In our sixth episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we talked about a topic that’s really close to my heart: food, glorious food.
Food is the quickest way to the heart of any culture, but when it comes to Japan, you might struggle to decide exactly where to start! The food culture here is as diverse as it is rich, with dozens of individual cuisines making up the national culinary repertoire.
We headed to some of the grubby local diners of Osaka, some of the oldest restaurants in Kyoto, and some of the fanciest sushi joints in Tokyo to learn why Japan has such a stratospheric reputation when it comes to good grub.
This article is merely a recap of what we chatted about in the podcast — for the full thing, give Episode 6 a listen. You won’t regret it!
It’s not particularly famous outside of Japan, but kaiseki is a big deal on the culinary scene here. Basically, at a kaiseki restaurant, you’ll be sitting along a counter with room for only a handful of people, while a highly skilled chef cooks up a series of small dishes in front of you.
There can be anything from around 10 to a few dozen courses included, but you won’t have any say in what’s served. That’s because kaiseki meals are strictly omakase — a word which essentially means “chef’s choice”. The dishes which the chef chooses are based heavily on the seasons and daily availability at the markets.
Kaiseki has a rich history — in the podcast, we talked about it in detail. Long story short: this hospitality aspect harks way back to the very start of kaiseki in the courtly culture of imperial Kyoto. The cuisine started as part of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies which the upper classes would put on to entertain their guests.
Kaiseki can include various types of dishes — we got into them more in the podcast. Generally, there’s a specific sequence which the dishes usually follow, starting with a seasonal platter, moving through soups, sashimi, charcoal-grilled dishes, and more, before finishing up with a seasonal rice bowl.
If all that intrigues you, go and listen to our podcast, episode 6!
You know sushi right? This rice and fish dish is famous worldwide, but nowhere will you get it fresher than in Japan itself.
The best thing about sushi in Japan is that, unlike kaiseki, you can enjoy it on any budget. There are cheap places like sushi-go-rounds/sushi-trains where you can grab any dish from the conveyor belt for 100 yen, midrange places where you get to watch the chefs cook everything fresh, and high-end places which take that another level and make it a kind of theatre.
Sushi as we know it is very Japanese, but it actually has its roots in Southeast Asia — surprise, surprise! We talked about the history of sushi even more in the podcast episode, so I’m not spoiling the surprise here. It’s a pretty interesting story of how sushi did come to Japan — I highly recommend you to give it a listen.
The most prized fish among sushi connoisseurs is bluefin tuna. However, not all sushi toppings are fish either: there are dishes with raw beef, vegetables like cucumber and carrot, egg (such as tamagoyaki rolled omelet sushi), and if you go to some of the cheap modern chains you’ll even get stuff like cooked salmon with mayonnaise, or creamed corn sushi!
3. Shojin Ryori
We visited the temple to look at the food enjoyed by Buddhist monks of Japan — called Shojin Ryōri. Shojin basically translates to “devotion” while ryōri means “cuisine”: making this, the ‘food of the devoted’.
This type of cuisine has deep roots in Buddhism and its practices, and if you’re interested in why and how it came about, we explained it all in the podcast episode! Long story short, it comes from the belief of reincarnation, which led to their cuisine is plant-based, with the majority of dishes being either vegetarian or vegan friendly.
Not only was this food good for animals, but it was also said to be good for the soul: a clean, all-natural cuisine that became a part of daily purification rituals for monks seeking enlightenment. Normal people took on a lot of the philosophy and dishes of shojin ryōri too — it’s maybe part of the reason the Japanese have the second-highest life expectancy in the world.
There are a lot of fantastic dishes in the temple cuisine, and it’s making a bit of a comeback nowadays thanks to an uptick in the number of vegan tourists from the West. Because it’s all about clean eating, and clearing the body and mind of impurities, the fare is usually quite simple. To know what the dishes usually consist of, listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcast!
4. Street Food
There’s plenty of fantastic street food and fast food which come from here. Each region has its own specialties, but one city that really stands out is Osaka. This is the home of takoyaki, a kind of pan-cooked octopus dough ball, and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake loaded with meat, vegetables, and sometimes soba noodles. Fast food like this has long been popular in Japan because, as anyone who’s ever lived here knows, the Japanese are just so damn busy!
Street food in Japan all came from takoyaki — how, you ask? Well, you just have to listen to the full episode to find out!
There is other street food than octopus. There are loads of skewered meat like yakitori and kushikatsu. If you don’t know what they are, we talk about them and their differences in the episode. There are also loads of different varieties of old fast-food classics. Some of them are regional, for example the okonomiyaki from Hiroshima contains soba noodles, and has the pretty unimaginative name hiroshimayaki.
If you want to dive headfirst into this world of tasty street treats, head to Dotonbori in Osaka — a street food Mecca where you can try pretty much the whole range of Japanese fast-food.
We obviously couldn’t leave ramen out of this list. Anyone who pulled all-nighters at university to get their overdue papers finished will be very familiar with our final Japanese food. Although, if you’ve only ever tried the cheap packaged varieties which line the shelves of supermarkets worldwide, you’re really missing out. In Japan, and some trendy cities around the world, ramen restaurants take the simple concept of noodle soup and turn it into a fully-fledged cuisine.
In fact, there are over 10,000 ramen restaurants across Japan, of all shapes and sizes!
Many of these places have their own specializations and house recipes. It’s pretty obvious why ramen is such a popular and iconic Japanese dish, but you might be surprised that it technically isn’t even Japanese at all. What is the history behind it then? Check out our full episode to find out!
There are more than a few types of ramen — shio (or salt) ramen, shōyu (or soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, and tonkotsu ramen which has a pork-bone broth. Specialised ramen bowls are even available at any and all ramen shops. How do you customise one? We talk you through all the steps you need in the full episode!
In every episode, we have a podcast recap after each section. Here is where we combine them all for our listeners to have a physical list — and for potential new ones to learn a few new words, too!
Omakase (お任せ) — chef’s choice dining, which can mean “I’ll leave it up to you” when ordering
Omotenashi (おもてなし) — classic Japanese hospitality
Sadō (茶道) — tea ceremony (also sometimes called chadō)
Wagashi (和菓子) — traditional Japanese sweets
Mochi (もち) — a paste made from crushed rice
Gohan (ご飯) — a cooked rice dish, although this world can also simply mean “meal” in general
Dashi (だし) — the foundational soup stock of Japanese cuisine
Sushi-ya (寿司屋) — sushi restaurant: actually the -ya suffix can be used for several foods to give the name of their restaurants, like “ramen-ya” and “soba-ya”.
Funazushi (鮒寿司) — Shiga Prefecture’s historic fermented fish dish
Nigiri (にぎり) — the rectangular pieces of sushi
Maguro (マグロ) — bluefin tuna
Tamagoyaki (卵焼き) — a Japanese rolled omelet
Sōryo (僧侶) — Buddhist monk (although there are many more words for various types and ranks)
Shojin (書人) — devotion
Ryōri (料理) — cuisine. This one is very useful, as you can also use it to talk about your country’s food too. Italian cuisine is “itaria ryōri” — American cuisine is “amerika ryōri”.
Sukiyaki (すき焼き) — a kind of Japanese hotpot dish usually eaten with beef, and a sweet sauce
Renkon (レンコン) — lotus root
Takenoko (タケノコ) — bamboo shoots
Takoyaki (たこ焼き) — batter balls with octopus inside
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) — a savory pancake layered with vegetables, meat and other fillings
Yatai (屋台) — street food stalls
Yaki (焼き) — a wide word for cooking over direct heat, including grilling and pan-frying
Kushikatsu (串カツ) — breaded and deep fried skewers
Chashu (チャーシュー) — braised pork usually served in ramen
Tsukemen (つけ麺) — a dipping noodle style of ramen
Shio (塩) — salt
Shōyu (醤油) — soy sauce
Futomen (太麺) — thick noodles
Hosomen (細麺) — thin noodles
Futsū (普通) — normal
Katame (固め) — firm
Yawarakami (柔らかみ) — soft
Okay, and that concludes our recapped culinary tour of Japan! This is merely just a consolidated version of the full episode, and what you read here is barely half of what we chatted about in the podcast. If you love food, especially Japanese cuisine, why not listen to Episode 6 of our Nihongo Master Podcast? Available on Spotify and Apple Podcast.
We all have a soft spot for a good ol’ shopping trip. There’s this buzzing feeling we get looking at all the fresh buys at the end of the day. Japan will bring out even the smallest and deeply burrowed shopaholic out to play. The Land of the Rising Sun is not only reputable in quality and range of products in all categories but it also produces quite a substantial amount of Japan-exclusive ones that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.
The key is to know where to look. However, the country is huge and for travellers with only a limited amount of time in the country, it’s impossible to cover every inch of land for the best goods. For that very reason, a shopping guide like this one exists, highlighting certain areas in the main cities Osaka and Tokyo as well as tips and tricks to fully benefit what Japan has to offer shopping-wise.
