How to Respectfully Experience Japanese Shrines and Temples
There are wells (purification fountains) on the way into shrines and temples, and if you rinse your hands, try to avoid touching the ladle anywhere but the handle, and pour used water into the gutter. You can also pour some water into your hand to rinse your mouth (don’t drink).
If you want to worship at a Shinto shrine, when you get to the offering hall toss some coinage into the offering box. If there is a bell, ring it, bow two times, clap your hands twice, and then bow one more time.
Don’t eat or drink anything other than water in the shrine or temple.
Be quiet and respectful; these are holy places.
Being Polite In While Traveling by Train in Japan
When waiting to get on the train, pay attention to the lines painted on the sidewalk, and be sure to stand in line.
Don’t talk on your phone; if chatting with a pal, try to be quiet.
If it gets crowded, take your bag off and hold it in front.
If you have an assigned seat, make sure that is where you sit.
Don’t be pushy, and make sure that you leave room for other people to get on and off the train.
How to Avoid Annoying Japanese People
Read ALL the signs, especially when you are in a shrine or temple. Many will tell you where you can and cannot go, and what you need to do while in any area (e.g. take off your shoes, etc).
Stand in line. This goes for lots of different places that you might not expect depending on where you are from. We even stood in line while hiking, and while that ad hoc happens in the US sometimes, it was not ok to move up in the line in Japan.
Learn and use please (“sumimasen,” which really means excuse me) and thank you (“arigato”) in Japanese. When you are in a restaurant, it is not impolite to hail your waiter by saying “sumimasen.”
Be quiet if you are in an Airbnb, because people live very close to one another, and the Japanese work day/week is very long.
Be quiet and respectful in Onsens and follow all rules while bathing.
Watch other people, and take note of their behavior. This can serve as your guide for how to act when you are uncertain.
Other Japanese Customs You Might Want to Know About (But Which Visitors Aren’t Expected to Understand)
Bowing. In Japan, there’s a complexity to bowing in which people of different standings bow to different depths. Bowing can also be casual or formal. Luckily, visitors aren’t expected to know how this all works.
Gift-giving is another important but complicated aspect of Japanese culture. Generally speaking, people don’t open their gifts in front of the gift-giver, and whenever you receive a gift, you are supposed to return the favor. Again, however, travelers aren’t expected to do this all properly.
Japan has a total of 33 national parks, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spread out across its major islands, they showcase the vast variety of ecosystems and unique landscapes that characterize the natural world of Japan. These parks are also home to many important historic and cultural attractions, making them the perfect places to experience the multifaceted wonders of Nippon. I’ve only seen a small fraction of these special places, but they deserve a post highlighting how amazing they are.
Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
As you may be able to tell from the name of this park, Fuji-Hakone-Izu has three distinct sections, one of which is home to Mt. Fuji (the highest mountain in the country), one is for Hakone, and one for the Izu islands south of Tokyo. Of these, I have visited Hakone and Mt. Fuji.
When I went to Hakone, it was my first time in Japan, and I wanted to have the chance to see Mt. Fuji, since we wouldn’t be able to actually visit the mountain. We heard that the journey through this part of the park would give us the best chance for a glimpse of the crown of Japan (although we didn’t actually get to see it that time due to cloud cover), so we bought a transportation value pass (for details click here). This takes you from Toyko via multiple different modes of transportation (train, funicular, cable car, boat, and bus) through the Hakone area. This includes a stop in a geothermal area where you can see some hot springs and buy special black eggs cooked in the searing hot waters of the mountain. You will also get to ride an oddly pirate-esque boat across Lake Ashinoko. Not included in the pass, but well worth the extra cost, is the Old Hakone Check Point, which was used during the Edo period to monitor people moving through Japan.
On our second trip to Japan, I did summit Mt. Fuji, which was a just-as-memorable-as-you-would-think two-day experience that I will devote an entire post to later this month. I will say that this mountain is busy, but makes up for the crowds with unimaginably beautiful views and a uniquely spiritual experience.
