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Christopher Carr: In terms of traveling Japan, I imagine going by bike is one of the best possible ways. I've always preferred using the cheapest public transportation imaginable mixed with a small amount of hitchhiking. Getting back to your point about avoiding the touristy areas, which specifically would you avoid, and which do you think are must-see? Also, could you paint in broad strokes, how someone with no experiential knowledge of Japan might go about acquiring that knowledge as efficiently (yet enjoyably) as possible.
Kevin Kato: Which touristy areas to avoid? That’s actually a tough one to answer. I mean, by and large I’ve enjoyed what these heavily-touristed places have to offer, it’s just that conundrum of a place losing its aura because of all the people who wish to go see it. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you were out in the backwoods of Oita or Aomori and you stumbled on a Kiyomizudera that no one but the locals knew about…well, I’d certainly consider that an immensely more magical experience than visiting the ‘real’ Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. But Japan doesn’t tend to hide her treasures – I mean the ones that fit into the mainstream tourist’s interests. Okay, so what to avoid? One place that comes to mind is a theme park in Nikko called Edo-mura, which you can imagine is a recreation of an Edo-period village. Well, a very poorly-presented recreation. Really, it was terrible. Not the replicated village so much as the troupes of pseudo-bandoliers parading around like they were in some samurai movie set and hadn’t read the script. But Nikko itself was fantastic, from Toshogu Shrine to Lake Chuzenji to the gorge downriver from Kegon Falls, I can’t remember the name actually. But let’s see, a place to avoid… Maybe not so much to avoid but a place that in my opinion did not live up to my expectations was Amanohashidate. It was nice, but one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan? Great place, no debate; maybe what got to me, and if you’ve been there then maybe you can relate, was everyone up on that lookout spot standing up on that rock bent over and looking between their legs, which is supposed to make that strip of land look like it is rising up into heaven. For the few minutes I was up there waiting my turn, no one seemed to see anything more than I did, which was an upside down strip of land. But then afterward I went down and took a stroll across that strip of pine-covered sand and thought it was remarkable. Sat on the beach, went for a swim, it was great. So again, it was the human-added factor that put a check in the con column for me.
In a nutshell, I don’t think I can say with complete confidence there is any one place that should be strictly avoided. Except maybe Roppongi. Seriously, why come all the way here to go pay some guy named Bob eight hundred yen for a Bud and then hang out listening to Blink 182 and talking to people you might as well have grown up with? Must-see places? I’d say make sure to see Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If I had to pick one it would be Nagasaki, despite that atrocious blue statue. But a visit to either one is like a sledgehammer to the gut. Kyoto is an easy pick but I enjoyed Kamakura, I guess for the subdued, natural setting. Nikko for the same basic reason. And Hiraizumi in Iwate, aside from aesthetic allure, was at one time on par with Kyoto or Nara in terms of national cultural importance. My dark horse here is Akita Prefecture. Astounding in a sublime way, from Shirakami in the north to Chokai-san in the south, great beaches all up and down, Japan’s deepest lake, Tazawa-ko, which I believe is also the world’s second deepest after Baikal, world-class fireworks in summer, my personal favorite festival, the Kanto-matsuri, and perhaps my favorite spot in all of Japan, Sakurajima, along the coast out on Oga Hanto. Rock formations rising up out of the water, a free campground and, when I was there – both times – breath-taking sunsets. Just make sure you visit in the summer – I hear the winters are brutal. The trees along the Akita coast are actually, literally all slanted because the Siberian winds blow in so strong.
As for your last question, I’ve had more than a few people come to me asking what I think they should do and see in Japan – and I always struggle with my answer. It truly depends on what you are interested in, though it seems everyone pares down to the same list of places in the end anyway. Obviously there’s a tremendous wealth of information on the web, not only information but blogs and trip advisor and such from people who have traveled Japan. Take everything with a grain of salt though; Jenny might hate everything about Kamakura because she’s allergic to cedar pollen and her boyfriend ditched her the night before in Enoshima. Another possibility is to find a place on the web where you can correspond with a Japanese person directly; this idea just came to me, I don’t know if such resources exist but just communicating personally with someone who lives in the place you plan to visit would be a trip in itself, so to speak. But the best bet I’d say is to do your research, ask questions, pick a variety of places and go. If you have the time, take a random day trip and see what you find. Without any tourist attractions – or tourists – in your way you might stumble on something priceless. Oh, and by all means get yourself a bicycle! Or stick out your thumb, like you said.