Shopping in Tokyo
The main fashion city itself, Tokyo, is obviously the best place in the country to get your fashion buys and rare finds. Everything you can ever imagine is right here in this city — exclusive local brands including local designer ones that went global to international brands with Japan-only items you can’t get anywhere else.
Tokyo has the best mix of old and new fashion finds one can ever ask for. Looking for the latest collection of a local brand? Tokyo has it. Have a thrill for the vintage stuff? Stop your search — Tokyo’s your treasure chest.
The various areas of Tokyo are better at certain types of shopping than others. Depending on what you’re looking for, you should head to the one that has the biggest range of them. Let’s find out which ones are for what!
Local Brands Shopping in Shinjuku & Shibuya
Japan is full of successful brands and designers — some are even ventured internationally and are globally-recognised. Even if you can get them in your home country, there’s no better place than to get Japanese brands and designer goods than in Japan itself! Shibuya and Shinjuku house these local brands — you won’t see anywhere else in Tokyo full of local brands, both commercial and luxury.
Lumine is probably the best place in Shinjuku to get your shopping fix — trust me, there are 3 different shopping malls you’ll get confused as to which to head to first! There’s also the Keio Mall if you fancy.
Shibuya has Takashimaya and also Shibuya109 which is the top choice for locals when it comes to shopping. In Shibuya, it’s more shops on the streets than there are shopping malls. You’ll find a 7-storey building of Loft and huge outlets for brands like Uniqlo, Zara and Bershka — can anyone ask for anything more than that?
You might think, why should anyone get these brands in Japan when they have retail stores all around the world? You see, there are quite a few reasons for it — the first being arguably the most important one: price. If you take into consideration the currency exchange, importation and other related matters, it’s only reasonable that the prices overseas for these Japanese brands are higher than in their home country. Don’t be surprised if you find the same one you saw back home in Japan that’s for half the price! Why wouldn’t anyone want to save that cash for the same items?
The other important reason is that some of these internationally-known Japanese brands have Japan-exclusive designs and collections that you can only find in-stores in Japan! Not even the online store has them listed — talk about exclusivity! Can you imagine being the only few special ones in your country to own the design — your friends would die to get their hands on one but they can’t, unless they travel to Japan themselves — specifically to Shibuya and Shinjuku!
Trendy Shopping in Harajuku
If you’re looking to skip the big-name brands but still be in the loop with the latest fashion trends, you’re best off at the most fashionable part of town and that is Harajuku. There’s no better place than here for the trendiest and most innovative designs. Most of the shops you find here will be locally born and raised, with a mixture of those you’ve heard before and the ones that you wish you had.
Depending on what style you’re looking for, even in Harajuku itself, there are various places for that — but rest assured that you’re going to stumble upon those that you cannot find anywhere else, even in other cities in Japan!
For the more commercial stuff, Takeshita Street is probably what everyone will recommend you to go for — fair enough, that is the most popular bit of the area. However, if you walk further down a bit and explore a bit more, you’ll probably come across Laforet, one of my most favourite shopping malls in the whole country! Here, you’ll be able to get a range of fashion styles — from the extreme Japanese subcultures like Lolita and goth to the cutesy, feminine aesthetics and the streetwear. Jewelry, fashion accessories and body care products — you name it, they got it!
If you’re keen for a bit more adventure, Cat Street just a bit down from Harajuku Station in Omotesando is swarming with local boutiques and shops. This bit of town is known for its cute, aesthetic cafes so pop by some of them for a shopping break!
Luxury Shopping in Ginza
Local brands are exciting but you’re looking to spend a bit extra on a purse or shoes — maybe even investing in a few coats — head down to Ginza for the best luxury shopping experience one can ask for!
Local or international, name any big brand or designer and you’ll see a tall building with their name on it. Not to mention complete with impressive architecture and fancy interior designing. While some brands have the whole building to themselves, there are also shopping malls that house a wide variety of brands, making browsing easier for you so you don’t have to walk down the whole street for window shopping!
Ginza is also one of the more distinctive areas for the fanciest restaurants in all of Japan! Bet your wallet wouldn’t be the only one starving after all that shopping, so book your seatings in advance to make a proper, treat-yourself day out!
Shopping in Osaka
Don’t get too down if your Japan itinerary doesn’t have Tokyo in it — that doesn’t mean it’s the end for your shopping adventure. The second-largest shopping city is none other than Osaka! Trust that the City of Takoyaki is booming with their own wonderful shopping scenes that are unique to the Kansai region.
Just like Tokyo, Osaka has various areas that are best for various things. Don’t be too worried about missing out on Tokyo shopping — Osaka is just as good, if not better! Some local brands are based in Osaka and don’t have shops in Tokyo, so you’re getting the exclusive! A slightly local touch is infused in the shopping scene in Osaka and the items as well are more “Japanese”.
Trendy & Bargain Shopping in Namba
The Namba area is arguably the best area in all of Osaka for your shopping fix. More specifically, your trendy and bargain shopping fix. This is where both locals and tourists alike come to get their doses of shopping spree every so often. The stuff you get here, they’re not just affordable — they are of quality as well.
Tokyo has Harajuku, Osaka has Amerikamura. It’s called Amerikamura because of its American influence, but rest assured the neighbourhood has its unique Japanese touch to it, too. This area is basically where all the creative and hip kids hang out. No doubt a hot spot, you’ll see crowds of the younger Japanese generation over the weekends, chit-chatting, busting out the speakers and blasting their hip music. Not to mention that the neighbourhood is full of both international and local hip brands, selling inexpensive clothing and accessories.
What’s a visit to Osaka without dropping by the Dotonbori area in Namba? Not only is the neighbourhood home to the giant Glico Man sign, but it’s also where you can find the Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Arcade. This shopping street is extremely long, consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of named and unnamed brand shops. You’ll no doubt shop till you literally drop here!
Branded Shopping in Umeda
You can’t conclude a shopping spree without at least some branded shopping. Head down to the Umeda area of Osaka for your branded shopping fix. The northern area of the city is full of the best shopping malls like LUKUA which is just right in front of the JR Osaka Station to Grand Front Osaka. There’s even a connecting passage to link these two huge shopping malls together, making your shopping experience more convenient! Everything from Daimaru Department Store to the famous Tokyu Hands can be found here — even Japan’s lifestyle clothing brand Uniqlo. It’s a one-stop shopping mall for all!
You cannot miss HEP FIVE, especially since it’s the shopping mall with the iconic Ferris wheel on the rooftop. This one has over 300 shops, a mixture of Japanese chain stores to unique local boutiques. It might look like there are only female clothing stores found here, but there are in fact clothing stores for men as well as accessories like shoes, jewelry and even bags! HEP FIVE even has a cinema in it, so you can pop by for a movie break in between your hefty shopping.
Nostalgic Shopping in Tennoji
Like mentioned previously, Japan is one of the best places for vintage and thrift shopping. Tokyo has its own areas for this kind of shopping, and so does Osaka. The nostalgic and historical Tennoji is perfect for such shopping. While there are quite a few newly built shopping malls like Avetica Underground Mall and Kitetsu Abeno Department Store — you’ll be able to browse through your favourite local brands like Uniqlo and Tokyu Hands — trust that there’s quite an abundance of quaint, decades-old specialty shops lying around.
The ambiance of Tsutenkaku and Shinsekai is full of nostalgia, so expect their stores to have the same kind of goods. They’re affordably priced as well, and based on my experience, what you get here, you cannot get in Tokyo. Believe me, I wanted a bomber jacket that I saw from a store in Shinsekai once but didn’t get it, thinking I could get it in Tokyo. I couldn’t.
You’ve got the shopping spots down and the tips and tricks to shopping in Japan in general, so what else are you waiting for? The Land of the Rising Sun has no shortage of shopping — it might even be the exact opposite, especially with the fast-paced turnover rate! So grab a couple of your shopping bags and shove them in your suitcase for your Japan trip, you don’t want to not have space for your new buys and rare finds, do you?
Museums are wonderful places to wander about and get lost, interpret displays and discover new information, and just drown in the peacefulness of the environment. Each country has its own set of exhibition that brings forth the interesting bits of the country, and you can get a feel of the land just by visiting a few museums.
Japan is known to be particularly unique and uncanny, and those factors are definitely reflected in the types of museums available in the country. Instead of a nostalgic trip down memory lane of historical events or an inspiring journey through an artistic arrangement, Japan does it differently — some might even say weirdly.
From cup noodles to sewage systems, here’s a list of unique museums that you’ll definitely want to visit during your time in Japan.
1. Cup Noodle Museum
Who doesn’t like cup noodles? Anyone who says they despise it actually doesn’t, because it’s so convenient, tasty and affordable. The Nissin Cup Noodle Museum at Yokohama celebrates the humble creation that changed the world. Take a few notes on the history of cup noodles and Japan’s original take on this life-changing cup.
