TOKYO — Like many travelers, we love touring without an itinerary and so our fondest memories are of little offbeat places that we stumble upon by chance. Having spent summers meandering through Europe and Canada, we were hoping that Japan could be similarly enjoyed. Our travel agent was horrified at the idea.
"I've never heard of anyone traveling around Japan on their own," she said.
She urged us to reconsider and sign up for a guided tour, a plea that suggested to us, perhaps unfairly, such distasteful thoughts as seeing Japan's temples through the tinted windows of a tour bus or eating sushi in a Hilton coffee shop.
There's little doubt that Japan does present challenges for do-it-yourself travelers, especially those on a limited budget (not counting flights, we set our budget at $100 a day for the two of us). With the dollar sinking to an all-time low against the yen, a night in an average tourist hotel can run well over $100, and a meal in a good restaurant is equally pricey.
Despite these challenges--the language included--after three weeks of wandering through city and countryside we can affirm that self-guided travel through Japan is as rewarding as any place we've been. Naturally, we felt the frustrations of the language barrier and got caught in the same kind of tourist traps that plague travelers everywhere.
But the courtesy and good will of the Japanese people easily outweighed everything else. Strangers went blocks out of their way to guide us when we asked directions. We also discovered that tourists can stay in delightful accommodations at extremely reasonable prices if one is willing to adapt to the Japanese life style.
What we most enjoyed were the minshuku , family-run inns resembling American bed and breakfasts or European pensions. Tourist guidebooks make little mention of minshuku, encouraging visitors seeking the "true Japanese experience" to stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.
Unfortunately, the price for a night in a ryokan starts at around $120 a couple (room only). At a minshuku, for half the price you get every bit as authentic a Japanese experience, a pleasant, tatami-floor room with foam and cotton futon for sleeping, plus breakfast and dinner and the chance to rub shoulders with Japanese people.
Most minshuku have about half a dozen guest rooms in addition to the living quarters of the owners, who generally prepare and serve breakfast and dinner to the guests in a communal dining room. Outside of July, the month when Japanese take their vacations, minshuku are primarily used by Japanese business people seeking comfortable lodging while they're traveling.
The atmosphere is as informal as Japan's ultra-polite culture permits; guests often appear for meals in their robes and are free to lounge around the TV set after dinner.
At dinner we could count on at least four kinds of seafood along with soup, rice and pickles. At minshuku near the seacoast, our hosts often went out of their way to prepare fresh shellfish. Once, instead of merely serving dinner the innkeeper treated us to a night of restaurant-hopping, leading us from sushi bar to yakitori (grilled chicken) house so we could dine and meet his friends.
Minshuku owners extended other courtesies as well. At one smaller town they loaned us bicycles; another innkeeper took us to a nearby national park to hike. Still another sent a taxi to fetch us from the train station, at his expense, and another picked us up in his mini-bus.
Among the pleasures we enjoyed was the bath ritual, soaking in steaming water. Protocol required us to scrub and shower before entering the bath (often they're elaborate pools made to resemble natural ponds complete with waterfalls). While these baths are traditionally communal and large enough to hold several bathers, generally we had them to ourselves.
Finding a minshuku is no problem except in cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, where they are scarce. Reservations can be booked through a national minshuku association (addresses below) or with the local tourist office that's invariably near the train stations.
Published listings of minshuku are available from the Japan National Tourist Organization as well as minshuku centers in Tokyo and Kyoto. While helpful, none of these directories is complete; only those inns considered "suitable for foreigners" are listed. In our experience the inns listed were in no way better than others where we stayed.
Perhaps the most rewarding benefit of staying in a minshuku was the opportunity to get acquainted with the Japanese.
It's common for three generations of a family to operate an inn, sharing the dining and living quarters with their guests. We always made fast friends with the innkeeper's children. Playing hide-and-seek doesn't require translation.