Japan completely blew my travel expectations out the window. It is a country that really has everything for all kinds of people. Whether you are a foodie or fashionista, a photographer or a mountaineer, you will find what you are looking for in one of the hundred islands on the world's easternmost frontier. So in no particular order, here are some of the reasons why you absolutely need to visit this country!
1. The People
Where do I even begin? The Japanese are some of the warmest, kindest, and respectful people I have ever met. Even in busy metropolitan cities, everyone is still very mindful of others; there seems to be a mentality that even if I am having a bad day, I am not going to let that affect others around me. You can see this from little experiences like commuters lining up single-file on the left side of the gate when a train pulls in, instead of everyone in US forming a blob and focusing on squeezing themselves in. Especially in the rural countryside of southern Japan, everyone is so kind, selfless, and compassionate. They effortlessly make you feel welcomed and touched, not due to their job or appearance, but because they truly mean it.
2. The Idyllic Countryside
If you have ever fallen in love with the picturesque settings in Studio Ghibli's animated films, you must come to Japan to experience it for yourself! From the countryside of Yufuin which looks like Totoro’s home and the ancient tropical island of Yakushima that inspired 'Princess Mononoke', to the hidden snow village of Shirakawa-go in the Japanese Alps, this country has it all! You will feel like you teleported to another world, one of spirits, lights, nature, and mystery.
I find it very fascinating how a country known for its modern technology, neon lights, and bustlingly cities, can simultaneously preserve such a tranquil countryside.
There is a reason why Japan is every photographer’s dream destination. Everything in this country is so aesthetically pleasing. It is as mesmerizing and grand as the Great Itsukushima Shrine or as minimalistic and peaceful as a Buddhist sand garden. Instead of using words, you can see how beautiful the country is by looking at this photo article here.
Along the lines of photography, there is a Japanese word for abandoned urban places, or people seeking to find them: haikyo. I never intended to be a haikyo or even knew what it meant until I fell in love with the haunting beauty of Japan’s left behind buildings from the Industrial Revolution. They are frozen in time, reclaimed by nature, or still living in the darkness. I like to say photography is all about light and shadows. There is no better place to capture this contrast than in an abandoned warehouse or amusement park.
OK, I am going to admit that finding edible food is difficult in Japan if you are a strict vegan like me. Plus, I am also celiac. However, whatever food I could eat was so delicious. Forget Californian rolls. You have not tried the real deal until you come to Japan and eat actual sushi. However, there is so much more to the palette than raw fish and rice. The Japanese seem to be obsessed with everything fried and dipped in breadcrumbs. I really wish I could try it and tell you how amazing the fried foods taste, but just looking at them was satisfying enough. Additionally, how can you reject tender eggplant braised in fish sauce, savory soy sauce seaweed, tofu cooked in hot spring water, and so much more?
I am agnostic; the most ritual-like thing I do are my sorority rituals. Still, I am spiritual, and seek to find myself in the sky and the earth (or at least understand the meaning of the world and existence). Nowhere else have I discovered such a peace of mind than here. Even with all its modern technology, the country seems to be bathed in a pure aura that transcends time and empties the mind of all worries. And if you are lucky enough to visit Kyoto, arguably Japan’s most cultural capital, you can have your pick of over 2000 temples and shrines. On New Year’s Eve when the clock strikes midnight, every temple bell in the country strikes 108 times, thought to rid listeners of the 108 calamities that plague mankind in Buddhism. It is as if the entire world stops for those 108 counts, and all you hear are thundering chimes following hollowing echoes.
7. Everything is incredibly cute!
Everything in Japan has a cute twist to it. From clothes with bunny ears to lacey frills on them, and Snoopy latte designs to high speed trains with boy-bands on them, there is a lighthearted touch to everything. No matter how cynical you may think you are, Japan will put a smile to your face!
