Depending on the reason you travel, preparation for a big trip can range from a YOLO mentality to months of research and a 10-page list of anticipated destinations. When my Hubs and I sketched out a Japan trip, we did a combination of both preparation tactics, which ended up being a good thing because a man we met while lost in the streets of Tokyo soon became our willing tour guide, and later our dear friend.
By the end of our 7 day trip, we had enjoyed 4 different dinner styles, saw a local rock concert at a local bar, visited the popular Sensoji Temple, the Tokyo Skytree, gained 7 years of life after eating a black egg at Hakone, were “transported to another world” when visiting a maid café in Akihabara, had tea while overlooking shibuya crossing before eating dinner in a jail cell at The Lockup Prison restaurant and even went to an illegal bar in Shinjuku!
So just how were we able to do so many uncommon things during our visit? Below are 5 tips to get the most authentic experience out of that next big trip. And for the love of God, leave the Selfie Stick at home.
In front of the Temple in Tokyo, there was a line of street-side vendors displaying trinkets, snacks, and random food items I’ll never pronounce right. For those who may not know, however, costs often included a “sightseer’s tax” – a hike in price from what the average local would pay – which allowed them to take advantage of inexperienced foreigner’s willingness to buy “gifts from abroad”.
Our local guide Toshi confirmed this concept when he turned and waved his hands towards an outdoor mini flea market. “Don’t buy here. Too expensive.” Still, I couldn’t help but be a bit annoyed when Toshi bee-lined for the temple, only stopping long enough to point out a local favorite: homemade rice crackers snacks. Instead, Toshi collected handful of free rice cracker samples for us before we were back on track to the Temple.
We didn’t waste any extra time looking at expensive outdoor gift-shops, which meant we had plenty of time to do other things you wouldn’t initially consider when planning a trip.
Instead of shopping at “gift shop row”, Toshi took us to the “real shopping area”, located a quick 15 minute walk away from the famous Sensoji Temple. There were stores dedicated to tea sets, cooking knives, soup bowls and married couple’s chopstick sets. The best part? They were all at the regular local costs!
If you’re traveling to a place you are passionate about and want something to bring home with you – skip the gift shops and stop by local stores instead. Items that would be expensive back home because of the “traditional/international-style” labels end up being sale items back in the country they were created.
We ventured into the side streets in search of shopping and adventure, and came out on the other end successful. This also meant that the extra savings in gift buying gave us extra spending money for other things (like my dream Dragonball Z figurine of Goku I purchased when we visited Akihabara, which is any real anime lovers’ “holy land”).
One great thing we enjoyed were the vending machines and Konbini’s (convenience stores) Tokyo had to offer. Craving something refreshing? Go for a Pocari Sweat from the long list of questionably named (and awkwardly translated) cold drinks.
We also took advantage of the quick, simple prices at the coffee shops for lunch. That and the fresh (expiration month? more like expiration hours!), cheap eats can get you fed and full for under 1500 yen (translation: $11- $12) for 2 people at the Konbini. These Japanese convenience stores, such as 7eleven and Family Mart, are similar to upgraded versions of Walgreens with a local, mini-market feel that far surpass your neighborhood gas station back home.
You don’t have to go to the expensive places to enjoy a good meal and for a few travelers on a budget, it was amazing. We saved a ton of money, and on the occasions that we had to get grab-and-go meal (although walking around and eating is a major social no-no), we were able to spend more time out adventuring the streets.
The day we met up with a high school friend in the Harajuku District, we were thankful that Toshi was there to help us navigate the multiple lines that make up their transportation system and offered to show us the right route. Initially when we were going to the ticket booth, we selected the English option, put our yen in the appropriate slots and hoped we had the right amount for the location we were headed towards.
When we told Toshi to wait while we went and grabbed a new ticket, he shook his head and asked us to hand him a few bills. In less time than it took to ask what he was doing, he handed us two green colored cards.
The cards turned out to be one of the best investments we could have ever made. We simply charged the card and swiped them at the turnstiles without wasting time figuring out which ticket we needed to get. When the card lit up red, we knew we were low and simply went to the ticket kiosks to recharge them. It was very similar to an E-Z Pass or SunPass used on highways.
Add in Tokyo’s impeccable train arrival times (averaging around one every 5 min.) and we were on our way to the next district in no time.
There’s nothing better than having someone like Toshi to help you find shortcuts as he tours you around his hometown in-between business meetings, meals and useful suggestions to truly maximize our experience.
When you visit another country, getting the most out of your experience occurs when you are able to fully immerse yourself in that culture. Don’t get me wrong, tours are great and they can give you a lot of historical information, but they run on schedules, can take up a lot of extra time, and sometimes you may not even enjoy it as much as you would think. Plus, it’s expensive.
Learning a bit of the language ahead of time, or keeping a translator book on you is always a must. From my experiences, many locals love when travelers make the extra effort to try and communicate with them in their native language. Some are more willing than others, but you can likely manage to find someone who is eager to help you.
People like Toshi are more than excited to show you their REAL culture and it makes for an unforgettable experience being able to see how much the native’s love their home country and value its interesting nooks and crannies.
By finding a local guide and skipping out on the tourist route, you will be fully immersed in a new culture and the trip will make for a one-of-a-kind story to tell once you’re back home.