As one of two regular contributors to Topless Robot with a particular affinity for Japanese manga and anime, it might surprise some of you to know that, until last week, I had never - gasp! - visited the motherland. Yessir, I hadn't yet made the pilgrimage to Glorious Nippon!
And so, armed with a passport and a few thousand Yen, my girlfriend and I took the plunge and braved the twelve-hour international flight to the land of manga, robots, video games, and other things that make my nerd heart melt.
The dead of winter might not necessarily be the most optimal time to visit a northern continent, especially considering the fact that I live in Los Angeles where our concept of "cold" is anything below 70. Still, there are a lot of cool things you can only do in Japan in the winter, so here's 15 things to do, see, and check out in Japan!
1) Visit the Snow Monkeys at the Jigokudani Monkey Park
Out of all the coolest things I did in Japan, this was easily the coolest. And I'm not just talking about the bitterly cold two-mile trek through the snow-covered mountains, either. (By the way, in case it weren't obvious, bring lots of warm winter clothing for Japan in the winter. It gets pretty damn cold.)
If there's one universal truth that unites all of us, it's that monkeys are pretty fun things to watch. They're like people! Except they're all fuzzy and smaller! The snow monkeys in northern Japan - Japanese macaques, specifically - are the northernmost non-human primates in the world. Which means that they don't have any ground-based predators. Which means, when they descend from the trees in the winter to warm themselves in sulfur-fueled water baths, they're perfectly okay with gawking spectators like myself.
Seriously, they just bounce around like you're not even there. It's amazing.
This is a pretty popular tourist spot over the winter, so don't freak out while you're on the trail and you hear several grumpy British amateur photographers behind you, trudging through the snow and muttering "bloody hell" while lugging heavy and expensive camera equipment behind you.
2) Get Bitten by Deer at the Nara Deer Park
If, for some reason, you want a more intimate encounter with Japanese wildlife, however, the Sika deer at the Todai-ji temple in Nara will foot the bill.
Also at the Todai-ji temple, you'll find an enormous, fifty-foot tall statue of Buddha, which contains a pillar with an open hole roughly the size of the Buddha statue's nose. Apparently passing through this nose will grant you wisdom and ONE SINGLE WISH, so of course dumbass American tourists like myself can't pass up the opportunity to get stuck, Winnie the Pooh-style, in a small wooden hole. (Luckily for me, I'm thin as a stick.)
Outside the temple, the bowing Sika deer roam free. And there's hundreds of the fuzzy fuckers everywhere. They seem so docile! You can pet them! So of course you feel honor-bound to visit one of the local vendors and buy them some cookies - "Bambi cookies," as they call them.
Be prepared, though, for a full-on Sika deer onslaught. Suddenly these docile, gentle creatures become ferocious, biting, head-butting assholes once they smell one whiff of a tourist with some cookies.
3) Visit Akihabara and Den Den Town
So once you've experienced sopping-wet Snow Monkeys and after you've received several bruises and welts from Sika deer, it's time to hit the Japanese nerd meccas and spend your precious Yen!
There are all kinds of cool and weird shops lining every street corner, but be advised of a few things.
One - I'll get to this a bit later, but navigating Japanese streets is hard, so be prepared to get really lost. Especially if you're looking for a specific place.
Two - the seedier elements of Akiba and Den Den Town become suffocatingly uncomfortable after a certain point. Once you get over the fun neon-barf aesthetic, you realize that this is a focal point of porno shops, pachinko parlors (Japanese gambling establishments, essentially), and legit Maid Cafes where doe-eyed Japanese waifus stand outside in Gothic Lolita outfits, proffering their brief friendship and loyalty towards sad-sack Otaku for several thousand Yen.
Three - shit gets expensive all of a sudden. Don't think you're going to Akiba or Den Den Town to pick up some cheap souvenirs, because you won't. And if you're in the market for some anime DVDs or video games? Be prepared to spend a small fortune. These prices are the norm for nerds in Japan. Which is to say, very expensive. Us Americans refuse to pay any more than 20 to 30 dollars for a Blu Ray, while in Japan the norm is 4,000 Yen or more - roughly 40 bucks. This is why, in the anime world, Japanese publishers go to great lengths to prevent Japanese fans from reverse-importing DVDs and Blu Rays for stuff like Fullmetal Alchemist that are released in America at much, much cheaper prices.
Still, it's almost a rite of passage for any nerd-inclined individual to experience these two dork palaces, so make sure you save some time to gawk at everything.
4) Visit a Japanese Arcade
And while you're visiting said dork palaces, why not drop by a Japanese arcade and become bewildered?
I say "bewildered" because when you think of the word "arcade," you think of traditional arcade machines. Your Street Fighter IIs and whatnot. In Japan, arcades are still sort of a thing; whereas in America they've all but died, Japan's arcades have evolved in a very strange direction. The three types of games you'll find in Japanese arcades are:
Crane games! They call these "UFO Catchers" in Japan. You know the drill - you plunk down a dollar, move a little crane around, and hope the machine somehow allows you to grab a stuffed animal or something. In Japan, though, these things are incredibly popular and filled with weird shit.
You can grab this Evangelion figurine of Shinji!
Or lots of other weird shit! Like, I dunno, lunch!
The other type of games there: Gundam games! These ridiculous-looking pods are a sort of VR-style game where you pretend to enter into a life-sized Gundam cockpit. The pods are all networked together, and everyone battles it out for first place. These things are expensive - around 5,000 Yen (5 dollars) a pop - but the hardcore players spend nearly all day in these things.
The last type of game: Gambling games! If you're brave enough to venture towards the top floor, chances are you'll see a throng of gambling games - that is, video games where you pretend to bet on stuff, in this case a virtual soccer match - all attended by chainsmoking Japanese players.
5) Get Drunk in an Izakaya
So, now you need a place to grab some grub and a pint or two. Make sure to find a local Izakaya to do this.
There are a few places in the US that call themselves "Izakaya," but chances are they're bullshit. Just insanely expensive Japanese restaurants that serve craft cocktails and give themselves a fancy name. Actual Japanese Izakaya are basically pubs; places where tired salarymen find themselves after work to drown their sorrows in cheap sake and beer, fill their stomachs with sashimi and fried food, and drink and chainsmoke incessantly until 2 in the morning.
Actual Izakayas are great, and well worth seeking out. Least of all because the typically shy Japanese citizens suddenly become friendly, inebriated compatriots; the Izakaya my girlfriend and I found next to a train station by the Tokyo Dome Hotel was filled with eager salarymen putting their drunken English skills to good use, helping us navigate the needlessly complicated menu and pouring us a heaping helping of sake out of his own pocket. (God bless you, Tao. Hope you and your date, Licca, are doing well.)
6) Stay in a Ryokan, Boil in an Onsen
Now you need a place to rest and a way to wash off all the second-hand smoke. Time to find a Ryokan!
A Ryokan being a traditional Japanese inn, the kind where traveling merchants would rest their weary feet. We're talking tatami mats, a yukata to wear, the whole nine yards. They'll also feed you a traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast, in case you want to try eating a whole snail (not bad!) and pickled vegetables and rice.
You're also more than welcome to take a dip in the onsen, the Japanese hot springs that are ubiquitous in every anime that ever dared to show animated nudity. That's because onsen require nudity. Yep; if you want to try the onsen, you gotta be in the buff. Don't worry, it's not that bad. It's actually quite nice, climbing into a boiling pool of sulfur water next to a bunch of nude Chinese tourists. It's also a perfectly normal way to walk around nude with other foreign people that won't get you arrested. Bonus!