8. Itsukushima Shrine
Most people have seen pictures of the “floating torii gate”, often a symbol of Japan itself. The gate is actually the entrance to the very important Itsukushima Shrine, designed to “float” edge of the water on MIyajima Island (which is 10 minutes away from Hiroshima by ferry). I personally think the main shrine itself is the most breathtaking site on the island. When lit with a thousand lamps at dusk, the vermillion colored temple grounds feels otherworldly and the blinking lights seem to blur reality from fantasy. The shrine grounds really has the ability to spirit you away to another realm, even if just for a split moment in your mind!
9. Yakushima Island
Although very off the beaten path for foreign visitors, Yakushima is best known among Japanese travelers for inspiring Hayao Miyazaki, acclaimed storyteller, to write "Princess Mononoke". There is no way to describe the magnificence of the thousand year old cedar trees on this ancient island. You have to come visit it for yourself. Yet Yakushima is also special because of its incredibly friendly local islanders. When I think back to my time on the island, I think of the smiling old grandmas harvesting winter oranges in their backyard, the lush green moss deep in the tropical forest, the dramatic mountains and ocean waves not any less beautiful than an ink-painting, and bus driver who ran out the bus without an umbrella in the pouring rain to help me.
10. Onsen towns
Japan is very cold in the wintertime, and there is nothing better than soaking yourself in a hot natural spring. As a volcanic country, Japan has an incredible amount of natural hot springs, and the public has converted many towns into “onsen resorts”. You can spend a whole day here, taking soaks at whichever ryokan (a Japanese style inn) onsens that please your eye as you stroll through town. It is like shopping or eating samples at Costco, except you bathe instead. Just be OK with being completely naked to a bunch of strangers.
Japanese girls are incredibly stylish and well-put together. It is very rare to see women not wearing makeup, and every other girl sports high heels and a skirt in the winter. To the Japanese, there is no such thing as “sweatpants day”. Traveling in Japan has made me more fashion-conscious. What makes Japanese fashion timeless is the minimalistic and neutral approach. You do not get zebra prints or neon polka dots, but rather a lot of trench coats, high heel booties and effortless layers.
12. Convenience stores
Japan has taken the concept of a convenience store to a whole new level! You can find stores like 7/11, Family Mart and Lawson in literally every other block, and they sell tasty onigiri and microwavable dishes at ridiculously low prices, among other items. There is usually also an ATM in these stores, as well as hot food, making it easily a one-stop destination.
Trains are never late! If you are a punctual person, you will love this. In fact, trains do not pull into the station at the time of departure; they leave from the station as soon as the time strikes. So if your train is at 10 a.m. you better be there are 9:59 a.m. or earlier. By 10 a.m., the train is already gone. A minor delay in Japan is three minutes, and a ten minute delay makes the news! I read somewhere about how Japanese conductors undergo strict training to always be on time, and there are embarrassing additional classes they must take if they do not precisely abide by this rule. In fact, there was a Japanese conductor who was so determined to pull his train into the station on time and drove so fast that the train wheels fell apart. While I am not sure what happened afterwards, my main point is that trains are punctual :)
Speaking of trains, Japan has a super speed bullet train system called the Shinkansen. Operated by the Japan Rail Company, the JR Pass completely covers use of this high speed train. The journey from Tokyo to Osaka only takes three hours and another three hours from Osaka to Fukuoka.
15. The Memories
The last reason is a concept that is very difficult to explain in English. There is a word for it in Chinese/kanji called 风情 (pinyin: fengqing). Very roughly translated, it means “exotic amorous feelings”. It has nothing to do about romance, yet rather the feelings that one gets when immersed in the aesthetics of a place. It not only encompasses the culture of that country, but also the natural landscape, the weather, and even the stories and legends. I will never forget that one rainy afternoon when I walked along a forgotten road in the Japanese countryside, a bottle of sake wine in one hand and my camera in the other hand. I was shivering, soaked to the bones from the pouring rain and laughed loudly to my heart's content. The utter freedom and the feeling that there is no one else in the world besides you and the heaven above and earth below, is incredibly beautiful.