Japan: the land of sadistic game shows, insane inventions and an incomprehensible alphabet. It’s the kind of country where you wouldn’t think it hard to get outside your comfort zone. But in reality, travelling in Japan is a whole lot less challenging than you might expect, especially in the megatropolis of Tokyo. The Metro is logically laid out and clearly signposted, pretty much everywhere has English signs and menus, and nearly everyone understands enough English to make up for the fact that, like a typical Western ignoramous, you’ve rocked up to the country without learning a few basic phrases. So with that in mind, AWOL set out in Tokyo and its surrounds to find a few quintessential Japanese experiences that really will push you outside of your comfortable cultural bubble.
#1 Get full frontal naked in front of strangers at an onsen
Unless you’re a regular naturist, chances are you don’t nude-up in front of strangers very often. But if you want to experience a traditional Japanese hot spring – an onsen – then you’ll have to ditch the clothes and let it all hang loose in semi-public. Onsen are separated by the sexes, but it’s still intimidating walking butt-naked into a room full of strangers with only a small handtowel to preserve your privacy. That said, after 20 minutes in the sauna watching a cooking show on TV with a dozen other naked, sweating men, the awkwardness fades away and you can start to really appreciate the muscle and mind-relaxing process of moving from sauna to icy plunge pool to scalding 41-degree mineral hot spring.
#2 Go Yama Girl
A few years ago, the home of wacky style trends birthed a new one: ‘yama girls’, literally ‘mountain girls’. It’s a subculture of girls (guys can get in on it too) who like hiking mountains while still looking cool – think the ideal target market of brands like Kathmandu, Patagonia and Colorado. The movement has birthed its own range of magazines and its own style heroes, but at its heart it’s a co-option of Japanese culture’s long-held respect for the great outdoors, with a twist of fashun. There are plenty of mountainous areas you can reach within a daytrip of Tokyo – not least the venerable Mount Fuji itself – and all you’ll need to be an authentic yama girl is a pair of legs, a mountain to scale, some rad-but-practical outdoor clothes, and a sense of adventure.
#3 Eat something unusual at an izakaya
There are few finer Japanese experiences than squeezing in at the counter of a Japanese izakaya – a tiny bar that serves food – and consuming cold beer and chargrilled skewers amidst the fug of smoke and conversation. The Golden Gai block just north of Shinjuku station is one of best spots for this; one of the last remaining outposts of ‘old Tokyo’, it’s a cross-section of laneways so narrow that two people can’t pass comfortably, housing tiny izakaya that won’t seat more than eight people at a time. If you can manage to squeeze into a seat, you can also take advantage of some of the delicious ‘special skewers’ on offer, like the rich flavours of barbequed chicken skin, liver and heart.
#4 Run the gauntlet of the Shinjuku red light district
After a few days of adapting to Japan’s social standards of polite unobtrusiveness, wandering into the neon-lit bustle of Shinjuku’s red light district is a shock, especially if you’re male: prepare to be hustled from every side by barkers trying to get you into strip clubs, sex clubs and various other nefarious establishments.
If you can make it all the way to the far end, you’ll find Tokyo’s famous Robot Bar, where for about $80AUD you can watch a completely insane and incomprehensible stage show starring dancers in bikinis and warring zoomorphic robots, once described as “less a culinary establishment, and more a dystopian cabaret that harnesses the glitz and flamboyant consumerist spirit of Bubble Era-Japan, updating it with a millennial self-awareness.”Or, you can dive into one of the hundreds of bars dedicated to darts, pinball and pool, or one of the vast parlours of video games or pachinko machines (a blindingly bright and ear-shatteringly loud Japanese arcade game that’s halfway between a poker machine and pinball).
#5 Stay at an Airbnb
If you want to see what it’s really like to live in a foreign city, it’s hard to go past staying at someone’s Airbnb place. With a bit of luck, you’ll get a place with hosts who are willing to sit down and have a chat, or maybe even take you for a drink, and the part that will really push you outside of your comfort zone? Trying to find the place with your suitcase in hand as you navigate through the rabbit warren of anonymous backstreets that make up Tokyo’s residential suburbs. Staying in a hotel is nice – clean sheets! Fresh towels every day! – but to really get a feel for the Tokyo lifestyle, you can’t beat a bit of Airbnb hopping (or even Couch Surfing).
(Lead image: Shinichi Higashi/Flickr)
Nick Jarvis is the editor of global dance music community inthemix, and the former editor of Time Out Beirut, The Brag and 3D World. He writes for Junkee, FasterLouder and various other outlets.