Nikko National Park
Nikko National Park includes a huge complex of shrines among a wildly beautiful, mountainous countryside. This is one of the most spiritual places that I have ever been in my life, but it is also very popular. So, the real moments of still and introspection are those that you can steal in a crowd, or find on a quiet trail among the trees. This National Park is also home to Mt. Nantai, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji. After Mt. Fuji, Mt Nantai is one of the best places for a visitor to get a challenging hike in, but you will need to plan ahead if you are going to make it up the steep trails of this mountain to the summit.
Setonaikai National Park
I visited this park while staying on Miyajima island of Hiroshima Bay, which is home to the ocean-side Itsukushima-jinga and Mt. Misan, in the western side of the park. For anyone like me, that isn’t super fond of snorkeling, the island is your best destination for this part of the national park, because the rest of Setonaikai is marine, complete with finless porpoises and beautiful forests of ocean plant-life.
Get a 21 day JR pass. You will need to plan ahead to do this, because your paperwork will be sent to you via mail. You won’t want to do this last minute.
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
Once you get to Tokyo, pick up your JR pass at the airport. You can then take the monorail and JR trains (subway lines will cost you extra, but when you get tired of walking you will likely end up taking them) to get to your accommodations. Just show your pass to the staff at station entrances when entering JR stations. Google Maps can help you find your way via trains and by foot if you pick up a pocket wifi at the airport as well, or if you have international data.
I would suggest taking a rest today. Walk around near your Tokyo accommodation, and eat some good food. (But avoid scam restaurants like this one!).
Day 2: Tokyo DisneySea
If you are a Disney fan, take your second day in Tokyo to visit a park that’s only in Japan, Tokyo DisneySea! There are some totally unique park environments here, and some familiar rides as well, including Indian Jones and the Tower of Terror. There are also some interesting food combinations/interpretations here, including Mexican food with a Japanese twist. The park isn’t huge, so it is likely that you will spend around a half day here.
If you end up having some time to explore other parts of Tokyo in the second half of your day, consider shopping in Harajuku, or checking out the anime capital in Akihabara. The JR train will get you everywhere that you need to go.
Day 3: Exploring the City
Spend the day seeing some of the different areas of Tokyo. I have mentioned a couple above, but some other neat locations are Meiji shrine and the park surrounding the temple. There is also a beautiful garden in Shinjuku that is a great place to spend an hour or so, and escape the crowds for a bit.
Day 4: Journey to Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji’s hiking season is from early July to early September; it is illegal and extremely dangerous to attempt the summit outside of the hiking season. So, if you plan on including this in your trip, make sure you plan accordingly. I would also suggest that you try to get out on the trail during the very first week of the season, as it will only get more and more busy once school lets out.
In order to get there, take a bus from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji’s Fifth Station; note that you should plan on buying your tickets for this ahead of time so that you are guaranteed a seat. You can do this online here. The ride takes around 2.5 hours and is on a mountain road, so take some motion sickness medicine if you struggle with that.
The fifth station is a pretty big tourist stop, so it can be quite busy there, but it is also a great area for resources for those of you trying to travel light. They have rain gear that you can rent, along with some other equipment options if you need trekking poles; never rent hiking boots, as you NEED to hike in shoes that you have already broken in. There are also a bunch of options for a hot meal before you set off.
When we did this hike, we decided to just make it to the hut where we were staying for the night on the first day, and since this was the highest hut on the mountain where you can stay the night (Goraikokan), I think that this worked really well. Although, be aware that this is a popular place to stay, and you will need to be proactive about reserving yourself a spot there. Also, Goraikokan is at a relatively high altitude for most of us, so be sure to plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness one way or another (here are some tips).
Day 5: Summit Mt. Fuji and Return to Tokyo
If you are a strong hiker, summiting from Goraikokan will most likely take longer than you are expecting, because there is a good chance that you will be forced to queue up near the summit. When we went, I think we spent about an hour in line, and we were lucky that it had cleared up a bit when we started down, because there were times that the line was in both directions.