With their own noodle park and an art gallery that’s dedicated to the popular convenience store food, this cup noodle museum also has a mini cinema that shows visual displays of a chronological run-through of the cup noodle. You can also make your own cup noodle at their laboratory including making your own soup. Shop and eat as much as you want at the Nissin Cup Noodles Museum!
2. Meguro Parasitological Museum
If you’re thinking about bringing a date here, think again. Established in 1953 and located in Tokyo, the Meguro Parasitological Museum introduces you to over 300 specimens of parasites. From leeches to tapeworms — including a 25-foot long tapeworm that will definitely blow your mind, if not your appetite — this two-storey museum covers everything nematodes, trematodes and malaria parasites.
The only kind in the world, this showcase of parasites and creatures of all kinds that dependently live in or on other organisms (including humans, in fact) is a strange exhibition that reels in visitors from their curiosity about it. While most of the information is not in English, the illustrations are detailed enough to provide enough context. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
3. Ghibli Museum
Source: Ray_LAC from Flickr
A special dedication to the Studio Ghibli led by the award-winning Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli Museum is all about their amazing works. Consisting of various areas like the main exhibition space, children’s play area, rooftop garden and a theatre that screens film excerpts exclusively shown here (and nowhere else in the world), this interactive exhibition features both permanent and temporary exhibits.
Much like a walkthrough experience of the animation world, you’ll learn a thing or two about the history of animation, the development process and the lead-up to the final production. Other than the educational aspect of this museum, the Ghibli Museum has beautiful interiors and exteriors that reference various characters including those from Spirited Away and Kiki the Witch.
4. Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum
Everyone thinks of ramen when the talk of Japanese cuisine, and what better way to celebrate the country’s unofficial national dish by presenting all variations of ramen throughout the country in a museum?
This two-storey exhibition is built to look like the Shintamachi townscape which was the old town of Tokyo. Wander the alleyways and explore the nine restaurants presenting vastly different and unique recipes. Catering to a variety of audiences including vegetarian-friendly menu options, this ramen museum introduces the various culinary techniques of making ramen from all around Japan.
While it’s more like a curated fancy food court especially for ramen rather than a museum, nothing is more museum-like than bringing back a souvenir. Make your own ramen, complete with personalised packaging, as a memento of this incredible visit.
5. Paper museum
Source: Wndrenvy from Flickr
You may wonder if there would be anything worth seeing at a museum that dedicates itself to paper, but Tokyo’s Paper Museum is anything but dull. Paper has a place in Japan’s history, and presenting the different forms of them in a curated exhibition is unique and informative.
This peaceful environment features various aspects of paper like paper toys, karuta playing cards and origami, as well as a collection of approximately 10,000 books relating to paper. There are even workshops that you can participate in — I mean, who doesn’t want to make their own one-of-a-kind paper?
Think of the possibilities for a souvenir — from eccentrically patterned washi paper postcards to origami kits, you’ll be surprised at the excitement gained from what seems like a boring display of white sheets.
6. Tokyo Sewerage Museum
Who doesn’t like a free activity? Tokyo Sewerage Museum is free for all to enter and participate. Unlike a standard museum where it’s mostly displays with description, this one involves interaction with the exhibits.
Get a glimpse of the hidden, mundane side of Tokyo: the public relations that is the support of the sparkling city you see above ground. Presenting the disposal and cleaning of used water, including the history of the development of wastewater treatment in Tokyo, this museum lets you experience working in the sewerage pumps, pumping stations and other facilities that can be found in an average system.
Among the various exhibit is the famous sculpture of a man sitting on a toilet while he reads the newspaper. But that’s not the highlight of the museum. About 25 meters deep underground, on the B5 floor, is the Fureai Experience Room where you’ll be able to stand on a bridge overlooking an actual, working wastewater tunnel. Not your average day-to-day, am I right?
7. The Criminal Materials Department at Meiji University
Source: paazio from Flickr
Head on down to the basement of the Meiji University Museum where the free-entry museum showcasing a collection of criminal artifacts and instruments can be found. With a diverse collection of exhibits at the museum in the university, the Criminal Materials Department run by the School of Law gives a glimpse into the history of crime and punishment in Japan.
From original tools as well as replicated ones for catching criminals in the Edo Period to books and displays that demonstrate trial, torture and even execution, follow the development of the evolution of punishment in Japan. Exhibition titles like “Culprits of the Edo Period”, “Torture and Tribunal” and “Execution and Correction” are intriguing and tempting even though it does give a chill down the spine.
8. Kite Museum
Source: NelC from Flickr
While it doesn’t sound as interesting as it actually is, the Kite Museum introduces the Japanese children’s main source of entertainment in the olden days. Also used during traditional festivals decades ago, kites of all shapes and sizes with a variety of prints including hand-painted dragons, butterflies and faces are presented proudly.
The only one of its kind in the whole wide world, the Kite Museum is located above a popular restaurant called Taimeiken. Not only does this exhibition gives an insight on the significance of this favourite pastime, but you’ll also be able to purchase rare, handmade kites as souvenirs.
9. Sand museum
Source: jj-walsh from Flickr
A collection of sculptures made totally from sand by sculptors and designers from all around the world, this open-air indoor museum is one of its kind. Located in Tottori where you’ll find the magical creation of nature, the Tottori Sand Dunes, the glass-sided building of the Sand Museum provides an excellent view of the natural hills of sand.
Much like the dunes itself, these carved figures, buildings and landscapes made of sand are prone to degrade over time, but that’s just the charm of it. Each year has a different theme for the sand sculpture exhibit, so every visit a fresh experience with new displays to appreciate.
10. Tobacco and Salt Museum
Why tobacco and salt, you ask? Well, so did every other person that ever step foot, researched or seen the Tobacco and Salt Museum in any form. The answer is simple, but not obvious at all: these two items have shared history for once being goods controlled by the Japan Monopoly Corporation.
Located not far from the famous Tokyo Skytree, for just 100yen you’ll be able to explore the history of these products as well as their roles in history and culture. With both permanent and temporary exhibitions, it’s definitely worth a visit if you find yourself around the area. Their popular exhibit, The World of Salt, shines light on the difference between Japanese and foreign salt — it may not sound as interesting as it seems, but it sure is an interesting bit!
The tobacco section highlights the history of how tobacco came to Japan, replicas of Edo Period tobacco shops as well as others from the 1900s, and various displays of cigarette packets and cartons, pipes and cigars, and other smoking paraphernalia from not only Japan but all over the world.
If that hasn’t piqued your interest, on the third storey there’s a display of their own ukiyo-e collection — a genre of Japanese art that has taken the world by storm.
It’s no doubt Japan has the record-breaking number of intriguing exhibitions in the entire world, and while it’s not the average place to take someone on a museum date, it does make an interesting day out. From paper crafts to the functions of the sewage, you’ll definitely be surprised at the takeaways from these unique, out-of-the-ordinary exhibitions.
A holiday experience is nowhere near a migrating one. I’ve personally experienced a few setbacks when I moved to Japan. It might sound exciting to move to a new and foreign country, and fair enough, it is — I was overwhelmed with those jitters of exhilaration when I first decided to pack my bags and start afresh in Japan.
Every country has their own way of running things, and when we move to another country, we have to accept all of it, the good and the bad. No amount of research can prepare one for the actual experience of being a foreigner in Japan, but it’s better to be a step ahead than being fully in the dark.
Don’t get me wrong — Japan is wonderful. Why would I still be here if it wasn’t? But just like any other country, there are some things left unsaid. Here’s my personal take on being a foreigner in Japan — primarily what they don’t tell you about being one in this country.
Language Barrier Even With The Language Ability
Japan’s first language is not English. The Japanese language is used everywhere in Japan and English is never heard except for major cities like Tokyo and Osaka — but even then you’ll hear a foreigner speaking it or you find yourself nearby a tourist attraction.
There’s no doubt that there’s a distinctive language barrier in the country if you have no knowledge of the Japanese language. Sure, it may be one of the first few ones you face, but the thing is, you can be completely fluent in the Japanese language but still not feel fully accepted in the society.
I’ve had my fair share of “外人だからしょうがない” (“you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped”) encounters to make me realise that it’s not just because of the language barrier — it goes deeper than that. There’s another kind of barrier that’s beyond our control.
I’ve seen with my own very eyes — while it hasn’t happened to me (yet) — a row of seats on a train being fully empty except for a foreigner. Every other seat in the same cabin is occupied except for the row with the foreigner. Strange, isn’t it? But definitely a true story! No one knows exactly why, but it’s pretty self-explanatory I reckon.
No Japanese in The Blood
There was a saying in the past, (though not so prominent nowadays anymore) that to be truly accepted in Japanese culture, you would have to have the Japanese blood, the Japanese language and be from Japan itself. Literally only one out of the three is within our control and the other two we are physically incapable of changing.
After all the efforts of picking up the language, you’d expect it to pay off at the end of the day. Little did you know that being able to speak the language just doesn’t make the cut. You’ll find yourself convincing people that you actually can speak Japanese than actually speaking the language itself. I’ve had occasions where I asked a question in Japanese but got a response in English — most of the time broken, which takes even more time for me to get a clear answer.
