As a Sailor, I am so grateful for the chance to explore beautiful Japan. Below are 15 unforgettable adventures for the bold and the curious.
In my 20s, the ships I was assigned to in Sasebo, Japan, averaged 260 days a year away from port. On those rare occasions when my ships were actually moored in Japan, I’d head to China, Cambodia, India, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand.
In my youth I explored OTHER countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Which is not to say that I was totally unappreciative of our beautiful host country. Within Japan, I travelled to Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Beppu. I was so certain I’d be leaving the Navy once I fulfilled my 4-year obligation that I thought it best to see as much of the world as I could.
Fifteen years later, I was still in the Navy. To my delight, I got a dream set of orders back to Japan. THIS TIME around, I resolved my personal travels would focus squarely on exploring Japan, and ONLY Japan.
Below are 15 unforgettable adventures I had during my time here. I am always eager to learn more, and would love to hear about YOUR favorite adventures in Japan!
1. Walk from Yokosuka to Tokyo
Yokosuka is the largest U.S. Navy base outside of the United States. Tokyo’s proximity to Yokosuka – only 26 miles – makes it a very popular destination for Sailors and families eager to explore the bustling capital. Although getting to Tokyo by local train typically takes less than an hour, two friends and I decided to try our legs at WALKING there.
Why bother with the absurdity of walking?
Because we’ve got Sailor blood in our veins! Sailors are fascinated by the rare and exotic. Surely we were not the first American Sailors to wonder whether you could walk from base to Tokyo, and vice versa, if you absolutely had to. (I.e. all mechanical transportation is inoperable, you cannot beg a ride on a fisherman’s boat, all the bikes have flat tires, mermaids are on strike, etc.)
The end of March is an ideal time for testing such a challenge. The iconic Japanese cherry blossoms are in bloom. I highly recommend taking your time to visit shrines and eat takoyaki (octopus and dough baked into balls) from street stalls. One of the wonderful treats about this walk is that you are never far from a convenience store. Thus, you have ample opportunities to hydrate and experiment with tasty snacks. Importantly, it meant we also had easy access to clean toilets.
We felt completely safe. We triumphantly limped to our overnight rental in Tokyo 28 miles and 12 hours after departing the base.
I’m grateful we set off on this crazy walk. In the process, we saw things I never would have seen had I travelled using any transportation but my legs. For example, who would have thought that Chiba – a prefecture on Tokyo Bay – had a miniature Statue of Liberty?
2. See the “Hells” of Hokkaido Prefecture
I visited the Northernmost part of Japan during rainy season. Although the rain came down heavily during three of the four days I was there, that was a blessing. I was the only foreign tourist at many of the places I traveled.
I showed up a month before the famous Furano gardens were scheduled to burst with field after field of lavender. No matter – it was still gorgeous.
The seaside town of Otaru, with its canals and tradition of glass blowing, is an absolute gem. Otaru inevitably draws comparisons to Venice and features shops of music boxes and European antique woodwork. One of the most interesting landmarks is an enormous 1.5 ton steam clock displayed on the street, a gift from Vancouver that plays music every 15 minutes.
When I first told friends and colleagues I was taking leave to Hokkaido, both Japanese and Americans unanimously exclaimed, “You MUST try the Sapporo beer and Ghengkis Khan!”
I definitely planned on sampling the Sapporo beer in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital city. However, I was deeply suspicious of the dish known as Ghengkis Khan. Lamb is not my favorite protein. Beyond that, a quick online search revealed its questionable history – it is said that the soldiers used to grill the lamb atop their dome-shaped helmets.
EW…GROSS!!! (I feel like as a Sailor I can say with authority that no one should ever grill food anywhere near a sweaty helmet.)
However, I found a restaurant and hesitantly requested the Ghengkis Khan. The meat is already marinated in a special sauce when it gets to you, and you and your dining companions grill the lamb and vegetables on an immaculate shiny surface, adding more special sauce as you grill. It was soooooooooooo delicious!
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, I recommend a Hokkaido specialty – the summer melon. While a complete melon is absolutely flawless in shape and quite expensive, you can purchase a small but exquisite slice of melon off the street for just a few hundred yen (couple of dollars).
