As a tourist you often only get to see the best of places and it’s rare to come away with a good idea of what it’s really like to live there. Coupled with the freedom of being on holiday (living within the comfortable confines of hotel rooms where the daily grind is remembering to charge your camera batteries and washing your underwear in the bathroom sink) it’s virtually impossible to make a sound judgement on the reality of life in another country.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Japan three times in the last seven years. I’ll admit that I’m the kind of traveler who likes to cross places off my must-see list so that I can go to new ones next time (Paris: done, Rome: done) but I just can’t get Japan, more specifically Tokyo, out of my system. I’m going there again this year, for the fourth time, to ‘live’ for a whole month.When asked, I’ve (surprisingly) had trouble articulating why I like traveling to Japan. It’s Japan, I say, just go there and you’ll see why. With the commitment of funds and time towards this next trip, however, I’ve had to think a little harder about why I can’t seem to get enough of this destination. Looking around the blogosphere I’m certainly not alone with many of my reasons, while at the same time, many others are purely personal.
1. I love big cities.
I love the hum you can hear from 20 floors up (if you can open your hotel room window). Tokyo is the ultimate big city and, for me, the appeal of big cities is being surrounded by people while at the same time being totally alone. In Tokyo, at the same time as being obviously foreign, I can also revel in the anonymity of being just one in a crowd of over 10 million people.
2. I like small spaces.
I like the efficient and minimalist approach to life that not having much space requires. While I’ve never had to live in a tiny space for any length of time (the upcoming month living in 27 square meters will test this very theory) I always enjoy the compact and practical way that Japanese hotels and homes organise their space. A Japanese hotel bathroom is testament to modern plastics engineering. Forgot to get your face wash out of your toiletries bag sitting on the vanity next to the sink before getting into the shower? No worries, just stick out your hand, and it’s right there.
There’s a lot of people in Japan, but it rarely feels crowded or chaotic. Public transport is a marvel of manners and timing. For most aspects of everyday life, there is a procedure to follow and helpful instructions will usually be on hand (helped along by an inconceivably cute cartoon character) to make sure you get it right.
4. Japan is beautiful.
You don’t need to know much about Japan to know that a lot of it is beautiful a la Japanese gardens and geisha. What you realise when you go there is that aesthetics and attention to detail permeate all aspects of every day life. The simplest way to illustrate this is with food – even fast food is presented beautifully, and more astonishingly, comes out looking just like the picture in the menu.
5. It’s just so clean.
I once saw people cleaning the handrails of an escalator as they went around. I am now convinced you can safely eat off the floor of any major train station in Japan.
6. Unexpected contrasts.
Every day in Japan brings with it another surprising suite of contrasts – an alcove in a busy train station containing a delicate ikebana (flower arrangement), a Shinto shrine in the middle of a shopping mall, being able to buy hot coffee in a can from a vending machine but not being able to find an ATM.
Service in Japan is exceptional. The difference in professional pride and strong work ethic in Japan compared to Australia and many other countries I have traveled to is palpable, and admirable.
8. It’s a constant challenge
I know that ninety per cent of the time I spend in Japan, even though I’ve been there before, I will have no idea what is going on. It’s a combination of being excluded from language and culture (through my own laziness and ignorance) as well as the inherent complexity of finding your way around a foreign country. Being challenged is why I travel. Planning a schedule that fits as much as possible into a short amount of time, conquering a new transport system and finding three meals a day are triumphs I aim for both overseas and in Australia. The difference is that in Japan there’s always another challenge, and the gains seem more incremental. Minor triumphs feel like major breakthroughs, such as recognising the kanji for ‘Exit’ before seeing the English translation underneath, realising when shoes must come off or can stay on (actually, still struggling with that one) and navigating a maze of tiny back streets to find a vegetarian restaurant you read about on the internet. Which is why I have to go back, over and over again.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I’ve got two tips for first timers: take cash (ATMs and the ability to pay for things with credit cards is surprisingly rare) and take some kind of GPS enabled device with access to google or other maps. Getting to common attractions is generally easy, but if you want to try to find anything a little out of the way, it’s possible you will struggle. Our hit rate increased significantly on our last trip with the help of GPS, but is still probably sitting around the 60/40 mark, in Japan’s favour.