My wife, Catharine, and I are just back from two weeks in Japan, with the jet lag to prove it. And while I don’t count jet lag among the reasons to travel to (or from) Japan, it would never be enough to keep me away.
Here are eight great reasons to travel to Japan — 10-hour trans-Pacific flights notwithstanding. (This list is intended to provide an overview — I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of traveling there in future posts.)
- The People. We were continually amazed and impressed by how polite and helpful the Japanese people are. This ranged from our airbnb hosts and attendants in subway stations to cashiers in grocery stores, servers in restaurants, and just about everybody else we came in contact with. We were never made to feel unwelcome or rudely dismissed by anyone of whom we asked assistance — and with a language barrier, we did require a fair amount of help.
- The Gardens. Is there any place more peaceful than a perfectly manicured Japanese garden? Somehow, the flowering plants and trees, ponds, curved bridges, tea houses, and shaded pathways combine to create calming oases even in the midst of mega-cities like Tokyo. Add to these Zen rock gardens and bamboo forests and you have wonderful splashes of (curated) nature amid the urbanity.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each site we visited — mostly Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples, ranging from Kyoto to Nara and Nikko — was culturally rich, grand in scale, and vastly different from the last, with no feeling of “If you’ve seen one shrine…”
- Public Transportation. The Japanese lead the world in speedy, reliable railway technology, and trains are the best way of getting between cities (unless you’re determined to explore the countryside by automobile — but remember, the Japanese drive on the “wrong” side of the road, like the Brits). Within cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, you have efficient subway and bus systems to get around (taxis tend to be very expensive.) I recommend getting train passes for long trips and subway passes for the cities — they make life much easier.
- Public Baths. Group bathing is an inherent part of Japanese culture, and there’s nothing like slipping into a steaming mineral water pool at the end of a long day of sightseeing. As with many Japanese customs, ritual plays a big role — including thoroughly washing yourself before entering the bath. Most baths are now separated by gender.
- Cleanliness. Public baths aren’t the only places where the Japanese take cleanliness seriously. The streets, sidewalks, and roadsides are virtually spotless. And here’s the remarkable part: There are virtually no trash cans to be seen. People are expected to take their trash home with them, and they do. Nor do washrooms offer paper towels — folks carry small hand cloths for drying their hands (unless there’s an electric drying machine at hand). Catharine found something very zen in all this: “If there are no garbage cans, there can be no garbage.” Think about it.
- Japanese Food and Drink. Two words: Sushi and Asahi. (The latter is the most common beer on draft.)
- No Tipping. I repeat: No Tipping.
Next Up: Prepping for your trip.
All photos by Catharine Norton.