What NOT to do in Japan
1. Don’t… play pachinko.
Pachinko is one of the few ways to legally gamble in Japan, but don’t be lured into a parlor thinking you’ll see attractions like those of Vegas. The place is beyond loud and full of cigarette smoke.
The games themselves should be reserved for a 10th circle in Dante’s Inferno. Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up.
Just like in Vegas, you’ll find burnt-out slot jockeys mechanically inserting yen, winning once every 27 days. Fun fun.
Do… sing karaoke.
A karaoke booth with an all-you-can-drink special is a much better alternative if you want to be surrounded by video screens and loud noises.
It’s nothing like a country-western karaoke bar in the U.S.
All the booths in Japan are private, so you can only make an ass of yourself in front of close friends.
The Shidax chain is my favorite, but every town should have at least one place to sing.
2. Don’t… climb Mt. Fuji when there’s a line.
Fuji is swamped with foreign and Japanese tourists in the official hiking season (peak in August), and completely overwhelmed during the Obon holiday week.
By this, I mean you’ll have to wait in line the entire climb and struggle to crop people out of your photos.
Do… climb in the off-season.
Late September and October would be “safest,” with minimal snow, but if you want the trek to yourself, bring the right gear and see if you can get permission from the 5th station to go in November or December.
Obviously, this can be rather dangerous, and I don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have mountaineering experience. Attempting the ascent early, in May or June, can be just as risky with the rains.
If you’re looking for an alternative path to the summit, check out the Fuji Mountain Race.
3. Don’t… drink at the Lost in Translation bar.
Unless you enjoy paying 4,000 yen (USD 40) for a fruit and cheese platter.
Do… enjoy city views elsewhere.
The gallery and coffee shop atop Roppongi Hills immediately comes to mind.
4. Don’t… pay to dress like a geisha.
This is an activity many Kyoto guesthouses and hostels offer for the ladies (maybe the men too?).
For about 10,000-30,000 yen (USD 100-300), depending on services offered and time allowed, your face will be painted pale white, your hair arranged in traditional geisha style, and your body stuffed and folded into a slim silk kimono.
Why? For photos to send home? The chance to see what geisha experience? Sometimes you’re allowed to take a short walk outside in full regalia and watch the reactions of startled Japanese men and tourists thinking: “Wow! A real geisha! Get the camera!”
Unfortunately, it’s just not worth it; with foreign noses, eyes, and facial features, we simply look ridiculous.
Do… meet the one foreigner who can pull it off.
Australian-born Sayuki, currently working in the Asakusa district of Tokyo: www.sayuki.net
5. Don’t… travel far and wide for cherry blossoms.
Imagine you’ve just flown into Tokyo one Sunday in April; those flowering trees that have inspired thousands of haiku and drunken hanami (viewing parties) are now in full bloom and ripe for the watching.
Instantly, you think: “I’ve got to get to the best viewing spots in the country, quickly!” Many travelers do this, following the spread of the sakura (cherry blossoms) from the south of Okinawa in February all the way to Hokkaido in May.
If you ask me, it’s not worth the effort.
Do… check out your local sakura.
The very best blossoms might be right where you’re at. Every city, town, and prefecture in Japan has a great place to lay down a blanket, crack open an Asahi, and view the petals falling as gently as snow.
I won’t deny there are some great trees out there, but don’t feel pressured to rush out of town; cherry blossoms bloom for only one week, and even with reliable sakura forecasts, it’s difficult to schedule a holiday precisely around full bloom.
Instead, take advantage of your present surroundings.
6. Don’t… restrict your WWII studies to hiroshima.
Japanese World War II history goes way beyond Hiroshima City’s Peace Museum, A-Bomb Dome, and Paper Crane Memorial. By all means, visit each of those, but once you finish…
* Take the train over to Nagasaki and tour its Peace Park. Did you know Kokura was the original target on August 9th, but cloud cover caused the pilot to divert to Nagasaki?
* Really go off the beaten path with the Kamizake Museum in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture. Hundreds of letters are on display, written by pilots as goodbyes to their families.
* Visit the controversial Yasukuni War Memorial shrine in Tokyo, which honors the spirits of those fallen.
7. Don’t… see Japan through emerald glasses.
For most foreigners coming to Kyoto, [the cityscape’s distasteful modernity] merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, “Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!” And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute they walk out of Honen-In they’re back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn’t impinge on the retina – they’re still looking at the dream.
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr (quoting Mason Florence)
Most Japan newbies are on the hunt for “old Japan”: zen temples with chanting monks, samurai warriors parading the streets.
But the truth is, even though a few pockets of the country have successfully preserved it, that Japan has been fading from existence since the 1960s.
Do… question the value of unchecked modernization.
At some level we all appreciate the fancy robots and electronics in Akihabara, the high-speed trains, and the capsule hotels.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Japanese holiday by reaping all the benefits of modernization. Just be aware of some of the things the country has given up to get to this point.
This article was originally published on October 20th, 2009.