Interview: Travel Tips from The Real Japan
We're avid readers of a whole host of Japan blogs here at LJ Mag, and today we're introducing Rob Dyer from The Real Japan. As a Japan enthusiast who has been visiting the country for 20 years, Rob has visited a myriad of places throughout the land of the rising sun. Here he shares some helpful travel tips, as well as a sneak peek of his visual guide showcasing 'The Real Japan'.
Could you give us a little overview of where your passion for Japanese culture stemmed from, and what your blog focuses on?
I was born in England and have been fascinated by Japan since I was at school, reading avidly about the country when I was young. Everything from books about its economy, its cinema (I'm a big film fan), its history and its culture. Like many others, I immersed myself in anime, for about a decade. I was editing and publishing a fantasy film magazine at the time - just as anime started to take off outside of Japan. All of this drove me to start learning Japanese in the early 90s (I didn't get very far!).
Before the internet was a part of everyone's daily lives, I had several Japanese pen-pals with whom I corresponded in letter form for several years. One of whom eventually became my wife. :-) We were married at a Shinto ceremony at a shrine in Kobe. My wife and I were both avid travellers before we met, so it was kind of inevitable that we would go on to explore the lesser-known parts of Japan.
Knowing we were often in Japan friends, and friends of friends, were frequently asking for advice and ideas for travelling in Japan – but off the beaten track. So I decided to start a website, www.TheRealJapan.com, just over a year ago to share my experiences and to collect all my travel ideas into one place.
The site provides inspiration and resources to anyone interested in exploring Japan beyond the popular clichés we see in the media. The neon lights of Tokyo and Geisha in Kyoto are certainly part of the real Japan, but what interests me is discovering and exploring the hidden, secret Japan, the Japan that sometimes even the locals are unfamiliar with. Style wise I guess it's part travelogue, part guide. I've also recently started a Real Japan YouTube channel.
What is it about Japan that has compelled you to return so many times?
Well, my wife is Japanese, so we have family there – which is obviously part of the reason we spend so much time in the country. As someone born in the UK, I've always seen a lot of similarities between the two countries, but I think the Japanese have managed to achieve the best balance for society as a whole.
Both countries are relatively small islands in close proximity to huge continents and yet they have managed to retain their own, distinctive national identities. Both countries have extensive histories and are well-know to foreigners for those, and yet both countries embrace modernity – albeit in different ways. I like travelling in Japan to experience the differences.
Ryokan, onsen, the beautiful countryside (especially the mountains and the forests), the cohesiveness of society, the efficiency of public transport, Japanese customer service and vending machines ;-) are all things that make Japan a wonderful place to be and explore.
This may be a tricky question, but do you have any particular favourite places or stand-out experiences from your travel around Japan?
I have a soft spot for Kobe as it is like my home town in Japan and I've gotten to know it intimately over the years. But in terms of places explored, everywhere I've been in Kyushu has been very memorable – particularly the area surrounding the Aso caldera.
I tend to gravitate towards the countryside and small towns rather than the cities. Last year we did a 16 day tour of the Chugoku region on the main island of Honshu taking in the northern and southern coastlines. On the northern side we spent a couple of day in Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. A picturesque town in a valley surrounded by forested mountains. It had bags of character and I found it really charming and I had the best oyakodon I've ever had in a tiny restaurant there.
One of my first visits to Japan was to the northern-most island of Hokkaido – the northerly tip of which lies just below Siberia in Russia. Much of Hokkaido is designated as national parkland – more than any other prefecture. It's great for adventurous experiences – especially in winter where it regularly gets down to -12 °C. My first trip there included snowmobile racing on a frozen lake, a helicopter flight and joining an ice-breaker ship in the ice floes just below Siberia. That was a stand-out few days!
What would be your must-see places for a first timer in Japan on a short vacation?
Make sure wherever you go it includes staying at least one night in a traditional wooden ryokan (Japanese inn) somewhere in the countryside, and make sure it has an onsen (hot spring baths.) For me, this in perhaps the single most perfect way of experiencing what I think of as 'the real Japan.'
