More To Japan Than Cherry Blossoms and Sushi

Fushimi-Inari-Taisha
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha

A solo traveller haven; Japan is a country of amazing contrasts, and even their toilets are a standout tourist pleaser.  

When you travel solo your safety is front of mind and Japan’s one of those countries that should be top on any solo travellers wish list; well known for its very low crime rate, and welcoming polite people. And safe in this case doesn’t equal boring. Japan is anything but dull, and there’s a whole lot more to Japan than cherry blossoms and sushi. A very ancient well-preserved culture sits right alongside the modern technology it is rightfully famous for, and that makes it an intriguing place to visit.

Japanese people are exceptionally polite, and it made me feel calm and safe. They love to help. I had an instance sitting on a bus reading a map and a young woman approached me to check if I needed assistance.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan three times and each time I’ve come away wanting more. In fact, I’m already planning my next trip. I’ve never been there at cherry blossom time and I’ve eaten a lot more than just sushi on all my visits.

THE FOOD IS AMAZING

You don’t have to spend lots of money in Japan to have great food. All the favourites that I enjoy back home like Udon, Sashimi and Sushi are everywhere in Japan, but there’s a whole new culinary list to explore. I had the most amazing okonomiyaki in Hiroshima on my last trip. It’s a savoury pancake that the chef prepares in front of you and it’s really delicious and very affordable.

Traditional Japanese Food at Ryokan

At a Ryokan - in traditional Japanese style hotels you can expect to sit on low stools or cushions and enjoy your food in small dishes, beautifully presented. You'll probably get to try something you've never eaten before as well but that's what travel is all about.

You can also try the more exotic fare that you wouldn’t commonly see in Japanese restaurants in Australia. I enjoyed (or sort of) a traditional Japanese breakfast in my traditional ryokan hotel which included grilled fish, pickled vegetables and seaweed. Very different from bacon and eggs!

I also liked trying the local drinks including sake and beer, two drinks the Japanese do well. You can even buy it from the many vending machines on the street! At the market in Kyoto, I found a fabulous sparkling sake to savour on my last night there.

 

THE GARDENS ARE SUBLIME

I am not usually big on gardens. I like visiting some impressive gardens, but I wouldn’t put gardens high on my priority list when I travel but Japan takes them to a whole new level. If you’re a keen hobby photographer like me, you’ll be in photography heaven in Japanese gardens.

When I travel it doesn’t take me too long to get sick of temples and churches but in Japan, I never got sick of the gardens. 

  Ginkakuji, Kyoto
The garden of Ginkakuji in Kyoto with the autumn colours beginning to turn - just sublime.

Kyoto has a plethora of temples and gardens and I’m sure most people only scratch the surface when they visit. I’d particularly recommend the garden of the so-called Silver Temple or Ginkakuji. It’s not actually silver so you might be disappointed with the temple like I was, but you won’t be disappointed with the beautiful moss garden. It is sublime. I was there just as the autumn leaves were starting to change colour. It’s one of the reasons that Cherry Blossom season is not the only season, or reason to visit Japan. 

 

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

And speaking of gardens, I also loved the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove which is a garden of sorts. It can get really crowded so go early in the morning if you want to get photographs with fewer people. While you’re there you should also visit the Okochi-Sanso Villa which has a fabulous garden with a lot fewer tourists traipsing through it.

And I can honestly say that I always felt safe in the beautiful Japanese gardens. Avoiding belting around them, something I can be guilty of, and instead take the time to relax in the peacefulness of the them and enjoy their soothing ambience.

Although not quite a garden but make sure you visit the Vermillion Gates in Kyoto. The Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is a series of shrines that are all painted red and have been donated by individuals. You can go on a circuit walk which allows you to escape the throngs of tourists you find near the start of the walk.

YOU HAVE TO TRY THE TOTO TOILETS

I recommend you give the Toto a go when you visit Japan. I’ve visited quite a few countries and I’ve never seen such amazing toilets as you see in Japan. I usually don’t pay that much attention to such facilities, but in Japan they’re fascinating.

The Toto or comfort toilets have a built-in bidet system, heated seat, and much more. When I visited Japan twenty years ago these toilets were only in upmarket houses but now they are literally everywhere. Public toilets, toilets in railway stations, restaurants, moderately-priced hotels, shopping centres, and more.

I was a little intimidated at first but they’re pretty easy to operate, thanks to the symbols used alongside the Japanese characters. Definitely give the Toto a go when you visit Japan. I know this all sounds rather weird but you’ll see what I mean when you try it yourself.

And, for anyone with serious interest you can visit the Toto Musuem

 

HAVE YOUR TISSUES READY IN HIROSHIMA

My tears flowed freely after visiting the museum at Hiroshima, which is a sensitive look at an extremely dark event in Japanese history. There’s plenty of factual information about the bombs, the damage and the numbers of people affected but the really human side comes through in the personal stories, their clothes, personal belongings and more. It’s a sad reminder of how cruel and awful human beings can be to each other.

Peace Park Hiroshima

In Hiroshima, the other garden that I really enjoyed and is definitely worth a visit is the Peace Park in Hiroshima. It’s got a number of sculptures and memorials which are so poignant and tear-inducing.

A visit is solemn but somehow it also makes you feel a little uplifted and amazed by the human spirit.

 

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About the author

Nicola Rutzou

Nicola Rutzou is a keen traveller and freelance writer. She also writes her own blog about women’s cycling called Women Who Cycle

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