Backpackers making their way through Asia tend to skip out on Japan. They consider the Land of the Rising Sun way out of their price range. They imagine the yen being drained out of them as they lay their weary heads to rest on bamboo pillows in lavish ryokans, as they dine on world-class sushi one night and move on to wagyu beef the next. That lifestyle is one side of Japan. That’s not the side of Japan I know and love. My Japan is the crew of salarymen drinking 300¥ (3.00$) beers in the standing bar under the train tracks. My Japan is the slew of free festivals that fill the streets year-round. My japan is the deserted dirt trail that winds its way up a mountain. My Japan is...cheap.
You can experience my Japan…
With a beer and a skewer
The humble izakaya is the go-to spot to eat and imbibe on the cheap. Izakayas are the casual pubs of Japan. On Friday nights, these watering holes are flooded with office workers loosening their ties and sharing little plates of meat skewers, edamame and fried chicken. The most glorious thing about izakayas is a little something called nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink). Most of them offer pay by the hour nomihoudai deals and tend to be the best bang for your yen.
Bright lights in Osaka's Shinsekai neighbourhood draw patrons into izakayas. — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Another favourite beer-n’-a-skewer option is a tiny local bar. These tend to be inconspicuously located in narrow alleyways or under railway tracks. Follow the smell of grilled chicken and you’ll find yourself peering into a veritable hole in the wall that reaches maximum capacity at around ten people. If you want to be elbow to elbow with locals, this is the way to go. A few popular spots for these tiny bars in Tokyo are Omoide Yokocho, Harmonica Alley and Golden Gai.
People crammed into a tiny local bar in Shinjuku's Omoide Yokocho. — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Japan has no laws prohibiting public drinking. Big cities in Japan also have konbini (convenience stores) on every other street corner. The world is your oyster (weather permitting). You can grab a beer for 250¥ (2.50$) and fried chicken for even less at the konbini and find a spot to lay a tarp down in a nearby park. This is an especially popular activity during sakura (cherry blossom) season.
A typical scene at Inokashira Park during cherry blossom season. — Photo by Julie Fader
Attending a local festival
Countless matsuri (festivals) take place across Japan throughout the year. The most common are local shrine festivals. Almost every shrine has its very own festival, and these matsuri are a great way to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture without having to pay a single yen. Though some of these festivals are calm and serene, many are super lively. On festival days, groups of people carry mikoshi (portable shrines) in processions that often involve a lot of chanting.
A procession carrying a portable shrine during Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri at Senso-ji Temple. — Photo by Julie Fader
If you want to learn some new moves and happen to be in Japan in the summertime, hit up a Bon Odori (Bon Dance) festival. Obon is a Buddhist festival celebrated in Japan in the summer to honour one’s ancestors. Throughout July and August, neighbourhoods will host their own Bon Odori festivals where you can check out some pretty great dance moves and drum skills.
Festival-goers dancing to the beat of taiko drums at Sugamo Bon Odori. — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Hiking one of the country’s many mountains
Japan is a mountainous country. No matter where you are on any of this nation’s many islands, you are bound to find a mountain to hike nearby. I can hop on a train from my home in Western Tokyo and see the landscape change from neon-lit karaoke signs to rolling hills in under an hour. The best part about hiking? It doesn’t cost a thing.
Going off the beaten path on Mount Mitake. — Photo by Julie Fader
Japan has the art of hiking figured out. The country’s most popular mountains have paved paths for beginners and steep dirt trails for the more adventurous. Peaks are often equipped with restaurants, vending machines and washrooms. So fear not, when you’ve successfully ascended Mount Fuji at 4:00 am, you can grab a coffee before the sun rises.
Halfway up Mount Takao, you'll find several restaurants with stunning views. — Photo by Julie Fader
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