One of the first few conversation topics I would have with other foreigners in Japan is what kind of housing situation they are in and how they get to it. It’s a different story each time, but one thing that we all have in common is the difficulty of finding one.
True, there are tons of companies that exist for the convenience of foreigners. There are sharehouse companies and even real estate companies that offer English-speaking services to ease the moving process for foreigners who are looking for a place to live in Japan, but it’s always so limited and these places cost more than what it normally would be.
However, even with the most fluent level of Japanese, if you’re a foreigner, your options are still limited! This is because there’s this “foreigner-friendly” thing that’s going around, which basically refers to the apartment or building accepting and allowing foreigners to live there. Some landlords are strictly against having foreigners for tenants — foreigners being rejected to live somewhere just because they’re not local is still happening to this very day!
Source: Jeremy from Flickr
To this day, Japan has a country record-high of the number of immigrants in the country. There have been tons of actions taken by the Japanese government to pull in foreign workers to work in Japan, like special work visas.
If you’re a native or close-to-native English speaker and your level of Japanese is at a “konnichiwa” level, your best and fastest bet for a job in Japan is none other than being an English teacher.
People say that your job opportunities expand when you have a few Japanese language skills up your sleeve. Fair enough, it does open you up to other industries like media, science and engineering if you have at least a proficiency level of JLPT N2, which is the second-highest and hardest level.
Here’s the thing: you won’t be given the same opportunities a local Japanese would, even if you have a proficiency level of JLPT N1, the highest and hardest level of all. Regardless of whether or not you speak the language, at the end of the day, you’re still a foreigner in their eyes. There will always be that lingering and unsettling feeling of not being fully accepted, or even not being offered equal advancement opportunities and jobs.
Don’t beat yourself up too much if the reason for the company not hiring you is because you’re not Japanese.
The Strings Attached To A “Gaijin”
See, this “gaijin” standard is not good, nor is it bad — it’s the standard of not having a standard. The Japanese have a standard for themselves. There’s everything from actions like customs to words like polite speech. It’s safe to say the expectations are high.
This standard is not extended to include foreigners. For the most part, we’re not expected to live up to these expectations as the Japanese as we’re not raised in the same culture.
As foreigners, we’re able to get away with certain things to a certain extent. If a Japanese person doesn’t follow the local customs, they’re judged way more harshly than us.
Foreigners including myself have taken advantage of this “gaijin” standard. I say it as using the “gaijin card”. Mutual rules like not speaking on the phone or eating on the train — I’m definitely guilty of doing those things and just shrugging it off as “oh well, they know I’m a foreigner”.
I personally love the occasional free pass, especially if I didn’t know it was an unspoken rule of the culture that I accidentally broke. My Japanese friends would just laugh it off and teach me the correct ways, anyway.
Don’t Get Scared Off!
Don’t get scared off — Japan is not bad, I swear! Just like every other country, there are ups and downs, and in this article, I’ve just highlighted the downs that I personally experience.
There are tons of English-speaking services in Japan, and it’s getting more and more by the day. While it won’t be as convenient as back in your home country, it’s not impossible. There’s always a service that’s available if you’re in need.
Once you get the hang of being a foreigner in Japan, life can be as smooth sailing as it can get. It is a bit more extra work to get settled in at the start but I swear it is worth it. After all, it’s all part of the experience of moving to a fresh new country — especially one like the culturally rich Japan that everyone knows and loves.
This island nation is not just one single island — There are about 6,800 islands in total that make up the Japanese archipelago!
Japan’s mainland, however, is made up of four big islands: Hokkaido Island is the northern part of Japan mainland; Honshu Island is at the center of the mainland and is also the largest island out of the four; Kyushu Island and Shikoku Island are down south with Kyushu located at the southernmost part of the mainland.
Each main island has something special to offer that the other islands can’t — let’s have an in-depth look at the four main islands and what they are known for individually.
Moving up north of Honshu Island is the Hokkaido island, the second largest of the four main islands — its area covers 83,000 square kilometers! It holds the title of being the 21st largest island in the world. The largest city on this island is Sapporo at 1,121 square kilometers and serves as the capital city of Hokkaido island. Following Sapporo is Hakodate city at almost 678 square kilometers.
In its northernmost geographical location, they are the ones getting the chillier weather. They still have four seasons, though — just that each season is extremely distinct from the next. Summer is generally cooler than the rest of Japan, but with that said, the winter is colder as well.
Hokkaido Is Known For…
Hokkaido island wins at effortlessly combining nature and city. The highest point of this island is Mount Asahi, standing at 2,291 meters. Because of the hilly aspect of Hokkaido combined with the cooler weather, most people head up north to Hokkaido for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts also have a splendid range of choices for the picking in Hokkaido as there are tons of preserved national parks like Shiretoko National Park. You can’t miss out on the drift ice from the Okhotsk Sea in Abashiri — one of the most famous attractions in all of Japan!
Even though the winter does get drastically cold, the people of Hokkaido know how to make great out of a mediocre situation; winter festivals don’t get any better than at Hokkaido. None can beat them. Look out for Sapporo Snow Festival and Asahikawa Ice Festival where they go all out in celebration of the cold weather.
Honshu Island is the largest island in Japan and also the 7th largest island in the whole world, at about 227,000 square kilometers in size. This island is where you’ll find the majority of the Japanese population of approximately 104 million people as well as the major cities — including the capital city Tokyo and the ancient capital city Kyoto. Other major cities include Hiroshima, Niigata and Nagoya.
Honshu is right smack in the middle of the mainland. This island connects to Hokkaido and Shikoku with tons of bridges, and has underground tunnels that connect to Kyushu.
Honshu Is Known For…
Being the most bustling and hustling island of them all, Honshu has tons of activities to do — both in the city and in nature. In fact, the areas of Honshu are the most mountainous of all of Japan; it has the Japanese Alps!
The famous and popular Mount Fuji, standing at 3,776 meters tall, can be found on this main island. This active volcano and also the highest point of Japan has been attracting travellers and climbers from all over the world of about 250,000 visitors in a year — that’s an average of 4,000 climbers a day!
This island’s nature is not just mountains; Honshu is also home to Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, as well as the famous Lake Kawaguchiko which is just around the vicinity of Mount Fuji.
The Honshu island is full of national parks that are extremely well preserved with rich wildlife; Nara Park is scattered with wild sika deer and is one of the most famous tourist attractions because of that. The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is exactly what it sounds like — a natural forest full of bamboo trees that will make you feel like you’ve teleported to a whole different universe.
And of course, who can forget the entertainment parks that bring in the thousands and thousands of people from all around the world; Tokyo Disneyland’s reputation is unwavering to say the least, and its counterpart, Tokyo DisneySea, is only one of its kind. Not to mention Universal Studios Osaka where there are various themed areas including the Harry Potter World.
Source: jeff~ from flickr
The smallest of the four main islands is Shikoku island, located just southeast of the big Honshu island. The island has an area of 18,800 square kilometers with the highest point being Mount Ishizuchi at 1,982 meters tall. The biggest city on Shikoku island is Matsuyama at 429 square kilometers, and other prominent cities include Kochi, Naturo and Takamatsu.
While the island does have a few mountains, unlike Honshu and Hokkaido, Shikoku has no volcanoes at all. The whole area oozes culture and the epitome of what Japan stands for. It’s not as well-connected as some other islands but there are bridges that connect it to Honshu — making it accessible to the majority of locals.
Shikoku Is Known For…
This island oozes culture on top of its picturesque landscape. There’s all the nature you can ever ask for here. Shikoku has an abundance of Buddhist temples and tons of famous haiku poets — a type of poetry originated from Japan — proudly call this area their home.
Rivers are one of Shikoku’s nature’s highlights; the Omogo Gorge is one of the most popular national scenic sites near Mount Ishizuchi, at the Omogo River; Niyodo Blue is named after the blue waters of the Niyodo River — the aqua reflects so beautifully you won’t even believe it’s real.
There’s one very popular reason why people — locals and tourists alike — visit Shikoku, and that is the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage experience. This journey is one of the oldest pilgrimages in the whole world and covers about 1,200 kilometers of ground all around the island to visit the various 88 temples. Originally a journey undergone for religious and pious purposes, now it has become one of the highly-rated tourist attractions.
The culture trip doesn’t stop there — Shikoku’s castles are worth the visits. Kochi Castle has been so well preserved that this Japanese castle has the original structure from when it was first created. If you’ve never seen a water castle, Shikoku has one of the three water castles in Japan called the Takamatsu Castle.
Last but definitely not least, Kyushu takes the title of Japan’s third-largest island after Honshu and Hokkaido, with an area of about 36,000 square kilometers. It’s in the southernmost part of Japan’s mainland. Because it’s located further south, it has a warmer climate — a subtropical climate. For those who prefer the warm sun instead of the cold Hokkaido weather, Kyushu is just for you.
