0. Some Tips & resources:
These may make more sense after reading through the explanations below. But in case this piece is too long to read, I’ve listed some resources here first:
- Travel / Getting around: Google Maps app (super accurate for trains), Hyperdia (honestly, I never use this).
- Payments: Bring lots of cash. Even lodgings are sometimes paid for in cash.
- Driving: ORIX, Nippon-Rent-a-Car and Toyota-Rent-a-Car.
- Accommodation: Rakuten Travel, Booking.com, Agoda, Japanican, Trivago, for the adventurous ikyu (Japanese only)
- Communication: Yomiwa and Google Translate (Japanese offline package)
- Local food recommendations: Google Maps, Tabelog (Japan’s Foursquare / Urbanspoon / Yelp, but much better for cities)
1. Business hours are recommendations.
Time has a different meaning in the rural areas. While websites may give specific opening times, sometimes shops close because an owner needs to run an errand or the restaurant has sold out for the day. The words “営業中” is pronounced eigyo-chu, which means they a place is currently serving customers.
2. Use cash.
For a super advanced technology and service country, Japan has some things that remain resolutely analogue. Payments in cash is one of them. Since Japan is a safe place, people regularly carry north of ¥20,000 (US$200) on them. For some years, it was a popular style for men to have long wallets waving out of their back pockets. Of course, use common sense such as splitting up your cash between your wallet and a safe spot in your bag.
When getting Japanese Yen, I suggest you get ¥10,000 (US$100) bills. It will save you a massive pile of money (¥10,000 / US$1000 is only 10 bills!). Then, break your change at a 24/7 convenience store or train station. There is no minimum purchase to break a bill, so you can buy a ¥100 (US$ 1) bottled drink and they will give you ¥9,900 back in bills and coins.
Unless you’ve pre-paid for your accommodations and transportation, I would suggest bringing enough cash to cover both that and your daily food and activity expenses. My Mastercards didn’t work half the time in Japan; AE worked if it was accepted. I was using cash most of my year in Tokyo, too.
3. Local trains and buses are reliably…sparse.
Many local trains wind through mountains and sail along the coast. Unlike the Shinkansen, bullet trains, that race through the urban centres, local trains stop at every sleepy village along their routes. However, many of the most untouched rural areas also have infrequent service. Trains heading from main stations to the countryside may stop at different stations. For example, some will only travel half-way, and some may travel turn at a fork along a different route.
If you are adventurous and want to try reading the signs (which are in Japanese), look up your stop in Japanese first to save the name. Then, check all the stops along the train route to see whether your station is along all the trains passing through.
Tip: Stick to the train you searched on Hyperdia or Google Maps.
For buses: Take buses only if you are prepared. Prepared means knowing your exact bus times and stops, and having the name of your destination printed in Japanese to show the bus driver. Japanese bus drivers are super polite and try earnestly to help, but they also cannot be expected to understand English (written or spoken). They probably cannot answer any questions in English. As long as you can show them your exact bus stop (not just an address of where you want to go, because they may not know which is the closest stop), they will make sure to stop for you and signal to you.
4. Drive…if you can.
The highlight of rural Japan is the scenery, which is easiest to access with a car.
Note that Japan drives on the left side of the road like the British system. Also note that you need an international driver’s license to rent a car.
The great news about driving in Japan is that everything is much slower. In cities, many local roads have a 30 km/hr limit and drivers always yield to cyclists and pedestrians. There’s rarely honking, so you can take your time to figure out where you’re going.
Many of Japan’s most scenic spots are in the rural areas, such as in the mountains or along coastal routes. I would highly recommend driving in places like Hokkaido so that you can maximise enjoying the scenery at the most optimal time rather than trying to catch the one bus that goes somewhere.
5. Use a map.
Reception is sometimes unreliable in rural areas, so having a backup is always good! I recommend the offline Maps.me (available on iOS and Android) and downloading an area map before leaving the city. Google Maps also has ‘geo-tags’ for spots, so you can copy your favourite places into your new app to see the pins.
Offline maps are particularly useful for hiking in remote areas to find trail heads.
6. Eat what you can’t read.
Japan’s local villages may look similar on the surface with their tiled roofs, wooden structures, and tatami mat rooms. However, the real charm is in their hidden specialities, such as katsuo tataki in Kochi Prefecture or Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki with yakisoba. Japanese communities are proud of their traditions and show them off with posters and stores on the main street. If you see a line-up, join in and order whatever everyone else is ordering (most places have one signature food).
7. Take maps with a big grain of salt.
Many of rural Japan’s most scenic spots have no English signage. Famous spots usually have Japanese signs, so be sure to copy the Japanese text onto your phone before heading out so you can recognise them later.
Don’t only look for signage! Stop and you will probably be at a breathtaking vista or look out the train window! Whether you are in the Japanese Alps or facing the Sea of Japan, rural Japan will instantly charm you with its hills, valleys, rushing rivers, rice paddies, and splatter of houses.
8. Use daylight
While Tokyo is known for its city lights and 24-hour life, Japan’s rural areas are known for their harmony with nature. Farmers rise at dawn between 4-6am. Many famous sights are also known for a view at a specific time of the day. Some places are known for their golden sunsets, others for their evening birdsong. Some villages set up community dances and activities in the evening.
