Japan can be many things to many people – whether you’re looking for Akira’s cyber-dystopia in Tokyo, or Kurosawa’s Samurai epics on the Nakasendo Trail. One thing that’s becoming ever-more elusive? Solitude. Tranqulity. Quiet.
Welcome to the Pure Land guide to Quiet Japan – an ongoing series highlighting Japan’s lesser known wonders – cultural immersion, away from the crowds.
Don’t forget add Quiet Japan to Pinterest for reference when you really need it.
Japan – a land of zen and robots?
Although Japan is a country with a total surface area of nearly 380,000 square kilometres, about 70% of this land mass is too mountainous to sustain buildings. As such, the population is overwhelmingly crammed into metropolitan and suburban areas. The population density of Japan is 336 people per square kilometre on average, including the mountainous areas where nobody lives. A more realistic figure? The population density of Tokyo is an eye-watering 6,100 people per square kilometre.
This figure only reflects the number of permanent residents in Tokyo. It doesn’t take into account the exponential rise in the number of tourists, especially in Japan’s ever-lengthening peak seasons. In 2018 alone, 30 million foreign tourists visited Japan. Do these numbers make it seem like it’s a bit on the crowded side? Correct. It’s a nightmare.
How did Japan end up like this?
My distant memories are of no use to anybody; but I do remember a time (my first visits in 2009 and 2010) when you could visit Japan’s most famous spots and see only a handful of other tourists. You could walk the length of Fushimi Inari’s thousands of red Torii gates without meeting anyone if you were there on a weekday out of season. In 2019 the same shrine is so crowded that management have mandated a two-way traffic flow system. It is unrecognisable and the experience itself seems almost not worth the effort. It is never, ever empty (unless you’re using my guide to find the best parts to visit).
I can make the same claims for parts of Tokyo, most of Nara and all of Kyoto. Even areas further afield such as Kumano, Nagano and Wakayama were almost unheard of to all but the most dedicated explorers. When I left Japan at the beginning of this year, I’d watched the tourism numbers rise to and then far beyond anything resembling ‘manageable.’ National government was pushing tourism with a ruthless agenda without any view to the effects it was having on a localised scale. Local government and infrastructure simply wasn’t coping.
Tokyo’s vast size and superior infrastructure means that although the visitor numbers are high, the city can – to a large degree – absorb the worst of the numbers. Hotspots such as Asakusa and Harajuku are mobbed and hellish, but smaller neighbourhoods including Daikanyama, Shimokitazawa and Nakameguro are still somewhat ‘local’ – although this is changing, fast.
How is this affecting Japan?
While Tokyo manages to chug along without any major sense of chaos, Kyoto has suffered a different fate. Of all of Japan’s visitors, most will follow a golden route that always includes Tokyo and Kyoto (often with day trips to Nara and stops in Hiroshima).
Kyoto is a tiny city with a population of around 1.5 million people (in the city, not the prefecture). There are barely any high rise buildings and the urban sprawl stops abruptly at the foot of the mountains that lock the city in. The (outdated and disjointed) infrastructure of Kyoto is built for its resident capacity. It was never designed to take tourist numbers into consideration. Yet, most of Japan’s 30 million visitors who are not exclusively on northern skiing trips will visit this city – and it cannot cope.
As you can imagine, ‘responsible’ resource and infrastructure management in small, old cities such and Kyoto and Nara is seldom practiced. Curiously, though, it’s my experience that very few of the cities’ visitors are willing to venture beyond the vastly overcrowded ‘main attractions.’ There are hundreds of temples, shrines and sites of interest in Kyoto that most tourists simply don’t make time to get to. And in a way, this is great. Because these magical sites remain peaceful, quiet and unspoiled by masses of visitors, all jostling for the perfect selfie.
So… there’s a Quiet Japan waiting for me?
