1. Japanese culture is quite unique.
I was amazed at just how different it really is. I’ve traveled the US and Europe and they’re equally wonderful. But Japan was exciting to me in a way I’d never experienced before. Have you ever felt the warmth that surrounds your heart when you realize you’re carving a lasting impression into your mind?
Yep, I was completely at home. And it was easy to become immersed because the people welcomed us everywhere we went. This reason alone should entice you to explore what this beautiful country has to offer.
2. The FOOD.
Eating in Japan was exquisite. Food seemed brand new to me, every meal was a discovery. What I found most intriguing was how beautifully everything was presented. It was art; almost too lovely to eat. Even when we were served something unfamiliar (which was often), it was delicious and fresh. It didn’t matter if we dined in an upscale restaurant or ducked into a little sidewalk noodle shop–we walked away happy every time.
I’ve never been afraid to try new things, but I would guess that even the pickiest eater could find something they like. And if you’re a sushi lover, prepare to be amazed! The medium-fatty tuna we had may have been one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) is based on rice with miso soup, often served with seasonal vegetables. Seafood is abundant, fresh, and delicious. And no, not everything is raw. There are plenty of dishes where you’ll find grilled fish and vegetables cooked in broth. Beef can be quite expensive, though so you may want to wait until you’re back home for that ribeye or tenderloin.
3. Everything is tidy.
Japanese people are amazing with their use of space. Nothing at all is wasted. There’s something to be said about their desire to make the most out of what they have, right where they are. Tokyo has approximately 4 million more people than the city of New York, and yet it felt surprisingly open and fresh. Not stifling at all. Granted, I’m a small person (5’0″ tall) but even one of our taller travel companions was surprised at how spacious the city felt.
Not only was everything thoughtfully organized, but it was also incredibly clean. Need a public restroom? No worries! Most public toilets have special features like electronic air fresheners, special “noise” maskers, and personal bidets and dryers. The Japanese are very sensitive to sound, and some are self-conscious of others hearing them taking care of their bathroom business. This is just one example of how serious the Japanese are about social etiquette and decorum.
4. People are polite and helpful.
Many of the people we met in Japan spoke English and the ones who didn’t still bent over backward to help us (even apologizing when they couldn’t do more). It made exploring a truly wonderful experience. Tipping isn’t customary there, but prompt and courteous service is. I can’t remember a single shop, hotel, or restaurant we visited that didn’t provide us with wonderful service.
Even cab and bus drivers bow to greet their passengers! There’s something to be said for the genuine hospitality Japan exudes. My husband travels internationally for work, and though business relationships can be harder to establish in Japan, the people he works with are some of the warmest and friendliest he’s met in the world.
5. It’s surprisingly easy to get around.
Transportation (whether via bus, cab, or subway) is intuitively organized and relatively inexpensive. Signs are written in Japanese but usually in English as well. Riders are courteous, the stations are clean, and attendants are helpful. Tokyo is a variety of neighborhoods (or districts) scrunched together.
Connecting all the districts is the Yamanote Line, a color-coded commuter train loop around central Tokyo. It passes through important stations such as Yurakucho, Tokyo, Akihabara, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinagawa.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more, there’s nothing quite like riding the Shinkansen (bullet train). We were fortunate enough to be able to ride Nozomi, the fastest Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto (a one-way ticket will cost about $150). This train travels at 155 mph, so we covered the 318.6 miles in a little less than 2 1/2 hours. The ride was extremely smooth and comfortable.
6. There’s almost no crime.
Considering how many people live in Japan, that’s pretty amazing. You’d be hard-pressed to even witness someone jaywalking or crossing the street on the wrong signal. Personal honor is something the Japanese take very seriously, and being convicted of a crime carries a substantial social stigma.
As a woman who’s small in stature and doesn’t speak the language, I wandered multiple districts of Tokyo alone during the day and felt completely safe. There are even ‘female only’ cars on the train, for women who want that extra security.
Many American’s wouldn’t think twice of walking around some US cities alone (within reason) but might be concerned about going alone in a foreign country. Japan’s crime rate is in fact much lower (across the board) than the United States. Just something to consider.
7. Shopping, shopping, shopping.
Did I mention the shopping? Holy moly. If you’re a shopper, you’ll love exploring what Japan has to offer. I’m actually not much of a buyer, but I love to look. And to be honest, I spent more money shopping than I imagined I would. I couldn’t help myself! Everything was so unique.
Souvenir shopping for my kids was the most fun. Japan is full of interesting things we don’t often see here in the US. My absolute favorite shopping spot of all was Tokyo Solomachi, which sits at the base of the Tokyo Skytree. This is one of the best places to purchase authentic Japanese souvenirs; things you won’t find anywhere else. With over 300 shops and restaurants, wandering here can take a while so give yourself plenty of time.
I found plenty of cool things to surprise my daughters. My oldest wears a size 8 in women’s shoes–so we gave up trying to find the fashion sneakers she asked us to bring back! My youngest was enchanted with the beautiful candies and sweets we found in a little shop while walking through Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. We brought plenty of other trinkets home to nieces and nephews, and we still enjoy using the brightly colored chopsticks and tea sets we purchased for ourselves!
8. Japan’s rich history is front and center, mixed well with their modern culture.
Depending on what district you’re visiting, you may feel as if you’re visiting the future (Akihabara Electric Town) or like you’ve just stepped into the past (Higashiyama), all of it uniquely different and yet perfectly blended. We loved visiting the various temples, palaces, and gardens. These national treasures simply took my breath away. How was it possible to be surrounded by strangers here and still feel completely at peace?
One of the most stunning spots I have ever seen is Nagano. The commute from Tokyo was only 90 minutes via the bullet train, so we made a day of it and then headed back to our hotel.
Nagano was the perfect display of old Japan. And the surrounding vistas created quite the scene. It was like a dream. Visiting the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Yaenkoen (Snow Monkey Park) was surreal.
For our next visit, we plan to stay in a traditional Ryokan and spend a lot more time in Nagano. We’d love to go during the winter season and experience the landscape blanketed in snow. Stunning!