I first came to Japan in 2000. Here I share my Japan Travel Tips and lessons from my journey into The Real Japan, advice on must-see places for first-timers, my single biggest travel tip and more.
Love Japan Magazine was a beautiful print publication, with accompanying website and blog, so I was rather chuffed to have been interviewed by them, discussing some of my many adventures in The Real Japan.
Sadly, the magazine and website have since discontinued. So, presented on this website for the first time, with never-before published photos, is that original interview, first published in 2016...
Interview by Emily Lovell
Japan Travel Tips: A Journey Into The Real Japan
Love Japan Magazine: Could you give us a little overview of who you are, what your blog focuses on?
Rob Dyer: I was born in England and have been fascinated by Japan since I was at school. Reading avidly about the country when I was young. Everything from books about its economy, its cinema (I'm a big film fan), its history and its culture.
Like many others, I immersed myself in anime, for about a decade. I was editing and publishing a fantasy film magazine at the time, called Dark Star, just as anime started to take off outside of Japan. All of this drove me to start learning Japanese in the early 90s (I didn't get very far!).
Japanese Pen-Pals & A Shinto Wedding
Before the internet was a part of everyone's daily lives, I had several Japanese pen-pals with whom I corresponded in letter form for several years. One of whom eventually became my wife. 🙂 We were married at a Shinto ceremony at a shrine in Kobe.
My wife and I were both avid travellers before we met, so it was kind of inevitable that we would go on to explore the lesser-known parts of Japan.
Knowing we were often in Japan, friends (and friends of friends), were frequently asking for advice and ideas for travelling in Japan – but off the beaten track. So I decided to start a website, to share my experiences and to collect all my travel ideas into one place.
The site provides inspiration and resources to anyone interested in exploring Japan beyond the popular clichés we see in the media.
The neon lights of Tokyo and Geisha in Kyoto are certainly part of The Real Japan, but what interests me is discovering and exploring the hidden, secret Japan. The Japan that sometimes even the locals are unfamiliar with. Style wise I guess it's part travelogue, part guide.
I've also started a Real Japan YouTube channel which people can find HERE.
Compelled To Return
What is it about Japan that has compelled you to return so many times?
Well, my wife is Japanese, so we have family there. Which is obviously part of the reason we spend so much time in the country. As someone born in the UK, I've always seen a lot of similarities between the two countries, but I think the Japanese have managed to achieve the best balance for society as a whole.
Both countries are relatively small islands in close proximity to huge continents. Yet they have managed to retain their own, distinctive national identities. Both countries have extensive histories, and are well-known to foreigners for those, and yet both countries embrace modernity. Albeit in different ways.
I like travelling in Japan to experience the differences.
Ryokan, onsen, the beautiful countryside (especially the mountains and the forests), the cohesiveness of society, the efficiency of public transport, Japanese customer service and vending machines ;-), are all things that make Japan a wonderful place to be and explore.
Amazing Adventures - Personal Recommendations
You published a free guide called 5 Amazing Adventures in The Real Japan. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I wanted to create a valuable and stylish guide to send to everyone who subscribed to TheRealJapan. So I came up with the idea of 5 Amazing Adventures to experience The Real Japan. (Actually there's a bonus sixth adventure included as well.)
It helps people focus on some of the less obvious but often more rewarding things that can be enjoyed in Japan. The suggestions are spread across several of Japan's main islands. Each includes planning resources, tips on when to go, and links to websites where they can find more information or book the adventures.
Download your FREE copy of the 5 Amazing Adventures Guide HERE.
Taiko Drumming on Sado Island
The guide includes all sorts. From joining an ice-breaker ship off the northern coast of Hokkaido (just below Siberia in Russia), having a go at taiko drumming at the Kodo Drummers cultural centre on Sadoshima, island hopping by bicycle between Awaji and Shikoku, and diving off the coast of Okinawa in the south.
Crucially, I have been on each of these adventures. They are not based on research, or what other people have done, they are all experiences I have had, and are my personal recommendations.
Favourite Places, Stand-Out Experiences
This may be a tricky question, but do you have any particular favourite places or stand-out experiences from your travel around Japan?
I have a soft spot for Kobe. It is like my home town in Japan and I've gotten to know it intimately over the years. But in terms of places explored, everywhere I've been in Kyushu has been very memorable. Particularly the area surrounding the Aso caldera.
