visit. Morning village markets with tents alongside a river selling seasonal produce, local honey or flowers (Takayama); large daily fruit, flowers,veg and fish markets (Kanazawa, Tokyo); vast daily arcades featuring the local traditions and products (Kyoto, Osaka).

Right: Daily riverside market in Takayama

Many markets also double as a gathering place and entertainment area. But markets in Japan like those, are not the only amazing and authentic way to dive into Japanese culture.

Below: social club of men playing "Go" in Osaka's Shinsekai market; Umeda's Estreet full of bars, Izakaya, karaoke and a few gay bars

Kyoto's Nishiki Market is a vast covered alley, stretching 5 blocks and featuring well over 100 vendors, earning it the nickname "Kyotos Kitchen". At the eastern end, it forms a "T" with another covered arcade that is at least another 5 blocks long. Pop into any of the many eateries, browse the options, point and in many cases, wait while they cook it for you. Top it off with a local sake, beer, or confection.

Above: Eating, and drinking my way through Kyoto's Nishiki Market. Along with a fair amount of pointing and smiling at what I would like to have cooked for me onsite. While in any destination, why not learn to cook your own local favorite? In this case, ramen!

In Osaka, one stretched for what felt like a mile with many famous retailers lining the corridor: Fendi, Rolex, Gucci, Cartier, Zara, Uniqlo and plenty of others. Just beyond on the surround Dotonbori streets, you could eat and shop your way around the area. The highlight being the Taki-yaki, a fried dough ball with squid and a barbeque like sauce, a local delicacy. You can't miss the stand, it has a massive purprle octopus on the wall above the window, and a line of patrons, too.

Above: #1, 2 & #3, Market meets carnaval meets amusement park meets social clubs at Shinsekei, Osaka; #4, shopping arcade with "main street" shops in Dotonburi, Osaka (luxury labels are mixed in but also have entry from the streetside, where luxury cars can drop people off!); #5 Tako-yaki, a unique culinary street food offering of Osaka; #6 & #7, Dotonburi by night with the two features of the district, the extensive covered arcade and the river towered over by the "Glico Man".

Elsewhere in Osaka, you had a market area that was more like a carnival or an amusement park midway (complete with adrenaline rides), small old style eateries and arcades of old men playing games in smoke filled halls. Further north, near the "gayborhood" there is yet another market arcade lined with pop culture shops, izakaya restaurants/pubs, bars, karaoke bars, art vendors and a variety of ethnic food establishments from around the world. Late on a Friday night, there was also plenty of house, in several forms, coming from many of the narrow corridors.

Below: Kanazawa's covered market

Want to see what you are eating on many a menu? Then a visit to a food or fish market is of course a must. In Kanazawa, one of the hubs of sushi and fresh fish in Japan, the main market hall is lined by stalls of fishmongers, butchers and so many spice and foodstuff vendors, it would take me and my Google photo translator hours to decipher them all. In the interior, you could have stand up snacks at any number of counters, sake or pints of Asahi in between buying tea, kitchenwares and more jars and boxes to be used at home for cooking and meal prep. The array of items is astounding!

While not particularly "markets" per se, in Tokyo you have shopping districts that are dedicated to several of the more iconic exports of Japan: Pop Culture. In Akihabara, there is a multi-story mall with nothing but anime, action figures, colorful card shops, and equally vivid figurines and posters of "pop" heroes. The clientele here had a huge number of foreign visitors all clearly in the know.

Meanwhile, at Harajuku, you'll find edgy teen and twenty something fashions. You come here for knee high black lace up, 4" platform boots, sugary french pastries and confections, pink puffy and floofy coats and overalls, gothic anything and shimmering bedazzled-hi slit up the leg-masked-vegas show girl outfits that even Sir Elton in his prime may have been given pause at trying. Mix in Puppy, Otter, Pig, Cat and French Maid Cafes and you certainly have quite the scene.

Above: #1 & #2, Akiharaba, home to Japanese anime; #3-#6, Harajuku's sites of all things pop culture; dog, cat, maid and otter cafes, vivid colors and edgy fashions abound


4) Explore beyond the main cities.

Below: Takayama's main street

Ok, so maybe not such an experience and more of a recommendations, but one of the highlights of my trip was the time in Takayama and Shirakawago. Even my two nights in Okayama, a small city, had next to no other tourists but one of the most striking castles and one of the 3 most notable gardens in Japan, all in turn, giving it an authentic feel. But a visit to the countryside and small towns or cities beyond Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo offers a glimpse into life beyond the usual bustle. That isn't to say Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Nara or Okayama are by any meams small.

However, reaching even small cities is easy on public transit, putting so many in reach, with a little bit of help.

UNESCO listed Shirakawago, is sure to be a favorite. The steeply pitched, thatched roofs set amidst small family plots of rice paddies, vegetables and flowers, all of which were in late season bloom. The day that I visited, was a murky and damp day, but nestled in a narrow valley with towering mountains with an ethereal and magical feel, lending to the mystery of the place. The homes themselves are massive and at one point housed the entire family clan, with anywhere between 20-40 people within. In the attic is a massive workspace where the craft of the family took place while on the ground floor, a family shrine dedicated to the ancestors was located on an exterior wall at the far end of the cooking fires in case removal through a door in the wall was essential in a fire, which was common.

Whether you opt for some small cities or local medium sized cities, a night or two away from the usual metro areas will help you to better appreciate the timeless, traditional aspects of life in Japan.

Above: sites in the center of Takayama with the traditional wooden architecture, wooden screens and opaque paper on them along with the lanterns and tiny miniature gardens filling space

Above: Shirakawago amid the lilly ponds, rice paddies and iconic family homes.

Has Japan been somewhere you would like to visit but thought it would be too difficult? With pinpoint assistance, a visit to this fantastic destination is possible. At least in 2023, with the strength of the dollar, value is added quite easily.

Ready to plan your trip? Let's set up a conversation and discover your 4 "must do's" in Japan.



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Hi there, my name is Ryan Cowden and I am the founder and owner of Avid Nomad Travel.

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