Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love Japan. It’s definitely my favourite country to visit overseas and I will happily gush superlatives about the land of temples and tech to anyone who will listen. Here’s an overview on why Japan should be on your bucketlist!
I personally think Japan is the perfect destination, blending tradition with futurism, dynamic metropolis’ with quiet rural villages, where packed skylines oppose idyllic country landscapes and amazing food that goes way past sashimi and sushi, all while providing a highly efficient society that is one of the safest in the world.
Here’s a quick rundown on why you should go.
- Epicentre of tech and innovation
- Daily reminders of a proud, traditional culture
- Ancient temples galore
- Amazing, high-quality food
- Stunning architecture, both old and new
- Thousands of festivals to attend
- Full of weird and wonderful experiences
- Quality shopping, souvenirs and traditional handicrafts
- Easy and efficient public transport
- Super safe and tourist friendly
Now let’s go into that in more detail. Here’s why Japan should be next on your travel list!
Tradition & Ancient Culture
Japan straddles the old vs new line to perfection. It’s not uncommon to find small Buddhist shrines shoved between towering skyscrapers and temples dot maps like McDonalds. You can find the ancient Meiji Shrine complex sitting in a 170-acre forest, smack bang in the middle of Tokyo, right next to the cosplay kids of Harajuku. On the weekends you may even be lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding there.
Head to Kyoto to get your temple fix, visit the golden Kinkaku-ji Zen temple, wander the bamboo groves of nearby Arashiyama, walk the serene Philosopher’s Path or through the thousands of red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. At night you might hear the click-clack of geisha sandals (geiko in Kyoto) on cobblestone laneways in the old entertainment district of Gion.
Get out of the city and head to places like Nara with its ancient temples and friendly deer, Tsumago-Juku for its traditional homes, Nikko – the site of Toshogu, the famed Shinto shrine established in 1617 as a lavish memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, founding ruler of the Tokugawa shogunate, or Edo Period, or Shirakawa-gō for its old, triangular-shaped houses or the waterfront village of Ine-cho.
Neon Nights & Tech Delights
The bright lights of Tokyo are certainly a sight to see. Follow the glow to Shinjuku to see the neon lights en mass or Shibuya, where giant LED screens light up buildings that overlook the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world!
For the latest tech, Odaiba is your best bet. Visit the brand new Teamlab Borderless MORI Building Digital Art Museum, where lights and projections transform huge spaces within to create new worlds. Also, check out the huge Gundam statue nearby!
You’ll also find the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba where you can meet Honda’s famous Asimo robot, who performs at 11am & 2pm.
Sony recently shut their doors in Ginza but now have a permanent exhibition at AquaCity in Odaiba, called Sony ExploraScience, a hands-on science hall that explains the link between science and the latest technology, (closed Tuesdays).
Head to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town, the centre of Otaku (geek) culture, to find all the big electronic stores like BIC Camera, LAOX or Yodobashi. (Take your passport for duty-free cashback!) You’ll also find heaps of anime and manga stores like Mandarake or Radio Centre and plenty of maid cafes around. Check out the Sega Game Centre to play some old-style games.
Keep an eye out for food chains like Sushiro where you order via a tablet at your table and your food is delivered by conveyor belt.
Catch a Shinkansen bullet train! The easiest way to get to Kyoto, Osaka or many of Japan’s cities, travelling at up to 320km/h! Grab a bento box at the station and relax as you zoom through the Japanese countryside. If travelling south-west from Tokyo, sit on the right-hand side of the train for the chance to see Mt Fuji.
Many visitors may baulk at the idea of raw fish and seaweed but Japanese cuisine is SO much more than that! From pan-fried gyoza dumplings to savoury okonomiyaki pancakes, crunchy korokke (croquettes), soul-warming bowls of ramen (noodle soup), delicious katsu (like schnitzel), giant, fluffy pancakes, crazy Harajuku desserts, yummy yakitori (grilled meats), tasty tempura (light battered & fried meat or veg), onigiri (rice balls) filled with a variety of treats, addictive karaage (fried chicken), amazing melon pan (sweet bread usually served with icecream), marbled Kobe beef, gooey/crunchy takoyaki (octopus, gooey, pancake balls) and my holy grail – a simple egg sandwich from 7-11 (you don’t understand, it’s soooo good!)
Let me touch on that last bit a little further. Surprisingly, conbinis (convenience stores) like 7-11 or Lawson’s in Japan have amazing food. From baked goods to fried chicken, bento boxes to gourmet sandwiches. 7-11 even offer a Michelin-starred ramen! But the tamago sando (egg sandwich) is my fave, so eggy and creamy on the softest bread, it’s become a bit of an icon to tourists in the know.
Weird & Wacky
Japan is known as the epicentre of weird. Laser-filled, robot restaurant shows – check. Cafes where lolita-dressed girls or J-Pop-looking guys will make you feel like the centre of the universe – check. Weird vending machines filled with odd items – check. Restaurants where monkeys will fetch you a beer while wearing cute lil uniforms – check. Hotels with kinky-themed rooms that you can hire by the hour – check. Play with a meerkat – there are cafes for that (depending on your ethics).
Then there is the weird stuff you can buy! Want to drop $100 on a melon, you can do that! Buy a plate of realistic-looking plastic food – head to Kappabashi Street. Need a love pillow of your favourite anime star – try M’s in Akihabara. Not to mention the odd souvenirs that pop up around the place. (I love my toilet keyring complete with light-up poop!)
There are thousands of festivals to choose from and it’s a great idea to try and base your travel around one of the bigger ones. My favourites are seasonal in the famous cherry blossom festival (sakura) and the autumn leaves festival (koyo), but you also have the ice festival in Hokkaido, a lights festival in Aomori, the naked man festival in Okayama or the giant penis festival in Kawasaki.
Even smaller festivities like Children’s Day are great as you’ll find kiddies dressed in the most kawaii kimonos going to temples across the country to receive a blessing.
Safe & Efficient
It’s often joked that if you leave your purse on a table and walk away, it will still be there an hour later. I’m not game enough to test this out but it gives you an idea of how safe Japan is.
Its crime has been falling steadily over the years to the point where Tokyo’s crime rate in relation to population, sits at a measly 1.3%.
Then there’s the efficiency. The public transport system is a dream, in fact, train drivers had to publicly apologise for leaving 20 seconds early and the convenience stores are so convenient you could easily get your three meals a day from them.
So there you have it. I hope I’ve managed to convince you to visit Japan at some point. You could even go next year for the 2020 Olympics!
For more info on Tokyo and Japan, check out these articles!