A year ago we were in Japan. And I loved every single second of it. Japan has everything a traveller could ask for: history, an amazing array of ancient customs and traditions, futuristic architecture, gorgeous temples, great shopping, fantastic food…the list goes on and on. I found Japan endlessly fascinating and wonderfully weird. And also: very comfortable to travel in. Here are five reasons why.
1. Transport is fast and safe
Travel is my passion, a passion that hasn’t wavered since my first big trip in 2002. But what has wavered is my love for local transport. Asia is my favourite continent, but I don’t really feel comfortable anymore in local buses, rusty ferryboats and taxis with crazy drivers and a death wish. What probably triggered this inconvenient fear was our minivan accident in Thailand (no one got hurt, but it was scary as hell) and the following backpacking trip through Nepal. I must have left fingernails in many Nepali buses, when I was holding on for dear life on the seat in front of me, convinced my hour had struck. This was confirmed every time I accidentally looked out of the window and saw crashed buses in the ravines deep below me lying around as a reminder of what often goes wrong on the Nepali roads.
I never really recovered. That’s why travel in Japan was so relaxing: we mostly travelled by Shinkansen trains, speeding from city to city, while reclining comfortably in our seats and peacefully watching the landscape flash by. Our fellow travellers would be quiet, because that’s what train travel in Japan dictates. And when your phone rings, you answer it in the designated area. Why can’t we have that in The Netherlands? Speaking of things we don’t have in The Netherlands, the trains in Japan famously run on time. I just loved train travel in Japan!
2. Staying in a traditional ryokan is relaxing
After a long day of sightseeing, there’s nothing better than staying in a traditional Japanese inn, a ryokan. Ryokans were already in use in the 17th century, when they served travellers along the highways of Japan. Although a ryokan is more expensive than a hotel, it’s definitely worth to fork over the money for a traditional room a couple of times during your trip. A night in a ryokan is simply an utter delight.
A stay often includes dinner and breakfast, and for us the ryokan food was the most amazing of our trip. After eating as much as we could, we would return to our room to find our futons folded out on the tatami mats on the floor. We would put on our yukata and pay a visit to the communal bath (men and women are usually separated) which used water from a nearby onsen (hot spring). During my first visit I had to sneak a peek at the other visitors, to make sure I didn’t make any face losing mistakes. But once I understood the bathing etiquette, I enjoyed it immensely. After the bath I would return to our room, all warm and rosy, to snuggle up under the duvet on my futon. And fell in sleep immediately. Yes, I’m a real party girl.
3. Everything is a work of art
The Japanese have an amazing eye for detail. Everything has to be perfect. And they turn the simplest things into a work of art. Whether it is the package of fresh cookies, a flower arrangement or sushi, everything is perfectly designed and executed. That even made it fun to visit a Japanese supermarket, where the apples were all sparkly and shiny, the chips packets a modern artwork and even the cheapest cakes looking like they were ready to compete in a national baking contest.
4. Japanese people are extremely helpful
We don’t speak Japanese and most Japanese people don’t speak English. That makes every conversation potentially complicated and confusing. But a little complexity doesn’t stop the Japanese from being very friendly and helpful. Are you checking your map? Not for long, because someone will drop what he’s doing and try to help you find your way. When we stepped into the post office of Kyoto, a gentleman in front of us checked what we wanted, so he could direct us to the right lane. At temple Sensoji in Tokyo, we wanted to buy a omikuji (a fortune written on a piece of paper). You have to shake a cylinder with sticks, which have numbers on them. When one of the sticks falls out, you pull your fortune from a drawer with the corresponding number. An old man was watching us while we shook the cylinder, and helped us find the right drawer, all the while smiling and nodding like there was no tomorrow.
5. Japan is full of tourists (but mostly domestic)
You may not expect it, but Japan is touristy! Except you’ll mostly see Japanese tourists, enjoying everything their marvellous country has to offer. More often than not we were the only foreign tourists in a radius of ten kilometres, but Japanese tourists were always abundant. Which resulted in us watching hilarious photo shoots with Japanese tour groups and temples, Japanese tour groups and the deer of Miyajima and so on. But the Japanese, being the efficient people they are, know how to make the life of a traveller easier. So in every moderately interesting town, there’s a Tourist Information Centre, where they speak English, provide you with maps and can arrange bookings for activities and hotels. Very, very convenient!
Needless to say, Japan ranks high on my list of favorite countries. We only spent 2,5 weeks there, not nearly enough to even scratch the surface. I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m already looking forward to the moment I set foot on Japanese soil again.