Why I keep going back to Japan

Couple in traditional Japanese clothing 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 fourtToriih 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. Shibuya TokyoIn 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.

Traditional Japanese room3. Stuff just works.

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. Japanese fast food from Mos BurgerThe 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.

7. Japanese temple in snowPride and professionalism.

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. TPickles in a Japanese markethe 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.

14 thoughts on “Why I keep going back to Japan

  1. We love Japan too and have also been there three times (each time for three weeks) – the last time was two months after the tsunami. We had planned to go to Sendai, but had to change those plans of course. We too plan to go again, but maybe in a year or two. I agree completely with all your reasons – except the first one. I don’t love big cities, so we tend to overnight in Tokyo on the way in and the way out, exploring another little bit of the city as we do – and spend the rest of the time in other places. Some of those places can be very challenging (your point 8) such as when we “roamed” around Ogijima, Teshima and Naoshima on our last trip. English is less used, eateries are less familiar with foreigners BUT it’s so beautiful, it’s so clean, and everything works! There are three places we’ve been to on every trip – Tokyo (of course), Kyoto and Kanazawa. Kanazawa is, to date, our favourite place but it’s all beautiful.


  2. I loved your title and I agree with everything in your post. Last year was was my 20th time in Japan and some friends ask me why I keep going back but there is such a feeling of harmony in Japan, everything is kind of easy -except using credit cards sometimes- plus the challenge to speak the language that I always seem to rediscover everything. I think that you can have a love story with this country and never want to cross it off your list ^^


      • Yes there are so many different places to see, different seasons and so many things to do . I’m not tired of watching festivals or going to a sento. And of course the best japanese food is only found in Japan (unless you pay a lot in Paris)!


  3. I agree completely with your list! They’re the same reasons for me, especially the incredible contrast between old and new. Have an amazing trip (I have a couple of food suggestions on my blog if you’re looking for ideas!).


    • Thanks for reading, ladysharon. I’ll definitely check out your food suggestions. I was debating whether to include food as one of the reasons for loving Japan, but it just seemed to go without saying!

      Liked by 1 person

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