A good portion of Japan’s dairy products hail from Hokkaido. It defies stereotypes, but the Japanese DO in fact consume lactose products! In fact, they are very, very proud of the quality of their milk, cheese, and cream. One of my favorite experiences in Hokkaido involved visiting a Japanese dairy farm, milking a cow, and making my very own butter.
I spent my last day in Hokkaido at Noboribetsu, hiking in an area famous for its geothermal activity and “hells”. Noboribetsu may be a place known for its “hells”…but with so much beauty and hospitality, I can’t wait to go back.
3. Savor the Sublime Beauty of the Japanese Alps, Gifu Prefecture
Immediately after rainy season came a monumental heat wave. The drenching humidity was such that, per my rental agreement, I ran the a/c not for for my own comfort, but to prevent mold growth. It was so uncomfortable to move much that I almost decided to stay home during Independence Day weekend.
That would have been a shame, because Takayama – the area known as the “Japanese Alps” – was absolutely breathtaking. The Japanese cleverly recognize that many European countries promote their Alps, and there were a surprising number of shops and restaurants with signs or cuisine in Italian, German, and French.
The area is exquisite. As one would expect of any Alps, the air is clean, the food is fresh and delicious, the streams are crystal clear, and there is alpine beauty aplenty. Takayama is a quaint town, full of architecture from the Edo period, and a daily morning market that has been going strong for over 300 years.
I’m of the mindset that any trip to Takayama MUST involve a trip to Shirakawa-go village. The houses with their unique, gassho-style architecture are so distinctive that the region was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s impossible not to fall in love a place where every single view is like a postcard.
The record-shattering heat wave had a silver lining. At many of the places I went, I was not only the only foreigner there…I was the only person, period. While this usually made me feel super lucky, I realized it’s not always an advantage one morning. I had decided to explore the beautiful hills and and ancient shrines surrounding Takayama, and it was while in the woods that I discovered I was deep in black bear territory and raced back into town, dirty and thoroughly drenched in sweat.
Fortunately, what should I stumble into in town but a shrine holding a summer purification ritual?
Thus, this Sailor partook in the famous tradition known as Chinowa-kuguri.
4. Travel From Sea Level to the top of Mount Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture
In my humble opinion, the best way a Sailor can experience Mt. Fuji is by earning every inch of elevation.
In mid-July, a friend and I walked from the beach (sea level) to the top of Mt. Fuji on an epic Fuji City tourism initiative known as the “Fujinomiya 3776”. The Fujinomiya trail is the steepest of the four routes up Mt. Fuji. The route is so hard, in fact, that Fuji City awards certificates and a special badge to those who register and successfully complete the climb.
The 24-mile journey from elevation 0 to 3776 meters (12,390 feet) was meaningful on so many levels. For starters, it was one of the few activities where we could look around and see the unobstructed faces of those around us. (While Japan was still off limit to visiting tourists, it was understood that to be able to breathe properly, hikers needed to be able to climb unmasked.) I was surprisingly moved to see the full gamut of human emotion reflected in those around me: pride, doubt, emptiness, frustration, exhaustion, satisfaction, joy, pain.
You also can appreciate just how quickly the terrain shifts: from a black sand beach to tea plantations; from bamboo forests to woods lined with miniature strawberries; from barren rocks to the clouds.
Between bouts of rain and perspiration our clothes were perpetually wet and neither my friend nor I could walk properly for a week after. On the descent I landed inelegantly on my rear no fewer than a dozen times because I literally could not feel my legs. Multiple blisters popped. Five months later, and one of my toenails is still struggling to grow back.
That being said, oh, the JOY when the certificates arrived!
It took a long time before I could look at Mount Fuji again without giving it a hard glare. However, time is a funny construct. When November rolled around, it was with a feeling of gratitude, affection, and insatiable urge to go back again…just on a different trail, and starting from Station 5.
5. Yunotsu and Iwami Ginzan, Shimane Prefecture
I desperately wanted to explore a really remote part of Japan and asked my Sensei for a recommendation. She immediately told me to go to Shimane prefecture.