Depending on how early you get to the top, how much energy you have, and when your bus home leaves the 5th station, you may want to walk the trail that circles the summit. Otherwise, enjoy the top and then start the long hike downhill. This part of the trek destroyed my legs, whereas, I was just fine hiking up. Be ready for a long, steep walk down the mountain.
We caught the bus back to Tokyo once we got down, and then we basically just ate dinner and fell asleep (you probably won’t sleep well at the mountain hut, unless you enjoy sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers).
Suggestion for accommodations (budget): Khaosan Tokyo Samurai Capsule – This is the first capsule hostel/hotel that I have ever stayed in, and I wish all hostels were like this! You had your own space, and the staff here are great!
Day 6: Traveling to Kyoto
After our adventure on Mt. Fuji, and a night’s rest in Tokyo, we hopped right on the Shinkansen (or bullet train) to Kyoto (my favorite city in Japan!!). It takes about 3.5 hours to make it from Tokyo to Kyoto, and that’s not including the city trains you may need to take.
This may be a an all day affair, depending on when you leave, but if you get to Kyoto and have some time, try walking around the Gion area. The architecture and atmosphere in this area is absolutely beautiful, and there are some beautiful canals that you can walk along. Plus, plenty of food.
Day 7: Kyoto
Take the train over to Inari-Jinja (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html). This shrine here is one of the coolest locations in Kyoto, and will be familiar if you ever watched Memoirs of a Geisha. Here, you can hike through tunnels of torii gates, and if you are so inclined (which I highly recommend), you can hike up Mt Inari to the shrine at the top of the mountain. The trail to the summit is really unique, and it is a great place to experience some Japanese forests (which surprisingly, you don’t get much of on Mt. Fuji).
After Inari, head back over to the Gion area. There are plenty of shrines to explore there, but I would suggest Kennin-ji, the oldest zen shrine in Kyoto, and where you can see a HUGE dragon mural. Afterwards, consider catching a performance at Gion Corner, which has a nice little show with six different traditional Japanese preforming arts, including Geisha dances.
If you didn’t have the chance yet to enjoy the canals in Gion by night, please do so tonight. I absolutely love this area.
Day 8: Kyoto
Take today to visit some of the other shrines/sites in Kyoto that you haven’t seen yet.
You may be tempted to visit the Bamboo Forest, which is in a ton of pictures and blogs, but I thought that it was too busy and the forest was so small that it really wasn’t worth visiting. The area surrounding the forest is pretty nice, however, so if you really feel the need to check it out, you can spend some time in the area.
I would suggest that you brave the crowds to check out Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion, however. It is a really unique spot, so I think it is well worth the lines and hordes of people. But if neither of these is on your list, there is plenty to do and see in Kyoto; I think you could spend a full week in this city and still not run out of things to do.
Day 9: Hiroshima and Miyajima
Take the shinkansen to Hiroshima; it takes about 2.5 hours, but it is likely that you will need to transfer, so give yourself some time by getting an early start. Once you are in the city, be sure to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This is absolutely one of the most moving places that I have ever been.
After a sobering afternoon, take the train over to the Miyajima ferry terminal. It is a short ride over to the island, and is covered by the JR pass. If you get there before it closes, check out the Itsukushima Shrine, which has a massive torii gate in the ocean. It is a wonderful place to unwind. If you get in too late for that, feel free to stroll around the town in Miyajima. Lots of things will close early, but the views are beautiful, and there are also deer that mingle among humans here, so it is a very cool place. Please don’t feed them anything though, especially things that aren’t edible (like maps… seriously, people feed them maps.).
Suggestion for accommodations: Hotel Sakuraya– this is a small bed and breakfast with traditional Japanese baths and a prime location on the shore.
Day 10: Miyajima
Sleep in, have a nice breakfast in town, and then take the gondola (or trail) up to the top of Mt. Misan. Not only are the views from the mountain absolutely stunning (you can see the ocean in both directions as well as the big island of Japan surrounding the island), but there is a complex of shrines on top of the mountain. These ancient buildings are home to a sacred fire, and are perched in some of the coolest spots just about anywhere. If you enjoy hiking, definitely take the trail down, because it is a great way to see the forest, as well as some famous anti-erosion landscape engineering. Specifically, there are dams and artificial waterfalls meant to prevent flooding and erosion on the island here, and they are all very sensitive to the nature of the surrounding forest.
