The Wonderful World of Japan
Japan was everything and nothing that I expected.
I’m familiar with its culture because of my family’s history with the country and its people – my grandparents encountered the Japanese during WWII in the Philippines and learned the language to survive; my aunt moved there in her early twenties; and my sister immersed herself in Japanese lessons (and Manga comics) before spending her senior year of high school there.
All the stories I heard as a kid formed my perspectives about Japanese culture. American movies and pop culture also made it seem like everything is Big in Japan.
But all those preconceived notions went out the window the moment I arrived.
While you can go crazy in Tokyo’s Robot Cafe and get lost in Shibuya Station Crossing, it was always my intention to seek the serene and storied aspects of Japanese life and culture. What I got was more than I anticipated: small and intimate moments that captured my heart.
Japan is the best country in Asia to travel alone according to the Global Peace Index. Crime rates are low, guns are outlawed, several train companies have women and children-only cars, guesthouses offer women-only accommodations and, generally, people look out for one another.
Here are my top 6 things to do in Japan as a solo female traveler:
Ama: The Pearl Diving Mermaids of Japan
📍Ise Shima, Mie | 34°23'18.7"N 136°53'54.6"E
The most fascinating aspect of Japan I encountered is that of the Ama pearl divers. Ama literally means ‘woman of the sea’ and they’ve been part of Japanese anthology of poetry dating back to 750. These women can free-dive as deep as 30 feet into cold water. Using ancient techniques, they can hold their breath up to 2 minutes to gather abalone, seaweed and other shellfish.
While I was still in Tokyo, I emailed the operators of Amakoya Hut to reserve my lunch spot, one week in advance. Then as soon I got to Mie Prefecture (district), I was told to buy a bus ticket at the Toba Bus Center, take the Kamome (Sea Gull) bus bound for Kuzaki and get off Adakoguchi bus stop. The staff picked me up from there (it’s a small area).
Upon arrival, we checked-in with the staff and spoke with some of the Ama. They gave us a very warm and friendly welcome.
We were invited inside the hut where Amas typically rest, warm up and socialize after dives. These huts usually hold around five people and is heated by a wood fire. But this hut was designed to host visitors. We patiently waited by our table, while baskets and plates of fresh seafood were brought out to be grilled and broiled. Some of the divers came by to talk to us 1:1.
Then the feast began. The hut was quiet as we savored each morsel and took many photos.
After lunch, folklore dancing and storytelling commenced.
I also got the chance to dress in their traditional clothing. Ama traditionally wear white as it was believed to ward off sharks. The white bonnet / scarves with a five-point star are also thought to prevent misfortune.
Initially, I felt uncomfortable in potentially misappropriating their culture… walking around as if I’m dressed like a Disney princess. But this activity is highly encouraged — the Ama want visitors to partake in this aspect of their culture so, in turn, we’d share it with other Japan-bound travelers.
The Ama way of life is at risk of dying out. The younger generation are less keen to be Ama, seeking work and opportunities in big cities. Sea desertification and the drop in natural resources are also threatening the Ama practice, according to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum. Our cultural visits and paid luncheons, supported by the Osatsu Cultural Council, help preserve the occupation and Ama traditions.
Staying in a Minshuku (a family-run guesthouse)
📍Ise, Mie | 34°29'22.4"N 136°42'36.9"E
Before my visit to see the Ama, I stayed at a minshuku in the heart of Mie. It gets lonesome at times as a solo traveler, so I purposefully seek out accommodations where I can meet other travelers and make connections with locals who run the place.
My stay at Ise Guesthouse almost didn’t happen. Since it can only accommodate less than 15 people, this place gets booked fast and far in advanced. I think it was also festival season at the time I was there. But, luckily for me, someone vacated earlier than scheduled. Boom! I’m in.
Every morning, we get ready for our daily adventures, shuffling around the bathrooms and breakfast nook, before hopping on our bikes or psyching ourselves out for a 12-hour day of exploration on foot.
We came back at different times to shower, to pack, to plan the next day’s trip, to chill on the couch or to read by the upstairs porch.
At minshukus, the evening is when the magic happens. One night, in particular, someone offered to make their famous Hokkaido curry soup. We chipped in a few yen ¥, helped prep the ingredients and opened several bottles of wine. OMG it was the best curry soup I’ve had. It was rich, hot and spicy… perfect after a long day of travels.
We gathered as strangers and left as friends.
**Note: As much as I wanted to stay in one (real badly), I decided to forego a stay in a traditional ryokan. My goal with this trip was to seek peace and serenity after spending three hectic months in the Philippines and Hong Kong. I experienced that the moment I landed in Japan, and didn’t need to be by myself again in the countryside. I’ve made a mental note to stay in a ryokan with my beloved the next time I visit Japan!
Ise Guesthouse closed its older outfit, the building I stayed in, and recently re-opened in November 2018 as a dodecagon.
Forest Bathe, Surf & the Way of the Samurai
📍Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture | 35°18'28.0"N 139°30'14.6"E
A search for a festival in April led me to Kamakura, the home of samurai lore. The week-long Kamakura Festival was filled with dancing, music, traditional storytelling and awesome feats of archery – even in horseback!
But I got more than what I bargained for.