I took Sensei’s advice and FELL IN LOVE WITH THIS AREA.
In 1526, the Japanese discovered silver at what would become the largest silver mine in Japan. For nearly 400 years, the area was a thriving commercial hub from which silver extracted from the mine was sent to other stations in Asia. When the mine closed in 1923, the area became more known amongst the Japanese for its excellent therapeutic onsen and Iwami Kagura (traditional Japanese music and dance performances).
Getting to the area required a flight and local trains. Since I booked too late to stay at Yunotsu’s ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), I spent two fantastical nights sleeping inside a motorcycle shop a mile outside of town.
Yunotsu is a small town known for the healing properties of the onsen water. According to legend, a monk observed an injured tanuki (Japanese raccoon) jump into the town’s waters, and emerged after a soak utterly rejuvenated. I bathed in two of the public onsen‘s mineral-rich waters and slept like a baby.
The area is so engulfed in nature that I watched monkeys impishly steal from a garden, and then casually roof-hop off with their stash. With no hotel chains, no supermarkets, and scant ATMs, it was a dream get-away.
I enjoyed so many different aspects of that trip, but HANDS-DOWN, the highlight was watching the entire town come alive for the Saturday night performance of Iwami Kaguri. I had been lucky to secure advance reservations, and the intimate performance, at which you are literally a few feet from the performers, was one of the most memorable events I’ve ever seen. Prepare to have all your senses engaged as exceptionally talented musicians and dancers pour their energy into professional-grade story-telling.
To this day, I get chills when thinking what a profound experience that was.
6. Izumo, Shimane Prefecture
It was my Sensei who recommended I go to Shimane prefecture – The Land of the Gods.
The Japanese have a saying about October being Kannazuki (the “Month Without Gods”). It’s important to note that this is only true for those living OUTSIDE of Izumo. If you have the good fortune to be in Izumo in October, then you’re in luck! In that case, October is Kamiarizuki (the “Month WITH Gods”).
Izumo Taisha is considered to be one of the three most sacred shrines in Japan. While every other shrine I’ve been to in Japans follows a distinct pattern – two bows, two claps, and a final bow, Izumo breaks that. The faithful here do two bows, FOUR CLAPS, and then bow. The reason for the extra claps? They are for your soul mate.
It’s impossible not to notice that the area has hundreds of rabbit statues everywhere. According to legend, the white rabbit expressed its gratitude to the god Okuninushi after the god assisted him following a shark attack. In appreciation for the god’s help, the rabbit gave the god a prophecy about his future spouse.
A key giveaway of the importance of this shrine to the Japanese is in the Shimenawa (sacred rope) that adorns Izumo Taisha. At 4.5 TONS, it is the largest Shimenawa in Japan. I spent five minutes gawking at the sheer size of it.
It’s a short walk from the shrine to the island where the gods are send to convene for their October conference. I half-expected to see massive signs, restaurants, gift shops, and other commercial traffic. Instead, I was struck by how quiet the beach was – there was one small sign indicating I’d reached it. You can actually WALK to the tiny island at low tide and touch the rocky base.
If you’re looking for a quiet, spiritual place to go, I highly recommend a visit to the Land of the Gods.
7. Matsue, Shimane Prefecture
Frankly, it is a shame that many foreign tourists tend to neglect travel to Western Japan in favor of the big cities on the East Coast.
Tourism specials abound in Western Japan! Whether it be Matsue castle, or a museums, the person selling tickets took one look at me and immediately applied generous discounts. (**I tried telling them that as a Sailor stationed in Japan, I was not REALLY a tourist, but they gave them anyway.)
Beyond the generosity towards foreign tourists, Matsue and the surrounding area just radiate a good-natured vibe. At the nearby Adachi Museum of Art, I savored matcha tea and traditional sweets while looking out on what the Journal of Japanese Gardening has ranked for 19 consecutive years as THE most beautiful garden in Japan.