After a night of inventing new ways to sleep in a bunk with zero support in the middle, and a breakfast of bread and cheese cubes, the events of the prior day’s harrowing driving adventure faded fast. I wasn’t enthused about the food we had been able to bring, but I did my best to fill up. The hike up the tallest mountain the Caribbean wasn’t going to be easy, not with the accelerated itinerary we had been forced to make.
We had one day to try for the top, and I wanted to shore up as much energy as I could.
Martin, my hiking partner, and I finished breakfast around 5, but we ended up waiting for our guide for nearly an hour before we could leave, because our illustrious mule had escaped in the night. Perhaps he sensed the coming hike and wasn’t all that excited about it. Luckily, we didn’t have much for the lovely animal to carry, just a jug of water and our two small day packs.
The first part of the Cienaga route, the main trail up Pico Duarte, is fairly flat. So, we had a nice warm-up as we followed the stream up the slope, pausing only to take pictures at the little wooden walkways that served as bridges. We moved as fast as we could, anticipating the long haul that was the come. The question about whether or not I could make it to the top hung over my head.
From Los Tablones, things started to get real. The trail became increasingly steep, with the steepest incline hitting us about halfway up between La Laguna and El Cruce. I kept repeating to myself “There is no way that this is only 0.5 kms!” as I struggled up the incline. The trails on this part of the mountain had carved deep canyons into the soft soil of Pico Duarte, some taller than me. The wear of people’s feet and the tropical weather seemed to be a hard force on this place. The trees here also took on an oddly swampy quality, with moss hanging down from the tall branches as the forest shifted from tropical to temperate and the air grew colder.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. We reached El Cruce, and judging by the map that’s at the top of its post, I was expecting to settle back into the same plod that carried us up from Los Tablones to La Laguna. It was tiring, but nothing that we couldn’t maintain.
This part of the trail was far more difficult than that ever-present map suggested, however. I don’t know if it was just that we were tired after our ascent, but those 3 km felt endless. I have to believe, even now, that whoever measured that segment was simply wrong. Maybe it was the same someone that measured the La Laguna-El Cruce segment. But it was here that the tropical forest finally fell away, leaving us in the fog, amid the temperate pines that seem so at-home on tall mountains.
As you may read if you look up Pico Duarte, there was a fire on the mountain in 2005 which wiped out vast swaths of the forest. For some, this made for a disappointing trip, but I found this part of the mountain (now partially regrown) to be really beautiful, despite the fact that I was exhausted. The little trees dotting fields of grasses among the tall survivors of the fire opened up a wide view of the mountainous inland. The views of the sunrise from there the next day were unbelievable.
Once we finally hit Aguita Fria, I cursed the sign. This was the high point before the camp where we would spend the night, and I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make the top. My feet were blistering in my boots, my legs were starting to feel weak, and my head just wasn’t in it. I knew how much further I had to go, and it just didn’t feel feasible, not with the entire hike back down the mountain waiting for me in the morning.
So, I complained my way down to Comparticion camp, annoyed that we had to hike down after hiking up for so long. But the camp was a welcome sight. Several small, wooden cabins huddled around a fire pit. A little garden peeked out from behind a long building with a kitchen that housed wood-fed stoves. Mules relaxed in the fields that surrounded that little spot of human habitation, and when I finally dropped down to rest, a camp cat came to relax in the sun with me.
Martin went on to the summit, although he didn’t return until the sun had nearly set. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top, but when he finally got back to camp, the look of exhaustion on his face let me know that I made the right decision. Pushing for the top would have been irresponsible of me, and I hike enough to know my limits.
Even without the summit under my belt, the whole experience was adventure enough, and that is still one of the hardest trails that I have ever hiked in a day.
