January 30, 2018

Traveling in the Countryside

This guide will detail all you need to prepare and know about when getting off of the beaten path and traveling in the Japanese countryside.

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside walks along a seaside path in rural Hokkaido

One of the most peculiar things about Japan’s many tourism assets is the fact that a significant number of them are situated far away from metropolitan centers. While cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have large concentrations of venues to experience, many major shrines and temples are actually located way out in the countryside. Take for example, the likes of Izumo Taisha. Despite being one of the oldest and most important shrines in Shintoism, the complex resides in rural Shimane prefecture. This is about as far off the beaten path as you can get!

Luckily though, Japan’s amazing transportation system allows even those fresh off the boat to navigate their way to just about anywhere. Nevertheless, as you might imagine, there are some stark differences between traveling in the major cities and venturing out to the countryside. To ensure that the reader not encounter any unnecessary hardships, I’ve put together the following list of best practices to keep in mind. While some of these apply specifically only to foreign tourists, many are relevant to Japanese travelers as well. Simply put, once you’ve left the confines of the inner city, many convenience comforts eventually disappear. In an environment like this, failing to plan is planning to fail.

Japanese Countryside Tip 1: Carry Cash

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside carries extra cash with them just in case

First of all, be prepared to carry far more cash that you might otherwise feel comfortable with. Withdraw however much you think you need and then triple or quadruple it. You should always try to keep enough funds with you to cover expenses for several days or if need be, to get back to civilization. Unlike with metropolitan areas, ATM’s and the like are few and far between. Furthermore, outside of a handful of convenience stores like 7-Eleven, chances are quite high that your foreign card won’t even work!

As if this wasn’t already a sufficient reason to stock your wallets to the brim, know too that many establishments in the countryside do not accept credit cards AT ALL. Yup, you read that right. Though Japan is gradually starting to make progress in this regard, it is very much still a cash based society. This is even more true out in the boonies. If you don’t want to spend the night washing dishes after devouring a fine local meal, be sure to have enough notes in your wallet to foot the damn bill!

Note also that the cash only policy extends to likes of traditional ryokan and other such lodgings that you would expect to accept credit cards. While this too is slow changing, it is best to just always be prepared to fork over the required amount of cash. That way, you’ll never need to worry about being able to pay while still being able to use your card in the rare, one-off cases. The golden rule applies here — it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Japanese Countryside Tip 2: Plan Your Trains

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside arrives at a rural train station

When traversing the rural prefectures, it is incredibly important to keep your train schedules in mind. While you can always count on another train coming in urban areas, this is definitely not the case in the countryside. In some of the most rural areas, you’ll be lucky if there’s even one train per hour. This means that unlike with Tokyo or Kyoto, you’ll need to know your connections in advance to best budget your sightseeing time.

The easiest way to do this is to use a service like Hyperdia. By playing with the inputs, you can get a good sense of the maximum amount of time that you can be in an area. Pay special attention to both any limited express and bullet train connections while also being mindful of the last train. After all, nothing spoils a vacation quite like getting stuck out in the countryside without a hotel reservation.

Japanese Countryside Tip 3: Make Reservations

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside stays at a traditional ryokan

Speaking of hotels, it can often be a real pain to make a reservation when visiting the countryside. First of all, most (if not all) sites are in Japanese meaning that those who don’t speak the language are at a severe disadvantage. To make matters worse, many accommodation providers STILL DON’T EVEN HAVE A WEBSITE! As blasphemous as this may sound to western ears, many old fashioned establishments are still reluctant to digitize. Even in 2018, a large number of traditional ryokan and the like have no online presence whatsoever.

What’s a monolingual traveler to do? Well, I suggest sticking with English rather than trying to grapple with Google Translated sites. Truth be told, my go-to platform of choice when traveling has always been Airbnb as you can easily find something for far cheaper than the going hotel rates. Of course, sites like Booking.com can also be of use too but know that pickings can be sparse and prices are high. Instead, I’d suggest looking at the local favorite, Jalan as they have a fairly decent English site.

Before moving on, I have one final piece of advice for the explorers out there. If you’re looking to make a ryokan reservation, it’s best to get some help from a native speaker. Luckily, the guys over at Japanese Guest Houses have set up a service to help foreign visitors who don’t have a friend to rely on in Japan. Just shoot them a message and for a small fee, they’ll handle all the communication.

Japanese Countryside Tip 4: Have Backups

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside brings a backup of their passport

We live in an age where many people store everything online. This is great for convenience but it can leave you severely crippled should you not be able to access the Internet. Much of Japan is covered by the country’s awesome cellular network yet there are still some pockets that don’t provide good service. This is a problem especially with pocket Wi-Fi devices while traveling within sparsely populated regions. To make matters worse, free public Internet access still isn’t a common offering in Japan outside of major metropolitan areas.

You certainly don’t want to get caught in such an awkward situation so be sure you’re able to access important information like hotel addresses without the assist of an Internet connection. Of course, the safest option is to always carry a hard copy but finding a printer can be a challenge for most tourists. At the very least, be sure to take screenshots of any and all vital documents including a copy of your passport. Lastly, be sure to also write down any critical train connections as advised above.

Japanese Countryside Tip 5: Rise with the Sun

A tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside explores the rice fields of Niigata Prefecture’s Tokamachi

While Tokyo and Osaka appear to be cities that never sleep, the ambiance is quite a bit different in provincial areas. In truth, outside of some eateries and restaurants, you’ll find that few shops remain open after 5:30 PM. Sure there’s the occasional bar but don’t go expecting these to cater to foreign tourists. Because of these differences in schedules, the best advice I can give you is to just move the start of your day earlier to better sync with the rhythm of countryside life.

In addition to the above wisdom, try to make a mental note of any Family Marts or 7-Elevens when pulling into a new area. These convenience store chains tend to operate 24 hours a day and can help in a pinch. While I’d never encourage anyone to eat at a 7-Eleven in the west, Japanese stores are stocked to the brim with fresh and healthy options. In fact, I’ve been able to recently lose 10 kg eating nothing but foods bought at convenience stores.

Japanese Countryside Tip 6: Ignore the Stares

A friendly old man smiles at a tourist traveling in the Japanese countryside

Lastly, know that you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb while venturing out and about in the prefectures (especially if you’re not of an Asian background). Expect to get some very inquisitive glances from the locals. Consider this… many remote residents have likely seen only a few non-Japanese folks in their entire lives. If you’re not aware, the unabated looks can easily make you feel a bit anxious and self-conscious. Hell, even I feel out of place from time to time!

Unfortunately, some tourists equate the gawking with racism. While there’s undoubtedly a racial component at work, the stares are not necessarily malevolent in nature. Instead, they are born out of a meddlesome curiosity for that which is completely foreign to rural daily life. Simply put, unlike with the inner city, those living in the countryside have yet to be desensitized to the appearance of tourists from other countries.

Indeed, the best solution here is to recognize that some gawking will occur. Word to the wise traveler, ignore it. Though it may make you feel a little bit on edge, the stares are entirely harmless. What’s more, I found that countrysiders tend to be much more amicable and approachable than those in the inner city. If you can overcome the challenges of the blasted language barrier, you might just end up making a dear friend for life.