An extremely opinionated list of places and spaces I love about life in Japan based on other places I’ve lived (Hong Kong and London) as a Chinese Canadian…in recent years, as a “digital nomad” too.
As someone who’s idea of a vacation is to go walking and urban camping, Japan’s national past time has charmed me to the idea of relaxing and spa-like amenities.
Each onsen is required to state its mineral properties and the resulting waters can be yellow, brackish, or super clear. Onsen can be simple pool overlooking the bay or private garden, or have jets and spouts… and they’re also the lounges, restaurants, and overnight rooms as well.
2. The great rivers of Edo
The Tamagawa, Edogawa, Arakawa, and Sumida are the four great rivers of upon which Edo, now Tokyo, was founded. They are vast, meandering waterways that originate in the western mountains and empty into Tokyo Bay. Not often a destination for tourists, the rivers have shaped the district of the city and been anchors for festivities such as the firework festivals in summer.
They are also site of long promenades, recreational paths, cycling routes, and many a football or baseball field where locals gather for practices and tournaments. Dogs frolicked, toddlers ride their first bike, elderly do their morning fishing. I watched the Arakawa’s shifting tides and the families that made the riverbanks a community area for a year.
Professional and modern ones with understated polish and gorgeous ocean views or small family-run ones with century-old paper scrolls. Even the tiny ones that are little more than large houses in rural towns. One I remember best are at Shibu Onsen in Nagno, Hagi in Yamaguchi, and Gujo-Hachiman in Gifu.
In addition to Mount Fuji, too many to name. Mt Ishizuchi’s sheer face on Shikoku, Mt. Tate’s 4 distinct seasonal faces in Toyama. The entire Southern Japanese Alp range and the prefectures of Gifu and Nagano. The northern range that blocks clouds from the Sea of Japan, leading to Yamagata’s famous reputation as Snow Country.
The neighbourhood shopping street (literally the meaning of shotengai). You cannot miss the arches that mark the entrance and the uniform flags that may line the lamp posts. Many may have different cobblestones or be sealed off from car traffic. Expect to find grocery shops, pharmacies, kimono shops, and century-old snack and candy stores. Some are more famous than others — I like the small ones with stalls frequented by school kids best.
Funashi and Kumamon (Kumamoto’s bear) are probably the two most famous ones. Bananas, frogs, strawberries, cute mascots basically. For cities and for neighbourhoods.
7. Trains passing train stations
Anyone who watches slice-of-life animes and Japanese movies will recognise that gentle rattling of wheels over the tracks.
8. Train compartments
The sunlight that sweeps through the windows. The swinging hand holds. The manual announcements. Those are the commuter trains.
9. Cyberpunk Tokyo
At Omideyokocho and under the highway overpasses. Akihabara’s second-hand electronics stores. Underground restaurants in Asakusa and quiet train stations.
Japanese temples are mostly peaceful spots replete with nature, old architecture and friendly monks. Nevertheless, they have some pretty terrifying guardians at their gate known as Nio. These statues have character and it’s possible to grow fond of the Nio at your local temple.
11. Temples and Shrines at sunrise
One of those iconic Japanese scenes that walking henro on Shikoku have the good fortune of seeing often while doing a pilgrimage across 88 temples. The serenity of entering a temple ground to await the first rays of sunlight has forever made the idea a viable morning activity. Indeed, I did the same thing a year later at Miyajima and Kunisaki.
12. Kami-sama / Jizo
Jizo is a popular protector often depicted as a monk. He is the protector of travellers and children in the afterlife. You’ll find him in odd corners and as a little village in the forest. More likely, you’ll spot his red and rainbow-coloured hats, bibs, and shoes, provided by people who want to keep him warm.
13. Small Bars
Japan has a tiny everything, of which bars are particularly popular. In some ways, the smallest ones are the most prized. Find one that you love and get your own bottlekeep so that you can come back every week or two to catch up with the bartender, and the other regulars you inevitably get to know.
Lights. Makoto Shinkai. Train station. Golden Gai. Omoideyokocho. Government buildings. Shinjuku Gyoen. Isetan. Clothes shopping. Niichome. They say there are Shibuya people and Shinjuku people. I was resolutely an anti-commercial-and-tourist-hub person. And a fondness creeped up on me that has since never left. Tokyo’s boulevard of broken dreams, remnant Edo-firehazard architectural gusto, dignified gardens, and mighty offices. Equally sleezy, sophisticated, upscale, and down to earth.
The low city. The Edo that drowned with every flood of the Sumida, Edo, or Ara rivers. The Edo that burned in the great fire, that collapsed and rebuilt itself in the great kanto earthquake. The low city that sprung up to cater to the high city that the Tokugawa Shogunate established when it settled in present day Tokyo.
Nihonbashi, where the 7 trade routes of Edo begin. Look for the underground station scroll that depicts historical Nihonbashi. Ueno, Asakusa, Nihonbashi, and residential areas like Monzennakacho.
16. The family shops
My favourite daifuku place is because — firstly, it’s delicious and a walk-in museum from the 70s. The ojii-san who runs it recognised me and my sister after the first visit. My favourite cafe, Iki Espresso, had the same thing. The server at Rire Ginza.
17. Shinjuku Gyoen, Parks, and Gardens
Shinjuku Gyoen. Inokashira Park. Kenroku-en in Kanazawa. But also the small garden temples, backyards of cafes, big and small.
18. Tokyo Lights
Go anywhere high — Shinjuku’s Metropolitan Government building’s top-floor observatory, Shibuya Station’s Starbucks, Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum, the Tokyo Skytree. Tokyo’s lights stretch into the black horizon. In winter, make sure you go around to see the winter illuminations. Start with Ginza, but wander into local neighbourhoods like Meguro as well.
Kissaten aren’t quite the same without at smoker or two. Those ghostly swirls that paint texture into the dark wooden interiors and pitch back corners. There are two types of Kissaten — the family ones that are as much about the comfort foods like curry — and the ones with the masters with perfectly gelled hair and clipped ties deftly whimping up 5 different coffee cocktails.
Japan has a thriving cafe culture with a wide range of both small cafes and chains that are consistently lively.
21. Potted plants everywhere
Tokyo is an ugly city, according to many. But it is a city also bursting with a tenacious nurturing of greenery. Whether it’s the mandarin orange tree dropping a fruit or two over the fence onto the road or the pots dangling impossibly from the stairwells on hills. They often threaten to topple onto the residential streets.
22. Japanese Countryside
Half-way to Narita and you will already see the neat rows of rice paddies. Nature touches lightly in Japan’s efficient and crowded cities. But humanity leaves an equally light mark on the countryside. Don’t be too surprised if you hear a school bell announcement at 5pm every day.
Thanks for reading! Check out the other 100+ things I’ll miss about Japan!