July 1, 2018

Why Get Off the Beaten Path

Most visitors to Japan do not get to experience the country authentically due to their travels being tainted by the shadow of overtourism.

Experiences like walking the Kumano Kodo in solitude are extremely authentic
“Donny, why is it that you focus on off the beaten path destinations?”

—Everyone

Truth be told, I must get this question several times per week in one form or another. After all, aren’t the majority of tourists interested in seeing major attractions like Fushimi Inari Taisha? In light of this booming inbound tourism industry in Japan, why not focus on producing content for only the most popular destinations?

The short answer is that I believe that the mainstream spots have been so over commodified that they have lost all sense of authenticity. Historically famous sites like Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera are now so overwhelmed with tour groups that the experience has become akin to a visit to Disneyland. As you might imagine, it’s hard to appreciate these attractions’ sense of spirituality when you’re concerned about losing an eye to a selfie stick.

By sidestepping the hordes of travelers and getting off the beaten path, I allege that visitors to Japan are able to connect more deeply with the culture. Those that fail to escape the mainstream spots are often doomed to only see the country vicariously through someone else’s curated vision. These pre-packaged and easy-to-consume experiences almost always end up being forgeries of real culture.

To see why this is though, I’ll need to catch you up on a lot that is going on within the tourism industry. You see, despite its success, Japan is actually encountering some major issues right now. Few in charge understand the needs of foreign tourists, let alone how and where to market to them. This is leading to both the overcrowding of major destinations as well as a limited awareness of any alternatives.

With the Japanese government setting its sights on 40 million visitors by the year 2020, an immediate change in strategy needs to be made. Personally, I believe what is lacking is a sense of realness and narrative. Therefore, I like to approach the challenge with the following framework in mind:

Great Attractions + Cultural Context — The Crowds = Authenticity

Let’s take a look at each of these elements individually.

A Destination Needs Great Attractions

Japan’s most iconic destinations like the Chureito Pagoda are extremely overcrowded

One of the best things about visiting Japan is the fact that you’re really spoiled for choice. No matter your interests, the country is easily able to accommodate you. While the majority of travelers default to major shrines and temples in Tokyo and Kyoto, there are so many more breathtaking historical spots out there to explore. I’ve been living in Japan for what seems like a lifetime and my bucket list only continues to grow.

Do note that Japan’s offerings are not only limited to cultural experiences. Meccas for anime and manga such as Akihabara have been legendary among fans for years but there are also many other lesser known spots like Nakano Broadway as well. Lately, there have been booms in activities like outdoor travel and other niche interests as well. Really, no matter if you’re in to history, pop culture, or even harvesting tea leaves, Japan has it all and more!

What this means though is that you need to do your research. Do a fair bit snooping online before your trip and look for attractions that align with your passions. While first time visitors may prefer to default to the “must sees” like Asakusa’s Senso-ji, repeaters almost always report higher levels of satisfaction when they engage in pursuits that are more in line with their interests. With so much to offer though, it’s really hard to go wrong in Japan!

You Need to Understand the Cultural Context

Two travelers to Japan find authenticity at a Zen Buddism temple

When it comes to fully appreciating Japan’s numerous attractions, one of the most crucial elements is an understanding of the site’s narrative. While places like Nikko with its famous Toshogu shrine are stunning in their own right, when you know their historical legacies, they seem all the more magnificent. Learning the contextual back story has the power to transform seemingly mundane sites like Sekigahara from an empty field to the site of one of Japan’s greatest medieval battles.

The challenge here though is presenting relevant details so that visitors to Japan can follow along without drowning them in unnecessary minutia. Unfortunately though, many in the tourism industry default to either extreme. In turn, this concept completely fails to convey a site’s historical cultural significance or worse, utterly confuses the traveler. Much like the Force in Star Wars, proper balance is needed here.

Do note that “cultural context” need not mean useless trivia about people who have long since passed. In fact, such ethnology provides the necessary coloring to appreciate an attraction’s true significance. Take for example the phenomenon of anime and/or manga pilgrimages whereby fans visit sites that appear in their favorite series. Spots like these are of little importance to most, but for devotees they are must visits.

The Crowds Make it Hard to Enjoy

The increasing number of overseas tourists to Japan make it hard to find authentic travel experiences

The above graph from the Japan National Tourism Organization shows the year-on-year growth of inbound traffic. Since 2013, Japan has made huge leaps and bounds in attracting new visitors. In just a few short years, the numbers have more than doubled. Unfortunately though, there is still little awareness of destinations outside of major prefectures especially among western tourists. This is leading to a lack of adequate accommodations as well as overcrowding at major sites.

Luckily though, this problem can easily be circumvented by focusing on the lesser known prefectures. Furthermore, doing so need not necessitate missing out on top tier experiences either. Ishikawa Prefecture’s Kanazawa, for example, is every bit as historically charming as Kyoto but without the hordes of tourists. Likewise, many famous shrines are also located out in rural regions such as Izumo shrine in Shimane Prefecture. Getting off the beaten path need not mean settling for second class!

Lastly, keep in mind that even the more popular destinations can be treasured in ways that avoid the crowds. Overnighting on Miyajima, for example, is a great way to dodge the legions of tourists. Likewise, visiting sites like Fushimi Inari shrine in the early morning or late evening will also allow you to at least bypass the swarming crowds.

Authenticity is KEY to Great Travel Experiences

A traveler in Japan seeks authenticity in a bamboo grove found at Kamakura’s Hokoku-ji

As my good friend Ashley Harvey, the former COO of Go Central Japan points out in this article, there is really no such thing as “real Japan.” As he astutely asserts, everything from the oldest temples to the ubiquitous convenience stores falls under this umbrella. Furthermore, labeling something as “real” necessitates by definition that something else be a forgery. This is of course silly and of no use to anyone, travelers included.

If the term “real Japan” is to be used then, it has to be done so without regard to location. After all, defining one place as original and another as a simulacrum gets us nowhere. Instead, I prefer to instead think in terms of authenticity. I think this is what people are trying to convey when using the term “real Japan” but unfortunately it gets intrinsically linked to place far too often.

The question then is what makes an experience authentic? While the answer will always be somewhat subjective, I’d assert that it has a lot to do with connecting directly to a culture. This is of course entirely impossible when sticking to locations that cater only to foreign tourists. Authenticity is found outside the bounds of tailored narratives that whitewash what makes a culture individually unique.

When it comes to Japan, there are a lot of options. I’ve already touched upon a few of the more historic spots that have yet to be commodified. In addition to these venues, I’d recommend adventures like a trip to disheveled watering holes underneath the Yurakucho’s train tracks. These salaryman favorites will provide a far more authentic experience than the infamous Robot Restaurant. They are rarely visited by travelers and offer a glimpse into the daily life of Japan’s workforce.

Conclusion: Japan Travel & Authenticity

A couple traveling in Japan seeks out authentic, off of the beaten path experiences

Japan has an endless supply of amazing destinations to choose from, each with their own unique story. That said, those who are willing to do a bit of digging can achieve a far more authentic experience by getting off the beaten path and opting for something new. Doing so will allow you to avoid the worst hordes of selfie stick touting tourists while also leading to a greater sense of appreciation.

By all means, visit some of the mainstream attractions too; just don’t forget to get out there and explore the extraordinary environs as well. Remember, Great Attractions + Cultural Context — The Crowds = Authenticity.