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We can all be a victim of our own expectations sometimes, and for me, that was my trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in a nutshell. I had been dreaming about visiting Japan for YEARS, and my bucket list was out of control.
Living in China, I could practically taste Japan it was so close. But every time I tried to buy a ticket, the prices were astronomical due to the Chinese holidays. When I finally had a chance to visit after years and years of dreaming, I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.
The Japan Plan: Mie, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka
My plan was to spend two weeks hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji first and then spend almost three weeks exploring Japan’s most popular tourist cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
I had dreams of geisha spotting in Gyon, hiking Fushimi Inari, wandering around Harajuku, eating my way through Osaka, checking out the Golden Pavillion, munching on conveyor belt sushi, rocking out at the Robot Restaurant, grabbing a drink at Golden Gai and getting drunk food at Piss Alley, petting deer in Nara, exploring Himeiji Castle… you name it.
Hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Through Mie Prefecture
While I was super excited to visit the touristy side of Japan, I was beyond nervous to spend two-weeks hiking through Mie Prefecture along the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route. I’d never done a long-term hike before, and the idea of a 170 km pilgrimage was more than a little daunting.
At first, I suffered a bit of culture shock, trying to adjust myself to Mie Prefecture’s strict traditional customs. I dove head-first into the waters of Japanese culture, and it definitely took a few days to get used to all of the new traditions. Chris and I joked that we constantly felt like barbarians… bulls in a
China Japan shop.
Exploring a Different Side of Japan
But after a few days of hiking with our new Japanese friends, we felt like pros!
We learned how to bow appropriately at Shinto shrines, give a proper offering, and how you’re supposed to walk on the edge of the path because the center is reserved for the gods. We learned how to properly wash at an onsen, and how to take off our shoes backward while stepping up onto the clean floor.
We spent every night sleeping on a tatami mat floor and learned how to make the bed ourselves. We memorized countless Japanese phrases and said “konichiwa” and “ohio gozaimas” to everyone we met with a bow.
We ate fresh sashimi, cheap tempura udon, and traditional ryokan breakfasts and dinners. We spent our evenings with ryokan owners who didn’t speak a word of English and rented a few rooms out of their lovely wooden homes. We met the owner of a sake brewery that showed us the farm where he grows his own rice.
We listened to a woman sing a traditional Japanese folk song while sitting on top of a mountain pass with a view of the ocean. We had a Japanese BBQ at a campsite by a crystal-clear river and listened to old records with an Airbnb host in his tiny speakeasy attic room.
In short, we had an incredible, immersive experience, and it completely ruined Japan’s tourist trail for me.
How Mie Prefecture Ruined Japan’s Tourist Trail
Going off the beaten path FIRST is never a good idea. After the magic of the Kumano Kodo Iseji, I really struggled to enjoy Japan’s most famous sights.
I couldn’t figure out what it was. I lived in China for five years, so I’m no stranger to tourists and crowds. But I will say that the level of international tourism in Japan really did shock me, especially after having so much of Mie Prefecture all to myself.
Everyone always writes about how much they love Japan, and it’s no different for me. I LOVE Japan. I couldn’t get enough of Mie Prefecture, and I’d love to go back and rent a little house in Kyoto.
But when it comes to Japan’s tourist trail, I really think the Kumano Kodo Iseji ruined it for me. Here’s Why:
1. Meiji Shrine Ruined by Ise Jingu and Hayatama Taisha
To be honest, I was a bit shrined-out after hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, but I decided to head to Meiji Shrine anyway since I was already in the area.
When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. No one was bowing at any of the torii gates, people were walking down the center of the path, and there were just SO MANY PEOPLE inside. After two weeks of painstakingly following all of the religious practices and Shinto traditions, seeing the crowds at Meiji shrine was actually shocking.
For me, Ise Jingu and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, are just as beautiful and majestic as Meiji, but without all the crowds. However, my favorite shrine was actually the small, local shrine my Airbnb host took me to one morning in a quiet, farming neighborhood.
Shinto shrines are absolutely beautiful, but the most stunning aspect is definitely their connection with nature. Because of this, they’re best observed in quiet. It can be hard to appreciate the spiritual aspect of the shrine’s connection with nature when you’re surrounded by tourists clambering for a photo.
2. Tsukiji Fish Market Ruined by Mie’s Sashimi
One of the things I was most excited for in Japan was the fresh seafood. However, after weeks of hiking along Mie Prefecture and eating incredible, affordable fish, it was hard to see why I should have to pay over $30 USD for a small plate of sashimi at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
While I expected the cities to be a bit more expensive than Mie Prefecture, it’s a bit shocking to see the prices in action. The conveyor belt sushi in Tokyo was extremely expensive compared to the fresh sashimi donburi bowls I had on Mie’s coast, and nowhere near as delicious.
Eventually, I just gave up on having fresh fish all the time and opted for more affordable meals of ramen, udon, and curry, all of which were great. However, I couldn’t help but miss my affordable, incredible fish in Mie.
3. Mie’s Hiking Ruined Nikko Too
Nikko had always been on our Tokyo itinerary with its beautiful mountains, temples, and waterfalls. But after two weeks of hiking literal mountains, a trip to Nikko just didn’t make sense anymore.
What was Nikko but a more-crowded Mie Prefecture? What temples were we going to see in Nikko that we hadn’t already seen in Mie? What waterfalls could be better than the ones we spotted along the Kumano Kodo Iseji?
I’d paddle boarded down a crystal clear river, hiked to the top of the Elephant’s Back with a view of the ocean, slept on tatami mat floors with stunning lake views… what could Nikko offer but the same scenery with more people?
4. The Crowds EVERYWHERE
After two weeks of walking through Mie Prefecture’s countryside, strolling through towns where we bowed and said hello to each person individually, the tourist crowds were a shock to my system.
Asakusa, the Golden Pavilion, Harajuku… every place we visited was packed wall-to-wall with tourists. I made the mistake of visiting Harajuku on a Saturday, and I could barely even move there were so many people on the main street. I can’t even imagine what the area is like in high season. I was there in December!
While I’m used to crowds after living in China for five years, I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding them. I also think that after weeks of hiking through rural Japan, jumping straight into Tokyo was probably not the smartest idea.
5. Surrounded by Other International Tourists
When I travel in China, I’m typically surrounded by Chinese tourists. Even the most touristy places in Beijing and Shanghai are packed to the brim with locals from around the country. But on Japan’s tourist trail, I barely saw any Japanese tourists, with the exception of Asakusa’s shopping street and school groups at Fushimi Inari.
If the Robot Restaurant was in China, you can bet the entire place would be packed with domestic tourists. But surrounded by other white people watching Japanese performers dance in crazy costumes riding robots that spit fire, something felt off.
If you go to a show in NYC, you’ll be surrounded by American tourists. If you head to a kung fu performance in Beijing, the entire thing will be in Chinese. But in Japan, it was as if this Robot Restaurant show was aimed at white English-speaking international tourists.
So where are all the Japanese tourists? They were taking photos in the fall leaves at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto or wandering around Ise’s shopping street in Mie. They certainly weren’t out in force on the Japanese tourist trail.
Resetting My Expectations
After over a week of feeling mild disappointment, I knew I needed to reset my expectations.
Yes, Mie Prefecture was absolutely wonderful, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Tokyo.
Here I was, going to all of the bucket-list tourist locations and complaining about the crowds. I read English blog after blog about a place, only to be shocked that it was full of white tourists.
I wasn’t surprised to find tons of international tourists at the Grand Palace in Bangkok or the night markets in Chiang Mai, so why is Japan different?
I might’ve been in the wrong frame of mind after hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, and I may have built up my expectations far too high after reading blog post after blog post about how AMAZING every single place in Japan is.
Why do none of these posts mention the crowds? The pushing and shoving? The mad rush to get a photo? Well… I am now.
What I Should’ve Done Differently
After a week or two in Japan, I realized I’d need to do things differently if I wanted to get the most out of my trip. I started adjusting my expectations, reminding myself that these places are on the beaten path. I woke up early to have places to myself and took the advice of locals and fellow travelers when it came to getting off the beaten path.
And you know what? It worked wonders.
Through this experience, I definitely learned a few things I should’ve done differently from the start:
1. I Should’ve Done More Research
If I did my research I would’ve known that Golden Gai and Piss Alley are basically closed on Sunday night. I could’ve known that Harajuku is a madhouse on the weekends. I should’ve known how big Tokyo is, and how far my hotels were from the places I wanted to go. That way I wouldn’t have spent HOURS of my life on the subway every single day.
Through my lack of planning, I ended up with a mob scene at Harajuku, and after heading all the way into Shinjuku for the Robot Restaurant, I was left with nothing to do after our early show since Piss Alley and Golden Gai were completely closed.
On my last day in Tokyo, I went back to see Harajuku on a weekday, explored hipster Cat Street, and then spent the evening in Golden Gai and Piss Alley and I had a great time. Why? Because I did some research and actually planned a route that made sense.
2. I Should’ve Made a Strict Itinerary
After hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, all I wanted to do was relax and explore Tokyo, so I specifically didn’t make a very strict itinerary. I had plenty of free time and not much I wanted to see. However, I should’ve planned my activities around the two hotels I was staying at.
The Park Hotel Tokyo is much closer to Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku, while Andon Ryokan is near Akhibara and Asakusa. Through lack of planning, I ended up booking a Context Akhibara tour while staying at Park Hotel, which meant I explored Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku while staying a solid hour away.
I went to the Shinjuku and Harajuku neighborhoods TWICE while staying at Adon, and I wasted hours of my life on the subway that I can never get back. Had I paid attention and actually created an itinerary, I would’ve saved myself from hours of subway commutes.
