I've spent the better part of the last seven years exploring Asia and this corner of the world is nothing short of amazing. Spectacular sights, delicious foods, incredibly diverse cultures and such a rich history....Asia has it all!
However Asia can also be overwhelming to first-timers. Where do I go and what do I do? Here are five awesome overlooked places to get your planning started!
Japan is the best country in the world for people-watching -- if you know where to look, that is. Much like the stylish yet offbeat Harajuku district in Tokyo, Osaka also as a youth Mecca that should be on the "to-do" list of every traveler to Japan. It is called Amerika-Mura and there is no more hip in town to be. The area is on the cutting edge of fashion and youth culture, and is packed full of restaurants and shops selling everything from clothing to music to random novelty items.
Kyoto is full of temples but one stands apart from the rest: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, which dates back to the eighth century. The temple grounds are adorned with over 1,000 small Buddha statues, each with a different expression. Back in 2008 when I lived in Japan, this place was really off the beaten path. Nowadays however thanks to sites like TripAdvisor, it is slowly starting to get more attention -- but still thankfully remains a quiet, overlooked destination.
One of the best things to do on the island of Ko Samui, Thailand is to rent a scooter and get away from the crowds. Go explore the island, find a quiet beach and take time to unwind. Or check out the numerous markets and eat your way through as many of the small food spots scattered across the island as possible. The island is yours!
Bali is known for great resorts but the ones of Seminyak, Indonesia stand out in particular. Immaculate beaches. Delicious food. Luxurious resorts. Seminyak has it all but with less crowds that Kuta or Sanur. Soak up the sun on Seminyak Beach, go surfing or even indulge in a game of beach volleyball. The area is also a foodie's paradise, so make sure to come hungry. Start at Jalan Laksamana (also known as Eat Street) but make sure to expand beyond -- there are tons of unique, amazing restaurants serving some of the best food on the island.
Located at the end of the MTR line, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong is a quiet suburb that is far removed from the normal tourist trail. It is also the home of Discovery Park, a combination shopping mall and park that has been around for nearly two decades. The tropical rain forest-themed shopping center spans over 600,000 square feet and even includes an artificial waterfall and stained glass ceiling over the main lobby. Once you are done shopping, do not forget to explore the neighborhood and get a glimpse of local Hong Kong life.
One of the best things about foreign travel is the knowledge that invariably comes with it. It provides the opportunity for each of us to learn more about the world and its' many diverse cultures, as well as a little bit about ourselves. Another bonus is the chance to see which technology, trends, and practices are popular in the local region.
Think back and I'm sure you can recall a few things that made you go "Why don't they sell these back home?" or "Damn, why aren't we doing this at home?" even "Look at that, how awesome!" Most often those thoughts and semi-rhetorical questions are soon enough forgotten. But for me, at least in the case of Japan, not a day goes by that I don't miss all the great things about that country.
Japan is full of innovative ideas, futuristic technology, impressive customs, and other things that make you say WOW. Don't believe me? Take a look below and feel free to add your suggestions after the post.
Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Many people already know that these crappers are in a league all of their own. I wrote an entire article about fancy Japanese toilets and other bathroom innovations. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other impressive features. Be sure to read that post for more intriguing info.
These things are pretty neat, Mayu showed me how to use one. Basically you just hop off your bike and roll it onto this platform. Insert your card and the machine will automatically stow your bike in a huge underground cylinder. This keeps it safe from both thieves and natural disasters while also reducing the amount of clutter at street level. To retrieve it simply re-insert your card into the attached machine and it will spit your bike back out in around ten seconds.
In areas without the Eco Cycle storage it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bicycles crammed together as part of a makeshift bicycle lot (a trend which I hope has died out since my last trip to Japan).
I don't have any personal photos, unfortunately, but I did find this
An enlarged version of the bicycle garages, these things are amazing! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are pretty wild to watch in action. Some are drive-thrus that slide the vehicle off to the side. Others in the basement of high-rise buildings feature a circular pad so that the vehicle can be rotated 180° and driven out in the opposite direction it was driven it.
Ramps down to these underground garages can be seen all over the big cities
Other models are individual lifts that hoist one vehicle up into the air so that a second can be driven in underneath it. Walk past people's homes in the evening and it is not uncommon to see two vehicles stacked atop each other.
In the big metropolises of Japan you are never more than two blocks from a vending machine. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes also in long banks of a dozen or more. They sell all the traditional items you would expect such as refreshing beverages (soda, water, tea, milk, juice, beer...essentially everything liquid) and cigarettes (requires scan of a Japanese ID to dispense product) to other more unconventional items including ramen, electronics, umbrellas, even underwear and ties.