Initially, I had thought myself fortunate that there were only a few handful of people inside Matsue castle, constructed between 1607-1611. I quickly learned the reason: with temperatures in the mid-90s, all of us who made it to the top were gasping. If you’re going to explore Matsue castle in the summer, I HIGHLY recommend hopping on a boat and doing a canal cruise. Once on the water, I was delighted by how much cooler the temperatures were, and by the areas most people simply don’t have access to.
Even if you do not understand a word of Japanese, the experience is memorable. The roof of the small boat actually compresses to allow the boat to fit under the original stone and wood bridges. The mad scramble as passengers work to “get low” makes for a fantastic ice-breaker guaranteed to get the group giggling. Caveat: do NOT do the canal tour if you have any mobility issues.
After visiting the famous castle, Lake Shinji is said to be one of the top places in Japan to experience a sunset. I can vouch that the sunset was indeed exquisite.
It wasn’t the sunset, though, that was the most memorable part of the evening. The city held public fireworks for the first time since the COVID outbreak. People were running out of buildings – carrying or running hand-in-hand with young children – to view them. Traffic on the sidewalks was at a complete standstill. In the eyes of those around me I saw joy, excitement and the hopefulness of a return to normal.
8. Embracing Matcha Tea Culture in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture
It is hard for me to remember that before I moved to Japan, I did not like green tea. But at almost every Japanese office and restaurant I have been to, the host simply brings it out. At first, I drank the tea because I did not want to be rude.
And then one day it hit me – I suddenly LOVED green tea! To me, it is a classic expression of Japanese hospitality and kindness. Ever since, I’ve wanted to have a better understanding as to how tea was harvested, processed, and consumed.
Nishio, which lays claim to being the top tencha (building block for matcha) producer in Japan, takes their tea with utter seriousness. I took a morning train from Nagoya and walked from the train station alongside beautiful fields of green leaves nourished by clean air and fresh river sediment. I had booked a morning tour of the tea plantations, which is the only legal way a non-employee can access the precious fields. The team educated me on the process for harvesting and processing tea, dressed me up in traditional tea picking attire, and let me grind tencha leaves.
The grand finale came when they showed me how to properly prepare and whisk matcha tea, and let me try five different types of tea. We traded stories and laughed about our favorite scenes from Top Gun: Maverick. To me, that’s what a tea (or coffee is all about). It’s not so much about the beverage itself as it is a chance to exchange ideas and tell stories. It’s a bridge…one hopes…to something more.
I was deeply moved when, AFTER the tour was over, the operators invited me to join them to try another Nishio delicacy: eel. And so I got to join them at a favorite local restaurant and try a dish I never would have thought to try. Because of them, I associate Nishio with warm hospitality and pure class.
It’s an especially great place to take the tea lover in your life.
9. Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture
Gero Onsen is as close to a fairytale as it gets. As an added bonus: the train ride to Gero Onsen takes you through some of Japan’s most beautiful scenery. Across the river from the station is a town famous for its therapeutic waters. Gero Onsen ranks among the top three onsen towns in Japan.
Of course, there are MANY places throughout Japan that lay claim having the best onsen water. What makes Gero Onsen unique is the focus they give to outdoor foot baths. What a clever move! Foot baths make it a wonderful option for those who don’t want to bathe with strangers or who are self-conscious about their bodies. One thing that is sure to make you smile are the special puddings that are designed to be served hot: you can rest tired feet in an outdoor foot bath AND heat your specialty pudding – in a different pool of water – at the same time. How’s that for clever?
If you don’t have the time to get to Shirakawago to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s gassho-style houses, no worries! Gero Onsen has an outdoor folk museum comprise of gassho-style architecture that were relocated to the region. Strolling the village, seeing the handicraft, and eating fresh-caught river fish is an absolutely delightful way to spend the morning.
One of my favorite things about Gero Onsen is the omnipresent frog motif. Don’t be alarmed, though. Although frogs are literally everywhere – statues, murals, street art, ceramics, SHRINE, carvings, manhole covers, etc. – it’s far from an unwelcome infestation. Why so many frogs? Because in Japan, the croak a frog makes is “Gero” – the same as the name of the town.
10. In Search of the Straw Art Creatures in Niigata Prefecture
Rice is a staple of the Japanese diet. It is so important, in fact, that the Japanese word for rice – “gohan” – is the same word used for “meal”.
