The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Japan
As a holiday destination, Japan can sometimes evoke mixed reactions. Most people understand it’s a country of immense beauty, fascinating history and traditions, wacky pop culture, cutting edge technology and of course – excellent food. But others wonder just how different it might be to their home country and whether this will make it difficult for travel. Here’s a breakdown of why Japan should absolutely be on your bucket list, and how any small cultural and language differences will actually only contribute to you having a great time, rather than cause problems.
Beauty everywhere, and of every kind
One thing that will become evident very soon after arriving in Japan is the importance of aesthetics. From the neon lights of Tokyo’s Ginza district to the ancient temples of Kyoto, everything is so utterly pleasing on the eye. Visiting Japanese gardens makes you feel soothed from modern life stress the minute you set eyes on their manicured foliage, calming water features and charming stone bridges; shops display piles of perfectly colour-coordinated product and many festivals revolve around the changes in nature’s palette (the world-famous cherry blossoms, the autumn blaze of miniature maples and many other smaller festivals celebrating flowers such as wisteria, irises or hydrangeas). The Japanese value beauty in everything and this makes it a wonderful, soul-soothing country to spend time in. It also makes it a very clean place to visit – people take pride in how things look. In fact, public toilets (even at roadside stops) have to be some of the cleanest in the world.
Japanese food has become relatively mainstream in so many countries that nothing really feels uncomfortably ‘foreign’ when you go there. Big bowls of steaming ramen are served up on every other corner, and delicious smells of yakitori, tempura and pan-fried gyoza dumplings waft out on the street at lunchtime. Good food is literally everywhere – from a quick bite from a convenience store (much nicer than convenience store food in other parts of the world) or a bowl of noodles in a stand up shop to six-course meals that look like works of art, the Japanese take huge pride in the taste, freshness and quality of their food. Everything bursts with flavour and provenance is so important – anyone will tell you the takoyaki is best in Osaka and Tokyo is known for its sushi – and don’t even think about going to Takayama without trying the Hida beef! If you love excellent food, Japan has to be on your list of places to visit.
Culture and people
Japanese culture is different in so many ways but still somehow so familiar. People still get up, ride the train to work, do a day’s work, go home to their families and enjoy their leisure time at the weekends. The differences in traditional situations are fun to celebrate – bathing nude in onsen is liberating, wearing yukata (casual kimono) when staying in traditional accommodation is fun, making sure you don’t come out wearing the ‘toilet only’ slippers is a riot when you slip up. Japanese people love it when you try to embrace their culture but don’t judge you when you get it wrong. They are very gentle and welcoming to foreigners.
One of the best things about visiting Japan is its unpredictability. In Tokyo, you can be at centuries-old Sensoji Temple, Asakusa or Meiji Shrine one moment and in the madness of cat cafes, rainbow-coloured desserts, and dancing Elvises the next. Every interest is covered – electronics in Akihabara, kitchen equipment in Kappabashi street, high-fashion in Omotesando and everything kawaii (cute) in Harajuku. You could never get bored, no matter what you’re into.
So if you’re on the fence about Japan, leap off. Efficient transport, a population with some basic knowledge of English, food that’s easy on the palate, and incredible sights and experiences you won’t find anywhere else make it a must-visit destination.