This one is essentially self-explanatory, I don't know what more I can write about them. They are controlled by a button up front and swing open really fast. Oh and they are twice as great when its raining out.
These reduce the number of (and stress on) restaurant employees. Expect to see more in the future.
Anyone who has ever walked past one of these has undoubtedly heard the noise and flashing lights blaring out. They are basically like arcade halls combined with casinos, some being multiple levels and taking up entire blocks. I never played myself but did wander through a couple of them.
Japanese citizens love these things and have been know to spend hours playing in these giant parlors, like the stereotypical American Grandma glued to the Las Vegas slots. Not very popular among foreigners though due to the constant flashing lights and never-ending din of bells, chimes, tings, tongs, pings, and general noise of hundreds of people gambling.
Love hotels are plush yet discreet hotels that rent rooms either by the hour, a several-hour "short stay" period, or for the entire night. Each room has different themes with the fanciest being compared to a brief stay in paradise. These swanky rooms would undoubtedly fit right in with some of the classy hotels of Las Vegas or Dubai.
When I say the theme varies greatly between rooms, I cannot stress that enough. One could be Egyptian theme, the next dungeon-themed, another a retro-hippie love-nest, etc. I highly recommend you check out a love hotel, especially if you've met a cute little Asian girl at the club that night.
Impressive, huh? Love hotels are common in neighborhoods with lots of clubs and an active nightlife.
A variety of businesses have staff that are ready and waiting to help you at a moment's notice. For lack of an official term (that I know of) I jokingly refer to these people at the white glove crew. Whether standing next to the trash cans in McDonald's waiting to take your tray from you and dispose of it themselves or inside the elevator, eager to take you to whichever floor has what you need, these people always have a smile on their face and white cloth gloves on their hands.
The railway attendants are dressed similarly and also sport the white gloves. However, they don't always have a smile on their face -- especially not during rush hour.
It's not what you may think. Big clubs in Japan frequently stay open until sunrise. Many even have an employee on hand who's sole job is to care for the ladies that have had way too much to drink; other employees that are walking around the club will bring these women down to him. Not only does this prevent them from getting taken advantage of or robbed, but it also leaves their boyfriend free to keep partying (guilty, I'll admit it).
This employee is even armed with rubber bands and miniature black trash bags for -- you guessed it -- tying up their hair and puking. This "drunk person attendant" is located near the entrance, making it easy to retrieve your drunk person on the way home. Hope you saved money for a cab because they will not be fit to walk!
Now that is a level of service that is hard to match. Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo.
Now this isn't so much a Japanese innovation, but rather a testament to their level of perfection. Every bank note is impeccably crisp, whether receiving it from an ATM or as change from the local corner store. No bills are ever raggedy, torn, of limp, as other countries currency often is. I suspect that the banks simply rotate out worn bills at an increased rate. Whatever it is the fact remains that this simple little thing is surprisingly easy to get used to.
Image coutesy of Japan Scene
Based on the American dollar stores, Japan revamped these into stores that offer products that are not utter crap -- even fresh food -- and people are not shopping at them because they are poor.
These stores take the embarrassment out of bargain shopping
Although you can smoke inside restaurants, clubs, and a variety of other places in Japan -- basically everywhere except grocery and clothing stores -- many cities have restrictions on outdoor smoking. For example outside railway stations and airports there are sporadic smoking areas. Some are merely painted rectangles on the ground but others are actually fully enclosed cubicles with high-powered ventilation to combat the smoke, as pictured below.
Indoor smoking area at an establishment that had recently banned smoking
Given the fact that Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world (36.9 million people, over 10 million more than #2, Mexico City) I initially expected there to be a lot of homeless people as well. After all, I was born in NYC. I'm familiar with homeless people.
There is nothing more depressing than walking around a big city only to pass underneath a bridge and realize you are walking through someone's home. And damn, now I've got to keep smelling this God-awful smell until getting out from underneath this bridge and several paces away.
In my many months of wandering around Tokyo at all hours of the day and night, I only recall seeing a single homeless person. I'm not saying that they do not exist, just saying that thanks to the strong principles of the Japanese culture, homelessness is not near the problem there that it is in many other countries.
There is plenty more that makes Japan a fantastic country to visit, but you'll just have to experience it yourself and see what you find!
What are your thoughts? Have any additions to this list?
The best way to learn about a country is through firsthand experience with some of the things which make that location unique, whether food, festivals, transportation options, or even lodging. Japan, being a country that is simultaneously rich in history but also at the forefront of modern technology and innovation, certainly offers up a seemingly countless supply of unique facets that make visiting the country a must.
