As one of two regular contributors to Topless Robot with a particular affinity for Japanese manga and anime, it might surprise some of you to know that, until last week, I had never – gasp! – visited the motherland. Yessir, I hadn’t yet made the pilgrimage to Glorious Nippon!
And so, armed with a passport and a few thousand Yen, my girlfriend and I took the plunge and braved the twelve-hour international flight to the land of manga, robots, video games, and other things that make my nerd heart melt.
The dead of winter might not necessarily be the most optimal time to visit a northern continent, especially considering the fact that I live in Los Angeles where our concept of “cold” is anything below 70. Still, there are a lot of cool things you can only do in Japan in the winter, so here’s 15 things to do, see, and check out in Japan!
1) Visit the Snow Monkeys at the Jigokudani Monkey Park
Out of all the coolest things I did in Japan, this was easily the coolest. And I’m not just talking about the bitterly cold two-mile trek through the snow-covered mountains, either. (By the way, in case it weren’t obvious, bring lots of warm winter clothing for Japan in the winter. It gets pretty damn cold.)
If there’s one universal truth that unites all of us, it’s that monkeys are pretty fun things to watch. They’re like people! Except they’re all fuzzy and smaller! The snow monkeys in northern Japan – Japanese macaques, specifically – are the northernmost non-human primates in the world. Which means that they don’t have any ground-based predators. Which means, when they descend from the trees in the winter to warm themselves in sulfur-fueled water baths, they’re perfectly okay with gawking spectators like myself.
Seriously, they just bounce around like you’re not even there. It’s amazing.
This is a pretty popular tourist spot over the winter, so don’t freak out while you’re on the trail and you hear several grumpy British amateur photographers behind you, trudging through the snow and muttering “bloody hell” while lugging heavy and expensive camera equipment behind you.
2) Get Bitten by Deer at the Nara Deer Park
If, for some reason, you want a more intimate encounter with Japanese wildlife, however, the Sika deer at the Todai-ji temple in Nara will foot the bill.
Also at the Todai-ji temple, you’ll find an enormous, fifty-foot tall statue of Buddha, which contains a pillar with an open hole roughly the size of the Buddha statue’s nose. Apparently passing through this nose will grant you wisdom and ONE SINGLE WISH, so of course dumbass American tourists like myself can’t pass up the opportunity to get stuck, Winnie the Pooh-style, in a small wooden hole. (Luckily for me, I’m thin as a stick.)
Outside the temple, the bowing Sika deer roam free. And there’s hundreds of the fuzzy fuckers everywhere. They seem so docile! You can pet them! So of course you feel honor-bound to visit one of the local vendors and buy them some cookies – “Bambi cookies,” as they call them.
Be prepared, though, for a full-on Sika deer onslaught. Suddenly these docile, gentle creatures become ferocious, biting, head-butting assholes once they smell one whiff of a tourist with some cookies.
3) Visit Akihabara and Den Den Town
So once you’ve experienced sopping-wet Snow Monkeys and after you’ve received several bruises and welts from Sika deer, it’s time to hit the Japanese nerd meccas and spend your precious Yen!
There are all kinds of cool and weird shops lining every street corner, but be advised of a few things.
One – I’ll get to this a bit later, but navigating Japanese streets is hard, so be prepared to get really lost. Especially if you’re looking for a specific place.
Two – the seedier elements of Akiba and Den Den Town become suffocatingly uncomfortable after a certain point. Once you get over the fun neon-barf aesthetic, you realize that this is a focal point of porno shops, pachinko parlors (Japanese gambling establishments, essentially), and legit Maid Cafes where doe-eyed Japanese waifus stand outside in Gothic Lolita outfits, proffering their brief friendship and loyalty towards sad-sack Otaku for several thousand Yen.
Three – shit gets expensive all of a sudden. Don’t think you’re going to Akiba or Den Den Town to pick up some cheap souvenirs, because you won’t. And if you’re in the market for some anime DVDs or video games? Be prepared to spend a small fortune. These prices are the norm for nerds in Japan. Which is to say, very expensive. Us Americans refuse to pay any more than 20 to 30 dollars for a Blu Ray, while in Japan the norm is 4,000 Yen or more – roughly 40 bucks. This is why, in the anime world, Japanese publishers go to great lengths to prevent Japanese fans from reverse-importing DVDs and Blu Rays for stuff like Fullmetal Alchemist that are released in America at much, much cheaper prices.