I tend to gravitate towards the countryside and small towns rather than the cities. Last year we did a 16 day tour of the Chugoku region on the main island of Honshu, taking in the northern and southern coastlines.
Tsuwano: A Picturesque Town Surrounded by Mountains
On the northern side we spent a couple of days in Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. A picturesque town in a valley surrounded by forested mountains. It had bags of character. I found it really charming, and I had the best oyakodon I've ever had in a tiny restaurant there.
One of my first visits to Japan was to the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The northerly tip of which lies just below Russia. Much of Hokkaido is designated as national parkland, more than any other prefecture. It's great for adventurous experiences, especially in winter where it regularly gets down to -12 °C.
My first trip there included snowmobile racing on a frozen lake, a helicopter flight and joining an ice-breaker ship in the ice floes just below Siberia. That was a stand-out few days!
Must-See Places For A First-Timer
What would be your must-see places for a first timer in Japan on a short vacation?
Make sure wherever you go it includes staying at least one night in a traditional wooden ryokan. Ideally somewhere in the countryside, and make sure it has an onsen. For me, this is perhaps the single most perfect way of experiencing what I think of as The Real Japan.
I'm someone who travels more for experiences, rather than ticking off well-known sights from a list of ‘must-see’ places. My natural instinct is to say to people that they should think about what sort of memories would they want after their vacation, and then plan their trip to accommodate those.
That will better determine where anyone should go rather than me telling them.
We are all individuals. But rather than start with a list of places (that most other tourists will also go to), and attempting to tick off as many of those as possible within the time you have, instead ask yourself these three questions:
1.) What Experiences Are You After?
The 'what sort of memories would you want' bit I just mentioned. I recommend the Voyagin website for researching and booking activities and experiences in Japan.
2.) How Long Can You Stay?
This will determine how many of the islands you can visit. You should aim to visit at least two.
3.) Where Will You Stay?
Think beyond hotels to include ryokan, minshuku (B&B), temples, even homestay. Airbnb has some very distinctive properties all over Japan and is worth a look. Booking.com now offers a broad range of accommodation in Japan, not just hotels.
I'd encourage people to use shinkansen (bullet trains) for internal travel where possible. Internal flights (which now can be really cheap) can also be an option. These will enable you to visit as many of Japan's islands as possible, including the 'big five' (from north to south): Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa.
Do some early pre-trip homework online and/or read your preferred guide book. Based on that research, select a major city and remote town on any of these islands. If you've selected them well, to answer the three questions I mentioned before, you'll come away with some unforgettable memories.
If you need more ideas on how to plan a trip to Japan check out THIS POST.
My Single Biggest Travel Tip
My single biggest tip: do not just use Tokyo as your base for two weeks or more.
By all means visit Tokyo and stay there for a while. But if you intend using it as your base from which to do day trips for the duration of your trip, you will be severely limiting your experiences and your memories.
Is there anywhere in Japan that you would like to explore, that you haven't visited before?
The list of new places I would like to explore has no end. There are over 6,800 islands that make up Japan – so there are plenty of options!
Exploring Smaller Islands
But, at the moment, the furthest south I've been is to Okinawa. Beyond that are the Yaeyama and Ryukyu (Nansei-shoto) Islands. I'd like to explore some of the smaller islands at this end of the southern archipelago.
Most people are unaware that when you get down to this chain of islands you're actually closer to Taiwan than you are Tokyo. The climate is subtropical in Okinawa, and at the far end of the chain is tropical rain forest.
So this region feels distinctly different from the rest of Japan – I'd like to explore more of that. (Since this interview was published I have.)
About Love Japan
Love Japan was created by fans, for fans of Japanese culture. Put together by a small creative team from London in the UK, all of whom have travelled around Japan, they offer a fusion of East meets West.
Love Japan Magazine issues 1 & 2 were produced as limited edition print magazines, which have since sold out.
Their Love Japan Blog was creative, contemporary and colourful, filled with fun and interesting Japanese related topics. From travel, food, fashion, and art, to interviews, events, and pop culture.
They had contributors from all over the world.
All of whom had been inspired by Japanese culture in some way, whether it be to take stunning photos, create delicious food, or to travel and experience Japan's unique landscapes. RIP Love Japan!
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About the Author
A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.