Just because Japan is constantly looking towards the future does not mean they have forgotten about the past. Quite the opposite, in fact. One of the things I love most about the country is how they have smoothly and perfectly blended the old with the new, seemingly with such ease. In the big cities it is quite common to see ancient temples and historic structures preserved amongst the modern highrises and transportation systems.
Speaking of history, what better place to start than with one well-known type of lodging that is exclusively associated with Japan -- the ryokan.
These are probably the most iconic of all the Japanese structures. If you have ever seen a classic Samurai movie you will immediately recognize these structures, known for their paper walls and sliding doors. While the cost and demand of space has made them less common in many of the big metropolises, they are still a big hit in the countryside, especially in regions near hot springs. You can usually count on them to have spectacular views of the surrounding landscape as well.
Half the fun is in the lodging and room itself, but the other half is in the food. Do not pass up any of the meals offered at your ryokan. The food is always amazing and presented ever so elegantly!
In my opinion one of the best cities to stay in a ryokan is Takayama, long known for its skilled carpentry. Not only is the area gorgeous but also filled with traditional streets and shops that are a joy to stroll through, even if you are not planning on purchasing anything.
Another [in]famous type of lodging in Japan is the love hotels, sometimes referred to as fashion hotels, which can now also be found in other Asian countries. For those of you who have never heard of these, this will blow your mind. These hotels will be located only in areas with lots of late night clubs and offer luxurious intimate rooms available in "rest periods" of one to three hours or, for an increased price and provided it is after 10pm, the entire night.
The rooms all have widly different themes but are all done up exquisitely to make you forget where you are and give the happy couple a few hours in paradise. Think of it like a brief stay in a luxurious Vegas suite. However you tend not to spend much time absorbing your surroundings, except in the final few minutes before leaving.
They are very discreet as well. Rather than booking a room like at a normal hotel, at the love hotels there is a screen with pictures of each of the themed rooms. If the room is available then its picture is illuminated; If not it will be dark.
No worries about having to make eye contact with a judgmental hotel clerk either -- the front desk is more like a movie theater ticket box. You pay through a small slit in a heavily-fogged glass window.
Believe it or not, these places are incredibly packed, at least when I was there back in 2008 and 2009. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, if it is past midnight good luck finding an open room at one of the nice love hotels.
Many parts of the big cities offer what is referred to as capsule sleeping, and it is exactly as it sounds. The hotels are full of double-stacked pods and offer a very unique form of no-thrills lodging. You literally rent out a six-foot rectangular cube, crawl in and pull down the drape.
These are mostly geared towards over-worked or inebriated businessmen who missed the last train home, although a 2010 news article reports that due to the ongoing recession some capsule hotels are reporting that up to 30% of their guests are unemployed or underemployed and were renting capsules by the month. I know that sounds exciting, but don't count on renting one just yet; they are very uncomfortable and I did notice that some have a tendency to discriminate against gaijin, immediately saying they are fully booked or some similar excuse. Even towards the end when I went back with my Japanese girlfriend, she tried to get me in for a night but still without any luck.
While this may not be that different from any other country, I spent the bulk of my time in Japan in a flat I rented in Tokyo. There were many upsides to having a fully furnished apartment but probably the biggest was being in amongst the locals, right in the heart of the action. It is not like staying at the Hilton, which you can count on being full of traveling businessmen and tourists -- precisely the types of people I try to avoid during my adventures.
With very distinct and diverse districts and wards in Tokyo, it took a considerable amount of research for me to determine where I wanted to call home during my leave of absence from the cubicle life. I chose Shibuya, a ward that is home to several noteable districts including Harajuku, the fashion capital of the world, Yoyogi, famous for Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine, and Ebisu, proudly referred to as the area Tokyo locals love to live. And at the center of it all was the aptly named Shibuya district, a shopping hotspot during the day and party mecca come nightfall. That is why I was really there ;)
I had expected to interact with my neighbors more, but it turned out they all worked and were quite reserved, as is the Japanese way. Regardless, having the flat to bring new friends from the bar back to and otherwise slip into the same life as the local Tokyo residents, that made all the difference in the world. That and the fact the flat came pre-wired with super highspeed wifi, which was convienent even though I hardly made use of it. Oh and can't forget about the maid, which came by once a week.
To top it all off, my key was waiting inside of my mailbox, which was located on the main facade of the building next to the front door and accessible via a code I had been given prior via email. (No need to deal with any bothersome staff.) And when I checked out a couple months later? Simply returned my key to the mailbox.
Shame I don't have better pics. Browsing my remaining photos it was surprisingly hard to find pictures of it and not people...but back then I was just partying and living for the moment, not thinking about being a travel blogger.
Have you experienced these or any other different/unique forms of lodging during your travels? Tell us about it!