1. Peeing to the sound of a babbling brook
Some Japanese toilets have so many buttons and gadgets that you almost expect to be launched off into space while sitting on the throne. Even some of the most basic public toilets have an automatic music function that starts playing when you sit down: muzak, gentle summer rain, a rushing river, take your pick. The intention is to mask the sound of your evacuations so that nobody who happens to be hanging around outside is able to discern what is really going on inside the cubicle. The side effect is that if you hadn’t been self-conscious about the thought of others hearing you pee before Japan, you will be afterwards.
2. Nomihodai karaoke (otherwise known as all-you-can-drink-until-5am)
It’s not healthy, and it wouldn’t be legal in many countries. But in Japan, it is common for traditional izakaya (Japanese-style bar-restaurants) and other establishments to have an all-you-can-drink plan for surprisingly little money. Some places offer just one or two hours of all-you-can-drink on particular items. My favorite version of this unhealthy pastime was camping out in a private karaoke room until 5am, with a waiter just a phone call away to bring me umeshu, plum wine, while I belted out an off-key rendition of REM’s “Losing My Religion.”
Slimy and bland, tofu has a bit of a bad reputation in the West. The ways it’s prepared in Japan, however, could turn even the most ravenous red-meat carnivore into a convert. Skewered, coated in salty miso paste and grilled on an open flame; lightly battered and topped with spring onion; served alongside shrimp and sweet potato as tempura; diced finely and added to noodle soup dishes: the varieties are endless, creative and always delicious.
An onigiri, at its simplest, is just a rice ball. Fast-food versions, however, are usually the size of a fist, wrapped in nori (dried seaweed sheets) and stuffed with tuna salad, grilled salmon, pickles or other tasty morsels. Available at any corner store for small change, onigiri are Japan’s version of a sandwich, are just as satisfying, and usually healthier.
5. Flower viewing
Much of Japan is the proverbial concrete jungle, and the open green spaces are few and far between. Perhaps it is because of this, not despite it, that the Japanese are flower crazy. Each month ushers in a different bloom that everyone — frail old grandmother, suited salaryman, teenage boy—flocks to ooh and aah over. Every year they behave as if they’ve never seen such beautiful flowers before, snapping endless selfies with the flowers (felfies? flowfies?). Most Japanese have a soft-spot for the delicate pink cherry blossoms that are said to embody the national sensibility, which bloom in March and April.
A bit of a culture shock for the inherently prudish Anglo-American tourist afraid of public nudity, but once you’ve taken the plunge into your first onsen—or public bath sourced with hot spring water—you will wonder how you ever lived without them. The prettiest are to be found in remote mountain villages, where you can sit in an onsen cave, or enjoy one with a view of mountains or rice fields. Just don’t even dream of getting in without thoroughly washing first though: some onsen notoriously displaying ‘no foreigners allowed’ signs because of previous faux pas. (Tip: if camping in Japan, they may be the only way you will get clean, as Japanese campsites are usually not equipped with full facilities).
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