It’s not on everyone’s bucket list, nor is it a frequent family holiday destination but, for so many reasons, I think Japan is one of the best places you should consider visiting.
If you walk into a travel agent to talk about holidays, you’re probably not going to say all the right things for them to suggest Japan because it is very different to most other places. Japan excels in its variety and execution of everything it does – so if you’re looking to lounge by a pool for 2 weeks, it’s probably not the place for you, but if you’re looking for a rich, engaging and culturally fascinating trip then book your flights as soon as you can.
Why Japan, really?
For me, there were few key things that made visiting Japan the best holiday ever and if you know me, you can probably predict what some of the points might be…
1. Shintoism + Traditional Japanese Culture
It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not – you need to make the most of the opportunity to absorb the Shinto history and visit some of the immense Shinto shrines and temples. You can’t really get away from the temples in fairness – they’re more common than arcades, particularly in Kyoto, so it’s worth doing your research to find the more interesting ones to visit – Fushimi Inari Taisha should be on this list.
Samurai and Geisha – synonymous with Japan but not easy to get a good look at these traditional lifestyles. The Geisha District (Gion) in Kyoto is one of the few places you can see a traditional Geisha performance, as well as be served by a Geisha for dinner (it’ll cost you though). There are also some traditional tea rooms, but you will need to book in advance and they’re often off the main tourist trail. As far as Samurai experiences go it’s pretty limited; with basically no practising Samurai left, you will want to get onto a tour with Samurai Joe (the last Samurai of Japan) while he’s still fit and able! You can see plenty of the history in museums and attractions too.
2. Gaming & Anime Culture
As long as you sit somewhere between massive geek and secret geek there will be plenty to keep you busy. In the major cities – Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka etc. – it’s hard to walk 100 metres without passing an arcade, and they’re nothing like the Hollywood Bowl arcade or Skegness amusements you’re thinking of. They’re cheap, they want you to win, and they want you to stay there all day, so they are HUGE and have loads to do. It’s pretty common for 2 or 3 floors to be exclusively packed out with claw/grabber machines BUT the prizes are good, and did I mention that they want you to win. Prize dropped but stuck on the lip of the hole? Don’t worry, the arcade attendants will often open the machine up and get it out for you!
You could spend days in the arcades and trawling the gaming and anime shops for merchandise – they’re everywhere. There are some great anime museums (Studio Ghibli Museum Tokyo or Manage Museum Kyoto are must visits if that’s your thing) and anime themed café’s too although the official Pokémon Café is probably worth missing unless you’re taking small kids.
MUST DO: Mario Kart Tour around Tokyo
3. The Outdoors
People usually think of Tokyo when they think of Japan but if you get out of the big cities (which doesn’t take long at all) you can quickly get into the sprawling countryside where, with a bit of research, you can visit some pretty special places. If you like walking or cycling, you can’t go far wrong just getting into the mountains – you won’t be able to climb Mount Fuji at certain times of the year though.
Because Japan is volcanic there are loads of natural hot water springs, or Onsen, that you should try to experience. The rules of entering can vary but generally public Onsen are single sex and may be swimwear/ no clothes – if you’ve got big tattoos though you might not be allowed in, even if it’s obvious you’re not part of the Yakuza.
4. Cleanliness, Politeness and Efficiency
If, like me, you hate the thought of visiting London because you don’t like using the underground and you’re not a fan of crowds, don’t worry, travelling around Japan is a doddle. The bullet trains are as fast and efficient as their reputation suggests, the underground is equally so and even when it’s busy - everyone queues, everyone waits their turn, and everyone does their best to make it a comfortable journey for those around them.
I believe the cleanliness of Japanese streets is something all other countries should be aiming for. Seeing waste on the street just wasn’t a thing in Japan – having a made a conscious decision a number of years ago to reduce bins in public spaces, Japanese people have learnt to take their waste around with them and recycle as much as possible at home (don’t ask me to quote their recycling figures, a lot is burnt for energy – which is classed as recycling).
If you’re into tech and are in the market for a few new gadgets you’re not going to find anywhere like it in the UK – huge department stores, some of which are exclusively trading in tech goods. Naturally you’ll need adaptors, but the exchange rate and tax exemption make it a big opportunity for tech bargains. I picked up a Nintendo Switch in the first year of release and saved about 35% against UK prices.
If you’re just a tech appreciator, then the VR experiences you can enjoy and the robot assistants in a number of hotels and restaurants are sure to entertain. And the scale and verticality of buildings will give you an even greater sense of being in a tech driven country a la Bladerunner.
I could go on and on as this list is just scratching the surface – if you do decide to visit, feel free to get in touch and I’ll share a bit more. But even if you only go once, Japan is a must visit country – I’ll be going back for sure!