There are many wonderful and unspoiled places in the land of the rising sun: islands with cedar trees thousands of years old; floating shrines providing the backdrop for a sea of fireworks; girls dressed up in gothic and "living doll" costumes in Harajuku. However, for every sight you absorb on a visit to Japan, you should be aware of the paths that have been beaten to the extreme, the activities designed for tourists that are over the top, screaming cliché, or just too crowded and overpriced.
1. Don't Spend Money on Pachinko
Pachinko is one of the few ways to legally gamble in Japan, but don't be lured into a parlor thinking you'll see attractions like those of Vegas. The place is beyond loud - noise making your ears bleed in matter of seconds - and full of cigarette smoke. The games themselves should be reserved for a 10th circle in Dante's Inferno. Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up. Just like in Vegas, you'll find burnt out slot jockeys spending hours on end inserting yen, winning once every 27 days. Fun fun.
Do sing karaoke
A karaoke booth with an all-you-can-drink special is a much better alternative if you want to be surrounded by video screens and loud noises.
It’s nothing like a country-western karaoke bar in the U.S.
All the booths in Japan are private, so you can only make an ass of yourself in front of close friends.
The Shidax chain is my favorite, but every town should have at least one place to sing.
2. Don't Climb Mt. Fuji... When There's A Line
Fuji is swamped with foreign and Japanese tourists in the official hiking season (peak in August), and completely overwhelmed during the Obon holiday week; by this, I mean you will have to wait in line the entire journey to the top, and struggle to crop people out of your photos once you see the sunrise stream across a blanket of clouds.
I'm all for conversations with Japanese and international tourists, but if it means slowing your natural pace, getting stopped, and dealing with a crowd on what should be a leisurely hike, then I'd say it's worth the threat of hypothermia or slipping on ice to risk climbing in the off-season.
Do Climb it in the Off-Season
Late September and October would be "safest", as there may be minimal snow, but if you want the trek to yourself, bring the right gear and see if you can get permission from the 5th station to go in November or December. Obviously, this can be rather dangerous, and I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have serious experience climbing on ice. Attempting the ascent early, in May or June, can be just as risky with the rainy season.
If you're looking for an alternative path to the summit, check out the Fuji Mountain Race.
3. Don't Drink at the Lost in Translation Bar
The famous establishment is actually located at the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. Stick to the the gallery and coffee shop atop Roppongi Hills for just as impressive a view.
Do Stop By When Money Is No Object
I mean, would you normally pay 4000 yen for a fruit and cheese platter?
4. Don't Pay an Absurd Amount of Money to Dress Like a Geisha
For the ladies out there (although I've heard they'll do it for men, too), this is one activity many guesthouses and hostels offer throughout Kyoto. For about 10,000-30,000 yen (USD100-300), depending on the services offered and the time allowed, your face will be painted pale white, your hair arranged in traditional geisha style, and your body stuffed and folded into a slim silk kimono.
The purpose of all this? Photos to send home... the chance to see what geisha experience... sometimes you're allowed to take a short walk outside in full regalia and watch the reactions of startled Japanese men and tourists thinking "Wow! A real geisha! Get the camera!" Unfortunately, it's just not worth it; with foreign noses, eyes, and facial features, we simply look ridiculous. The areas in which you walk are well known by locals, and you can hardly expect a genuine reaction from another foreigner wasting money to "look Japanese".
Do See The One Foreigner Who Can Pull It Off
American-born Sayuki, currently working in the Asakusa district of Tokyo: http://www.sayuki.net/
5. Don't Travel Far and Wide for Cherry Blossoms
Imagine you've just flown into Tokyo one Sunday in April; those flowering trees that have inspired thousands of haiku and drunken hanami (viewing parties) are now in full bloom and ripe for the watching. Instantly, you think: "I've got to get to the best viewing spots in the country, quickly!" Many travelers opt to follow the spread of the sakura (cherry blossoms) from the south of Okinawa in February all the way to Hokkaido in May.
Do See Local Sakura
If you feel as though your current location is lacking in these wondrous plants, think again; every city, town, and prefecture in Japan has a great place to lay down a blanket, crack open an Asahi beer, and view the pedals falling as gently as snow. I'm not going to deny there are some great trees out there, but don't feel pressured to rush out of town; cherry blossoms bloom for only one week, and even with reliable predictions, your scheduled holiday may have you arrive a few days before or after full bloom. Instead, take advantage of your present surroundings.
6. Don't Restrict your WWII Studies to Hiroshima
There is more to the history of Japan during World War II than the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, and the Paper Crane Memorial in Hiroshima City. By all means, see every one of those places, but once you finish...
- Take the train over to Nagasaki and look at their Peace Park, the lesser visited of the two. Did you know Kokura was the original target on August 9th, but cloud cover caused the pilot to divert to Nagasaki?
- Really go off the beaten path with the Kamizake Museum in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture. Hundreds of letters are on display, each from pilots writing their goodbyes to family memories prior to departure.
- Before you leave Tokyo, make sure to visit the Yasukuni War Memorial shrine, honoring the spirits of those fallen.
7. Don't See Japan With Emerald Glasses
'If you arrived in Paris or Rome and saw something like the new station you would be utterly revolted, but for most foreigners coming to Kyoto it merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, "Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!" And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute the walk out of Honen-In they're back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn't impinge on the retina – they're still looking at the dream.'
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr (quoting Mason Florence)
By this, I mean most newbies to Japan hold a kind of mysticism as a veil over their eyes. At some level we appreciate all the fancy robots and electronics in Akihabara, but more often that not, we want the "old Japan": Zen temples with chanting monks, samurai warriors parading the street. The contrast to what we actually see upon landing in Tokyo - high speed trains, school girls in insanely short shorts - almost blinds us to what Japan has become...
The "old Japan", the Japan in the movies you know and love, the Japan you dream about as being somehow removed from time and left in pristine historical condition.... that Japan has been fading from existence since the 1960's.
Do Recognize The Signs of Insane Modernization
I'm not saying you can't enjoy your holiday, sleep in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, and reap the benefits of modernization. Just be aware of some of the things Japan has given up to get to this point.
Kyoto, 1964: A steel eyesore, the city tower, is placed directly in front of the main train station, despite numerous protests from locals. Thus begins the dismantling of historic Kyoto; buildings no longer have to be shorter than ten feet, Zen temples have information loudspeakers installed for tourists, and power lines remain unburied.
Japanese coastline: Why leave sandy beaches alone when you've got concrete quotas to fill? Thus the implementation of tetrapods.
...designed to prevent erosion, but in fact increasing its likelihood. And don't they look pretty?