If you’ve never visited Japan, prepare to be surprised. It is thrillingly complex and constantly fascinating, writes Jac Taylor. Here are her top 10 reasons to visit.
Forget what you know about sushi and ramen; cuisine in Japan is much more multilayered. Every region has its own specialty and each meal has a sense of health and balance: a little fried morsel of meat next to an exquisitely sculpted vegetable, or a rich curry sauce paired with fresh steaming rice. Even a $5 lunch at a roadside hole in the wall will delight you with its carefully prepared perfection.
With few exceptions, everything in Japan is intentional and mindful. There are countless words for “beauty”, from the unique beauty found by renewing a chipped bowl with solid gold, to the melancholy beauty of a lone tree in a field. From the sway of the majestic towering bamboo forests of Arashiyama to the fussy bow carefully placed on the tiniest Nagoya department store purchase, you’ll feel and appreciate it too.
3. Living culture
Stay in a traditional ryokan and you’ll find locals relaxing in their yukata (casual kimono) and slippers, clip-clopping in wooden shoes down to the basement onsen (bath) as a nightly ritual or even around town for an after-dinner constitutional – a popular activity on holiday hotspot Miyajima Island, for example. Even the younger generations can be found enjoying hanami (cherry blossom viewing), admiring the delicate blooms as they stroll with as much pleasure as their grandparents.
Japan’s ubiquitous Buddhist shrines, big and small, offer a peaceful haven from street life. The sheer grandeur of Kyoto’s golden Kinkaku-ji temple or its crimson mountainside mate, Kiyomizu-dera, may draw millions of visitors a year, but a visit to the mossy gates and secret garden of Honen-in temple on the city’s Philosopher’s Walk, for example, can grant at least as much serenity and beauty.
If you like your day a little faster paced, Japan has seemingly endless shopping streets, gracious department stores and stylish retail districts that compete, in surprisingly affordable ways, for your extra yen. Osaka’s newly minted Abeno Harukas building in the Tennoji area crowns a fantastic boutique-filled boulevard, or you can dedicate a day to walking the whole stretch of the same city’s Shinsaibashi Street with more than half a kilometre of densely packed shops.
Tokyo’s Harajuku girls, all pigtails, pinafores and platform shoes, have become world famous with good reason and photographers love the extreme street fashions. But Japan’s love of kawaii (cuteness) is expressed in more subtle ways, too, such as baby-voiced talking toilets, a national obsession with Manga cartoons, and gigantic fibreglass crabs or blowfish waving at prospective patrons from restaurant fronts.
Chaos is not a concept you come across in Japan – even crowds are fairly orderly and polite, which is excellent news for travellers. Wish to be whisked by bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, 538 kilometres away, in just two and a quarter hours? Easily done. Want to explore Osaka on a limited timeframe? The outstanding train system leaves nothing to chance, so you’re able to see an impressive number of sights in a day.
There is a lingering rumour that Japan is an expensive place to visit, but it’s simply not the case. Savvy visitors can stay in spotlessly clean, well-appointed accommodations for astonishingly little; terrific food can be extremely affordable and available everywhere, with food halls reaching new heights of choice and quality as much as tiny family-owned eateries; and great public transport means everyday spending is kept way down.
9. Green spaces
The Japanese psyche is irrevocably connected with nature and her seasons, with garden tending and appreciation elevated to a national pastime. More than a billion people annually visit parks that take up a seventh of Japan’s land, and private gardens add even more natural beauty to the equation, often intricately designed to best display the spring blossoms or autumn colour of their prefecture.
Japan is an ideal place for solo and female travellers, with streets humming with activity at all hours, subway trains closely monitored, and locals genuinely wanting to help. There is little car traffic and extensive pedestrian-only pathways, making walking a safe and popular way to discover the country’s towns and cities.