As a bona fide rice lover myself, I headed to Niigata in September to celebrate all things rice: in its pure form, stalk (rice straw), and as liquid (sake).
I took a local train from Niigata to the Wara Straw Arts Festival. The enormous mythical creatures stand in the fields as if deposited gifts from heaven. I was bewildered by these figures, expertly crafted by students and volunteers as a way to celebrate and preserve traditional straw weaving techniques. Every year, a new theme is chosen.
Back in Niigata, I visited a rice cracker factory. You know rice is taken seriously when there is a rice SHRINE directly outside the factory. Under the careful guidance of a Japanese instructor, I made my own rice-cracker, which, if I may brag, tasted wicked good.
The day ended at a sake vending machine tasting shop conveniently located outside the train station. The concept of allowing people to experiment with different sake profiles is an utterly brilliant concept, and for only ¥500, guests are given five tokens and a tiny tasting cup.
Three cheers for the versatility of the mighty gohan!
11. Sado Island
For hundreds of years, Sado Island was known as a place for exiles, royalty, and poets. This mysterious, laid-back island is accessed by a ferry – or jetfoil, if you prefer – from Niigata. If you have an opportunity to take a Japanese ferry, I highly recommend it.
In addition to being marvelously clean, the ferry allows 2nd class passengers the choice of sitting in either comfortable chairs OR fully reclining on a clean, carpeted floor. Blankets are also available for rent. I confess I slept very comfortably on the carpeted 2nd class cabin.
Bluntly, it’s best to have your own car or are willing/able to rent one from one of the many rental agencies near the harbor. A wonderfully kind taxi driver who proudly showed off his island. My Japanese is limited and shaky under the best of circumstances. Even with the language barrier, we got along well. He was a gentleman and total sweetheart.
The history of one of Sado Island’s most prominent attractions, the Sado Kinzan (Gold Mines) dates back over 400 years. During peak gold production in 1615-1645, Sado Island gold mines were among the largest in the world.
One of my favorite highlights of visiting Sado Island was floating in a Tarai-Bune (washtub-turned-boat) on the clear jade-colored water inside a protected harbor. I had felt downright guilty when I saw this woman who would be taking me was several inches shorter, several years older, and much lighter. However, she maneuvered the Tarai Bune with the easy, well-practiced confidence of a teenager.
I lack the words to adequately describe how shockingly beautiful the island is. The fields of lush rice plantations popped against the backdrop of an ocean the color of sapphires. On the day I went, there was a massive race comprised of several hundred bikers circumnavigating the steep ascents and descents. There was no shortage of supporters, with a large turnout shouting encouragement and banging on taiko drums.
As for the food – that the seafood should be amazing almost goes without saying. I had some freshly sliced tuna that thrilled me.
As a Sailor, I’ve been to many islands. The beauty of Sado is its easy-going, unpretentious island pace, and the warmth of those who live there.
12. Tottori Prefecture
I had been suspicious when a colleague solemnly told me of a fantastical desert in Japan. WHAT?! A DESERT in Japan?
Tottori is the most remote, and least-populated, prefecture in Japan. It’s also incredibly delightful and surreal. I felt like Dorothy coming out of a black and white house into the technicolor world of the Wizard of Oz.
How could a country with a well-known rainy season and water-intensive plants like rice and bamboo also have a desert? And yet, Tottori does indeed have a desert: a nine mile by one mile stretch of pristine golden sand. WITH CAMELS.
The sand aside, this hidden gem of a prefecture is famous for pears and the world’s largest permanent sand art exhibition. The museum’s themed, multi-storied artwork from sand artists around the globe is truly world-class.
Finally, Tottori boasts a tourism initiative unlike any I’ve ever seen. For a mere ¥3000, foreign tourists can hire the services of a fully certified taxi driver for three hours and choose from a “menu” of destinations. It’s an unbeatable deal.
The visit to Tottori is the starkest possible contrast from the busy-ness of a big city. I absolutely adored it.
