Japan is my all-time favourite destination so far, and that's no small claim. For me, Japan represents an irresistible blend of age-old tradition, temples, shrines and old-world geishas which somehow manages to coexist with the cutting edge; Tokyo's electronics district and super-fast Shinkansen bullet trains. Japan needs to be seen to be believed. If you're looking to explore somewhere rich in culture, yet big on comfort, Japan hits the spot - here are 16 things you'll find only in Japan...
Simplicity and convenience
Convenience is simple to achieve and it doesn’t need to equate to fast food. Japan has convenience in the bucket-loads, and it makes things really simple for tourists who don’t speak the language:
- On-street vending machines. There’s no need to queue for a cold drink and in some places, there’s no justification for a shop. I spent a glorious afternoon cycling around an island and never came across a shop, just plenty of well-stocked Coke machines!
- IC Transport cards. This brilliantly useful top-up card is indispensable around Tokyo and can now be used around the whole country. Use it to pay for trains and metro travel as well as snacks and drinks in and around the station building.
- Free fans handed out on the street. We all love air conditioning, but it’s no use when you’re outside. Visit in the summer and you can often pick up a free fan on a street corner and these range from plastic promo fans to pretty paper fans.
- Socks+ sandals and sockettes+flats. Not strictly a convenience (until you consider blisters as an inconvenience). Japan is sock + sandal friendly, so cast off those western fashion qualms and go for comfort.
Efficiency is a concept I thoroughly approve of. I'll be honest - I do appreciate a bit of order. Japan is a haven of brilliant thinking and clever innovation:
- Shinkansen (Bullet trains). These high-speed trains are a much-envied Japanese icon. Their top speeds of 240 mph complete the Tokyo to Kyoto journey in just over 2 hours (320 miles). A Japan Rail Pass makes multiple journeys incredible value and the best way to explore.
- Luggage forwarding service. In another stoke of brilliance and for a small fee, every hotel and many small shops offer a reliable, affordable and safe luggage forwarding service to take your bags to your destination and save you lugging it around. Incredible service!
- All street food comes on a stick. Admittedly trivial compared to the brilliance of a bullet train, but think about it; no need to wash your hands; can be held and eaten with one hand, unlike tray food; generates very little waste. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.
- Standardised train-queuing. Unbelievably, the Japanese could teach the Brits a thing or two about queuing. Each train platform has 2 sets of foot prints and everyone forms an orderly queue behind the first two people to arrive. Trains stop with military precision directly in front and there’s zero elbowing!
The Japanese favour predictability so although there’s a level of etiquette to grasp. Once you understand what’s going on, it’s universally applied and easy to adhere to. Reap the benefits:
- There’s no tipping. Rather than expose a server or customer to an unpredictable social situation, it’s just agreed there is no need to tip. This alleviates any meal time awkwardness and the need to carry small change.
- Toilets come with sound effects. Modern Japanese toilets are a cross between a computer game and a juke box. To avoid any ‘bashful bladder’ situations, toilets come with a range of sound effects (which you’ll feel duty bound to sample) from fake flushing, to music. Just be aware that when you hit the fake-flush sound, it pipes over a speaker to the whole room, not just your cubicle.
- Water and a towel with your menu. If you’ve ever walked into a café or restaurant from a hot street, parched and perspiring, you’ll appreciate the discretion of this small act. You’ll immediately be presented with a glass of ice water and towel to mop your brow. A small, but very welcome gesture that puts you at ease.
- A complete lack of early check-ins. I was warned about this, but my desperation after getting drenched in a rain storm when getting off the bus from Tokyo prompted me to try my luck, to no avail. You simply won’t get an early check in, because it’s a change to the agreed plan. And that is unpredictable.
The things you'll only find in Japan
Faster than you realise, I know you’ll fall hook, line and sinker for the benefits of Japan – it’s such a beautiful country, with charming and friendly people. Here are a few more things that made me fall for Japan and the Japanese people:
- Onsen bathing. The ritual of bathing in a hot communal bath fed by hot springs both appeals to and terrifies people in equal measure (you have to bathe naked). I’m fairly shy but even I became accustomed to this Japanese spa-treatment and looked forward to my next dip!
- Slipper etiquette. The etiquette is ‘shoes-off’ in many places including private houses, temples and shrines. No one is going to pinch your shoes and you’ll be given slippers or sandals to wear indoors. In some instances there are also separate slippers to wear into the bathroom too. No dirty feet in sight!
- Face masks. These are a common site in urban Japan, especially on public transport in Tokyo. I originally assumed wearers were intent on avoiding other commuters’ germs, but actually, it’s the other way round- they don’t want to spread their cold germs. Pretty endearing and altruistic.
- Ryokans. You should definitely arrange to stay at a traditional inn or ‘ryokan’. Sleeping on the rush-matting floor on a traditional futon with a cosy feather duvet could be one of the best nights’ sleep you ever get. A refreshing stay at a ryokan in the mountains will be unforgettable and totally relaxing.
Interested in visiting Japan?
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