The largest city in Kyushu island is Fukuoka, at approximately 343 square kilometers. Other prominent cities include Nagasaki — the city with tragic historical incidences and is now a symbol of peace — and Arita, the city of potteries.
Kyushu Is Known For…
This mountainous island is full of wonderful hot springs and volcanoes that are still very active to this day. In fact, Kyushu is even called the “Land of Fire” because of the chain of active volcanoes including Mount Kuju, Mount Sakurajima and Mount Aso.
For the less adventurous and more relaxation enthusiasts, hot springs would be what attracts you to Kyushu. It’s nothing like what you can possibly imagine — Kyushu has baths that come in all colours, some of the best coloured waters in the whole country! The glistening blue waters are great at Yufuin Onsen and Takenoyu Onsen. If you’re looking for red water, Yumigahama Onsen and Ondake Onsen are your best options. Kojigoku Onsen and Myoban Onsen are popular for their white water. If you’ve never seen yellow water, Ukenokuchi Onsen has it the best!
With thousands and thousands of islands, a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to explore every single inch of every one of them — but one can try. Start off with the four mainland islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. Once you’ve gotten these down, you’re set to tackle the rest of Japan’s remote islands full of treasures and undiscovered jewels.
While there are things that are comparably expensive in Japan, there are also quite a number of things that are extremely cheap. What’s more, you can only find it here! Sometimes it’s a matter of luck on discovering the exact spot that sells the item cheap — but there are also very specific things that are considerably less in price than other countries.
Don’t worry, you won’t need to be hunting for these items all around the country. I’ve done the hard part for you — here’s a carefully curated list of the cheapest things to buy in Japan along with where to get them.
1. ¥100 Products
Source: Gene Wang from Flickr
Scattered throughout Japan are stores that offer a variety of products at only ¥100! Who wouldn’t want to shop in a store where everything costs only ¥100 each? You might think that just because it’s priced at ¥100 that they might not be of good quality — think again. They’re actually high quality for the value.
In these ¥100 stores, you can get all kinds of daily necessities. Kitchen utensils, washing and cleaning supplies, gardening tools, interior decor and even cosmetics and electronics — the list is endless! It’s safe to say these ¥100 stores have everything. You can decorate a whole house without breaking the bank.
Where To Buy
All these ¥100 products can be bought at ¥100 stores — duh. There are tons of franchises that offer all their products at ¥100. These include Daiso, Seira and Can Do — they are the main and most common ones you’ll see on the streets of Japan.
2. Matcha Products
What is a trip to Japan without trying and buying the most famous Japanese products of all time: matcha. Matcha is made from finely ground a special type of green tea, and eventually turning these leaves into powder form. It’s not only delicious, but it also offers tons of health benefits.
The matcha hype is insane everywhere else in the world and it’s known to be a rather expensive product outside of Japan. However, in this country, it’s one of the cheapest things you can get! In fact, you can get matcha in quite a number of ways — everything from unique matcha desserts like matcha pancakes and matcha parfait to matcha drinks and chocolates, and the list goes on and on!
You might think that matcha is only available in edible products — you’re wrong! Even cosmetic products can be made with matcha. Matcha is actually extremely good for the skin just like green tea, and the Japanese cosmetic brands have taken advantage of this matcha hype to produce tons of matcha-inclusive cosmetic products.
Where To Buy
It’s not that hard to find matcha products in Japan. It’s scattered everywhere — so much that almost every store and restaurant you enter would have at least one matcha product to offer. The Japanese are nuts over matcha, after all.
The best place to look for matcha food products is none other than the great Don Quijote. This gigantic chain store can be found in larger neighbourhoods like Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo. Keep an eye out for a matcha corner — it’s probably any matcha lover’s heaven.
3. Video Games & Game Consoles
For some of us who have been gaming since we’re a small kid, we probably have come across either a Japanese video game or a Japanese game console. Because they are made by Japanese companies, it’s only natural that they’re cheaper to purchase in the country itself than it is overseas.
When it comes to the older ones, Japan has special stores just for older editions of video games and game consoles, but they’re mostly second hand. On the plus side to that, these second-hand video games and game consoles go for extremely dirt cheap prices. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Where To Buy
For a wide selection of Japanese game consoles, Hard Off is probably the best place to get them. They have stores in most major cities in Japan, and each store has a different variety than the next. If you have the time to spare, pop by a few to have a huge range to choose from.
If you’re looking for video games, Super Potato and Book Off are great places to start your search. Super Potato specialises in retro games, so an interesting selection awaits you here. Book Off offers a ton of second-hand products and video games are among them. Unlike Super Potato where you can find their stores only in Tokyo, Book Off can be found in major cities in Japan, just like Hard Off.
Japan is extremely known for its technology. Japanese electronics are reputable for its “Made in Japan” quality, being far more trustworthy and reliable than some other countries.
You’ll get tons of deals for local electronic goods. Everything from rice cookers and ovens to cameras and handphones, nowhere else can you get these goods at a bargain price. Even electronic toilet seats are the cheapest to get in Japan — but maybe think twice about getting one if you’re going to have to deliver it over back to your country; there’s a solid chance the shipping costs more than the toilet seat itself.
Where To Buy
Akihabara is your one-stop for all things technology and electronics. Various electronic shops and department stores are here so you’re able to compare the prices and see which deals are best for you. The selection is crazy huge, and plus, some even offer English-speaking services.
Look out for big shopping malls like Yodobashi Camera. These kinds of shopping malls are the most convenient ones for foreigners and tourists, plus wonderful deals. Alternatively, you can check out Bic Camera — they’re known for a huge selection of electronics from various brands and constantly coming up with promotions!
5. Beauty & Cosmetics
Every girl (and the occasional guy) can understand how much the accumulated amount for beauty and cosmetic products can get. But in Japan, the prices of beauty and cosmetic products are one of the cheapest you can get in the entire world!
Even though Japanese cosmetic and beauty brands can be found globally, including the luxurious ones like Shiseido and Shu Uemura, they’re priced at such a bargain in their local country.
A tip on shopping for beauty and cosmetics is to buy from brands of the same parent company as your favourite luxury brand. For example, if you’re a huge fan of Shiseido, the Japanese brand Kose is from the same parent company — you’ll get similar types of products for almost half the price.
Where To Buy
Basically any drugstore, pharmacy, supermarket or convenience store you enter, you’re bound to see a section just for them. The ultimate best places to get them are in pharmacies where there’s a substantial range of beauty and cosmetic products — think everything from ¥300 to ¥30,000!
It’s good to note that products and brands can vary depending on the stores they’re in, and especially in the town they’re in. If it’s in a store in busy towns like Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo, chances are they’re marked at higher prices. Go down a few streets from the main street, or even out of the city center itself, to get better deals.
Another huge tip for shopping for beauty and cosmetics is that pharmacies tend to have sales and promotions from time to time — anything from a few hundred yen off of the total bill to a 10% discount off of all items.
Contrary to popular belief of Japan being one of the most expensive countries offering expensive products, it’s not all that bad. There’s quite a substantial selection of cheap goods to get in this country — from daily essentials from ¥100 stores and bargain-priced fishes to entertainment like video games and manga. What are you waiting for? Get shopping in Japan for all the cheapest things you can get, and at the end of the day, you won’t feel guilty about checking your bank account!
The cold December winter can sometimes bring about a significant drop in mood from the cheerful July summer. For some, the month is packed with gloomy days and constant wishes for warmer weather — but not in Japan. From the icy Hokkaido in the north to the busy city life of central Tokyo, there are tons of areas that are best seen and visited during the winter season in Japan.
Japanese winter is nothing short of magical. You’ll feel like you’ve stumbled onto a fairytale world with the snow-covered trees and slopes, with illuminations that warm up the streets with their twinkling lights. Japan doesn’t hold back when it comes to celebrating its seasons, and winter is one of the most festive times of the year!
Here are the best ways to spend the cold season in Japan — there’s something for everyone, from shopping and relaxation to outdoor activities and sightseeing.
Relax in an onsen
Enjoy December in Japan by relaxing in an onsen (温泉, hot spring). This Japanese hot spring is definitely one activity that you should never miss out on your visit to Japan — especially in December when it will be cold outside. Even though this activity is in demand all year round with locals and foreigners alike partaking in it, a dip in onsen during December is like a warm hug — especially if it’s an outdoor onsen. Regardless of whether your onsen is surrounded by the snow-covered trees or in a traditional Japanese ryokan, the experience is exceptional either way.
One of the most picturesque onsen in all of Japan is the Ginzan Onsen, a popular spot especially during winter. Located in Obanazawa in the Yamagata Prefecture, this historically-rich mountain town surrounded by peaceful nature is the perfect escape from the busy city. Relax in a toasty, peaceful outdoor hot spring and take in the air full of culture. While you’re at it, take a stroll around the city — you might even stumble across the historical silver mine built over five centuries ago!