I don’t remember what clued us into the fact that we were driving the wrong way, but it had been an hour since we had seen the last sign for… anything, and we wanted to play it safe. After all, both my travel partner, Martin, and I were keen on making it to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. Getting lost in the forests at its base would make that hard and we didn’t have time to waste. With just two days to make our attempt (most people take at least three full days), a failure that morning meant the entire thing was off.
Luckily, Martin was fluent in Spanish, making turning around to ask for directions fruitful. Some people eating at a streetside restaurant pointed us down a road being re-paved when we told them the name of the town we were trying to reach.
“But you can’t go that way now,” one man remarked, gesturing at the heavy machinery blocking the way. I felt my heart sink. “There’s another road, but we’ll send someone with you, because it’s small and hard to find.” Another man put down his hard-earned lunch and dropped his conversations to hop on his motorcycle. We followed him back into town, and turned onto… a dirt road.
Let’s pause here to discuss dirt roads. Some dirt roads are no problem for almost any vehicle. Some dirt roads are fine for my Acura which can barely handle pot-holes on the freeway. Some dirt roads might as well be paved, because they are nice and flat and their only downside is all the dust you kick up driving on them.
This was not one of those dirt roads.
But there wasn’t much of a choice at that point. A kind man had stopped mid-lunch to guide us, and neither of us felt like we could turn back now. So, we followed that motor bike, on a road where divots and holes slowly grew where water ran and pooled into them when it rained. Then, up a steep hill that crested so sharply that I thought we might just balance out on the top and have to stay there. Onward our guide took us through construction sites, literally weaving our way between massive digging machines as they worked, and along roads with deep mud.
Finally we followed him through a little town with no sign to clue us in to its name, up an embankment, and into the dirt parking lot of Armando Bermudez National Park. Tina had lived up to her name as far as I was concerned. I was proud of her and me for making it to that point. Now, we just had to find the man that our friend had told us about, who would help us set up our trip and make it to the summit…
I lived in the Dominican Republic for the summer of 2016; there for my PhD field season to study one of the world’s most unique whale watching destinations. It was my first time really living on my own in another country (and perhaps my last), and between bouts of anxiety about bus rides and car accidents, I was primed to explore.
Hiking Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Dominican Republic and the whole of the Caribbean, was on my bucketlist from day one. Having little experience with hiking in the tropics, I was thirsty for some new adventure, and interested in the ecological rainbow that was no doubt present as one worked their way up from the rainforest at the mountain’s base, to its sparsely forested top.
There was just one problem, most of the tours to the top of Pico Duarte cost between $300-$500,far outside of my budget as a graduate student. It seemed like the mountain was out of my reach, until my growing desire to plod up its slopes led me to ask my Dominican advisor if he had any ideas about making the trip happen.
“How are you driving on mountain roads?” He asked. I wasn’t concerned. I made a hobby out of driving up the Catalinas outside of Tucson during my undergrad, I spent a summer driving up and down the snaking roads of Mt. Graham, and I had just returned from a road trip through the Scottish highlands.
“If there aren’t dirt roads,” I replied. “I will be fine.” My vehicle for the summer was a small Nissan Versa Note, which I had duly named ‘Tina’ after my favorite character in Bob’s Burgers.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just be careful about driving on the winding roads. Honk at the corners, go slow.” Ah yes, driving in the Dominican Republic is notorious. Did you know that? The World Atlas rates the DR as the #1 country for car accident deaths in the world. After driving there for a summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if it just happens to be related to the motorcycles that are EVERYWHERE, or the fact that people casually drive drunk. Defensive driving is a 100% must in the Dominican Republic, and most people advise against you driving there at all. So, I got where he was coming from.
I was fairly confident that I could handle it. It was just those pesky dirty roads that little Tina wasn’t equipped to deal with.
So, he gave me directions to a small, small village at the base of the mountain, and told me the name of a man that my hiking buddy and I were to look for there…
The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).
These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.
Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.
The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.
Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.
The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here – https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/1997/Whats-Killing-the-Key-Deer.aspx).
So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.
Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.