After getting my fill of Kamakura Matsuri, I headed to Hōkoku-ji Temple aka the bamboo temple. The towering trees helped me experience shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, the Japanese concept of taking in the forest through our senses. Spending time under the canopy of a living forest has calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to our health.
At the end of the walk, I spent my remaining time drinking matcha in the tea house. Hearing the birds chirping and the leaves rustling in the bamboo grove was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. I’ve walked in two other bamboo forests in Southeast Asia. But the constant buzz from neighboring businesses and traffic negated the serenity.
I guess it wasn’t different when the forest filled with tourists. But it really is up to us to find our own inner peace. I just wish tourists are more self-conscious of their noise level, or even how loudly they talk to one another.
Nowadays, the seaside town of Kamakura is home to surfers, boogie-boarders and sunbathers.
At night, I’d retreat to my Airbnb (get $40 off by signing up here) where I was spoiled by the owners. Not only did they share their dinner with me, but they also gave me the inside scoop on the best curries and warabi mochi to try in Tokyo.
But what I loved the most about my time in Kamakura is meeting other travelers from Belgrade and Belgium. Together, we grilled our food, exchanged stories about home (even using Google Translate) and soaked in the hot tub for literally 3 hours just talking about this thing called life.
Imperfect communications but perfect connections.
Drinking in Golden Gai WWII-era bars
📍Golden Gai, Shinjuku (Tokyo) | 35°41'38.5"N 139°42'18.0"E
Bottled history. That’s what Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is. Within six small alleyways, you’ll find over 200 bars, eateries and pubs. But in order to fully appreciate Golden Gai, you have to understand its history.
The red light district, found in Shinjuku, emerged during Japan’s reconstruction period immediately after the war. Once the country’s anti-prostitution law took effect in the early 60s, the shady establishments were converted into bars. And only then did it become known as Golden Gai.
When the land value of Shinjuku rose astronomically in the 1980s, land developers wanted to virtually destroy the place, only to be resisted by the business owners. Parts of the area were suspiciously burned down; many looked to the Yakuzas to blame. Because of this crisis, an association was created to preserve Golden Gai and validate the legal rights of the business owners. Golden Gai still stands today because of a few brave souls.
I knew I wanted to visit this area eventually, but it was by accident that I stumbled upon it. And what a happy accident it was!
I was on my way home when it started to rain. I ducked under an awning and was fascinated by the neon lights and faint noises of clinking glasses nearby. I walked down the alleyways and noticed that most bars can only sit 6-10 people.
At the end of the second alleyway, I heard jazz playing. I felt home… I love love love jazz. I hesitated at first… most were regulars-only bars and others didn’t have English-speaking bartenders or guests. They even have signs outside that say “Japanese only.” Tourists were encouraged to stick to the foreign pub at the entrance of the alleyway.
But I tried my luck anyway. So I took a deep breath and stepped in to find the cutest little bar playing New Orleans jazz. I said ‘good evening’ in nihongo but they knew immediately I was an American. The bartender served me a small shot of Japanese sake to ease my nervousness. She spoke to me in English! And so did my seat mates. Phew!
It was clear that everyone sitting down was a regular; conversations were effortless and comfortable. They mostly spoke in nihongo but switched to English so I could understand. Another regular customer came in thru the door, soaking wet from the rain, and handed our bartender a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was her birthday! He took the last seat available and bought us a round of Japanese whiskey to celebrate. It turned out she’s also a curator at one of Ginza’s museums.
I still get chills thinking about that night. I’ll never forget.
Eating at a Traditional Robatayaki
📍Kabuchiko, Shinjuku (Tokyo) | 35°41'46.8"N 139°42'07.2"E
Fresh sushi and tempura are Japan’s most established staples. They can be found everywhere. But a traditional robotayaki (or robata) is challenging to find.
Robatayaki is a rustic style of coal grilling, which originated in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Everything from fish, meats and veggies are grilled over an irori (a sunken fire hearth that once graced Japanese homes). Then scooped up and served on a long wooden paddle called a Shamoji. During the harsh winter months in Hokkaido, robatayaki was a way of cooking and keeping warm.
In order for robata to be authentic, certain traditions must be observed – grilling only with bincho charcoal, heating the coals to ~1,000 degrees, meat and vegetables to be thinly sliced, then cooked over various heat zones to allow for proper cooking and cooling.
I made an early reservation at a restaurant in Kabuchiko, tucked away on the second floor of an indiscernible building. It was so difficult to find that I had to show the kanji version of the restaurant name to random people around. Because I was 30 minutes earlier than the next reservation, I was able to have an intimate chat with my server. Turns out, she used to perform at Tokyo’s Kabukiza theater (check out her photo below!)
Watch a Sumo Wrestling Match
📍Ryogoku Kokugikan, Sumida (Tokyo) | 35°41'50.1"N 139°47'36.1"E
I don’t think sumo needs further explanation except that its a religious ritual. The ring-entering ceremony is steeped in drama and flair and, before each match, Shinto purification rituals take place. The yobidashi (announcer) will signify the start of the next match by signing out the names of the two wrestlers.
Watching sumo as a solo traveler is awesome. You’re paired up with others like you and you get your own box. You sit on pillows on the ground and, if your neighbors are friendly, they share their bounty (sake, anyone?)
To my fellow solo female travelers: What did you love most about Japan? What do you wish to see?
As always, I appreciate your comments, likes and support!