Here’s your dilemma: do you hunker down into the baying insanity and mob mentality of over-touristed sites such as Kiyomizu-dera or Kinkaku-ji (while experiencing absolutely nothing peaceful or authentic), or do you step out in search of smaller, quieter locations that offer you the chance to see Japan at its best – reflective, serene and peaceful. Do you pay your entry fees to temples that have more visitors they can handle? Or to those off the beaten track who rely on the income from entry fees to fund their staffing and repairs. Will you buy kitschy ‘made in China’ souvenirs from the stalls that line the approach to over-touristed landmarks? Or will you sit down for a quiet lunch at a family owned Udon-ya – using your phrasebook to ask what the owners recommend for lunch; engaging, interacting, truly being where you are.
Fundamentally? It’s your holiday – your hard earned cash, your time to enjoy your life. What you do should feel good on a personal level, with less emphasis on how it’ll look on social media. But I write this with the assumption that you’re looking for something more than ‘The Top 10 Most Instagrammable Places In Japan.’ Because responsible, accountable travel is about more than looking good on social media.
When you make the decision to pursue the deeper levels of cultural immersion, you give yourself a greater chance to truly live in a moment and grow from an experience. Better yet? You support smaller businesses and local craftspeople, making a direct and positive input into the immediate micro-economy. When you choose authenticity, the slow way, the quiet way; everyone feels the benefits.
But… where do I even begin if I’ve never been to Japan?
Most people visiting Japan will reach for a guidebook. While it’s a great idea, it can serve up quite a few dead ends. Most guidebooks list hundreds of experiences and establishments without images or extensive exploration. They become one title, phone number and row of stars after another – no indication of what experience you can expect on your limited time.
What about travel bloggers? They’re always willing to share their experiences with their readership! Which is nice of them, of course. And while this can offer inspiration or ideas to would-be visitors to Japan, the insight is often extremely lacking and too frequently, entirely incorrect. I’ve read post upon post written by well-meaning travellers who spend as little time in as many countries as possible. While they likely have a great time, this doesn’t lead to good guide writing in any capacity.
Having lived in Japan for five years and worked in the Japanese travel industry for nearly four of those years, I’ve had the chance to explore the culture from both the perspective of a holidaymaker, a regular resident and a tourism management expert. I’ve seen enough private Maiko dances to last a lifetime, had solo access to homes and businesses and created and sold more private tours than I can count. I’ve worked for localised startups and for huge, international travel companies. Time and time again, I’ve helped my clients step off the beaten track and experience the ‘slower, quieter’ Japan of which I am constantly speaking. And now my time in Japan has come to and end, I’ve had time to reflect, consider and collate. I can finally share all of the secrets I’ve amassed from years inside the Japanese travel industry.
Great! I can’t wait to experience Quiet Japan.
I understand that many people want to see Japan’s ‘golden sights’ (Geisha, cherry blossom, Samurai and Tokyo). However, my hope is that through the words and images I’ve gathered from my incredible experiences of Japan, I can convince people to opt for an experience that is not only a ‘truer’ cultural immersion, but one that benefits a country that is groaning under the crushing weight of unmanageable tourism.
I’ll be following up in the months to come with travel guides for several cities in Japan – mostly the Kansai region, as I lived and worked there for five years. I want to create a strong departure from the ‘influencer culture’ in which people who have spent two weeks in a country feel the need to write a ‘city guide’ which is mostly unoriginal, non-immersive and self-serving. I want to encourage people traveling anywhere in the world to work on developing their own journeys and experiences.
Believe me, I know how hard it can be to land in a country for the first time and truly dig deep and make the most of it (in the last year I’ve fumbled my way through Seoul, Busan and Bangkok, too). This is why I always encourage people to look to locals or to long term foreign residents for the best advice. We’ve fallen down seven times and stood up eight**, so you don’t have to.
Have you visited Japan and wished you’d had a better idea of where to go to avoid the crowds? Are you visiting for the first time and looking to find a more engaging experience? Leave a comment below or on the @pure.land.co Instagram with specific questions about your itinerary and I’ll see what I can find for you – because hot damn, I love talking travel.
**I threw in a Samurai proverb to keep everyone happy. 行くぜ！
All photographs in this article were taken on a Pentax 67 using Provia 100f slide film. For more photography, head to www.rebeckawolfe.com.