Alternative Japan on Your Gap Year

Ah yes, Japan. Home of the samurai, anime, the bullet train and… that’s all, right? Wrong. Whatever preconceived ideas you have of this amazing and mysterious place, seeing Japan on your gap year will surpass anything you could ever feasibly expect from travelling across just one country. It’s a place caught between modernity and antiquity, the traditional and the bizarre, the normal and the outlandish. Oh, and another thing: the smile will never leave your face the whole way through.

Here are my top picks of offbeat things you have to do if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Eat somewhere cool

In Japan, dining itself turns into an event. Why not try some yakiniku, where bite-sized meat is cooked on gridirons right in front of you, or perhaps take your pick of sushi from a revolving belt that whirs around, displaying endless culinary options? If you need a quick bite, you have the option of punching your order into a vending machine, which then relays your order to a kitchen where chefs prepare your meal within minutes, without a single word being uttered!

If you’re in Tokyo there are lots of themed restaurants which can provide an unforgettable dining experience. My favourites were Robot Restaurant, where actors fly around the room staging mock battles, Lockup Restaurant, which is themed on a prison and where upon entering you’re handcuffed and led to your dining cell, and Capcom Café, where staff re-enact Resident Evil scenes. I’m making none of this up.

Stay in a capsule hotel

Japan has this reputation of being super-expensive and although that’s not entirely true, certainly coming from nearby China or Thailand it can deliver a shock to the system, not to mention the purse strings.

If you want a truly Japanese experience that will save a bit of money, consider staying a couple of nights in a capsule hotel. These little alcoves, equipped with miniature TVs and shutters, are particularly popular with drunken businessmen stumbling in after missing the last train home but there’s no reason why you can’t hire one for the night. There can be anything up to 200 capsules per room.  It’s definitely worth checking out the hotel facilities, too; in the one I stayed in, there was a jacuzzi and all-night massage (ahem…) on the top floor, and several lounge rooms throughout.

Hit the arcades

Japan is world-famous for its video game industry, the full brute force of which can be felt in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, nicknamed ‘electric town’. Here, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve had wandered into some kind of overgrown fairground. Lights blink everywhere and the constant bleeps of arcades form the soundtrack to a legion of Japanese and otaku (anime and manga fans) whiling away their evening hours on arcades and pinball.

There is a whole host of arcades to play in here, and you can challenge one another to the latest video games, as well as exploring the Yodobashi Camera store, a seven-floor building full of all the latest technology.

Watch some sumo wrestling

If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Japan when one of the six major sumo wrestling tournaments are on, definitely fork out for a ticket or two. This full-contact sport where wrestlers try to force their opponent out of a small chalked ring is part of the national cultural heritage of Japan. Despite their huge statures and funny loincloths (pretty sure hipsters will be wearing these soon), sumo wrestlers are national celebrities and undergo an intense fighting and eating schedule to be fighting fit.

Sit ringside, grab a bento box of Japanese grilled meats and seaweed, and enjoy the show. Don’t get too close though, as it’s not uncommon for sumo wrestlers to be flung onto the crowd members themselves.

Get Zen in Kyoto

If you need some rest from the head-spinning pace of Tokyo and Osaka, make a beeline for the former imperial capital Kyoto. Kyoto is perhaps the most evocative city in Japan, the well-preserved historical buildings and abundant sense of history lending itself well to a generally more calming atmosphere. There’s a lot to see in Kyoto but it’s best explored at a leisurely pace.  For the ultimate Zen experience, head to Ryoan-ji, famed for its rock garden that is meant to facilitate deeper meditation, or follow the Philosopher’s Path, a cherry tree-lined walk along the canal. For the Instagram snap to dizzy your followers, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a must.

And once you’ve revitalized yourself through a healthy dose of meditation and inward reflection, head back to the arcades and sumo stadium and do it all again!