Japan and an ongoing affection

Mount Fuji from train

For a long time I had the same reaction as many folks when asked to name a favourite country from my travels: “How can I pick a favourite? It’s impossible; they’re all different and each has its own merits.” When we came back from a month in Japan in 2011, I changed my tune and started to name Japan at the top of my list. Having just spent another 17 days there I can honestly say that Japan remains securely in that pole position.

Why? What makes Japan so special? Why would I recommend others to make the long, exhausting flight to experience it for themselves?

First of all, it’s an incredibly easy country to visit as a tourist. The rail system is probably the world’s best and signs and announcements are typically made in English as well as Japanese. The Japan Rail pass allows you to board most of the bullet trains, meaning you can travel a long way in a few hours without messing around with airports. I’ve found planning an itinerary around Japan is as easy as arranging a road trip in North America, but without the hassle of having to drive all day.

Bullet train

The people of course are an essential part of any travel experience and in Japan you find yourself returning countless smiles, even when (as is often the case) you don’t have a clue what’s going on. Ask someone for directions to a guesthouse and they’ll most likely drop what they’re doing and take you to your destination, delivering a formal handover to your new hosts before departing with a bow. We’ve spent seven weeks in the country and haven’t tired of this unswerving courtesy; in fact it just makes coming home all the more of a shock to the system.

Part of visiting any country is learning about its history and in Japan you can approach this from many different positions. If you like a good castle, there is one in almost every town. Most were built in the 15th and 16th centuries as strongholds of the feudal lords. These wooden creations were not designed with fire resistance in mind and few originals remain, but the reconstructions are still impressive and particularly pretty when lit up at night.

Nagoya Castle

If you like your history more modern then you’ll be spoilt for choice. Japan shut itself off from the world for 300 years and in the port city of Hakodate, inexplicably off the main tourist circuit, you can see a fascinating collection of consulates and churches set up in the boom years of the late 19th century when Japan suddenly opened its doors to foreign trade.

The stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki need no introduction and both cities are worthy of exploration beyond the museums that document their atomic tragedies. But dig around a little and it really gets interesting when you find the stories that don’t fit into the official Japanese narrative of 20th century history. One of the best museums I’ve visited is the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, the only place I’ve seen in Japan that attempts to address its wartime role with anything approaching candour. And in several Hokkaido museums you can learn about the Ainu, the only indigenous group in Japan. There is a notable silence about the oppression that the Ainu people suffered at the hands of the Japanese until quite recent years, although a bit of reading before you visit can offer some light on that missing part of the story.

Museum of Northern Peoples

Then there’s the wildlife. Japan does urban sprawl and neon lights better than anyone, but in such a densely-populated country it’s reassuring to find so much open space and wildlife, with a great variety birds to see and some of the world’s best whale-watching. Japan continues to slaughter whales when most of the world has accepted this is neither big nor clever, so it’s good to know that some folks in the country are actually making a living from whales without leaving a trail of blood in their wake.

Which moves me neatly onto the food. Nowhere else would I eat a raw prawn’s head or a sea urchin, but here in the hands of a personable sushi chef we ate what we were given and even enjoyed it. Japan is the only place where we’ve eaten pretty much what we wanted and still come home a pound or two lighter, such is the lack of fat in the typical Japanese diet. That said, seaweed, eel and rice gruel is not my idea of a delicious breakfast and I wouldn’t miss a Japanese breakfast if I didn’t see another one till the day I die.

With menus largely undecipherable and few English speakers in restaurants, we settled for a regular round of ‘Japanese roulette’ and took pot luck at ordering, often but not always with the help of plastic models of dishes that vaguely resembled what we received. We usually ate well, and typically spent no more than £15 for the two of us – even our blow-out sushi meal cost £23 each, with a seat by the counter watching the sushi master at work and chatting to him throughout the meal; a similar experience in London would cost at least three times the price.

Japanese street food

The dining difficulties do sum up the wider Japan experience neatly. For much of the time we never really knew what was going on around us and more than once our ignorance created a trail of confused chaos. Yet with a round of smiles and polite laughter we’ve somehow muddled through and had a memorable time in a country where unfamiliarity is everywhere.


Disclosure: We were in Japan to research a series of commissions (links to follow in due course). Many thanks to Inside Japan Tours, the Japan National Tourism Organization and Virgin Atlantic for their valuable help along the way.

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Freelance travel writer

4 Responses to “Japan and an ongoing affection”

  1. brandituptravel #

    We’ve never been in Japan, but your post gives us a lot of interesting reasons. Thank you.

    March 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm
  2. Japan has been on the top of my places to visit for a while now. The history has always intrigued me. Love that you mentioned bird and whale watching, too – I never realized that wildlife was such a remarkable part of Japan.

    March 6, 2014 at 3:36 pm
  3. TravelGenes #

    Very nice & detailed writeup about Japan…will keep this in mind when i travel there someday :-)

    March 8, 2014 at 4:09 am
  4. I heard so many great things about Japan and this post just adds up to them! Maybe someday I’ll get to travel there.

    March 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm