WHY I LOVE JAPAN…
Good question, self… Indeed, why DO I love Japan? Did I fall in love before I got there because of the insufferable obsession of younger me with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? (As I am writing this, I am the proud owner of an official – mind you – Japan-bought TMNT chain on my car keys. Jealous, much?) And did the TMNT make me more prone to eating insane amounts of pizza? Who knows. Good luck cracking that nut, Nietzsche. Maybe my Turtle-mania was sparked by my interest in (as with most young boys) martial arts and the mystique of ninja, samurai, Scorpion from Mortal Combat and whatnot. Or was it the other way around? Chicken. Egg. All that.
Come to think of it, I do believe that the ‘mystique’ of Japan has a great deal to do with it: the serenity of the temples, the composed and painted faces of geishas, lightning fast and hyper-punctual trains (yes, for a Belgian with one of the worst public transportation systems in the modern world, that counts as ‘mystique’), the lightness of the food, perfectly maintained zen gardens and minimalistic yet functional housing, the never-ending rolling grassy hills backed by Mt Fuji.
But on the other hand, Japan has a much wilder and more eclectic side to it. There are the epilepsy-inducing lights of Tokyo, the game-shows that make no sense whatsoever (or at least they didn’t to me), the excessive after-work drinking, people shouting ‘Hello!’ when you enter a yakitori joint, the rambunctious food stalls in Fukuoka, karaoke nights ‘til dawn, Sakura-madness sweeping the nation, sleeping in claustrophobic coffin-like rooms,… It all sounds like one big contradiction but it works well. So well.
…AND WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT TOO
At any rate: Japan has always been number one on my ‘places to see’ bucketlist, and it didn’t disappoint. Matter of fact: it. blew. me. away. It was THE most positive culture-shock I have ever experienced. And though I don’t claim to have a full grasp on all the intricacies of Japanese life and mindset, I can 100% guarantee you’ll love it, wether you understand them or not.
And that’s a perfect line to take it to the bridge: why should YOU visit it?
Here are my top 5 reasons for getting your sexy butt on a plane to Nippon.
- EFFIN’ EFFICIENT
- FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET
- FOODIE HEAVEN
- BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES AND LANDSCAPES
- ACTIVITIES ABOUND
Sounds good? I know, right? I’ll dive into each of these points below.
1. TRAVEL IN JAPAN IS EFFIN’ EFFICIENT
I put the Japanese efficiency in first place because it allows you to see so much more in a couple of weeks than any other destination. Thanks to an extensive network of trains, bullet trains called ‘Shinkansen’ (yes, the kind that go up to 300km/h), subways and buses you can get literally anywhere in record time. What I loved most was the Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass. It’ll set you back a little over 440€/515USD for three weeks, and even though that sounds like a big chunk of change, it’ll end up saving you a lot more. It allows for free travel on almost all Japanese rails (incl. most Shinkansen), the Tokyo subway, the Miyajima ferry (you know, that shrine sticking out in the middle of the sea),… You can only buy it as a tourist through a list of vendors (just google ‘Japan Rail Pass’) and you’ll be sent a voucher which you can hand in at Narita Airport for example. And just like that, you have the whole wide Japanese travel world in your hands! Roll up to a JR counter, show your pass, reserve your tickets and you’re good to go!
(For full details on the JR Pass, check out this link)
PRO TIP: With the Hyperdia website (www.hyperdia.com/en/) you can easily look up time tables on the go. They also have a handy app.
And it doesn’t stop there: Japanese public transportation is very, very punctual. Like: on the minute. It’s a cliché but it’s true. No more worrying if a train is delayed which will make you miss your connection. Never happened once in the time I was there. Story time: they even pride themselves on their punctuality so much that, in case there is a delay and you arrive 10 minutes late into work, the train supervisor will hand out a note explaining that you are late due to the train, which you can in turn hand over to your manager. (And here I am, already happy if I know WHY I’m stuck between Bruges and Brussels for 30 minutes in the middle of nowhere.)
So if you like fast, DIY, comfortable and reliable travel, Japan is the right place for you.
2. THE JAPANESE ARE THE FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET
I know, I know. ‘Friendliest people on the planet’ sounds like a very finite statement, I’m well aware. And I’m not saying your Aunt Betsy isn’t a peach either. But for me, Japanese friendliness was like nothing I’d experienced before. And I’m not only talking about Japanese train officials and ticket vendors. EVERYONE was friendly, helpful, respectful, interested and sometimes very talkative, even if they only had a limited grasp on the English language (which only made it more endearing). You look lost on the corner of the street, holding a fold-out map like the tourist that you are? Mr. X to the rescue. This actually happened to us, and rather than just explaining where that one local sushi place was, he walked with us for five minutes right up to the door. To make that night even better, I actually lost the hoodie hanging from my backpack somewhere along the way. Ten minutes into our sashimi dinner, a young guy walks in asking me if I lost my sweater. He actually saw it happen and ALSO followed us to the restaurant. *insert shocked hands-to-face emoji here*
Be prepared when you enter a local yakitori joint or even a Hooters in downtown Shinjuku (yes, I like Hooters. It’s good entertainment and the wings are awesome. Sue me.) that everyone will drop what they’re doing and start shouting “Irasshaimase!”, meaning “Welcome to the store!” or “Come on in!”
PRO TIP: But always, always let a local try to help. Do not wave them off if communication is difficult or half-way through their efforts. They mean well and dismissing them is a loss of face that is not welcomed in Japan. (How would you feel if you tried explaining someone that Hooters is actually really cool and they’re like ‘Naaaah, what do you know?’. Because that’s how I feel right now)
3. JAPAN IS FOODIE HEAVEN
By no means do I claim to be a columnist for the Michelin Guide, but after eating my way through almost all of South East Asia, a large part of the USA, Europe and a stint in Africa, I tend to believe I know what good food is. Since my mom is German and I live in Belgium, most meals growing up consisted of the holy trifecta of boiled potatoes, a piece of meat and red cabbage. (Sorry mom, love you). Which in part explains my love for food that isn’t anything like that, for example Vietnamese cuisine. Back to the Japanese staples: known classics are of course sushi, ramen noodles, miso soup and yakitori (grilled meat skewers). And let me tell you: it all tastes better over there. The sushi is fresher, and more focused on fresh sashimi than on actual rolls. The ramen noodles come with all sorts of broth and toppings like tofu or beef, and the yakitori…Oh sweet Lord, the yakitori. Not only for the carnivores among us, but also asparagus, mushrooms, seafood,… Little sticks grilled to perfection with a nice sticky soy-and-sweet sauce to dip into. Heaven!
What I also love about Japanese food is the ‘scenery’. You can opt for a small five-seat minimalistic sushi place where the sushi is served on the counter (instead of on a plate) in front of you, or a yakitori stall in a small alley behind Shinjuku station lovingly called ‘Piss Alley’, or gobble up those noodles in a family-owned restaurant on the foot of a hill in Nikko. Come hungry, leave wanting more.
4. BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES AND LANDSCAPES EVERYWHERE
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for temples. Intimate and serene, or rather lavishly decorated; they come in all forms and sizes. For me personally, it’s the tell-tale sign that I’m not in Kansas anymore and treading new ground once again. Japan is no different, and just like for example Thailand or Laos, religion is deeply rooted within its society. Whether you visit Miyajima, Kyoto, Tokyo, Kamakura, Nikko, Kanazawa,… there are temples and holy grounds ranging from the small neighborhood shrine to the ornate and almost decadent temples like the one you find in Nara.
The beauty of the landscapes quickly becomes clear when you take the Shinkansen across the country. Between Kyoto and Tokyo, if you’re lucky enough, you can spot Mount Fuji on a sunny day. Or the view from stunning Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa. Or the view over a hanami picnic in sakura season with Osaka castle in the background. Or…
PRO TIP: My favorite ‘religious’ experience was the walk through the cemetery of Koya-san, which can be reached from buzzing Osaka. It sounds very macabre but it’s actually a beautiful hike through a mossy forest. The train up to Koya-san also provides stunning views. I highly recommend it!
5. ALL THAT ROOM FOR ACTIVITIES!
There is so much to do in Tokyo alone, it could easily take you five days to get it all covered. (And I’m speaking as a traveler who likes to keep things moving.) Below a list of things you could do in Japan:
- Rent a private karaoke room and go nuts til the break of dawn. There’s a plethora of English songs on there so don’t worry. The fun thing is that they also serve beer and snacks if you need to fuel your inner Freddy Mercury.
- The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo. It’s tacky, it’s crazy, it’s the lovechild of Tim Burton on acid and a neon science project gone wrong. In short: it’s way too much fun not to go.
- Hit the arcades: play Mario Kart in actual real life karts, take pictures in photo booths that make you look ‘less Asian, more European’ and win a giant Snoopy that’s impossible to fit into your luggage.
- Go to a cat or owl (or whatever they’re coming up with next) restaurant. Not that spectacular, but who doesn’t like escaping the crazed Tokyo streets and petting strange cats while sipping on matcha tea?
- Go to an onsen: soak up the warm healing waters in many onsen around Japan. Fair warning: many are nude (and check ahead if they allow tattooed people to enter).
- Go shopping in Takeshita-dori: Tokyo’s hang out spot for the young, tragically hip and weird.
- Eat local: the mom ‘n’ pop restaurant around the corner is your best bet of a real Japanese vibe. And if necessary, don’t forget to buy your food ticket at the ticket vending machine at the entrance, because sometimes the waiters don’t take orders.
- Join a hanami picnic in sakura season: get some drinks and snacks, sit under the pink hues of the cherry blossom trees and watch the Japanese being less ‘Japanese’ than you’d expect.
That about sums it for me. Have I missed any activities? Of course I have, it’d be a bit silly not to leave anything for you to explore, now wouldn’t it?