Kowakien Yunessun is the perfect onsen spot if you’re interested in a unique onsen experience unlike the rest. While it has traditional onsen of the highest class for your pleasure, that’s not even close to the highlight of this place. Sign up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of dipping your toes and soaking in a heated pool of red wine — if not, pick from choices of coffee, green tea and Japanese sake! Don’t miss out on their outdoor areas either, complete with waterslides and waterfalls, as well as an outdoor onsen with a magnificent view of Hakone.
Visit winter festivals
What’s the holiday spirit without some festivals, am I right? In Japan, December is one of the months that’s abundant in festivals — from special winter festivals to Christmas markets that pull in people from the outskirts of the city to come down and participate.
Most of these festivals begin at the start of December onwards. Here’s a neat tip: the earlier you drop by these festivals, the better goods you have to select from. You know what they say, the early bird gets the worm!
As soon as December comes around, the Japanese take that as a sign to bring out the winter and snow festivals all around the country. Northern Japan goes all out, more so than the others — you’ll get to see everything from special winter performances to carefully crafted ice sculptures. Sapporo Snow Festival is one to put on your itinerary — despite the freezing cold in December, the locals lift their spirits by organising this week-long annual festival. The whole city turns into a winter wonderland with ice sculptures and illumination lining the streets. Over two million visitors each year drop by the city just for this occasion!
The Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival is another one that will definitely put you in a better mood during the cold winter. While you might have heard “Kamakura” as the city that houses the huge Buddha statue, it also refers to the traditional Japanese igloo! During the festival, tons of these dome sculptures are lined up with orange, twinkling glows as the sky turns dark. It’s a magical sight that warms your chest in the cold atmosphere.
Bask in winter illuminations
No one can beat Japan when it comes to winter illuminations — it’s without a doubt the winner. Thousands and millions of tiny bulbs of light decorate everything in the area, from trees and bushes to buildings and lamp posts. You might even be lucky and stumble across ones that put on a choreographed light show! A single city can house multiple light illuminations of various themes and people near as well as far come all the way from their home to witness such beauties.
While Tokyo has quite a substantial number of winter illuminations, go out of the main city to Nagasaki, the home city of a Dutch theme park called Huis Ten Bosch. This theme park is extremely gigantic — over 13 million light bulbs are needed to take over the park and illuminate every inch of the grounds in winter! You might need to spare a few hours to fully explore the Kingdom of Lights!
Another illumination event in Japan is the Nabana no Sato in Nagoya, one of the largest ones in the whole country. This flower park is already getting enough visitors throughout the year, but when it’s illuminated from December onwards with millions of LED lights decorating the fragrant park, there’s no doubt thousands of more visitors are making their way here. Here’s a tip: go up onto the observation deck to witness a spectacular panoramic view of the illuminations display!
Leisurely ice skate around town
Not all cities in Japan will be covered in powdery snow in December, but there’s an easy enough solution to enjoy the cold weather and that is a man-made ice skating rink! While there are tons of indoor all-year-round rinks in major cities of Japan, the special outdoor ones only pop up from December onwards and only for a few months. Take your ice skating shoes for a spin and brush up your skating skills.
Some recommended places are the Tokyo Skytree Town Ice Skating Park, or one outside of Tokyo in Yokohama called the Art Rink in Red Brick Warehouse — the latter is extremely unique and one to definitely check out even if you’re not an ice skater at all.
Stay at a ski resort
Nothing can beat the December cold weather than going up to a ski resort for fun and exciting ways to beat the snow! Whether it is skiing or snowboarding, hitting the snowy hills and slopes is undoubtedly the best activity to take part in when the weather gets colder.
While there are tons of ski resorts scattered throughout the country, don’t miss out on Zao Ski Resort where you can kill two birds with one stone to witness in-person the ice-coated trees that are known as “snow monsters”. The ski resort is coated with lush powder slopes, and taking an enjoyable slide down whether on ski or snowboards, zooming past the snow monsters will send a thrilling chill down your spine. Look out the winder in the evening where they will get lit up, giving off a mystical winter vibe.
Travel to Japan’s exclusive winter sites
Traveling from a place to the other might sound like a pain, but trust that these exclusive winter sites in Japan are worth every second of the journey. Japan is undoubtedly stunning all year round, but when the weather cools from December onwards, the country reveals new sides to its land.
No one would think to travel miles out of a city center, especially if it’s in another prefecture, to visit a park in December. Don’t be so sure yet, because the Jigokudani Monkey Park is extremely special. The Japanese macaques make a grand appearance when it gets cold. They come from deep inside the Jigokudani mountains to the thermal spa in Yokoyu River, dipping their toes and soaking in the warm water baths. You wouldn’t want to miss out a once-in-a-lifetime experience of getting up-close and personal with these adorable things!
Another magical sight in Japan during winter is none other than this designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawago Village. Its conservation of the unique architecture of the houses earned them the title, and well-deserving to say the least. The village is beautiful all year round but it transforms into a stunning Japanese winter wonderland from December onwards. These Gashho-zukuri farmhouses are draped in snowfall — you might even be lucky enough to snag some tickets for the exclusive illumination light show events.
An underrated location of a winter spot in Japan is the Icicles of Misotsuchi. This winter phenomenon is not so far from Tokyo — it’s just in Saitama, the prefecture to the east of the main city. These ginormous icicles are created from the water that’s flowing down from the cliffs. Drop by during peak season in December for an exclusive light show where the icicles will be lit up in a blueish hue, giving off a mystical ambiance.
Shop at Christmas markets
Two huge celebrations in Japan are Christmas and New Year. Even though these events take place at the end of the month of December, Christmas markets pop up as early as the start of the month and even earlier! Visit the dozens of Christmas markets scattered around the country — the capital city Tokyo has more than a few that will definitely pique your interest. Roppongi Hills Christmas Market is without a doubt the most popular one of them all, featuring everything from Christmas-related goods to even German delicacies.
Winter in Japan is a magical time to be in the Land of the Rising Sun — and yes, the sun still rises and can be seen in the country, so don’t worry about gloomy skies and rainy weather. So stop avoiding the cold season and get out and about with all these exciting Japan-exclusive winter activities!
Some prefer movies, others prefer TV shows. In my opinion, TV shows are arguably more entertaining than movies, only because they have multiple episodes that tell the storyline longer and in a more elaborate manner. Viewers are able to get attached to specific characters and root for them — that’s the beauty of any series.
The Western TV shows and Korean drama shows have gotten tons of attention and credit in the scene — what about the Japanese dramas? This slightly underrated genre definitely deserves more hype, because it’s not only entertaining and heartfelt, but every Japanese drama gives an insight into the country as a whole and the different aspects of Japanese culture.
Here are the best 10 Japanese dramas to get you started on your binge-watching!
1. Hana Yori Dango
Hana Yori Dango is a Japanese drama that needs absolutely no introduction because of its high reputation. This drama tells the story of the only poor student, Makino Tsukushi, at a school for the rich and privileged called Eitoku Gakuen. While it is just like any other academic school, there’s a mutual understanding that the school is informally ruled by Flower 4, known more commonly as the F4.
The F4 consists of four boys who come from extremely influential families who might even be as powerful as the king. All Makino wants is to get through her school days as peacefully as possible. But unfortunately for her, she stumbles onto the bad side of one of the F4 boys. The series follows her school life as she battles through bullying and other mishaps happening in this prestigious school.
2. Todome No Kiss
The first time Todome No Kiss aired, everyone who had access to the Japanese TV channel was glued to the show. This drama features a popular host, Dojima Otaro. Because of his past, Otaro has this personality of a cocky, full-of-himself man that only strives for power and money. On just a regular normal day at work, a strange thing happens.
He faces a mysterious lady with a pale face and red lips who kisses him out of the blue, and right after the kiss, Otaro suddenly dies but not permanently. After a while, he regains consciousness, with one minor difference: he wakes up seven days in the past. This highly-rated drama follows the tale of his constant encounters with this mysterious woman, eventual multiple deaths and resurrection, and his quest to finding out why this is happening to him in the first place.
3. 1 Litre No Namida
This extremely popular Japanese series follows the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, Ikeuchi Aya, who is just about to enter high school. She is just an ordinary girl from a family who works at a tofu shop — a type of bean curd — but she begins to experience unexpected occurrences that are not at all pleasant. Aya starts to walk awkwardly as well as falling abruptly more often than not.
When she and her mum consults the doctor, Aya finds out that she has spinocerebellar degeneration, which is an extremely rare disease that deteriorates the cerebellum part of the brain. Over time, the victim’s speech and physical acts like walking and eating will be affected. This Japanese drama revolves around Aya’s time in her remaining teenage years till the early twenties.
Suits is a remake of the original American TV series that had stellar reviews internationally — it even has a Korean remake. Even with multiple versions of the storyline, this Japanese drama is just as good, if not better. Suits stars Shogo Kai, an extremely good lawyer from one of the biggest law firms in Japan who prioritises winning more than anything else, and Daiki Suzuki, a young man with multiple hardships in life but extremely intelligent with an excellent memory.
