Slipping away from prepackaged Japan

First-time visitor seeks out more than traditional sights

Destination: The Far East


My travel companion and I had worked hard to find the Rokuryu bathhouse, in Tokyo's Ueno neighborhood. Armed with vague directions and misinformed by a passer-by, we were momentarily lost in one of the world's largest cities. But we persevered, and finally found the tile-roofed onsen tucked into a tiny alley.

As regular patrons stared unabashedly, we bought little soaps and hand towels, and shed our clothes into wicker baskets. Having read about onsen etiquette, I knew the drill: We scrubbed and rinsed meticulously at one of many spigots lined up along a tile floor. Only then were we ready to enter the bubbling vat of coffee-colored mineral water.

It was scalding. We hesitated, half in, half out. An older woman giggled at our awkward plight and pantomimed how to alternate cold splashes of water with dips in the mineral spring. Gradually, we sunk into the roiling bath, enjoying what for many in Japan remains a daily ritual.

Then, all we had to do was figure out how to get dry with our little hand towels.

Our effort to leave the well-beaten track of tourist stops to find this refuge -- and to overcome slight embarrassment -- was richly rewarded by gaining a sense of what life in Tokyo involves, at least in one tiny corner of a metropolis with a population of nearly 12 million.

Hours later, Linda Feldmann, a journalist also seeing Japan for the first time, and I were still beaming at our pluck -- and silky-smooth, post-onsen skin.

Japan plays a vivid role in the American imagination as a place of peculiar trends, futuristic fantasies and antiquated formalities. While curious about the country for those very reasons, I was also determined to shed stereotypical notions and discover it for myself.

Years from now, the visit to the little bathhouse will remain my memory, not one filtered through another writer's onsen epiphany, of which I've read more than a few. In the same way, I will especially treasure every excursion in search of personal mementos of Japan.

Tailoring a trip

While planning a two-week journey to Tokyo, Okinawa and Kyoto earlier this year, I pored through guidebooks, travelogues and Web sites. Yet, I didn't want to become wedded to somebody else's list of required viewing.

My goal was to strike a balance between what I "should" see and what I wanted to see -- or what I might see simply by chance. I craved the autonomy to take random turns down unmarked streets and to choose restaurants that would never boast a guidebook blurb. In other words, I wanted to make it my trip, not another's.

As part of a Japan-U.S. journalist exchange, venturing off on my own would be tough: I was committed to a busy schedule of meetings, and wouldn't have total freedom to explore independently. But as I took full advantage of the free time available, I found my own Japan in places like the Rokuryu onsen.

For each city, I devised itineraries based on the Lonely Planet guide to Japan and a file of printouts and suggestions from friends. Once there, though, I also sought out markets, museums and neighborhoods not emphasized in mainstream tourist guides. Often, I drew more satisfaction from visiting relatively obscure spots than from visiting well-known destinations.

On a designated sightseeing day, for example, our group took the subway to Asakusa, a popular Tokyo neighborhood known for its traditional character. We meandered past bustling market stalls, and for a few pennies bought fortunes at the grand Asakusa Kannon shrine. But among throngs of tourists and the merchants who called to them, it was hard to commune with old Tokyo.

A sense of real Tokyo

Later in the trip, I happened to be in Kiyosumicho, a part of the city that I had read little about. After an appointment at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of our Japanese hosts and I wandered through the surrounding neighborhood, a self-contained community where residents tended potted plants on the street and children bought after-school sweets at a little notions store. For me, this was joy. Watching everyday life -- even at its most ordinary -- is often the most gratifying part of traveling.

But there was more: Without the aid of a guidebook, we came across the Fukagawa Edo Museum, an evocative reproduction of a 19th-century riverside district in the original Tokyo, buzzing with students, but not tourists.

After a tour of the museum, I strolled through Kiyosumi Gardens, a Japanese garden originally built in the 18th century, that was practically empty of visitors. I returned to my hotel with a much stronger -- and less programmed -- sense of real Tokyo.

On my own, the language gap was enormous, particularly in city pockets not accustomed to tourists. But I easily navigated Tokyo with one word, arigatoo -- Japanese for "thank you." What's more, this clueless Westerner, upon entering restaurants, galleries and shops, was uniformly greeted with smiles and offers of assistance.

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