Still, it’s almost a rite of passage for any nerd-inclined individual to experience these two dork palaces, so make sure you save some time to gawk at everything.
4) Visit a Japanese Arcade
And while you’re visiting said dork palaces, why not drop by a Japanese arcade and become bewildered?
I say “bewildered” because when you think of the word “arcade,” you think of traditional arcade machines. Your Street Fighter IIs and whatnot. In Japan, arcades are still sort of a thing; whereas in America they’ve all but died, Japan’s arcades have evolved in a very strange direction. The three types of games you’ll find in Japanese arcades are:
Crane games! They call these “UFO Catchers” in Japan. You know the drill – you plunk down a dollar, move a little crane around, and hope the machine somehow allows you to grab a stuffed animal or something. In Japan, though, these things are incredibly popular and filled with weird shit.
You can grab this Evangelion figurine of Shinji!
Or lots of other weird shit! Like, I dunno, lunch!
The other type of games there: Gundam games! These ridiculous-looking pods are a sort of VR-style game where you pretend to enter into a life-sized Gundam cockpit. The pods are all networked together, and everyone battles it out for first place. These things are expensive – around 5,000 Yen (5 dollars) a pop – but the hardcore players spend nearly all day in these things.
The last type of game: Gambling games! If you’re brave enough to venture towards the top floor, chances are you’ll see a throng of gambling games – that is, video games where you pretend to bet on stuff, in this case a virtual soccer match – all attended by chainsmoking Japanese players.
5) Get Drunk in an Izakaya
So, now you need a place to grab some grub and a pint or two. Make sure to find a local Izakaya to do this.
There are a few places in the US that call themselves “Izakaya,” but chances are they’re bullshit. Just insanely expensive Japanese restaurants that serve craft cocktails and give themselves a fancy name. Actual Japanese Izakaya are basically pubs; places where tired salarymen find themselves after work to drown their sorrows in cheap sake and beer, fill their stomachs with sashimi and fried food, and drink and chainsmoke incessantly until 2 in the morning.
Actual Izakayas are great, and well worth seeking out. Least of all because the typically shy Japanese citizens suddenly become friendly, inebriated compatriots; the Izakaya my girlfriend and I found next to a train station by the Tokyo Dome Hotel was filled with eager salarymen putting their drunken English skills to good use, helping us navigate the needlessly complicated menu and pouring us a heaping helping of sake out of his own pocket. (God bless you, Tao. Hope you and your date, Licca, are doing well.)
6) Stay in a Ryokan, Boil in an Onsen
Now you need a place to rest and a way to wash off all the second-hand smoke. Time to find a Ryokan!
A Ryokan being a traditional Japanese inn, the kind where traveling merchants would rest their weary feet. We’re talking tatami mats, a yukata to wear, the whole nine yards. They’ll also feed you a traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast, in case you want to try eating a whole snail (not bad!) and pickled vegetables and rice.
You’re also more than welcome to take a dip in the onsen, the Japanese hot springs that are ubiquitous in every anime that ever dared to show animated nudity. That’s because onsen require nudity. Yep; if you want to try the onsen, you gotta be in the buff. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. It’s actually quite nice, climbing into a boiling pool of sulfur water next to a bunch of nude Chinese tourists. It’s also a perfectly normal way to walk around nude with other foreign people that won’t get you arrested. Bonus!
7) Drink Strange Things From Vending Machines
Next on your trip, make sure to frequent the numerous beverage vending machines that pepper the Japanese cityscapes like stars in the sky.
The great thing about these vending machines? They serve hot drinks! Which means when you’re traipsing through bitterly cold winterscapes, you’re never more than a few blocks away from a machine that, for a mere 120 yen or so, will serve you a warm bottle or can of tea, coffee, or even hot, sugary lemon-water.
I literally made it a point to drink everything I could from these things. I had about a 25/75 split between delicious treats and gross crap. Maybe your tastes will differ!
8) Visit the Snow-Covered Garden Paradise That is Kenroku-en in Kanazawa
With a warm beverage in hand, your next stop is the gobsmacking beauty that is the Kenroku-en gardens.
This place is a national treasure all year round, but in the winter, it’s a snow-filled paradise that seems like it jumped out of a Studio Ghibli movie.
Words can’t do this place justice, so here’s a photo:
9) Drink Tea With Owls in Osaka
But enough of the beauty and majesty of nature – here’s a place that’ll let you drink Ginger Ale and pet some owls!