3. I Should’ve Gotten off the Beaten Path
Like Kate said in her recent post about the biggest mistakes NYC tourists make, you won’t enjoy New York if you spend all day going to museums, or spend your entire trip in Manhattan. Japan is the same. You won’t enjoy your trip if you spend the entire time checking sights off your bucket list.
My favorite memories from Tokyo are walking along Cat Street, where all the hipsters hang out. Eating my way through Shimbashi, where all the salarymen get drunk in restaurants under the subway. I loved exploring Harajuku’s side streets where I bought an epic rainbow cat shirt and drank spiked hot chocolate next to two tables of Lolitas.
I had the best geisha spotting in history by avoiding Gion and heading to Kamishichiken, where the geishas walk from their okiya to the teahouses nearby. I must’ve spotted over 10 geishas and maiko within 30 minutes, and no one else was there to see them except Chris and I.
I loved visiting a cat cafe full of rescue cats in a local neighborhood of Osaka, and taking Yuki’s epic food tour along the longest shopping street in all of Japan, where we drank sake and chatted with drunk businessmen as Yuki translated.
The old female owner kept calling Chris Santa Claus because of his beard, and the whole bar laughed along.
We tried chicken sashimi and pufferfish, and ate Michelin guide listed takoyaki from a tiny hidden stall, all thanks to Yuki’s guidance.
If you want to enjoy Japan, look for the special places that not every tourist goes. Take a tour with a local, and advice from expats. It will save your trip.
4. I Should’ve Woken Up Earlier
You know those beautiful pictures of Arishiyama and Fushimi Inari? Yeah, you better wake up early!
I made the mistake of visiting Arishiyama and the Golden Pavilion in the late morning and afternoon and both were so packed that it was a major struggle to get any sort of decent photo. I was lucky that I managed to find a path in Arishiyama that wasn’t super crowded so I could enjoy the magic, but it paled in comparison to the bamboo forests I hiked through on the Kumano Kodo Iseji.
When it came time to see Fushimi Inari, I wasn’t going to let the crowds ruin my experience. I woke up at 6:45 AM and made it to the temple by 7:15. While I didn’t have the place completely to myself, I did get to experience the magic of hiking for an hour through torri gate after torii gate without getting mobbed by people.
I explored graves covered in fox statues dressed in litte red outfits, as stray kittens jumped from shrine to shrine. I waved good morning to locals drinking tea on top of the mountain.
As I left around 8:45 the crowds were rolling in and I was SO thankful I woke up early.
5. I Should’ve Known Popular Places Would Be Crowded
None of Japan’s famous attractions are overrated. They’re famous for a reason. However, because they’re famous, they’re also VERY CROWDED.
Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are definitely on the beaten path in the same way you’d find Bangkok or NYC. Japan is tourist friendly, safe, and accessible. It has amazing food, nice hotels, beautiful temples, and a magical culture. Why wouldn’t it be popular?
I Wanted to be a Special Snowflake
I guess after living in China, I thought the crowds wouldn’t bother me. I thought I could go from sight to sight, surrounded by other international tourists, and have no issue.
But after five years of living in China, I was also used to being one of the only international tourists. While China’s sights aren’t off the beaten path for the Chinese, they’re still fairly off the beaten path to Western tourists.
After two weeks of hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, it was a rude awakening to become just another annoying international tourist, and I didn’t like the feeling one bit. I was used to being “special” when I traveled, and on Japan’s tourist trail, I definitely wasn’t.
How I’ll Fix My Mistakes Next Time Around
Now that I’ve seen all the touristy sites in Tokyo and Kyoto, I’d love to go back and explore these cities off the beaten path. I want to rent an apartment or get into house sitting, make local friends, find cheap restaurants, and explore the cities like a local.
I’ll also wake up early to visit Arishiyama and the Golden Pavillion, spend some more time in Kamishichiken, and head back to that local neighborhood in Osaka.
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with these three cities. Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are awesome. You just need to plan your schedule, do your research, and get off the beaten path to truly enjoy them… a lesson I learned a little later than I would’ve liked.
Get Off Japan’s Beaten Path
I know we all want to see Japan’s most famous tourist sights (I know I did!), but the best advice I can give you is to actually get off Japan’s beaten path.
You don’t have to spend two-weeks hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji like I did, but you can definitely take a trip down to Ise or Kumano City. Explore empty temples, eat cheap fresh seafood, hike a mountain, go scuba diving, explore the “Monster’s Castle” cave, or stay in a cabin on the lake.
Head to Wakayama and visit the Kumano Sanzan. Go to Koyasan. Rent a room in an Airbnb and stay with a local family in the countryside. Sleep on a tatami mat floor in a ryokan. Lay on the beach in Okinawa.
Just pick one place you haven’t heard of a million times and go. Trust me, it’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made.
What Do You Think?
What do you think? Did you feel the same way in Japan, or am I being ridiculous? Let me know in the comments!
Also, if you have any questions about how to plan a trip to Japan the right way (without drowning in tourist crowds), leave me a message below. I’m always online checking for new comments so if you have a question, ask below and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as possible!