Ditch the guidebook to avoid Japan's worst tourist draws

Yes, Mt. Fuji literally is a giant ashtray!

From climbing giant ashtrays to watching tea grow cold, there's far too much attention lavished on the duller side of Japan. It's no secret that Japan is trying hard to attract tourists. How can it not be, of course, after the industry fell to its knees in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami? Sure, the country has much to offer, but mixed in with the interesting stuff there's also plenty of dross that means first-time visitors can easily end up having a very disappointing time. Especially if they blindly follow the guidebooks...

These often recommend extremely boring activities simply because all previous guidebooks have done so. They also routinely misinterpret key Japanese concepts, like wabi-sabi, which Western travel-guide writers think denotes an aesthetic of rarified beauty. By contrast, most Japanese know that it tends to signify the most soporific elements of their culture.

For these reasons, rather than recommending what to enjoy, it may be more useful to point out what to avoid when visiting Japan. Once you steer clear of the dull shibboleths celebrated in many guidebooks, the chances are you'll land on your feet and find interesting stuff at random. So, here is my list of Fujiland's top 10 most forgettable and best-avoided tourist "attractions" and experiences.

The Imperial Palace

Tourists arriving fresh from Narita might be excited by the fact that Japan has an emperor and that his palace is smack bang in the center of Tokyo. I know I was. An emperor! Thats one step up from a king!

But if you're expecting a spectacle on a par with the Roman Empire, or grander than London's Buckingham Palace, you'll be sorely disappointed. Behind its tea-green moat and giant stone dykes, the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo is practically invisible. And there's nothing to see like London's Changing the Guard, except for a solitary duck and an occasional jogger.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 9.5.

That bar in Lost in Translation

Next on the amnesia list is the bar at Shinjuku's Park Hyatt made famous by the film Lost in Translation. This location isn't quite the Odessa Steps featured in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin or La Bocca della Verità that crops up in Roman Holiday. In Sofia Coppola's movie, the could-be-anywhere bar is kept as a blur in the background, which, when you see it, you realize was one of her better directorial decisions.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 10.

Tokyo Tower

This is not only mentioned in all the guidebooks, but it also makes it onto a lot of the covers as well, so you just know it must be overrated. 

Tourists are always being warned to be on their guard against pirated brand-name goods. What then are they to do with an entire 333-meter tower that is an obvious rip-off of a more-famous "brand-name" tower in Paris? Boring because it's unoriginal and it's not even the tallest building in Tokyo anymore.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 8.

Yoshiwara red-light district

Inspired by the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, many tourists are fascinated by Japan's ancient image of geisha loveliness. Then they go looking for the sights of old Edo's pleasure quarters.

But tracking down the former site of the Yoshiwara red-light district is sure to disappoint because all that awaits you is a banal-looking street corner. Getting lost and wandering round for several hours is a much more exciting option and you can do that anywhere.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 9.5.

The tea ceremony

For many foreign visitors, the closest they can hope to get to the kimono-clad beauties of yesteryear is to visit a tea ceremony. But, be warned, in Japan this activity, like hula and flamenco dancing, is generally the preserve of the elderly. In other words, truly "the kimono-clad beauties of yesteryear."

But even if you get a hottie handling the teapot there really is nothing quite as boring as watching someone take 30 minutes to make lukewarm tea. No wonder the Japanese never developed tipping.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 9.5.

Kabuki theater

Many other Japanese traditional arts exist on the same timeless plateau as the tea ceremony. A good example is kabuki theater. Attempts have been made in recent years to jazz it up by putting on shows that don't quite last all day, and through adding explanations in English.

What really needs explaining is why anyone would want to watch a bunch of men dressed in retro drag whose idea of acting is to tilt their fans a few degrees, and who waggle their heads to check if their wigs are still on.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 10.

Saanurai Swords

Japan is justifiably famous for the quality of its sword-making. You can often find exhibitions of swords and there are even a few museums dedicated to the art.

But, while the samurai sword may conjure up images of legendary battles, looking at a couple of hundred virtually identical pieces of metal in glass cases can quickly become mind-numbing. Sure the experts can detect "fascinating" differences in the hamon (blade pattern) and other microscopic details, but as for you and me, we may as well be staring into a very big drawer of cutlery.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 9.

Taiyaki and kakigori

Taiyaki are small fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. Kakigori is shaved ice with a splash of colored syrup on top. These culinary mediocrities always seem to get a mention in the guidebooks, a mysterious phenomenon which is probably the most interesting thing about them. But knowing the explanation -- editorial laziness -- only adds to the boredom factor.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 9.75.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is an iconic symbol of Japan, with many of the guidebooks recommending a climb. This is a mistake.

Although relatively easy to walk up, Fuji is only an icon because it can be seen from far away. Once you get onto its slopes you realize that it is just an extended ashtray, strewn with unsightly ash and misshapen fragments of lava that make for a dreary ascent.

And don't expect any solitude on the mountain either. During the short climbing season it is swarmed over by a crowd of heavy-breathing seniors. Avoid at all costs.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 8.5.

Hanami (flower watching)

This is a bit like watching the grass grow, except in this case the "grass" is pink, and above your head. Apart from that, it's basically the same thing. For the Japanese, watching the cherry blossoms is supposed to represent the fleeting quality of life, but if this is one of the highlights of life then perhaps the more fleeting it is the better.

Alcohol doesn't make it any more exciting but sometimes knocks you out for the count. And that's as close as it gets to a good thing.

Wabi-sabi boredom rating: 10 (sober), 6.5 (drunk).

Overall combined wabi-sabi boredom rating: infinite. You have been warned.

C.B. Liddell
30 July, 2012

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Leave a comment (2)

  1. skadhithjassisdottir14 July 2013 at 07:42

    Do you actually like Japan, Colin?

    I'm surprised you didn't mention we have kakigori everywhere in the UK, but we call it slush. And I can make my own taiyaki...

    I want to see Hokkaido and Tohoku myself, and maybe visit the otaku centres in tokyo to see what Claymore, Hellsing and Elfen Lied goodies I can find there.

  2. To like or hate would counteract Zen.