There’s actually quite a few of these places around Osaka – this one here we found on a side street in the bustling shopping district of Dotonbori, but there’s also Owl Family and a few others. Not to mention the popular Cat Cafes. Essentially, just pick an animal, and there’s probably a cafe that is filled with ’em.
10) Witness Huge, Angry Japanese Crows
Speaking of birds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the enormous, frightening Japanese crows.
Like something out of a sordid, 19th century horror novel, Japanese crows are fucking huge and sound a lot angrier than their North American corvid brothers. And crows are smart, too – don’t be surprised if you happen upon three crows stacked on top of each other inside a trench coat, purporting to be a human and sitting at a restaurant.
11) Play the Table-Flipping Arcade Game
Now here’s something that’s totally for the birds – an arcade game where, for 100 Yen, you play as a frustrated Japanese dad, who flips a table and causes all manner of havoc and destruction! In the words of my girlfriend: “it’s like they based an arcade game on my alcoholic father!”
The game is called Cho Chabudai Gaeshe (Super Table Flip!), and tasks you as an angry Japanese man in a variety of situations. My chosen scenario? A man at a funeral, suffering through the hysteric cries of a shrieking widow, a drunken priest, and several snotty children. With one big flip of the plastic table, your character shouts “BAKAYAROU” and sends the casket flying, corpse in tow, as it crashes into people and objects; the point being, the more destruction you cause, the higher your points.
Make sure to find it, if you’re the kind of weirdo like me who is into fucked up video games. This one we found at the Namco Wonder Tower in Kyoto.
12) See Nicolas Cage and Tommy Lee Jones Hawking Japanese Products
Now, what’s the point of being an American in Japan without scouring the landscape for celebrity cameos? Sure enough, you can find several throughout the major cities – like Nicolas Cage here, hawking watches with his trademark crazed glower and ridiculous toupee.
There’s also Tommy Lee Jones on a vending machine, reminding all of us to drink Coffee Boss.
13) Witness Japan’s Weird Fascination With the Movie Ted
While we’re on the subject of strange American-Japanese cultural cross-pollination, one of the things I noticed during my trip was just how much they seem to love the movie Ted over there. There’s Ted merchandise in every store, Ted toys in every crane game and capsule machine, and even the guy outside the SEGA-owned arcade was welcoming passers-by while waving around a Ted figurine.
Guess the movie was a hit there. Huh.
14) Navigating Japanese Streets Is Hard
One thing to keep in mind as you plan a trip to Japan – they don’t organize their streets the same way us Americans are used to. You might think you can get by strictly on Google Maps (I did), and boy howdy, are you in for a rude awakening. For one thing, Google Maps does work, but all the street names are listed in Japanese, not English or even Romanji. Also, unless the place you’re looking for has its name officially in English, don’t think you’ll be able to pull it up just by plugging it in to Google; you’ll need to find the original Japanese text of the place first.
Not to mention the fact that overseas data plans for cell phones are expensive. So, there are a few options that’ll make things easier. One, there are quite a few apps for either Android or iOS that’ll make navigating Tokyo and other major cities easier; some cost a few hundred Yen, though. Two, you can do what we did, and simply go along with a tour guide. Failing that, simply bring along a friend who’s already familiar with the area. And if you’re relying on your phone to do the lion’s share of the navigation, look into renting a portable 4G Wi-Fi unit – it’ll probably cost a whole hell of a lot less than an overseas data plan.
15) Fly Out of Kansai, not Narita or Hanabe
Perhaps most importantly, though! If you’re thinking of visiting Japan in the wintertime, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD make sure you fly in and out of the Kansai airport in Osaka, and NOT the Narita or Hanabe airports in Tokyo. It’s probably a bit more expensive, and there probably aren’t as many flights, but it’ll be worth it.
Because! Osaka rarely, if ever, sees any snow. Tokyo, meanwhile, has to deal with snow constantly. Speaking from experience here, it’s probably worth your time and money in order to avoid any possible scenario wherein you’re stuck in Hanabe from a major snowstorm for literally 48 hours, sleeping on the airport floor with other stranded international refugees, unable to book an adjacent hotel because they’re booked solid, your every attempt at slumber ruined by the cackling monstrosities being bellowed by a nearby Hello Kitty machine, luring innocents towards it with a madness-inducing song that loops in an endless fury, over and over again, until one questions the validity of their own concept of sanity.
But other than that! I had a fantastic time in Japan in the winter, and you can too!
Previously by Brian Hanson: