Country #46. Japan is perhaps my favourite travel destination on the planet. I left feeling the same when I visited five years ago. My love for the country has only grown after a second visit. There is something magical and mystical about this land. On paper, it should not work. 125 million people squeezed onto a small, earthquake-prone archipelago, mainly made up of mountains. Rapid economic development post-WWII means most of the cities look like they come from a dystopian sci-fi film, with concrete and neon lights filtering out onto the horizon in all directions.
But it does work, spectacularly well. The people play a huge role. They are the most polite, friendly, and courteous you are likely to ever come across. While stereotypes are often lazy, the ones commonly thrown at Japan are at least almost universally positive. A recent online poll of overseas visitors found that the five most popular adjectives to describe the Japanese are: polite, punctual, kind, hard-working, and respectful.
If you are lost, a concerned bystander is almost certain to walk you to your destination. Whenever you purchase something, you are greeted with a singsong of “arigatos” (thank yous). Even the train guards bow as they enter each carriage. On top of this, everything works impeccably. I write this post, travelling at over 400kph on one of the country’s space-age Shinkansen bullet trains. Trains are so rarely delayed that you can’t use them as an excuse for being late to work. If they are late, conductors give you a receipt to prove the delay actually happened. In addition to the politeness of its people and the punctuality of its trains, the country is spotlessly clean.
Visiting Japan is like stepping into the future. Certainly, I felt like this when the toilet started to talk to me. Or when surveying the impossibly vast Tokyo cityscape. I would bet anyone that they could not stand at Shibuya Junction in Tokyo without feeling like they had been transported decades into the future. Although I’m not sure quite what the point of this bet would be.
Striking Contrasts Between Old And New
Away from the futuristic panoramas and city lights, Japan can also often feel like one of the most ancient civilisations on Earth. From staying in traditional Ryokan guesthouses, to strolling around streets dotted with wooden temples in Kyoto or Kanazawa, you are never far from history. Or nature. The vast majority of the Japanese populace (94%) are squeezed into urban areas on the few slithers of flat land in this mainly mountainous country. This means that once you set off into the countryside, it isn’t long before you are greeted with the spectacular Japanese Alps or verdant rice paddy fields. And on that note. The food. While opting not to eat meat was a struggle for me, Japan has possibly the best cuisine to offer in the world. Living off ramen noodles, okonomiyaki pancakes, or the incredible sushi (willing cognitive dissonance meant fish was not a living thing for much of my stay), was a dream.
A Home Away From Home?
There are some interesting comparisons between the Japanese and the British, aside from being slightly introverted island nations who seemingly like to shun their neighbours (sigh). The Japanese drive on the left and have a monarchy. We are both overly apologetic and polite in the daytime. Indeed, when in America I once caught myself apologising for apologising too much, which speaks volumes. Rigid ‘stiff upper lip’ or stoic (‘gaman’) attitudes mean we are both emotionally repressed. The conclusion? We both tend to drink excessively. As a means of coping with the aforementioned repression? Perhaps. In any case, go to Shinjuku (in Tokyo) on a Friday night. The number of businessmen in suits strewn on the floor after too may sakes, still clutching their suitcases, is as funny as it is potentially alarming.
The pleasure I get from being in this remarkable nation is such that I feel I could honestly write a book about it. While it is questionable whether anyone would read 100,000 words on ‘Why Mike Richards Likes Japan So Much’, I’ll do my best to keep this as short as possible. But to anyone who hasn’t been, and can stomach the cost (Western European prices), you will love it. The ‘pod’ style hostels are fantastic and the Japan Rail Pass (£220/US$270), which gives you unlimited bullet train rides for a week, makes it manageable.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who has been to Japan and left without singing its praises. Except perhaps for Christian missionaries in the 17th century, but that’s a story for another day. And is also quite a clever comment, for anyone who knows about Japanese history. I’ve included a map of my travels here:
Below, I’ll add my take on the destinations I visited. If you want more detail, obviously read a Lonely Planet. For that matter, recognise that these blog posts are not really about informing you, the reader, on what to do on holiday. They are more a reflection of my need to validate my decision to quit a full-time job to greedily pursue fun most of the time, while working remotely. If I write words down, then somehow my imposter syndrome dissipates. Briefly.
