This is a statement, not a question, but if it were a question, the answer would be: a great deal. Following are a few reasons why.
1. The people
The Japanese are decent, kind, friendly and hospitable. However, an inability, real or imagined, to speak English might make them tend to avoid contact with foreigners. Yet it’s quite common for visitors to be approached in the street with offers of assistance, most likely from younger people. Many families are eager for their children to have international contact, and welcome the opportunity for an overseas visitor.
Japan is a fairly egalitarian society, with the vast majority of its residents in the middle class, ranging from lower though to upper. There isn’t a great deal of show of wealth by those who have it, as they don’t like to stand out. Japan also is a very homogenous society, the vast majority of people looking similar, and progressing through their lives in much the same way.
Japanese people like to make sincere, life-long friendships. They are very perceptive, they can tell when others are similarly sincere and genuine. On subsequent visits, they’ll want to take you out or otherwise spend money on you, to show you you’re special.
2. The weather
Generally predictable and reliable. The four seasons (five if you consider the rainy season separately) come and go each year with comforting regularity. Within each of these seasons also there isn’t much changeability from one year to the next. This reliability of weather patterns is a great help for trip planning, including appropriate clothing. There are some variations from Kyushu through to central Honshu, but further north the weather is always cooler, and Hokkaido has its own weather patterns, particularly the general absence of humidity in summer.
The best seasons are those on the cusp, spring and autumn/fall, although typhoons coming through in early autumn can dramatically change the outlook for a few days. In most places winter is quite manageable for travel purposes, but northern Honshu and Hokkaido require warmer clothing. Mid-summer, July and August, plus the rainy season in May/June are the least agreeable times to travel, but even so, a greater emphasis on indoor sights can be a simple way to get around any inconvenience then.
3. The sights
Visually, Japan is a country that can appeal to all tastes and interests, natural and man-made. A trip through rural Japan can constantly present charming scenes of centuries-old farmhouses surrounded by rice paddies, interspersed with impenetrable bamboo thickets swaying in a gentle breeze. Occasionally a farmer can be seen making his, or her, way along a narrow raised path between paddies, atop an under-size tractor, checking the flow of water along the myriad channels that feed the network of paddies.
The big cities offer everything any similar cities elsewhere offer, ranging through all the usual facilities, services, lifestyle options and entertainments. They might at first glance appear to be an unattractive conglomeration of unmatching building styles, constructed over the past six decades in an unplanned higgledy-piggledy manner, utilising to the maximum every square centimetre of space available on the block of land no two of which appear the same shape and size. And this is often precisely the case, however a closer more thorough look will uncover countless examples of superb oriental design, of a shop window, a tiny alcove, or an exquisite private garden of delicately manicured trees and shrubs, plus a large rock or two amid carefully raked white stones.
The real modern Japan is a fascinating combination of mountainous vistas unchanged for millennia, rural scenes and lifestyles that, apart from mechanisation, are little changed for centuries, and pulsating cities that offer every example of modern-day living. Wherever visitors go, they should regularly pause to take in the individual scenes of beauty and good design they will inevitably come across, whether it be at a temple or shrine, a public or private garden, a department store display, a bowl of cut flowers, or any example of a mundane life that has been enlivened by a touch of colour and aesthetically pleasing shape.
This is one of the aspects of Japan that sets the country apart: all cities contain interesting areas, Kyoto and Tokyo perhaps the most, but in all cities can be found examples of the beauty of the micro snuggling in among the blandness of the macro. Another fascinating characteristic of which the visitor is constantly reminded is the juxtaposition of the ancient and traditional with the modern, old Japan, such as kimono-clad women, comfortably fitting in beside the attire of the latest fad, such as fans of a particular cartoon character dressed up as that character, in each case the wearers considering their appearance entirely normal and appropriate.
A mix of rural and urban, big city and small town, temples, shrines or castles and modern public and private buildings, travel by Shinkansen (bullet train) and local train, plus any other combinations is highly worthwhile, to best gain a sense of the mixtures and paradoxes that are modern-day Japan.
4. Getting about
The public transportation network in Japan is hardly bettered anywhere in the world, for penetration of the whole country and reliability. Online booking nowadays can enable travel planning to almost anywhere, with passes, such as the Japan Rail Pass, working out to be extremely convenient, and cost effective. As in Europe, train travel is an ideal way to explore the country, or simply get from A to B.
There is a plethora of reasonably priced, clean and comfortable accommodation types and places, ranging from the more traditional minshuku and ryokan, through business hotels and pension, to major hotels and onsen (hot springs). English shouldn’t be expected to be spoken at some of the smaller local places, but this needn’t present any major problems or obstacles, so long as a few basic procedural matters are understood, primary among them how to take a bath.
6. The food
This is perhaps one category in which Japan leads the world, for variety, taste, freshness and ingenuity. The culinary component of any trip is important for all Japanese, who expect a high standard. Overseas visitors are consequently a beneficiary of this trend. There is also much regional variety in the way of preparing and cooking particular dishes, such as okonomiyaki, which can further add to the interest and enjoyment of dining. Eating well can be achieved cheaply in Japan, both at casual eateries and through bento boxes, including very high quality ones purchasable from department stores (discounting can be found close to closing time).
Most of the ancient arts and crafts are still practised today, whether they be some form of pottery or lacquer ware, or the pole fighting of kendo. Numerous aspects of traditional culture, especially design-oriented, permeate many aspects of everyday life.
Bathing, wearing shoes, the use of handkerchiefs, sleeping on tatami mat flooring, eating with chopsticks, sitting around a kotatsu in winter, eating persimmon in autumn and mandarins in winter, changing all the clothes in wardrobes in tune with the seasons – everyday customs, perhaps quirky at first glance, but practical in the Japanese context, abound.
These adorn public areas for most festivals, from those snaking through city main streets to those held in a small local park. Japan now copies the Western practice of lighting up and adorning with Christmas decorations, but these disappear on Christmas night to be immediately replaced by Japan’s own New Year decorations. Lanterns are placed in house porches to welcome in the spirits of past ancestors during O-bon, and carp flags are proudly displayed on Boys’ Day.
10. Simple pleasures
Watching or taking part in a planned festival can be a most enjoyable, but there are other activities and observances that can be a lot of fun. Firefly viewing in August is one of these, of necessity in a natural water course, of which there are now less and less. Crushing then eating water melons is another summer activity; throwing beans, mame-maki, at Setsubun, the first day of spring, to ward off evil spirits; joining the throngs at a temple at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to ring in the new year. The list is endless.
© Copyright 2014 SJ Peterson