I frequently get asked about my favourite places that I’ve visited over the years and every time there is only one country that springs immediately to mind — Japan.
In many ways it’s difficult to put my finger on the precise reason why, but I know many others share the sentiment. As Japan is a must-visit for so many people, its reopening after pandemic restrictions has caused understandable excitement. Travelers from 68 countries can now enter Japan without applying for a visa in advance since visa-free, independent travel restarted back in October.*
For the many jetsetters who are now planning to visit Japan as a result, it's impossible to prepare them on what to expect. The beauty of Japan, after all, is that it is so unlike anything you have experienced before.
In fact, when I look back at photos and videos of my own visits to the Land of the Rising Sun, it never quite gets across just how different it is. ‘Different’ is very hard to find these days because we live in a world that is increasingly globalised. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but places can blend into one another to a certain extent.
Japan stands out and it stands out in spite of itself. There’s nothing brash or loud about the country or its people. There is a tendency never to cause offence; to be mannerly and respectful without being subservient.
When I first entered Japan, emerging bleary-eyed into the airport foyer at Fukuoka, the very first thing I noticed was the manner in which people interacted. People don’t invade one another’s personal space. They bow. They offer excuses in advance. They present their business cards with two hands accompanied by a long bow from the waist, in the manner of someone presenting an important item to a respected person.
Driving on the road, you notice that very few people want to stick out. Cars and vans gleam from hubcap to headlight, yet big loud cars with eye-catching colours are very rare.
There is an explanation for all this — for all this profound sense of ‘different’ that you feel when in Japan. It was a closed country for several centuries and only truly opened up to the rest of the world in the mid 19th century. We often underestimate just how much of the world was colonised and conquered by Europeans — including the Americas, much of Africa and most of the Middle East and South-east Asia. When the Japanese observed what happened everywhere else, they firmly closed their doors. The only Europeans who finally got permission to trade once more with Japan were the Dutch — and then, only on very strict conditions, including that there would be no exporting of their religion or philosophies.
What you have, therefore, in the form of Japan, is a unique country that has developed alone during some of the most momentous centuries of the development of the human race. This is what gives the country its distinct flavour — its otherness.
What also makes Japan so unique, however, is its people — specifically, their exceptional openness and willingness to assist. Virtually every person I met was full of kindness and brimming with humour, smiles breaking out with the least bit of provocation.
And why wouldn’t they smile? In Europe, we’re used to being told about ‘dodgy areas’ in city centres; about minding our wallets; avoiding the areas around the train station. In Japanese cities, the areas around the train stations are the liveliest. They’re the ones where you can ramble from restaurant to bar to restaurant, sampling food and drink tapas-style without any feeling of insecurity. In fact, most Japanese prefer to live in the city and not in the small villages and rural locations. In the city, they have everything they need on hand but with none of the anxieties that we in the ‘West’ associate with city life.
Food is sacrosanct in Japan. I’ve eaten a lot of it but I could hardly begin to describe it. The variety of product and of the variant ways of cooking it has left me with the image of an enormous culinary kaleidoscope — the likes of which I haven’t come across before in any other country and for which no amount of visiting Japanese restaurants in advance can quite prepare you.
One of the most surprising facts I learned in relation to Japanese food is the fact that it is not all fish-based. In fact, on the southern island of Kyushu, they have a tradition of eating pork going back centuries and Samurai warriors used to famously cook their pre-battle pork meals in their upturned helmets.
Japan is about the size of Great Britain but with almost twice as many inhabitants (126 million). And while it is densely populated, the surprising fact is that approximately 75% of the land surface of Japan is countryside. The cities are vibrant, clean and ultra-modern but they do have a tendency to look very similar. With the exception of preserved old cities such as Kyoto, most cities are built to be typhoon-proof and earthquake-proof, leaving limited scope for architectural beauty. In the vast Japanese countryside, however, you get a real feel of the traditional orient, where smooth roads snake through fields of translucent green and old-fashioned timber homes. Any trip to Japan should include a stay at a Ryokan — a traditional-style Japanese accommodation centre, complete with paper doors, kimono dress and an(hot spring bath).
Theis an important staple of Japanese down-time. Even the highest-rated hotels may not have what we know as a fitness centre or a spa but will instead have a luxurious . With separate areas for men and women, the protocol is to enter the warm waters of the bath (often heated by natural volcanic means) as nature intended and fully embrace the warm calm like a true Japanese.
If this type of authentic Japanese experience is what you're after, then the JNTO also recommends these activities:
- Kyushu, the most southern of Japan's main islands, is formed of volcanoes and geothermal activity. The underground aquifers bring a variety of hot spring onsens and sand bathing for a traditional Japanese wellness experience.
- The city of Osaka, particularly the Dotonbori district, is known for its lively streets and street food offerings. Tourists can try hot off the grill traditional street food bites to Kobe beef and sake.
- Explore the northern island of Hokkaido and its beautiful nature and wildlife. Visit Shikotsu-Toya National Park from Sapporo for volcanic landscapes and geothermal Noboribetsu, to Shiretoko National Park in the far east for unspoiled wilderness and brown bear spotting.
- See the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, the shrine island, known worldwide for its perceived floating during high tide.
- Walk the Michinoku Coastal Trail in the northeast region of Tohoku, for rugged coastal sights, and regenerating towns and cities post the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
- From bullet trains to themed carriages, a rail journey in Japan is a must to experience its high quality of customer service and varied passing regions.
The news that Japan is re-opening after years of restrictions and limitations is wonderful news for anyone who longs to travel and if there is somewhere you really want to go where you will see something new in a safe environment, then Japan should be first on your list.
Learn more about Japan at the JNTO’s official website www.japan.travel/en/uk.