Japan - The Land of Contrast
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things”
In 2014 I had the good fortune to make it to Japan with a small group of friends for two weeks in September.
While the time of year wasn’t the best (it was Monsoon season), it was still an incredible experience and somewhere I would love to go back to!
Japan is an incredible land of contrasts. Of old and new, of strict tradition and futuristic technology. It is also one of the safest countries I have ever travelled to.
What is Japan Known For?
Japan is known for a number of things but perhaps the best are (in no particular order):
- Harajuku Girls
- Sumo Wrestlers
- Super fast bullet trains
- Lucky cats
I’m sure there are plenty more things I could add to this list, but I gave myself 30 seconds to write it! I loved the food, the people and the culture.
It was a bit eye-opening to eat in a lot of places – a lot of sushi places actually cut up live fish in front of you. So not for the faint of stomach! On the flip side, I could not touch sushi, sashimi or ramen for nearly 3 months after returning. The difference in flavour and texture was incredible, and nothing at home came even close to the freshness and quality you could find on the streets of Japan.
Can You Travel to Japan on Your Own?
I was initially worried about travelling to Japan on my own (Europe is one thing, Asian countries are very different!) so decided to join in on a small group who were already going.
Even though English is almost non-existent there (no English translations on signs either) it wasn’t as bad as I expected when I ventured off to do my own exploring.
The people there were incredibly friendly and one occasion, I even had a gentleman walk with me for nearly 15 minutes because I managed to get (very) lost in Tokyo. He couldn’t speak a word of English but thanks to my very touristy map, I was able to show where I wanted to go.
I can honestly say that has never happened to me anywhere else!
As a side tip – those portable modems you can hire at airports are an incredible investment (google maps is extremely helpful) or bring a spare phone where you can pop in a local sim card when you land.
Japan is also unique in that it bars and restaurants also cater to solo customers. Not just tourists, but many locals eat and go out on their own. But beware – there seems to be a strict unspoken policy that other solo people cannot sit with you if you are eating on your own.
I was at an outdoor ramen kiosk at a table that could fit another person and the staff refused to let another female sit with me, or at any of the other tables. She had to wait for a table to clear first (which was a shame, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to).
Clash of Cultures
One of the first things you will notice in Japan is the incredible blending of past and present, sumo and ladies in traditional costume walking the street against a backdrop of hi-tech buildings, cars and advertising. Traditional cooking with a side of over 200 different flavours of KitKats.
But even with that, each city and Provence in Japan has its own culture and identity. Osaka, further north has a distinctly relaxed attitude, compared to fast paced Tokyo which is the economic capital.
Head out to the smaller cities like Kyoto and Kobe and you find a harmonious blend of nature and commercialisation.
However, there is a much stricter set of cultural rules to follow compared to most western cultures. And since the language barrier is a real thing, it can be tricky to know where to start!
The easiest one to remember though is the slippers – it is extremely common to leave your shoes at the door and put on a pair of provided slippers or walk in socks. Even restaurant bathrooms will have a pair of slippers at the entrance – just leave them with the toes facing the toilet when you are done (so the next person doesn’t need to use their hands to turn the slippers around). A small courtesy but one that is noticed!
A Technological Heaven
There are entire districts designated to technology, in Tokyo there is an area where you can find any electronic device or piece, both new and second hand that you can think of. A maze filled with rows of different sized diodes, screen protectors, keyboards, cables and more. Not far down the road is anime central. A truly eye-opening experience!
Anime is taken to a level and appreciation that is truly extreme, to the point that it is common to see men and women dressed as their favourite anime character as their everyday outfit, themed cafes and advertising galore! Not so much a children’s pastime but a truly adult passion.
If you ever go into an anime store in Japan you will understand – some shops and aisles I walked down could have belonged to an adult entertainment centre – but instead of porn stars you have anime characters! Sailor Moon will never be the same again…
On the other hand, hygiene is taken to a whole new level. Toilets are serious works of art which include everything from seat warming (pick your temperature), water ‘flows’, music to hide the sounds of your business and all sorts of other tricks that make you glad and sad that we don’t have them here… I know that my partner would never leave the bathroom if we had a toilet that comfortable in the house!
Japan - A Destination Not to be Missed
I could write thousands of word about Japan, but there is nothing like actually being there. Unfortunately Japan is prone to natural disasters such as typhoons, tsunami and volcanoes, all of which do cause damage to the landscape and culture.
That should not stop you from visiting though! If anything, it is an encouragement to go and explore this incredible country (pay attention to travel safety warnings of course), especially areas such as Kyoto which have been damaged by natural disasters, before it is too late.
I’ll be writing blogs soon on each of the Japanese areas I have visited, along with photos and tips.
Have you been to Japan? What was your experience?