The bottom line is, follow what locals normally do to get the fullest experience of the Japanese countryside.
9. Please learn some Japanese
A few Japanese phrases will take you a long way. People are kind and often friendly. In addition to the functional phrases in pocketbook guides, many easy expressions will make locals feel like you understand them a little bit better.
Daijyobu – It’s okay / I’m fine.
Osusume wa? – What would you recommend?
Kaikei onegaishimasu – Bill please.
Arigatou – Thank you.
Artigatogozaimasu – Thank you very much!
Sumimasen – Excuse me. But this phrase is used in many contexts, and often before or as in replacement of thank you. You can use it when someone gives you their seat, offers you a drink, and of course if you need to get attention.
Gochisosama – Thank you for the meal / that was a feast. Personally, I think this makes chefs and restaurant people even more happy than if you tell them oishii (it’s delicious). A common expression when leaving a restaurant.
10. Download a translator
They are invaluable for translating menus and signs. Yomiwa is good for taking screenshots. Google Translate can only take screenshots if you are online. For writing Chinese characters that are often used for signs, you can do a handwritten Chinese input to draw in the character that you see as common Chinese and Japanese characters are mostly interchangeable.
11. The countryside is…not Tokyo, Osaka, or any Japanese city.
In the Japanese countryside, the pace of life is more relaxed and people are friendly because everyone knows each other. Houses are often not locked and neighbours will often stop by to drop off fresh picks from the garden. Shopkeepers may pause to greet someone who walks in even though they’re helping you. In this case, don’t be offended, as they will come back to you!
Strangers will often say ‘ohaiyo‘ (good morning) or ‘konichi wa‘ (hello). Say hello back!
For travellers going off the beaten track, the villages you encounter may not see many (if any) foreign visitors. If you have light skin and hair colour, you may be stared at. The locals do not mean to be rude; they are just a little surprised!
For onsen visitors, note that country onsens may have young boys in the women’s area. As going to the onsen is usually a family outing, grandmothers may bring in their grandsons who could be up to 10 years old. Tattoos are often frowned upon as they are associated with yakuza, Japanese gangs. If you have a small tattoo in a discrete area, use your towel to cover it.
12. Restaurants are houses
Truly rural Japan is basically made up of only houses, traditional or modern. Many shop keepers live right above the shop, just like they have done for generations. お食事 indicate food. Because these restaurants are often traditional houses, they may also have a raised genkan area where guests are expected to take off their shoes.
13. Pretty rice paddies and mountains are homes for bugs, too.
The Japanese countryside means nature, which also means some crawly friends! Whether you are up in the mountains or down in the fields, be prepared for mosquitos! One of the best mosquito repellents is local Japanese incense that looks like a spiral that is called ka-tori-senko. Alternatively, just bring a bottle of bug spray to keep the critters away.
14. Ryokan and minshuku are experiences, not hotels
Ryokan and minshuku are the traditional bed and breakfasts of Japan. Some are large country houses while others have expanded to have more modern amenities like spa and game rooms. The important thing to remember is that ryokan and minshuku offer excellent service, but are not run like hotels for convenience. Many are still traditional and family run. Here are some tips on what to do:
- Pay on arrival
- Cash only: independent, family-run places don’t take credit cards
- Usually one or two meals (usually dinner, and maybe breakfast) are included in the price. Some places accept sudomari (bookings without meals).
- Make same day bookings by noon (after that, the places do not have enough time to prepare your dinner)
- If there is a same-day cancellation, there’s an expectation you will pay the full fare.
- Don’t arrive until after 3pm. Preparations are being made.
- Arrive by 5pm because they need to serve your dinner!
- Take off your shoes in your room and leave them by the door
- Use the provided slippers to walk around the ryokan or minshuku rather than your street shoes
15. Accept generosity by graciously refusing, then accepting
The rule with receiving gifts is first to pretend that you don’t want it. You can gesture this by maybe shaking your head mildly and a gentle “stop” sign. You might also add a smile and say, “dayjoubu” (I’m fine), as a rough explanation. If they stop after your first smile and gentle refusal, don’t feel offended if they don’t offer again.
But, generally the approach is to refuse not once, but a few, times. If they still insist, they probably mean it, so just say “sumimasen” (excuse me) with a slight bow and “arigato-gozaimasu” (thank you very much). It won’t hurt to say it a few times, such as when you’re getting up to leave, putting on your shoes, and as you do your final goodbye (close the door to the restaurant or walk down the block).
People in the rural areas can be mind-bogglingly generous and I’ve gotten everything from free drinks at vending machines, to rides, full day tours, off the menu fresh catches, and even hand-made crafts.
16. Natural, not polished.
Don’t always expect to be wow’d. Rural Japan is quaint more than grand. Ryokan can be quite simple, even rough around the edges. If you want a polished establishment, choose one of the bigger places with English websites on Rakuten Travel. The food likely not dazzle in the same way Osaka does, impress with its delicacy as in Kyoto, or show the same innovation as Tokyo. But your food will be served an honest fare with vegetables that are picked within a day or two and fish that probably comes from the closest river. I say this only to manage expectations because I love rural Japan. I am even more at home in the rice paddies and on mountain lodges than Tokyo. But just bring no expectations and enjoy yourself!
If you are looking for other tips, check out my post Top 10 Apps to Travel in Japan like a Local.