When I landed in Japan, the autumn was just “knocking on heaven’s door” – so as to say. And now when it is the Sakura-season, the heaven’s door will opened yet again, inviting millions of tourists from around the world to be enchanted by its magnificence. However, to my surprise, the barren Japanese winters exposed me to some of the most wonderful experiences – some which the “traditional” tourists may never encounter during peak seasons.
You should probably know what you might miss out on, during off-seasons in Japan!!
Just to be on the same page, I don’t want to get bound by the traditional definition of “off-season”. Look out for the “shoulder-season” in Japan, and all these points will be applicable nonetheless. (Shoulder Season is the season just before or after the peak season. It is usually considered to be one of the best windows for budget traveling!!)
Now I, personally, like to experience nature, culture and lifestyle all on my own – I don’t like to share my solitary moments amidst nature with anyone. Call me selfish, but I’m not the only one!! Maybe that is what separates the tourists from travelers. For many of us, it’s the eyeful of the landscapes, absorbed in solitude, which satiates the inner quench for satisfaction, rather than a selfie in front of a popular “tourist spot”. And Japan never runs out of places that will “woo your heart away” any time of the year.
Believe me, it is extremely difficult to get away from people in this island nation – there are heads popping up everywhere!! Peak season, though bringing out the best Japan has to offer, also brings out hoards of school-going kids, families with time to kill in the Golden Week, and of course the foreign tourists who intend to see it all in a fortnight!! That means souvenir shops suddenly appearing out of nowhere, and long queues eating up your precious time everywhere. It is not the real deal anymore….it becomes more of a facade that Japan puts up to entertain all the visitors. Where is the authenticity?
Try walking along the beautiful streets of Kamakura or Kyoto outside the peak seasons and you will find the real, traditional Japanese lifestyle. You can afford to get lost among the labyrinth of beautiful streets, and still love the way the shrines and museums give you all the time you want, to appreciate their beauty. Stop in the middle of a walkway to admire Mount Fuji through the trees, without raising the eyebrows of those following you. Nature will throw up shades which you will never see in the peak seasons. All it needs is a little patience and enthusiasm!!
I never expected Lake Ashinoko, Hakone, to be such a spectacle in winters (Feb 1st week). This spot is flooded with tourists in the peak seasons; but that day it was my friend and I, who had camped up along with 3 other European campers – and not a single soul to interrupt us from getting lost in the beautiful sight. Oh I forgot, it was 34 degree Fahrenheit at this time and I could not feel my fingers – an inconvenience I would happily face again!!
There is more to Japan than the techno-savvy streets of Akihabara, the nightlife at Roppongi/Shibuya, or the multitude of modern miracles encompassed within Odaiba and Yokohama – it is about the people, who live here and have made it all possible. Japan has a very rich cultural heritage, and a lifestyle you will not find anywhere else. The country lives a dual life of sorts – you” invariable end up asking: “Is he the same person I work with on weekdays?” Japanese possess another dimension to their workaholic lifestyle – and there is no way you can experience that in peak seasons. Why? Because, of course – “I only have the patience to entertain so many of you…!”
Have a talk with a small baker in a corner of Zao ski village, after everyone has left for the night, and he will teach you how he bakes Anpan. You will get to know that he maintains a small bookshelf in the store room, while he hands you out a recipe book of Indian cuisines!! Have an early morning breakfast at Komeda Kissaten, and an old Japanese couple will take you on a trip down the memory lane, while sipping their coffee after a morning walk. When the bartender sits next to you, without having to worry about other customers, you get to know what Japan was like for an aspiring rock and roll musician, 10 years ago.
Every person here has a story to tell, and loves a companion. They will welcome a foreigner with open arms and will not let you feel you are alone in a distant land. Japanese know how to take care of a guest – it is just the number of guests that can get a little daunting during peak seasons!!
Has someone told you Japan is an expensive place to travel? Give him a big “Thank You” hug on my behalf. After all, it is only because of them, that the off season deals look like a bargain! Lodging and travelling constitutes much of the travel expenses in Japan – and it can get pretty steep depending on your comfort level We are talking about 9000 Yen (75$) to 30000 Yen (250$) per night approx. Plus, be prepared for “Sold Out” boards, if you have arrived on a short notice, and a good night’s sleep in dorm beds at 2-3 times the normal price.
Target the shoulder season, and you can enjoy the luxury of 4-star hotel for the price of a 2-star! However, if you are one of the camping and hiking kinds, then apart from competition for good camping spots, the prices will not differ by much. Airlines and railways offer tempting packages outside the peak season – no surprises there. If your itinerary mainly involves metropolitans around Tokyo and Osaka, or the shrines like those in Kamakura or Kyoto; and you can live without seeing the fall colors at Hakone or the “famed” cherry blossoms, then hop on the low-budget flight and enjoy your trip!!
P.S: Make sure all that money you saved is spent on food – because, trust me, you can never get enough of Japanese cuisines. I’ll have that tempura please!!
Off the beaten path is where you may find the next inspiration for your life – your Sensei, perhaps. Friends can only point to a direction – only a Sensei will show you the path. There is a good chance you will run into some very interesting people, with eye-opening views on life; philosophies that can influence your daily lives in a profound way. Off season and off-road traveling makes up for interesting companionship with fellow travelers you bounce upon. They will usually be people who have explored places and have gathered experiences very different from normal tourists. They see the world differently, and sharing an evening bon fire, at a campsite, with people who have time to kill, makes up for never ending stories.
Try getting lost on Ten-en hiking trail (Kamakura) in winters, only to find sights as pristine as these. Or, to be fortunate enough to be spotted by a fellow hiker, who explains to you the difference between a Samurai and a Ninja, while you both make a lazy descent. If, by a rare stroke of luck, the lady from Osaka is reading this – that was one of the best conversations I have had with someone, since I landed in Japan!! Arigato gozaimasu!!
(Oh, just for your reference – I am the Indian guy who hates Indian movies!! (..I bet you wouldn’t have crossed paths with many!! ))
Off-season travel will give you an experience of solo-traveling many people do not relish yet. You get to spend time with yourself, understand what you really feel, what you really want – who you really are.
You may sit on a deserted beach, watching a bunch of surfers ride the wave, for hours at stretch – reliving how your ambitions got lost through these years, into the reality you are living today. Or, star gazing during a cold clear winter night at Jogashima Island, only to realize your dad never got you the telescope he promised you, when you were in 6th standard!! Maybe play with the camera settings, to capture the best possible shot of a deserted Japanese house with a barren backdrop at Nagano – you might end up with a great shot, or even better, an exciting new hobby!!
Don’t be!! If you want to see the best of Japan, and are ready to immerse in the plethora of exquisite beauty that is ever-present in every street here – you will surely find something that will catch your eye, any season of the year. Just make sure you brush up your Japanese skills….it will go a long way in making your vacations memorable!! Japan is open 24*7, 12 months a year…AM to Sunset. All you need is the spirit to enjoy!!
Japan is notorious for its torrential rains and related climatic extremities. Please check the weather forecasts for the places you are planning to visit. Also, some sightseeing places may be closed for renovation in the off season – please confirm the status with the local tourist information outlets.
P.S: Planning a Hokkaido trip in shoulder season. Anyone with suggestions for camping sites, hiking trails and sea food outlets I should not miss out on?