13 Oct Land of the Rising Sun – Japan
Planning to travel outside the US? Want a safe and modern, yet rich cultural and historic experience? I suggest Japan.
If you don’t speak Japanese, don’t worry. Nearly all major trains, subways, and airports have English speaking people and intercoms to help as well as English writing on most signs and notifications.
If you have little experience with Asian culture, you should be aware of a few things. While Japan is largely agnostic, the culture of religion is rich and lays the foundation for Japanese society. You’ll see many shrines and temples, Shinto and Buddhist holy sites. Kyoto has many.
Confucianism is also intertwined in the culture, but it’s the unique aspects of Shinto, an animistic religion, largely responsible for the polite culture and veneer of non-confrontational decorum that dominates Japan’s streets. If you want to escape that veneer, you can visit deep Osaka in the center of Japan. While still polite, you’ll notice a few differences attitude, especially while driving.
In the heart of Osaka, you’ll see signs that remind you of Seinfeld’s double dipping episode. Kushikatsu is a deep fried style of food. If you are a health freak, think twice. Kushikatsu uses a “public sauce” with signs that say only dip once. Patrons dip kabob style sticks of meat or vegetables into the sauce, which is reused until it runs out, hence the reminders to only dip once.
I do suggest trying a few foods: Monja, shabu-shabu, mabo tofu, and gyoza. The latter two are modified Chinese foods adapted to the Japanese pallet. Monja and gyoza have vegetarian options. Miso soup is also a must, and you’ll find it as a side dish at many meals.
The sauce isn’t the only thing that comes with a “public option.” You can also visit a public bath in many locations around the country. It’s important to know if you have Japanese friends who speak English. On a few occasions, I confused “public bath” with “public bus,” which made for some hilarious conversations.
I’ve visited Japan three times, and each time, I had a wonderful experience. The streets are the safest you’ll find in the world. The people are friendly, and if you like shopping, you’ll stay busy. Be sure to stop by one of the many 100 yen shops, roughly a dollar, while you’re there to save on expenses.
Don’t just stay in Tokyo. It’s kind of like just staying in Waikiki when you visit Hawaii. Get a rail pass for a two or three hundred dollars so you can take the bullet train as much as you like all across the country. I’ve visited a half a dozen or more cities, and the culture and dialects are different as you travel from one end to the other.
You’ll also notice that the sky is never blue, more of a bluish white, which makes it look perpetually cloudy even on fair days. In Tokyo, the city lights keep the night sky from getting too dark, and the stars are tough to spot. If you can live with that, you should enjoy yourself.
I can tell you where to go, but the truth is, you should research which types of things you prefer. If anime is your thing, stop by Akihabara in Tokyo. If you like the outdoors, climb Mt. Fuji. There’s transportation to the base camp, and it’s a tiring yet doable climb for just even those a bit out of shape. There’s a fabulous winter festival in Hokkaido, if you can brave the cold. I haven’t been there yet, but it’s on my list the next time I visit.
There’s not much in the way of beaches, as most of them are polluted. Okinawa is the exception, so head down there if you want to soak up some rays and get wet. What Japan has in spades is mountains and forests. From Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to smaller parks in Kyoto, Kobe, and other towns, you’ll find beautiful scenic vistas, especially in the Fall and Spring. But don’t take my word for it. Visit yourself. That is my wish for you!