As someone who travels more for experiences, rather than ticking off well-known sights from a list of must-see places, my natural instinct is to say to people that they should think about what sort of memories would they want after their vacation and then plan their trip to accommodate those. That will better determine where anyone should go.
We are all individuals, but rather than start with a list of places (that most other tourists will also go to), and attempting to tick off as many of those as possible within the time you have, instead ask yourself these 3 questions:
1.) What Experiences Are You After? (the 'what sort of memories would you want' bit I just mentioned)
2.) How Long Can You Stay? (this will determine how many of the islands you can visit – you should aim to visit at least two)
3.) Where Will You Stay?. Think beyond hotels to include ryokan, minshuku (b&b), temples, even homestay. Airbnb has some very distinctive properties all over Japan and is worth a look. I'd encourage people to use shinkansen (super speed bullet train) or internal flights (which now can be really cheap) to visit as many of the five main islands as possible. Do some early pre-trip homework online and/or read your preferred guide book and based on that research, select a major city and remote town on any of these islands. If you've selected them well to answer the 3 questions you'll come away with some unforgettable memories.
My single biggest tip: do not use Tokyo as your base for two weeks or more. By all means visit Tokyo and stay there for a while, but if you intend using it as your base from which to do day trips for the duration of your trip you will be severely limiting your experiences and your memories.
Is there anywhere in Japan that you would like to explore, that you haven't visited before?
The list of new places I would like to explore has no end. There are 6,800 island that make up Japan – so there are plenty of options!
But, at the moment, the furthest south I've been is to Okinawa. Beyond that are the Yaeyama and Ryukyu (Nansei-shoto) Islands. I'd like to explore some of the smaller islands at this end of the southern archipelago. Most people are unaware that when you get down to this chain of islands you're actually closer to Taiwan than you are Tokyo. The climate is sub-tropical in Okinawa, and at the far end of the chain is tropical rain forest. So this region feels distinctly different from the rest of Japan – I'd like to explore more of that.
Can you tell us a bit more about your guide to 'The Real Japan'?
I wanted to create a valuable and stylish freebie to send to everyone who subscribed to TheRealJapan website. So I came up with the idea of 5 Amazing Adventures to experience The Real Japan (but actually there's a 6th!). It helps people focus on some of the less obvious but even more rewarding things that can be enjoyed in Japan. The suggestions are spread across several of Japan's main islands. Each includes planning resources, tips on when to go, and links to websites where they can book some of the adventures.
The guide includes all sorts, from joining an ice-breaker ship off the northern coast of Hokkaido (just below Siberia in Russia), having a go at taiko drumming at the Kodo Drummer's cultural centre on Sadoshima, island hopping by bicycle between Awaji and Shikuku, and diving off the coast of Okinawa in the south. Crucially, I have been on each of these adventures. They are not based on internet research, or what other people have done, they are all experiences I have had, and are my personal recommendations.
I employed a graphic designer friend, Tracey Tester of Font & Fancy, to design an interactive PDF give it a high-end look and feel. I love what she did with it. I'm currently working on a second edition with all new adventures in it.
You're doing your first talk in Gravesend in August, could you give us some more details?
I am. I was invited to speak by Skeptics In The Pub which is a fascinating global movement (you should look them up). They organise events that take a 'skeptical' view on specific topics where audiences are invited to think more 'challengingly' about them.
Given that I believe most people outside of Japan have a skewed view of the country, (fuelled by the clichés we see in the mass media), it seemed that maybe an event that dug a bit deeper into the real Japan would fit with their ideals. Fortunately, they agreed. Only instead of it being in a pub, where most SiTP events take place, this takes place in tearooms – which to me somehow seems a more appropriate venue for a talk about Japan than a pub!
The talk looks at the question “What is The Real Japan?”, challenges some myths and common misconceptions, and offers some what I think are surprising insights that hopefully will open people's minds to the wealth of possibilities for travelling throughout this geographically diverse, culturally rich and ancient country.
The date for your diary, should you want to join me, is Wednesday, 17th August 2016 at 7:30pm. The venue is the 84 Tearooms in Gravesend, Kent (England). Details about the event can be found on the TRJ website here. I'd love to see some of your readers there!
Please note all images are © Rob Dyer // TheRealJapan