Monthly Archives: August 2012

Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

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?

Hardly.

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.

The language.

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.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

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.

 

 

How to Survive the Japanese Summer

The Japanese are particularly proud of their four seasons. Blissfully unaware that many a nation also enjoys four varieties of weather, they nonetheless do have a great deal to be pleased with when it comes to the climate.

On one end of the scale I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Nagano Prefecture in freezing cold December when though my toes were either freezing off or close to melting under my kotatsu, I was able to enjoy the beauty of an endless range of snow capped mountains in every direction I cared to look.

Similarly my luck in landing just at the top of the Izu Peninsula, in sight of Mt. Fuji, a short train ride from the beautiful coastline and wonderful sunshine through most of the year is something… I’m not currently enjoying all that much.

You see there’s one problem with being an Englishman in Japan. We are by our very nature, atsugari or sensitive to the heat.

Now we’ve been having beautiful thirty one degree days around here of late, which would be fine if it weren’t for the horribly, stifling humidity. The sad reality of this is that I am too hairy, too painfully, awkwardly, sweatily British for such climes. I feel my brow gush salty water down my face from the second I step out the door in the morning and doubly so when I finally enter a beautifully air conditioned building for work.

It ought to be a relief yet the reality is that such a sharp change in temperature, while initially refreshing merely leads all the humidity you’ve somehow gathered up and dragged with your heavy-laden legs through the door to condense in seconds thus drowning you from within your own clothes.

So how do the Japanese survive this?

Well there’s cool biz which is essentially the sale of clothes that happen to cope far better with humidity and heat and the absence of long sleeves and ties for men.

There’s the air conditioners turned up to full blast despite last year’s and this year’s efforts at power saving or setsuden.

I personally make use of a frozen pillow while others opt for a strip of cool, blue fabric stuck to the back of their neck or to their forehead.

However, if you really want to understand how the Japanese get through such muggy, draining heat waves you’ve just got to look at how people spend their evenings in the summer months.

Summer festivals, fireworks, cold beer, BBQ meat on a stick and shaved ice in a cup topped with bright, fruity, sugary, sauce aka kakigori.

Much like I couldn’t make it through the misery of England’s winter months without Christmas and New year’s to brighten my horizon I couldn’t imagine getting through a long summer here in Shizuoka without the relief these festivals bring.

There really is nothing like seeing a previously sleepy town erupt into life as every family from miles around comes to eat, drink, carry Mikoshi (portable shrine), bash away at the Taiko drums and dance in the street.

So if like me you’re melting in this summer heat, do yourself a favour, slip into a yukata don some geta and crack open a cold one while gazing at a sky filled with more fireworks than Guy Fawkes has ever seen.

And be thankful, that while Christmas comes but once a year, matsuri (summer festivals) are every weekend.