I took this post as a challenge, to come up with ONLY 14 reasons to visit a country like Japan, which is most certainly one of those places where the reasons could be endless. But since nobody likes readying long lists, I’ve tried my best to pick out the top 14 of the lot based on experiences which are not only truly authentic to Japan but also unique in contrast to many other appealing travel options. I hope that after seeing this post, I can inspire a lot of those people who wish to SOMEDAY go to Japan to wanting to go TODAY. So let’s get started yeah?
1.Travelling is not just easy, it’s fun!
Whether it’s walking on foot, or taking the trains, the Japanese have made sure that everything is super organized, comfortable and convenient for everyone, be it the locals or the tourists. Sign boards are in English. Trains are never late. Average delay time in a year for the Shinkansen (bullet train) has been 13 seconds. The Japan Rail pass is super convenient which means no need to stand in queues to buy the ticket or get into the station. There is a separate (and super swift) entrance for the JR Pass holders, and the pass covers the shinkansen as well. Travel time isn’t that long between stations and especially cities, which is why we managed to see 10 cities in 18 days. Day trips to other cities are actually manageable. There are biking tracks and tonnes of bikers in most cities, and the weather in the summer is absolutely lovely to indulge in your love for an eco-friendly two wheeler. I particularly loved all the signs on the footpaths and the train stations, that made sure everyone walked on the right side of the walkways and queued up well. The staff at stations is very friendly and accommodative. In short, travel wise this will be the smoothest trip ever for you. Some more fun facts: Shinjuku train station is the world’s busiest transport hub (made it to Guinness World Records as well); Tokyo station has the most trains in the world (4000 per day) and the most platforms; See a gazillion more records here.
2. The Onsen experience
Japan is a volcanically active country, which means hot springs are scattered pretty much throughout the region. While hot springs aren’t unique to Japan, the way the bathing facilities have been resurrected around the onsens is truly unique. The water comes fresh from the spring and often includes minerals like sulphur, sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate or iron. The hot springs are believed to contain medicinal properties and a good soak can heal aches, pain and even some diseases. Bath houses have segregated onsens for the two sexes, where individuals are expected to strip down completely and walk in bare skin into the onsen. I personally found the experience extremely enlightening as it meant putting all our differences aside be it class, race or simply appearance and accepting each other as our most primate of selves. Yes I found this to be a philosophical eye opener, you are absolutely free to differ.
3. No time to get bored
Usually when we take a vacation for over two weeks, we hit fatigue towards the end which means less appreciation for usually the last city. Sites tend to become redundant looking as you go around different cities and the marginal utility starts to diminish. Japan was the first exception for us. Despite travelling through 10 cities, we found each city to be possessing a unique character and vibe. Despite being extremely exhausted by the time we reached Kyoto (which was our second last stop), we just couldn’t stop pushing ourselves and really wished we could see more of it when we were leaving. Tokyo has a very modern and happening feel, while Kyoto thrives on culture and history with its tea houses and geisha town taking you to a different world altogether. Nikko is a fresh wisp of nature, while Hakone is an adventurous hill station. And then there are random goldmines that you may stumble upon like the train station above which was literally in the middle of nowhere. We accidentally missed our station and had to get off at this random one in Kyoto. I can’t even express in words the level of aww-struck we felt. Probably God level. Ha! Look at that scenery, it sure looks like heaven!
4. Kawai Overdose!
There is nothing more cuter than the Japanese version of cute aka Kawai. From girls talking in super Kawai tones to shops decorated in bright fluorescent colors, from streets painted with manga and anime characters to billboards and train stations using anime to give a message or advertise products, from restaurants and cafes using creativity in their decor unlike any place seen before to merchandise being super random yet uber cute! I couldn’t help buying tonnes of socks and stationery from there because it was just so much cuteness omg!
5. Find your Zen
Most temples and shrines in Japan are found deep down in aesthetically curated gardens which not only help you connect with nature, but also ensure that you reunite with your inner self. The ten to fifteen minute walk down these parks to reach our destinations was one of the most exhilarating experiences we had in Japan. You find yourself surrounded by stretches of greens, with birds and crickets competing to chirp louder than the other in the background. The emphasis on gardens is seen throughout Japan regardless of what site you visit, castle or shrine. Bridges, gates and lakes are all typical to these gardens and really leave you awe struck. For these reasons a trip to the parks and gardens is a definite must while in Japan.
6. Immerse yourself in the Unique Culture
Get yourself a yukata (casual version of a kimono) or rent a kimono and head out to see some of the most beautiful historical sites in the world. Booking traditional Japanese rooms with futon beds and sliding doors has been made easy through the regular booking websites and are actually affordable. (More on accommodation recommendations in a later post). Become a chopsticks expert by eating everything from thin slices of meat to noodles and rice and boast about it back home. Of course, you can choose to eat with a spoon and fork but what’s the fun in that. Learn some basic Japanese and throw it around whenever you get the opportunity. Watch people and enjoy different customs unique to Japan (like individuals bowing down to a perfect 90 degrees to say goodbye to each other. I tried and stopped mid way for fear of injuring my back. 😦 Tourist fail.)