13. The Cultural Treasures and Bowing Deer of Nara
From 710 to 794 A.D., Nara lay claim to being a capitol of Japan. It’s therefore unsurprising that its gorgeous temples and shrines rival those of nearby Kyoto.
The most famous of these structures is the Todai-ji Daibutsuden, home of the 15-meter tall Giant Seated Buddha. If you go during a week day, expect to see an abundance of school-aged children arrived in large buses.
However magnificent these structures may be, most foreigners associate Nara with its most famous animal: the deer.
Do not be fooled by the seeming humility of the bowing deer of Nara. The deer might bow, but they are anything but submissive and shy. Deer are sacred in the Shinto religion, and the deer here saunter casually around the shrines and temples with languid grace. It’s quite amusing to watch cars come to a complete standstill as the deer take their time getting across the street.
If you want to feed the famous deer, authorized vendors sell shikkei senbei (deer crackers) at designated locations throughout the park.
Advice to the wise: guard your bottom. And be prepared to run.
Kawagoe is an absolute gem of a city to explore, and within easy reach of Tokyo. Getting there from Yokosuka required a little more effort.
It’s is a wonderfully walkable city that allows you time to appreciate the beautiful Edo-period architecture and gawk at the artistry of the roofs.
If you want to try the famous sweet potato candy, then Penny Candy Alley is the place to go.
There are many delightful temples and shrines. At Kawagoe Kumano, it is said that those who wash their money in the waters of the shrine and then spend it will have the fortune multiplied. A second place worth visiting is Kawagoe Daishi with its 1200 year history and 500 arhat statues. (An arhat is an enlightened spiritual disciples.)
I went to the temple in the late afternoon, and had all 500 arhats all to myself. Although Japanese are renowned for creating dignified, serene work, I love how playfully and naturally these arhats are posed. They’re deep in conversation, bored, lying down, stretching, laughing, looking bored — expressing deeply human emotions.
My challenge to you if you go: See if you can find the arhat picking its nose!
15. Mie Prefecture
As a Sailor, I’m particularly drawn to the beauty and mystery of pearls.
In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto created the world’s first cultured pearls. Consequently, there are a number of statues throughout Mikimoto Island and outside Toba train station erected in his honor. In addition to Mikimoto, there are multiple statues and murals that pay homage to the Ama.
Traditionally, the Ama (lady divers) dove the ocean depths for seafood and pearls. I had hoped for the opportunity to have lunch and chat with the Ama inside their traditional huts. However, because of their popularity, when I visited the tourism office at the train station I was gently informed that it’s best to make reservations at least a week in advance. I therefore headed to Mikimoto Pearl Island, where Ama diving demonstrations are held every hour.
It’s incredibly impressive to see strong, hearty women clad in traditional white attire casually jump off their boat and dive for the coveted shells. I was absolutely spell-bound by the whistling sound they made into their buckets in between dives, and in absolute awe that despite the NOVEMBER water temperature, there wasn’t so much as a shiver.
A short train ride from Mikimoto Island is Ise Jingu, arguably the holiest shrine in Japan. As with many sacred shrines, you need to walk through a forest to get there. One thing I was deeply touched by was just how happy the group was – the energy was AWESOME!
Post-shrine, I was grateful that the streets near the base of the forest had several dozens of restaurants and street vendors selling all kinds of delicious food. I gorged on quantities of freshly grilled shellfish from a fisherman who caught them that morning, and got a skewer of the famous Matsusaka beef.
Seriously, is there any more satisfying way to close out a day?
Looking Back…and Looking Forward
I feel so grateful for the places I got to explore this past year. I am grateful for the kindness and hospitality so many extended, and for the graciousness with which people forgave my clumsy mistakes.
While I am so thankful for these experiences – which due to COVID resulted in very few tourists and fabulous discounts – I would never wish for the circumstances that allowed me to experience Japan this way happen again.
I’ll always look back on this year, and everything I learned, with great fondness. With December swiftly drawing to a close, I am looking forward to the year to come.
May your own year be a very lovely one, and may you have many safe and happy adventures!
If you’re looking for safe and affordable places to stay while you explore Japan, there are many options. I hope you find the one that is right for you.
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