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How To Be A Responsible Traveler In Japan

You gaze serenely at the bright torii gates. Visiting Kyoto has been a lifelong dream an elbow to the back, a selfie-stick in your face, and you’re swept along a tide of eager tourists swarming Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto’s famous thousand torii gates.

As one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, parts of Japan battle overtourism. Yet as certain cities and attractions are overwhelmed with visitors, other reaches of the country face steep population decline and an increasingly insular culture.

I have lived in and traveled to Japan many times, yet I still learn new ways to experience and leave a positive mark on the country.

The solution isn’t to avoid traveling to Japan. Instead, we should incorporate responsible travel strategies in Japan.

How To Be A Responsible Traveler In Japan

What is responsible travel?

Responsible travel entails traveling in a way that positively or neutrally impacts your destination, local people, the planet, and yourself.

The concept of responsible travel is also commonly referred to as “sustainable tourism”, “low-impact tourism”, and has overlap with “eco-tourism”.

In recent decades, travel has become an increasingly popular way to spend time and money. Particularly with social media, people desire more than ever to have the “perfect” trip to show that “hey, I’m adventurous and affluent – I made it!”.

It fascinates me how displays of physical consumerism can be seen as crass (for instance, posting a photo at home with a prominently displayed designer bag may be frowned upon), but flashy images of experiential consumerism are considered aspirational (like posting a photo from a clearly expensive hotel in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower).

I define “experiential consumerism” in travel as a hedonic pursuit of novelty, often for aesthetic or status purposes.

I have definitely been guilty of experiential consumerism. As I learn, I believe that mentality inadvertently leads to adverse consequences for the environment, local population, and myself. Chasing experiential consumerism feeds irresponsible tourism like a snake eating its tail.

Why does responsible travel particularly matter in Japan?

Mount Fuji and Heiwa no Torii on a sunny day

Views of Mount Fuji from near Hakone, a popular yet not overcrowded weekend destination from Tokyo

Japan is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Tourism is extremely concentrated in specific areas of a few major cities. Resultantly, parts of Japan suffer from intense overtourism while most of the country receives few visitors.

Many other sustainable travel blog articles that I’ve read recommend avoiding countries with overtourism altogether, including Japan. I think this generalization does a huge disservice to you, not experiencing Japanese culture, and to Japan, a country struggling to become more multicultural.

Instead, it’s paramount to apply key responsible travel principles when visiting Japan.

Responsible travel tips

Travel slowly

A blue lake surrounded by mountains and greenery. A blue and yellow flag flies next to a green shed.

Lake Aoki in Hakuba

One of the best ways to responsibly travel in Japan is to spend more time in each destination. As an added benefit, you will more richly experience Japanese culture.

Slow travel runs counter to the fast-paced nature of experiential consumerism. Rather than chase more experiences, seek deeper experiences.

For most people, vacation days are limited. There is pressure to “maximize” that time by seeing as much as possible. However, that pace of travel can leave you more exhausted after your trip than going into it.

Additionally, I often hear people saying that they’ve “done Japan” after visiting the country once through a whirlwind trip. I think quick first-time trips seeing the country’s highlights can be a great introduction to Japan, but it’s at best naive and at worst flippant to suggest that the country doesn’t have more to explore.

Especially if you’ve visited Japan before, make a second, third, or tenth visit to more slowly and fully discover it.

During your slower travels, you can volunteer, meet locals, explore less common destinations, or simply sample “living” in Japan by doing regular daily activities like visiting cafes, taking workout classes, or strolling around.

Some slow travel bucket list ideas I have include:

  1. Spending a week or two traversing Shikoku

  2. Hiking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail

  3. Staying a few weeks of the humid Japanese summer in cooler Hokkaido

  4. Taking a road (or rather, train) trip around Kyushu

Visit in the off-season or venture outside of main tourist hubs

Kawagoe main street

Kawagoe, a lesser known day trip destination from Tokyo

As I mentioned earlier, parts of Japan, particularly popular attractions in Tokyo and Kyoto, suffer from overtourism. Certain areas literally crowd out locals. Not to mention, the scale of the crowds curtail your ability to enjoy your visit.

