I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.
Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.
Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.
On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.
It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.
Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?
Go with your guidebook?
With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.
Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.
Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.
However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.
Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.
So how to go about finding them?
Go local. Get specific.
If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.
Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.
For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.
However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.
It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.
So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.
And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.