People like to explore. But only safe places. That have nice bathrooms. And good hotels. Oh, and they need to have that good brunch place with a view so we can sleep in and then take Instagram photos while we have breakfast to make everyone jealous.
In the words of the Australians, yeah, nah. There’s something there that doesn’t line up. People like to talk a big game, but the risks they take are different. Some people really do take those risks, but also, every day, people upload their, “Oh my gosh! I’m an explorer!” videos to YouTube. Of the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 10 years. And that’s fine, too. The only way to see a place is to go, and just because someone else has already gone, it doesn’t disqualify your own horizon-broadening experience. Besides, at this rate, there are not many places that haven’t been thoroughly explored and marketed to the tourist market.
But… here’s the weird thing about Japan… The thing everyone does is really the thing to do. There’s a beaten tourist path. It travels down the shinkansen from Tokyo and Yokohama to Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe, and then further down to Hiroshima, and then maybe even farther down to Nagasaki if you have the time. Everyone does it, and means the hipster instinct in us all is to reject that path, and find some secret, hidden Japan that reveals the truths of Japan to us more deeply.
But don’t do that. Not for your first time here. Go to Kyoto. See the Golden Pavillion and Kiyomizudera. Go to the Kaiyukan in Osaka. See the Daibutsu in Nara. Visit Itsukushima shrine, and please, seriously please, visit the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Go to Asakusa and Meiji Shrine, and see Takeshita Dori, and Tokyo Tower.
Yes. Everyone does those things, and it doesn’t make you more special than your other friends who have visited Japan. But it doesn’t matter. In order to get off Japan’s beaten path, you have to know the beaten path. There’s a world of difference between venturing from the beaten path toward a goal you know is there, and wandering aimlessly in a pathless forest.
I love getting off of Japan’s beaten path. There’s been a few times even where I’ve watched Japan’s beaten path change. (Right now, all the foreign tourists seem to think Nagoya is the hot new “off the beaten path” spot. Yeah, I know, Micah. I don’t get it. Don’t even ask me to try to explain it.) I get the burning need to do that new and different thing. I ultimately feel the same way. But seeing a small shrine that’s poorly maintained and carved into a mountainside in the middle of nowhere doesn’t help you unless you have the context to understand what those figures represent, and why the people that maintain them do.
Seriously, sometimes the thing to do is really, honestly, and truly, the thing to do. Buy the rail pass. Do the tourist things. See Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Tokyo, and Hiroshima. And then come back. There are more places off Japan’s beaten path than any of us will ever have time to explore. And you should explore those. But give yourself the context to appreciate them first.