You can contribute to a sustainable level of tourism in Japan through visiting in the off-season and exploring lesser known, but still beautiful, destinations.

Due to the famed sakura blossoms, March and April are Japan’s peak travel months. Millions of people from around the world flock to see the pink blooms, mostly in a few concentrated areas in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. However, one of my favorite things about Japan is that the weather and associated seasonal attractions are very pleasant year-round.

Ishigaki Sunset Cove Hotel

Sunset views from Ishigaki, a tropical island perfect to visit from late spring to mid-autumn

Summer in Japan can admittedly be uncomfortably hot and humid, particularly in the major cities. However, it’s a great time to head north to the Japanese Alps or Hokkaido, where cooler breezes and outdoor activities greet you. Alternatively, venture south to explore the stunning beaches and wildlife of the tropical Okinawa Islands.

Autumn in Japan is my favorite season. Brightly colored leaves (called kōyō in Japanese) cover trees across the country. Temperatures are mild and it’s an ideal time of year to visit cities or nature. One of my favorite mountain towns in Japan, Nozawa Onsen, receives few visitors in the fall but offers incredible hiking and weather to relax in its many onsens.

Winter in Japan brings clear skies and world-class snow sports. If you stay in the Tokyo area, temperatures are warm enough where you can comfortably spend all day outside wandering the city.

Whether you choose to visit in the off-season or not, spread tourism more evenly in Japan by traveling to off-the-beaten-path destinations (I wrote a guide to Tokyo’s hidden gem locations to inspire you). Some less mainstream destinations in Japan to consider are Miyajima (historical island near Hiroshima), Miyakejima (small island south of Tokyo), Hakuba (mountain town), and Kanazawa (mid-size city by the Japan Sea).

By traveling outside of the most popular tourist destinations, you’ll have more unique experiences, a greater chance of interacting with locals, and contribute to bringing income and new cultures to different parts of Japan.

Drink from a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing plastic bottled water

This tip may feel tiresome. We all (should) know by now that carrying a reusable water bottle is beneficial for the environment. However, in Japan, bringing a reusable water bottle is a choice rooted in values, not necessity.

Japan shines at offering everyday conveniences, including vending machines and convenience stores located on nearly every block. Therefore, you can absolutely find water and other beverages along the road (literally). There is no “need” for you to bring a reusable water bottle. As a result, most visitors and locals go through dozens of plastic beverage bottles per week.

Go against the social norm, look past necessity, and carry your own reusable water bottle in Japan.

Skip unethical animal attractions

Close-up of deer on Miyajima

A wild deer roaming around Miyajima

Japanese culture hugely appreciates nature, including animals. This connection with nature dates back thousands of years to the country’s Shinto roots. Adherents of Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism, believe that all natural things have spirits.

Fast forward to present day, you’ll see this adoration for animals reflected in immaculately groomed pets and businesses using animals to attract tourist income.

Particularly in Tokyo, animal cafes and pet stores are extremely popular with tourists.

Outlandish animal cafes, like with otters, pigs, and other species, offer exciting novelty. I myself once visited an owl cafe years ago, eager to see animals that I normally wouldn’t be able to interact with. However, not all of these cafes responsibly care for the animals. Some have even been shut down due to inhumane practices.

Similarly, pet stores in Japan often prominently showcase adorable puppies and kittens in glass display boxes. While it may feel innocuous to take photos or buy pet accessories from these shops, you may inadvertently be supporting less than ideal conditions for the animals.