7. History and Architecture
After hitting the first few temples, I was so sure I had seen everything. How different could they be after all, especially since each city has tonnes of sites to offer. I couldn’t be more wrong though. Creativity is probably something that runs through the veins of Japanese in abundance and is most certainly reflected in their architecture as well. Naturally towards the end of my trip I was trying desperately to see as many shrines, temples and castles as possible. The FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) had kicked in.
8. Gaming Arcades
This was an unexpected discovery for me but a must try for everyone. Japanese take their gaming VERY seriously. You’d come across floors and floors of gaming arcades, each floor offering something different. Men and women, young and old are all found their in almost equal proportions. The kinds of games we found were unlike what I’ve seen at any other arcades and therefore so much fun. There’s something to try for everyone, including arcade noobs like my husband and I. If you’re still not convinced, just take a tour to see all the gadgets and types of games they have there. You won’t regret it.
Meanwhile Pachinko seems to be the bread and butter for the Japanese. Pachinko arcades are found at every city and are usually swarmed with people playing for hours at a stretch be it a weekend or a weekday. Pachinko is a cross between a slot machine and pinball and utilises some technique which I was unable to figure out till the very end. Trying the machines was still fun though.
9. The Food and Restaurants!
And here I don’t mean just the Japanese food. I mean any cuisine, from anywhere in the world, that is being cooked in Japan. I was truly impressed by not only the decor and ambience of the restaurants and cafes in Japan, but also the creativity employed in creating dishes and menus and the level of mastery displayed by the chefs there. The desserts were delicious, while the Wagyu beef was out of this world (and so much cheaper than anywhere else in the world!) Despite walking with heavy luggage for days, I returned with extra pounds because I couldn’t stop nom noming there. No regrets there. For all those who think Japan is all about sushi, sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s really not. In fact I didn’t even find many sushi restaurants there as I had expected and literally had to search for them to get my sushi fix. Plus I found it to be much more expensive than their other meaty and exceptionally delicious food.
10. Good quality yet cheap Shopping
Bangkok is known for its cheap products but the level of quality is compromised. That is not the case in Japan though. It is possible to find really cheap products there and that too in the best quality imaginable. Some items to consider are clothes, shoes, Japanese brands like Uniqlo, Muji (which are naturally quite cheap there), traditional Japanese items to take home a souvenirs, the cutesy items and technology. Also while you’re there, having the local brand juices and teas from the vending machine is a must. Vending machines are pretty big in the country and you’d find them at every corner.
11. Shinkansen and Japanese Toilets
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of either of these things so you’ll have to take my word for it here. Every time the shinkansen swooshed past me, I could feel myself close to a heart attack. The speed of that train is mind blowing levels of fast. I was so curious if I’d feel that when I’d sit on it, and also a little worried because I get motion sickness much too quickly and easily. But lo and behold, the journey on the bullet train is so smooth you can’t even tell this is the same train that almost knocked you off your feet. The Japanese toilets on the other hand were the first warm welcome I got in the technology hub. A cross between muslim showers and the turkish toilets, the Japanese versions have lots of buttons that allow the showers to come out and spray water. You can adjust according to your needs and even warm your seat while you’re at your business. How cool is that?
12. A different take on Life
While the cleanliness of the Japanese is one thing, the wet towels that every restaurant gives you to clean your hands with before and after a meal was interesting. So was the general kindness and hospitality that we came across throughout our travel. Japanese are truly some of the warmest people on the planet. I particularly loved observing the way Japanese treated and taught their young ones. We found young school children taking the train and walking back home on their own without any guardians. With toddlers I saw the most patient parents and grandparents. Japanese teach their toddlers autonomy from the very first day and we saw that with toddlers walking alongside their parents without any hand holding, carrying a big ass umbrella by themselves. If the toddler suddenly decided to inspect and scrutinise a random pebble on the sidewalk (which may talk a good 15-20 minutes at least), the parent/grandparent would silently stand there and wait till the toddler was done. I won’t deny that I took a few notes on good parenting from there.
13. Connect with your humanity
The trip to Hiroshima was not only educational, but also a heavily emotional one. While ruins around the city are non existent now, except for this one memorial above that remains as a reminder of the atrocity that took place many many years ago. Going through the Peace Memorial Museum, you are walked through the intricate and gruesome details of the atomic bomb’s after effects with items like preserved skin and nails kept on site to make the whole incident as real as possible. It is enough to bring one to tears and question where we as humans are headed, to fight harder for peace in this world and to understand what wars really look like.
14. Mangas and Animes
Last but not the least, Akihabara was absolute love. If you’ve grown up watching animes or reading manga, then I most certainly don’t need to convince you to visit the country. I’m sure it’s there on your bucket list as it was on mine. But maybe I’ve been able to convince you to go there right away. Of course anime and mangas aren’t just available at Akihabara but all across the country, with Kyoto boasting an International Manga Museum, and Tokyo offering the Ghibli Museum. All I can say is, the animes are not exaggerated. Japanese do talk and walk and act like they show in the animes. It’s fascinating.
If I’ve been able to convince you to visit Japan, start planning your trip with more tips and basic info here.