1. The best way to stretch your yen
Japan is Expensive. Or to be exact, it could be. So really, backpacking is the best way to stretch your budget. Instead of spending a substantial (a big word, I know) amount on a hotel room that you would spend just a few hours in, book a bed in a dormitory of a hostel instead.
Still, it doesn’t mean that you should resort to instant noodle or canned sardines from home either. Get a day pass for the local transportation network, walk everywhere, visit charming public parks and interesting spots for free or at minimum fees, stroll along the traditional market (shotengai) for cheap street delicacies and eat where the locals do!
2. Converse with the friendly and helpful locals
Backpacking also means that you’re left on your own. In Japan, this could be overwhelming, especially when you attempt to figure out the street signs and maps (even Google maps), which, unless you’re proficient in kanji, could throw off your sense of direction. But don’t worry! Ask the locals whenever you’re unsure – starts with a polite sumimasen (excuse me), a magic word that can go a long way – they will always point you in the right direction, even if they don’t speak in the same language as you do.
This could actually lead to a wonderful conversation (err, maybe exchanges of simple words and gestures are more like it) like my experience in Kanazawa during my third Japan trip, when a group of elementary schoolchildren let me tag along on their school assignment (something to do with reading maps correctly and getting to assigned checkpoints) and made sure I got to Kanazawa Castle before continuing on their way.
3. Getting a glimpse of the real Japanese people
To backpack is to do away with the luxurious pampering usually associated with the glamour and clamour of traveling. In a way, it makes you more spontaneous. And when you are, you’ll go beyond the surface of the country and dive into the everyday lives of its people. In Japan, this means you’re in for a treat: be prepared to have your pre-conceived notions about the Japanese verified or busted, or both.
On my last day in Osaka during my third Japan trip, I went into a small mom and pop’s wagashi (sweets) shop that I passed every day for a skewer of dango (colourful sticky rice balls – the cheapest thing I could find). The owner was an elderly man, and I didn’t really attempt a conversation because as we all have been repeated warned about, Japanese could be quite reserved, especially with strangers.
But after the usual small talks, he started telling me about his travels around the world. He pointed out various memorabilia collected from the journeys, neatly displayed all around the shop; some of them were downright rare and exotic! The shop owner must be at least in his 70’s, but obviously he hadn’t outgrown the joy of traveling. Laughing, he said that he’d like to go to Cuba for his final adventure.
It might be a coincidence, but encounters like this are not uncommon for backpackers in Japan. In the end, this kind of interaction make you realize that beneath all that you’ve heard about the country and its people, the Japanese are human beings with their own dreams, worries and struggles, just like you and me.