The Anti-Tourist Guide to Japan
Recently, I had a friend tell me their theory that for many Australians, “Japan is the new Bali”. Given that the two countries are culturally worlds apart, this still makes a little sense.
Thanks to cheap flights, opposing seasons (Japan’s summer is Australia’s winter) and the ongoing fascination with Japanese culture, recent years have seen Aussies arriving en masse to eat, party and travel around this incredibly diverse country.
Though that’s great, it also means certain areas are quickly becoming overrun with everything shitty that comes with cashing in on quick tourism cash. So if you want to avoid the masses of foreigners, overpriced restaurants and other tourist traps, here’s a guide to the anti-tourist Japan.
If you can’t afford Kyoto, try Kamakura
So you’ve arrived in Tokyo and discovered that a trip to Kyoto is either going to cost you a whole lot of precious time on the overnight bus, or a lot of cash on the shinkansen. Maybe consider popping over to Kamakura, a tidy traditional town close to Tokyo.
Kamakura is referred to as the ‘little Kyoto’ thanks to its abundance of traditional Japanese stores, temples and restaurants. Technically the ‘little’ tag is pretty apt, but back in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), it was actually the capital of Japan.
Encapsulating the best of both worlds, Kamakura is flanked by the sea and mountainous hiking trails. From Tokyo station the JR Yokosuka Line will get you to Kamakura in less than an hour, which for Japanese commuting standards is a cruise.
Bypass Shibuya for Aoyama
Of course you don’t want to make it all the way to Tokyo and not visit the iconic Shibuya crossing. With a reported half a million people crossing per day and average 2500 people crossing per light change, it’s a fascinating study in organised chaos.
But if you’re spending more than 10 minutes in the city, odds are you’ll be making this pilgrimage daily, so it’s not worth blocking out your itinerary for. Instead check out Aoyama, the more-low key but super high-end (unofficial) fashion capital of Tokyo.
Home to avant-garde fashion outlets like Issey Miyake’s experimental ‘Reality Lab’, the super zen Café Kitsune and the best, most authentic pizza bar in all of Tokyo, Pizza Slice 2, Aoyama is a must stop just for eating alone.
Harajuku style is dying, long live Shimokita
The whole tip that ‘Harajuku is the best place to visit on a Sunday’ is a straight up fallacy. Don’t believe it. Maybe it’s a hangover from the days when Fruits magazine was king, Gwen Stefani en vogue and Harajuku street style was big, but those days are over.
Pretty much a result of people trying to cash in hard and fast on the tourist economy, Harajuku’s famous shopping strip Takeshita Street is legitimately a bad acid trip (if you substituted acid for sugar). These days, when it comes to fashion in Japan, subtlety is paramount and big ‘non-statement’-wear outlets like Muji and Uniqlo reign supreme.
If you want to catch a glimpse of Tokyo’s more diverse approach to fashion, Shimkitazawa (aka Shimokita to the locals) is your destination. In Shimokita vintage shopping is a way of life. Thanks to the combination of cheaper rent, proximity to Shibuya, and rich history as a rural hub, Shimokita has allowed burgeoning independent fashion labels, and entrepreneurs to afford to set up shop and take a less risky punt on fashion endeavours. If it was 2007 and the term hadn’t been flogged to death you’d probably call it hipster central.
If Ginza is too fancy, check out Nakameguro
A few years ago, Ginza was considered the home of everything high-end in Tokyo. Complete with shopping centres with interiors that rival the world’s most well-curated museums, cafes run by fashion houses, and bars with drink lists that’ll cost your entire life savings.
But these days, when Japan’s population is becoming more diverse and the economy is looking less stable, people are going beyond the golden streets of Ginza to get their fix of the designer life. One such pocket of the city that’s seen a boom in recent years is the Shibuya neighbouring suburb of Nakameguro.
Culturally speaking Nakameguro is probably best described as the meeting point between of Ginza and Shimokitazawa. It’s where high-end fashion houses share walls with retro-loving vintage outlets.
In a town where Starbucks is considered the ‘go-to’ coffee destination (a weird concept for us picky Australians), it’s also home to the best coffee independent shops in the city, so for that reason alone it’s worth a visit.
Roppongi’s party reputation is overrated – try Shin Okubo
Roppongi has a dodgy reputation, and it’s arguably a deserved one at that. The entertainment district is filled with ex-pats often shipped in by finance and tech companies working for a temporary time in Japan. As a result, the area has a kind of working holiday/party vibe, which sounds cool, but when you find out what the foreigners who live here are getting paid, you quickly realise it’s out of your budget.
If you don’t like mega EDM clubs, bottle service, entitled patrons and lining up to get inside, then Roppongi isn’t for you. If you’re interested in Roppongi’s seedier vibe and want to experience something a little grittier than the super clean Japanese hubs of Shibuya and Harajuku, hop on the Yamanote line and check out Shin Okubo.
Known by the locals as little Korea, Shin Okubo is the home of everything Korean: K-Pop kitsch, bizarre beauty stores and straight up incredible food. Given that it’s considered by many as not a very ‘traditional’ Japanese area it does have reputation for being an outsider’s area.
It’s a little dirtier than its neighbouring pockets (by Japanese standards), but that’s what makes it so exciting. Also, Koreans have a reputation for being the biggest drinkers in the world, so if you’re looking for a party and you’re not a dick it’s inevitable you’ll make new mates.
Photos by the author
Are you a wannabe writer who wants to check out Japan for yourself? Come hang with the Global Hobo crew for a month this January – think daily writing workshops, Japanese language classes, karaoke every damn day and weekend snow trips. Click here for more info.