Tokyo: My second favourite city on earth. It should not be. It has few parks, there are concrete skyscrapers everywhere you look, and it is the largest and one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world. More people live in Tokyo (35 million) than in Australia (25 million). But because of its wonderfully polite residents, it’s remarkably calm. Walking around quiet backstreets is a joy, as is marvelling at the wonderful design details people put into their shops and houses. And yet, never far away is the urban explosion of places like Shinjuku or Shibuya Junction.
Kanazawa: Worth a visit, even just to take the Shinkansen bullet train through the stunning Japanese Alps. This old town has ancient architecture, in the form of its rickety Edo-era wooden old town (Higashiyama Higashi Chaya District) and Kanazawa Castle Park.
Takayama: This tranquil alpine settlement has beautifully maintained historic streets, and is a perfect stopping off point for hikes in the Japanese Alps. Again, worth it if only for the JR train ride through the mountains to Nagoya.
Kyoto: I didn’t visit the city on this trip, apologies. However, I went five years ago. It’s touristy for a reason (like many things). There are over 1,500 temples. This is any history buff’s go-to destination in Japan. History buff is a strange term.
Osaka: Dystopian urban megalopolis. I loved it. You have the feeling that the city simply could not cope with the rapid pace of expansion. There are areas where motorways have been built on top of canals, and train tracks that go through buildings. Bright neon lights and a brasher attitude prevail here. It’s marvellous if, like me, you enjoy feeling you’re on the set of sci-fi films like Blade Runner. Perhaps not if you prefer peace and quiet.
Himeji: The 14th century Himeji Castle is the country’s most celebrated, and it towers over the city. The castle, once again, is proof that the Japanese do stuff better than we do in the West. It certainly beats Buckingham Palace, which while not technically a castle, is about as disappointing as Stonehenge is in the flesh (aka very).
Naoshima: This island has been turned into a large modern art exhibition. There are three incredible museums, all designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando (or at least renowned by people who like to stare at large, inanimate objects, like me). They use polished concrete. Everywhere. The result is absolutely phenomenal. For the layman: imagine being in bad guy’s lair in a 70s James Bond film.
Hiroshima: The Hiroshima Victims Cenotaph is incredibly moving. The museum is harrowing, but eschews blame to present a positive image for the world to aim towards. It is excellent. The whole city is a timely reminder of the dangers of conflict. Most wars happen when a collection of apes decide that the bit of land they live on is the best, and apes from other bits of land are inferior to them. Unfortunately, the “I live here, therefore it’s the best” doctrine (nationalism) is extremely trendy these days.
It’s The Economy, Oroka!
From an economist’s perspective, a perspective that I can technically (and boastfully) offer you against your will, Japan is a basket case. Best to stop reading here if you don’t like economics or politics. Japan’s economic boom was so strong that in the 80s it was assumed the country would one day replace the United States as the world’s largest economy (like China is today). It crashed in 1991 and has barely grown since. Two ‘Lost Decades’ of growth have followed. Some fixes are available, but Japan is as of yet unwilling to take them.
This is where the slightly darker side of Japan comes in. As a visitor, you marvel at how ethnically homogenous the country is. It’s a reflection of the country’s extremely draconian immigration rules. Like it or not, Japan needs new arrivals. Its population is declining at a faster rate than almost anywhere on Earth. If no action is taken, then the population will shrink by 25% to below 100 million by 2050. Virtual girlfriends have a role to play in this issue. ‘Hikikomori’, a condition where people shut themselves off from society, is becoming all too common in Japan.
With a shrinking workforce, economic stagnation lies ahead without productivity improvements. More women could be brought into the workforce. But this too is proving difficult. To this end, Japan remains one of the most patriarchal societies on Earth. It ranks, quite shockingly, in 121st position out of 153 countries in The World Economic Forum’s annual report on Gender Equality. For context, Iceland is in 1st place, and Saudi Arabia is in 146th place. Unless these issues are addressed, the country may continue to struggle, both socially and economically.
“Wow, I didn’t realise Mike knew so much about economics and is such a nice guy as well.” I know, right? With the Olympics being held in 2020, and the Rugby World Cup happening this year (which literally no one appears to know is even taking place from what I could see), Japan has a chance to really open up to the world. Can it hang on to its unique way of life with one hand, while fully (and finally) embracing globalisation with the other?
That was a rhetorical question. I don’t know. This is a lazy technique often used to abruptly end articles, when a lack of coherent narrative prevents your article from coming to a useful conclusion. Know this when you next see it.