1. Be flexible about business hours
Look for "営業中" in front of shops, which means they are currently open. -- Photo by Athena Lam
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 the place is currently serving customers.
2. Know your local train routes
JR Train local route timetable shows the end stop for each train passing through the station -- Photo by Athena Lam
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 turn at a fork and travel 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.
Stick to the train you searched on Hyperdia
3. Maximize your time with cars and taxis
Japanese taxis — Photo from Flickr cc by Jean-François Chénier
The highlight of rural Japan is the scenery, which is easiest to access with a car. Having a car means you can visit scenic spots, such as a beach for sunset or a mountain top for sunrise, at the best times rather than waiting for buses to come. Note that cars in Japan drive on the left-hand side of the road. Companies such as ORIX
have national branches. Many villages have taxi services, but they may not have English support. Below are some useful phrases if you would like to take a taxi.
4. Use offline maps with geo-tags
Reception is sometimes unreliable in rural areas, so having a backup is always good! In addition to Odigo's planner, we recommend using the free 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.
5. Try local, even if you don't know what it is!
Smoked Mackerel Sushi from Tottori Prefecture -- Photo by Athena Lam
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 specialties, 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).
6. Follow the non-English signs to great places
Sign to historical sights in Japanese -- Photo by Athena Lam
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 the signs! Many scenic spots are right in front of you, taken for granted by locals who enjoy them every day. Whether you are in the Japanese Alps or facing the Sea of Japan, just being out of the city will yield many breathtaking moments.
7. Follow the sun
Mt. Koya's temples open soon after sunrise, and tram services stop by evening -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
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.
8. Know some Japanese phrases
Reading an old-school Japanese menu -- Photo by Athena Lam
Even though the Japanese countryside doesn't have much English, 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.
Sumimasen - Excuse me! Also useful for getting people's attention.
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!
Gochisosama - Thank you for the meal / that was a feast. A common expression when leaving a restaurant.
9. Expect countryside customs and manners
Being served green tea by a shop owner who saw us down the street -- Photo by Athena Lam
In the Japanese countryside, the pace of life is more relaxed and people are friendly because everyone knows each other. Neighbours will often stop by and shopkeepers may pause to greet them and say a few words. 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.
10. Look for restaurant houses
Look for flags and signs saying "お食事処", which indicates a restaurant. -- Photo by Athena Lam
Actually most places in rural Japan are houses. Family-run establishments usually have the restaurant at the front and the living area in the back, just as their ancestors have always done. Look for these characters: お食事 in banners or signs that 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.
11. Be prepared for the bugs
Mosquito incense known as "ka-tori-senko" -- via Flickr cc Plus45
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 a 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 mosquitos away.
12. Don't treat ryokan and minshuku as hotels
Ryokan in the historical town of Hagi, home of Japan's first prime ministers -- Photo by Athena Lam
Ryokans and minshuku in Japan are like traditional bed and breakfasts in the quaint English countryside. Some are large country houses while others have expanded to have more modern amenities. 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: many local, 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
13. Accept people's generosity
Handmade figures and vase at a local restaurant -- Photo by Athena Lam
The rule with receiving gifts is to first pretend that you don't want it. Refuse not once, but a few times. If they still insist, they probably mean it, so just say "arigato-gozaimasu". One time isn't enough, say "domo-arigato-gozaimasu". It won't hurt to say it three or four times (as they're paying a bill, while putting on your shoes and again when you finally say goodbye).
People in the rural areas can be mind-bogglingly generous. They can range from rides to ad hoc day tours in the entire area. I've received free meals, rides and even a handmade doll before!
14. Download a translator
and Google Translate (Japanese offline package)
are great tools to help you translate single words and simple sentences. At a restaurant, use them to translate menus or communicate with a server. Japanese are patient and kind, so they will try their best to understand you once they know you have a translator.