Impressed by Daiki’s remarkable memory recall and capabilities, Shogo hires Daiki as an associate despite his lack of certificates. Suits tells the adventures this tag team duo has with lawsuit cases and the challenges they face at keeping this secret.
5. Code Blue
This Japanese drama series, Code Blue, has a total of three seasons revolving around the mid-2007 legalised system in Japan called the “Doctor Helicopter” system. This system involving dispatching a medical team from a helicopter to patients in need in the quickest time possible.
The first season shows four newly assigned young physicians to the Doctor Helicopter system and their various encounters with different medical situations. The second and third seasons sets in a few years after the introduction of the system with other characters. Even with the occasional time jumps, the entire series is coherent and easily followed as it has the same concept of fragility of life and growth of the individual characters.
6. Good Doctor
Be moved by the story of Minato Shindo, a passionate man with autism and savant syndrome, in the Japanese drama Good Doctor. Shindo’s older brother passed away when they were young, and because of that incident, he dreams of becoming a doctor. Despite his special needs, he has an amazing memory.
Akira Shiga, a respected doctor at a local hospital, was amazed at Shindo’s abilities —Shindo was able to memorize the human organs at the age of only seven. After Minato graduates from medical school and passes the national exam for medical practitioners, doctor Akira puts in a recommendation for Shindo to be a part of the pediatric surgery department.
7. 99.9: Criminal Lawyer
The crime scene in Japan is incomparable to the rest of the world. Just by watching 99.9: Criminal Lawyer, you’ll get an insight into how it’s like in the country through the form of an entertaining TV series.
The main character, Hiroto Miyama, is a lawyer who takes on criminal cases but doesn’t profit as much because the conviction rate for such cases in Japan is 99.9%. He teams with a successful civil lawyer, Atsuhiro Sada from one of four biggest law firms in the country, Madarame Law Firm. This amazing duo goes onto uncovering the truth about the remaining 0.1% of the crime scene in the country.
This Japanese TV drama features two orphans, Ryuzaki Ikuo and Danno Tatsuya, who were brought up by an orphanage staff that they regarded as an older sister. When these two were in elementary school, they witnessed the murder of their older sister right before their very eyes. Despite the statements made to the police, it was buried by an officer with a golden watch.
On top of that, the same guy covered up the case and no one knows why. A decade and a half later, Ikuo became a detective while Tatsuya is a leading member of an underground organised crime group. Despite being in two different worlds, these two people come together to expose the truth of what happened to their older sister as well as taking down the powerful organisation behind it.
This Japanese drama will definitely warm your heart and soul. Named after the main character of the story, Mare tells a story about a girl who grew up constantly running from city to city because of her family’s debt crisis. She and her family find themselves in a small village town called Noto where she settles in and rebuilds her life.
When Mare grows older, she didn’t want to be like her family who was always running around without a passion to strive for. Instead, she is determined to chase after her childhood dream of being a patisserie. Follow Mare’s life journey as she strives to become a world-class patisserie, with the occasional romance here and there.
10. 3 Nen A Gumi: Ima Kara Mina-san Wa, Hitojichi Desu
Follow the story of the lead character of 3 Nen A Gumi: Ima Kara Mina-san Wa, Hitojichi Desu, Ibuki Hiiragi, in his career at a high school as an art teacher and also a homeroom teacher to third grade’s Class A. His job started off normally two years ago, but it took a twist a few months prior to graduation day.
With just 10 days to graduation, Hiiragi gathered all of his 29 students of class 3-A and claimed that they were his hostages — none of them was able to leave until Hiiragi knows the truth behind the suicide of one of a past student.
There are various Japanese dramas in every genre, from action-packed and mystery to heartwarming lifestyle and romance. Without even moving a muscle, you’ll be able to learn a thing or two about Japan and Japanese culture, just like how the drama Mare introduces the pastry scene in Japan while the drama Todome No Kiss sheds light onto the host culture. Japanese dramas are both educational and entertaining — why not get into it right now?
One of the first few things that pop to mind when one mentions Tokyo is…Disney! Japan’s capital city is home to not one, but two Disney Resorts right next to each other — and one of them is the only one in the whole world!
Don’t get too excited just yet; because the Tokyo Disney Resort is so unique, it’s the priority of Disney enthusiasts and travellers worldwide. It is, after all, one of the most famous attractions in the country! Because of this overwhelming popularity, these theme parks are packed to the brim with people, every single one of them hoping to have their Disney dreams fulfilled.
It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. Unfortunately, we live in the real world and not some fairytale — happily ever afters doesn’t just fall out of the sky. We’ve got to put in some effort to make our dreams come true. But… I’m your very own fairy godmother, and this is your manual to having the best time of your life at the Tokyo Disney Resort!
Tokyo’s Disney Resorts
As mentioned earlier, Tokyo Disney Resort consists of two Disney theme parks: Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. The two aren’t the same and have a completely different ambiance — and of course, rides. In a nutshell, Tokyo Disneyland is your classic fairytale; Tokyo DisneySea is the coming-of-age version of that.
You might think that the location of these Tokyo Disney Resorts is obvious — duh, it’s in Tokyo. Why name it that when it’s not?
You’re, in fact, wrong. It’s not even in Tokyo at all! The Tokyo Disney Resort is located to the east of Tokyo, in Urayasu of Chiba Prefecture. It is a short train ride from Tokyo, though — about 20 minutes from Tokyo Station and 30 minutes from Shinjuku Station.
That’s one takeaway of Tokyo you have already: the train system is efficient as hell.
Now, let’s take a look at Tokyo Disneyland. Here’s a fun fact: this Disney theme park is actually the first-ever Disney park to be built outside of the United States! Everything from the design and structure is built in the same style as the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California, so you’ll get the full authentic magical experience even on the other side of the world.
On the 15th of April 1983, its magical gates opened, and to this day, this Disney Resort holds the title of the third most-visited theme park in the world (the first two being also Disney parks in the U.S.).
While it mimics the American Disney parks, there are some special features in this one. It is in Japan, after all, so take note of a few hints at Japanese culture here and there. One great example is the food; it’s noticeably different from the U.S. You’ll be in for a treat for an infusion of American and Chinese flavours with Japanese cuisine — sounds intriguing, right?
You’ll get steamed buns filled with teriyaki chicken, shaped like the iconic Mickey Mouse’s head, in Adventureland. There’s also a traditional Japanese dish called donburi fused with the American flavours of taco meat.
Don’t worry, the food at Tokyo Disneyland is not all traditionally infused; you’ll be able to get your fix of classic popcorn, or even spice it up with soy sauce flavoured ones if you fancy.
Remember when I said there’s one Tokyo Resort that’s only one in the world? Well, that’s Tokyo DisneySea. This theme park opened on the 4th of September 2001 right next to Tokyo Disneyland, and is the fourth most-visited theme park in the world!
Tokyo DisneySea has a unique theme — can you guess from the name of the park? This theme park has a nautical exploration theme. There’s nowhere like DisneySea anywhere in the world; a combination of Disney, maritime rides and attractions, and Japanese-infused American nibbles.
I call this theme park the adult version of Tokyo Disneyland, because unlike the other, Tokyo DisneySea serves alcohol!
There are plans for expansion to this park to include the famous Frozen and Tangled areas for 2023! Oh, and let’s not forget Peter Pan, my personal favourite Disney character.
When To Visit
Want to avoid the crowds? It does get very crowded — these parks are popular amongst locals and tourists alike. March and August are the months of the Japanese school holidays, so if you want to avoid the young crowd, it might be best to avoid these months.
Other months like February, October and December are also best to avoid. In these months, the weather can get unpredictable like rain and warnings of natural disasters. In these cases, rides can get interrupted and, to the extreme, park closure.
Where To Stay
It’s every princess’s dream to stay in a huge, magical castle — I know it’s mine. The Tokyo Disneyland Hotel is pretty similar to that, with themed rooms, extravagant decor, and impeccable service. You pay what you get, and this is the top-class, five-star everything.
If you’re not all that bothered about the royal treatment, there are multiple hotels around the vicinity that aren’t as costly as the main Disney Resort hotels. Boutique hotels like Ibis Hotel provide free shuttle buses from the hotel to the Disney parks — an extremely convenient service for when you’re exhausted from a day’s adventure and just want to hit the sacks ASAP.
Tips & Tricks To The Disney Resorts
Here’s where I sprinkle my magic. Just being at the resorts is good enough, but why miss out on making your experience more magical and unforgettable than what Disney promised?
Make full use of your time at the park. Every minute counts, especially when there are hundreds of others aiming to do the same thing as you. How you ask? Well, I have some tips and tricks for you based on my very own personal experience — tried and tested, and succeeded!
Buy your tickets in advance
I know some of you out there are the spontaneous, adventurous kind. No planning and just going for it. Well, I’m a planner. And for Disney Resorts, you have to plan. Get your tickets in advance — trust me, you do not want to be in the queue of people who buy tickets at the gate. All you have to do is just wait till the gates open.
