When in Hakone area, most of the hotels were fully booked and I managed to get to a nice small hotel because I could speak some Japanese then. The travel agent assured the hotel that I could speak Japanese and will not be a problem.
Some of these Japanese hotels are off limits to foreigners. Mainly the staff do not speak good English and for example, I have to walk to the nearby bath place for a Japanese hotspring bath which may be totally difficult to explain to a foreign tourist unaccustomed to Japanese public baths.
So knowing some Japanese or travelling with a local Japanese will get you to small better hotels in Japan.
Many young Japanese children are surprised to learn that Makku Donarudo is not a Japanese invention but is a fast food franchise originating from USA.
It is a cheap place to eat if you are tight on a budget travel or tired of ramen, soba and udon or raisu (rice).
At 580 Yen, you can even have a different choice of teriyaki burger or fried shrimp burger.
Buying for Japanese souvenir is not cheap. There are lacquer ware, samurai sword, silk kimono you will seldom wear, nicely wapped food gifts. But Japanese dolls is nice souvenir to get.
The size, quality and price ranges. Each district will have their own costume and designs. A Japanese doll is good decor at home or office. So shop around and buy it immediately for you may not see the same design at a different town.
Favorite thing: Go to Kamakura and see the Great Buddha. The statue is the largest in it's kind and used to stand in an enormous templecomplex (made of wood, so ... a fire destroyed the whole building). The surroundings are equally intresting, with many Shinto-shrines and Buddhistic temples.
Favorite thing: When you travel Kamakura you may find something related to comics based in Kamakura, Kamakura Monogatari. It's a long-running comic series and sort of detective stories. But the twist is what started as a usual murder mystery for instance turns out to be something related to folklore monsters, mythical deities, or ghosts. It has the taste of modernized version of Hearn's Kwaidan with a bit mixture of X-files. It introduces a lot of nice places in Kamakura and occasionally other parts of Japan. There's no official translation so far and the comic may be a good material for intermidiate to advanced learner of Japanese.
Realise the significance of Kamakura period during which Buddhism was revitalised.
Also, learn to differentiate between the different Buddhist sects in Japan & understand the significance of this religion on the lives of Japanese. Since its first introduction to the people about 1500 years ago, many different Buddist movements have been practised here.
One major movement is ZEN (meaning meditation), one-time favorite of the samurai. Zen was popularised during the Kamakura period.
3 major sects are: Soto, Rinzai & Obaku.
Its emphasis on zazen (sitting meditation) & rigorous mindset with uncluttered sublimity have a profound influence on Japanese culture to date.
ZEN strives to bring out the Buddhahood of the individual trhough meditation & seeks the empty center of the self.
Zen Buddhist Temple: Layout of this type of temple is based on Chinese Sung Dynasty temples, ie. symmetrical & rectilinear. The main buildings comprise of Sanmon (main gate), Butsuden (hall where Buddha image is housed), Hatto (lecture hall) & the monks' quarters all in a straight line one after another.
To enter the temple, you normally have to cross a bridge over a stream or pond, symbolizing the crossing from earthly world to that of Buddha.
Zen temples are normally less colorful than their Buddhist counterpart, intending to be so to facilitate enlightenment by the emptying of mind of worldly illusions.
Jizo Statues at HASE-DERA TEMPLE: Usually red-bibbed (placed by bereaved mothers & sufferers), these statues are found largely in temples & along waysides in Japan. Acting as guardian (Bosatsu - Japanese word for Bodhisattva, a figure that has attained Enlightenment & helps others) of those who suffer (sickly children & pregnant women), Jizo is said to help miscarried & aborted babies & children who died young into the next world.
At this temple, look out for Kannon (Sanskrit, Avalokiteshvara), the goddess of mercy, which is one of Japan's most popular Buddhist deities. The Juichimen (11 faced Kannon) - one major face with 10 minor faces (representing 10 stages of satori (enlightenment)) is a wooden carved 9 metre statue which is believed to be of infinite compassion & ever vigilant to those in need of her assistance.
The atmosphere is in deed something that makes this place so special.
The temples, shrines, old constructions and the people walking on the streets are like if the time has stoped there.
Fondest memory: The great budha's huge sandals!
Favorite thing: This unique icecream favour is made by the famous purple sweet potato grown in Kamakura which you could not find anywhere else in the world.