Instead, travel to parts of Japan where you can see wildlife in natural (or at least freer) settings. Japan has unique, and sometimes bizarre, opportunities to see animals up close. Some suggestions:

  1. See dozens of deer in Nara or Miyajima

  2. Visit Snow Monkey Park near Shiga Kogen

  3. Snorkel or scuba dive in tropical islands (like Ishigaki or Miyakejima)

  4. Hike in Gunma to hopefully get a glimpse of the elusive Kamoshika (Japanese serow)

  5. Be surrounded by hundreds of rabbits on Ōkunoshima, a small island near Hiroshima

Reduce your plastic consumption

Spend 10 minutes in Japan and you’ll see single-use plastics everywhere. From individual supermarket vegetables wrapped in plastic to convenience store meals sold in plastic containers, Japan has a long ways to go to reduce plastic consumption.

You have an enormous opportunity to be the example you wish to see in Japan by using reusable products where you can and avoiding single-use plastics.

Some specific examples:

  1. Bring your own bag to the supermarket or convenience store. Plastic bags are still the defacto choice for many Japanese people.

  2. Use a menstrual cup or wear period-absorbent underwear. Tampons are somewhat difficult to find in Japan anyways.

  3. Patron sustainable restaurants and businesses. Ekolokal, a sustainability-focused community in Japan, has an incredible index of such establishments that you can filter by sustainability criteria and location. You can even filter for plastic-free and zero-waste places.

Eat at locally-owned restaurants

A piece of sushi with fish roe from Sushi Yajima

Dine at Sushi Yajima, a small and affordable sushi restaurant operated by an elderly couple in Tokyo

One of the easiest ways to be a responsible traveler and support local businesses is to dine at locally-owned restaurants.

Yes, international conglomerates offer many fun, Japanese-inspired flavors of your favorite burgers, nuggets, coffees, and pizzas. However, you’ll leave a much more positive impact (not to mention gain a richer, authentic experience) if you eat at small restaurants.

If you need a place to start, refer to my public Google Maps where I share my favorite restaurants in Tokyo. Most of them are locally-owned.

Walk, bicycle, or use public transportation

Tenryu-ji Temple with pink sakura blossoms in the background

Tenryu-ji, an often-overlooked temple in Kyoto

Arguably the single most impactful decision you can make to become a responsible traveler is literally how you travel.

Some of the most memorable places I’ve visited in Japan were hidden gems I found as I strolled. Walking is positive for your health, your travel experience, and the environment.

Major cities in Japan have convenient bike rental options (I use my own bike in Tokyo, but I’ve successfully tried Docomo’s bike shares before). While cycling through the bustling center of Shibuya may be a bit stressful, bicycles are a very enjoyable mode of transportation through Tokyo’s more residential neighborhoods.

In addition to walking and cycling, taking public transportation is an excellent way to travel responsibly. Taxis locally and planes between cities may seem like the easy choice, but they leave a significant environmental footprint.

Fortunately, Japan has a robust network of buses, trains, and subways.

Japan’s famed Shinkansen (high speed bullet train) travels between the country’s major cities and is a fun and environmentally-conscious way to explore. From Tokyo, traveling by Shinkansen is faster than flying even as far south as Hiroshima, when you factor in the time needed to wait at the airport.

Respect local culture

One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of traveling to new countries is experiencing and respecting the local culture. You don’t need to assimilate fully, but you will leave a positive impression and get more glimpses into society if you interact in a familiar way.

For better or for worse, Japan has a strict, unspoken code of social norms and behaviors. I often see well-intentioned travelers mistakenly break this code and miss out on the opportunity to integrate a bit with the people around them. A common Japanese phrase, “空気を読む” (“read the air”), emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the people around you.

One of the most common and easily alterable ways I observe visitors intruding on Japanese cultural norms is by speaking too loudly in public places. Generally, Japanese people speak in hushed tones in public, particularly on trains or buses when many people have to share a tight space. You absolutely do not need to be silent, but you may be greeted more warmly by strangers if you are mindful of the group’s behavior.

Responsible travel is an ongoing choice

Being a responsible traveler in Japan isn’t about never buying a plastic water bottle from a vending machine or completely avoiding mainstream attractions. Instead, consider ways that you can realistically incorporate sustainable, low-impact travel practices in your trip.

As you reflect on and learn more about the impacts of your own choices, you and Japan will both be better from your travels.

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