You might need to have your booking tickets printed out as well; Japan is pretty traditional when it comes to things like that. If you forgot to do it on the day, don’t worry. There are stations at the entrance where you can print them out for free! Or alternatively, go to a konbini (コンビニ, convenience store) near you (but not at the Disney Resort — the konbinis have no printer whatsoever).
Plan your rides in advance
I’d prioritise this tip over anything else: plan your route in the theme park. What rides do you want to go on first? Which are must-go’s and which ones you aren’t so bothered about, and which ones are extremely popular?
Factor in waiting time for each attraction — which may vary depending on the popularity of the ride — and where the rides you want to go are. Take that Disney map and a pen, and start planning. Don’t think it’s silly; you’ll be so glad you did afterward. It’s all about strategy, and not missing out on the rides you are dying for just because you got held up in a queue for a ride you don’t even particularly want to go on.
Make full use of the Fast Pass
If you don’t already know, there’s a FastPass system where you can get a ticket with a timestamp on it to return to the attraction and use the priority Fast Pass lane. It’s one of the best ways to maximise your time at the park, so include that in your planning!
Not all rides are eligible for FastPass, but most of the top-rated ones are. You’re only allowed to hold one FastPass at a time, so as soon as you’ve used your previous FastPass, go on to the next one!
Bring your own bento (if you want)
This one is not really a do-or-die rule, but it will save you some time and a few pennies. There’s nothing wrong with going all out and trying the tasty Disney treats, but they are going to cost quite a bit. On occasion, restaurants will have a long queue.
Do it the Japanese way: bring a bento (弁当, lunch box). Not only are you going to have a few extra bucks in your pocket, but you’re also participating in the local culture!
Shop after the attractions close
I know, I know — you want that cute souvenir for yourself and your family. Save that shopping for the end of the day. Don’t waste your precious time at the park just to be in the shops all day.
It’s not well-known, but Disney shops open an hour after all the other attractions close. That means you’ll have plenty of time to browse through all those cute items with peace of mind and without sacrificing your time for rides!
I’ve not only saved your time at the park but also your time researching about the Tokyo Disney Resort — see, I told you, I am the fairy godmother! Fair enough, being at Disneyland and DisneySea alone is magical enough, but if you take my advice, your time at the parks will be one of the most memorable, enjoyable and unforgettable experiences ever!
Spring in Japan is beautiful — many travellers plan their trip to Japan around that time of the year to witness the blooming flowers as the weather warms up. What you don’t know is that you’re missing out on heaps of excitement that takes place only during Japanese winter!
Winter in Japan is magical — winter illuminations, snow-covered slopes and trees that mimic that of a fairytale are just the tip of the iceberg. The Japanese celebrate winter like no other despite the cold and snow, because it’s also the time for winter events and ice sculptures! Let’s not forget about the onsens, bathing outdoors in natural hot springs.
If these don’t make you want to venture Japan in winter, here is a list of places in Japan that will definitely convince you otherwise.
1. Jigokudani Monkey Park
Hello, monkeys! Just two hours north of Tokyo, you can find wild Japanese macaques chilling in their very own thermal spa, up in Nagano. They inhabit the Jigokudani mountainsides and roam the extensive terrains freely, and part of their territory includes the Yokoyu River valley.
While the park is only reachable on foot through the dense forest of about a mile, I promise it’s worth the trek — I mean, who doesn’t want to get up close and personal with bathing macaques? It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
2. Shirakawago Village
Shirakawago Village is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the conservation of the unique architecture of the houses — some have steeply sloping roofs constructed without nails that enables them to cope structurally with the heavy wind snowfalls. The area transforms into a Japanese winter wonderland in mid-December, when snowfalls begin and the Gassho-zukuri farmhouses take on a snow-covered picture-perfect look.
The most popular village, Ogimachi, has the biggest and most number of traditional farmhouses dated back over two hundred years ago! On top of it all, Shirakawago also has winter illuminations worth staying and booking in advance for, because it is a popular event.
3. The Blue Pond
Have you ever seen the sky on the ground? The Blue Pond, located near the town of Biei in Hokkaido lets you witness just that. The lagoon-like pond that holds sky-blue coloured water was created when excavations were made to prevent mudslides from eruptions of Mount Tokachi from reaching the town.
Because of that event, the hollow left behind from the digs filled with water. The pond contains traces of chemicals that turn its waters a rainbow of different blue hues throughout the year, and during winter the scenery is so magical as the blue pond is accompanied by the whitened tree branches.
4. Abashiri Drift Ice
Found up north of Japan is Hokkaido, the coldest city in all of Japan! Because of that, Hokkaido experiences all kinds of spectacular phenomenons in winter, and one of them is the drift ice. The Sea of Okhotsk along Abashiri City is known to be the southernmost point to witness the drift ice, just like in the Arctic. There is also a sightseeing ship that allows you to watch the dynamic drift ice in close proximity, but only during a limited time of the year.
Winter can bring out the most spectacular natural sights. One of them is the winter phenomenon that is at a popular ski resort in Northern Japan called the Zao Ski Resort. Hundreds of Zao’s ice trees, also known as Juhyo, covered the slopes of the ski resort. These unique and amazing snow monsters are a work of art made by nature.
Visitors of the ski resort can even ski and snowboard around and by the trees. In the evening, the snow monsters are lit up and put on a mystical winter scenery.
6. The Icicles of Misotsuchi
Most of the places that experience a winter phenomenon are usually found in the colder regions of Japan, like Hokkaido. This one is more accessible from Tokyo, and it is the Icicles of Misotsuchi. They are gigantic icicles created by the flowing water over the cliffs upstream from the waterfall in Chichibu area in Saitama prefecture, located right next to Tokyo.
Not only is this an extremely beautiful natural sight on its own, during the peak season, but there will also be special light-up events held that lighten up the icicles in a blue-ish hue, giving them a mystical feel.
7. Kamakura Festival
Kamakura is not only linked to the city that is known for its famous and huge Buddha statue, but also referred to the dome-shaped snow sculpture that is a traditional winter item in Japan.
Held in the northern part of the country, the Yunishigawa Kamakura Festivals takes place at the Yunishigawa Onsen Town in Tochigi Prefecture, where hundreds of dome sculptures in all sizes line up, lighting up the dark night sky with orange glows.
The event runs for about a month from February to March, and even though the Kamakura domes are the main attraction, there are also other several fun snow activities offered in the vicinity.
8. Ginzan Onsen
Who doesn’t love a good onsen? Bathing in natural hot springs is an enjoyable way of relaxing, and locals and foreigners often take the time out to go to them as it also has health benefits. In winter, the surrounding of the onsen is filled with snow and ice, and the air is chilly. Yet, as you dip into the onsen, you’re warm and toasted amidst the cold winter.
Ginzan Onsen is one of the most picturesque places to go for a winter onsen. Located in the Yamagata prefecture, the small mountain town is full of historical ryokans and traditional onsen inn lined along the banks of the Ginzan River.
Stay overnight at one of these, and even consider one with a private onsen, to enjoy the full experience. Public onsens are also available for those not looking to spend the night. If you’re not feeling up for the full immersion, a public foot spa is also available.
9. Sapporo Snow Festival
Winter in Hokkaido is really cold, but instead of being down in the slumps because of the weather, the capital city, Sapporo, hosts the world’s famous Sapporo Snow Festival for a week-long that turns the whole city into the dreamy winter wonderland, covering three major sites — the Odori, the Susukino and the Tsu Dome. With ice sculptures and illuminations, over two million visitors, local Japanese and travellers, attend the event every season!
Each site cover a different thing: the Odori hosts the most spectacular and biggest sculptures, and you’ll be able to get a great view of them from the Sapporo TV Tower; Susukino has the smaller ice sculptures that are distributed between the karaoke bars and other entertainment establishments; The Tsu Dome offers loads of snow-related activities for both adults and children.
10. Winter Travel via JR Tadami Line
Who would’ve thought that a train ride would be a place to visit and do during winter? Yet the JR Tadami Line makes the cut. This rail service runs for over eighty miles through the most spectacular parts of Fukushima and Niigata prefectures, and can you imagine these landscapes covered in snow?
It’s extremely beautiful and jaw-dropping, it’s no doubt that this train ride will quite literally take your breath away. The best part of it all, although it might seem like a drag on other days, is that the train isn’t those express, fast ones. So you’re in for a plentiful time of admiring the scenic vistas through the carriage window.
Winter can be cold and sometimes depressing, but each season always has something to offer. Japan is especially best in winter, providing a mix of tradition and modern events, natural and man-made sights, and activities that can be enjoyed by all.
From resort activities like skiing and snowboarding near the Zao monster trees, dipping in the hot water of the natural hot springs in Ginzan, to getting a picturesque trainride across parts of beautiful Japan, there is no reason to not enjoy the cold and snow in this amazing country.