Traveler’s Guide To Cultural Immersion In Japan

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Beth Williams at Fushimiinari

Have you ever dreamed of not only visiting Japan, but truly immersing yourself in the local culture? Travel blogger and insatiable nomad Beth Williams of Besudesu Abroad had the opportunity to live with a family in Japan while she studied for a degree in Japanese Language and Culture. She sat down with Epicure & Culture to dish on the must-have experiences, how to get off the tourist trail and the top things to do in Japan for culture-enthusiasts.

Please tell us a bit about your experience in Japan. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences did you end up having?

In university I was working toward a degree in Japanese Language and Culture, so it only made sense for me to spend some time actually in Japan as part of that degree. I was accepted to a one-year program located in the heart of Kansai. Of course I had good and bad experiences, but it really was the best way to learn and observe everything in practice that I had previously been taught.

2. What’s one attraction or experience in Japan you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?

Going to karaoke.

Karaoke is hugely popular in Japan and it’s everywhere—probably because karaoke originates from Japan. It’s such a unique experience compared to elsewhere. You get your own small private room big enough to fit only a few friends and you have an attendant who constantly brings you food and cocktails as you sing. Even if you don’t like karaoke, it’s a fun experience to have in Japan.

3. For those wanting to experience local Japanese culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?

A huge part of Japanese culture is the bath. People take baths daily in their home with everyone sharing the same water and often visit onsen, or hot springs. While it might be hard for a visitor to find some family to share a bath with, anyone can easily visit an onsen, provided they don’t have tattoos.

It might be a little nerve wracking at first to walk around the bathe naked with strangers, but it’s an interesting insight to Japanese culture—and incredibly relaxing!

4. No trip to Japan would be complete without savoring the culinary culture. What’s your recommended food and drink pairing?

Go to a Japanese tea ceremony. Japanese green tea, or matcha, can be very bitter and taste as though you’re drinking dirt—it’s certainly an acquired tasted. But once you’re finished with the tea, you’ll be given a small sweet, usually in the form of a cookie or bean cake. These two things compliment each other so well; it’s one of my favorite things to eat in Japan.

If you’re not too keen on trying tea, then I suggest hitting up a local izakaya. An izakaya is Japan’s idea of a pub that serves various alcohols and food that pair well with said alcohol.

5. What’s one thing that surprised you about Japan as a destination?

There actually wasn’t too much that surprised me since I had been studying about Japan for almost six years prior to visiting, but I think one thing that really struck me was just how clean it is. You never see trash or even gum on the ground, and everything is kept pristinely clean and in order. To me this was amazing, especially as it’s rare to find trashcans on the street and you’re expected to keep your trash in your purse until you get home!

6. Tell us about one of your most memorable and unexpected adventures in Japan.

Hm, this is tough because I had so many wonderful adventures while living in Japan. Going back to the Japanese bath, I think one of my most memorable and unexpected adventures was visiting the onsen for the first time.

I had just arrived in Japan and met my host family, and as our first bonding activity that weekend they said we’d go swimming, which I was excited for. We did go swimming, but afterwards in the changing room I was ready to get my clothes, when they said we’d be going to an onsen. I don’t think I was mentally prepared for it at that point!

Reluctantly I went through with it and it was a really relaxing experience. Still not sure why they thought that would be a great first activity though, although I guess what better way to get to know people than to bathe naked with them, right?

7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to Japan?

If you’re going to be there in the winter be sure to bring warm clothes or a heated blanket of sorts. It does get cold and snows in most parts of Japan, and homes don’t have central heating like they do in the west, so sometimes you’ll see Japanese people basically living in their winter coats even indoors!

8. You spent time living with a family in Japan. What were some ways home life differed there from your real home?

It was honestly quite different. Maybe I come from a pretty independent family, but my family in Japan expected we do everything together. We were expected to eat all meals together and to spend time watching TV together afterward. This was often a point of conflict since I would have homework to complete or would want to Skype friends back home after dinner, but I couldn’t or else they’d get a bit angry.

9. As an expat in Japan, what were some major adjustments you had to make?

One of the biggest things, which probably sounds silly to anyone outside of the US, was getting used to not having a car. Everyone is so reliant on cars in the US and as we don’t have adequate public transportation, learning how to navigate using only trains and walking was something I was not used to at all.

10. While most travelers have heard of Tokyo, what’s one lesser-known destination in Japan you’d recommend to travelers and why?

I’d recommend traveling to Mount Koya in Wakayama, which is south of Osaka. Set up high in the mountains, Mount Koya is the center of Buddhism in Japan. Here you’ll find more of a traditional Japan with tons of temples, gardens and lots of nature. You can house with monks during your stay and they’ll prepare you delicious vegetarian meals. It’s also a brilliant place to see cherry blossoms in the spring.

beth

About Beth Williams

Originally from Chicago, Beth got her first true taste of travel when she studied abroad in Japan during her final year of university. She ended up loving Asia so much; she found herself moving right back upon graduation and is currently living in Hong Kong. Armed with her camera and a passion for travel, she is on a mission to photograph the world– proving that you can travel without breaking your career… or the bank! You can follow her adventures of her blog, Besudesu Abroad, social media on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Featured image courtesy of csontoslea

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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