6 Reasons Why Japan Needs To Be Your Next Travel Destination

Over 140 million people live on the distinctive islands that make up the Japanese archipelago, a unique place filled with ancient bamboo forests and snow-capped mountains where one moment you’re bathing in an onsen next to a red-faced monkey and the next watching robots fight each other in Tokyo. The collision of the ultra-modern and centuries of culture makes any visit to Japan feel like you’ve stepped into a strange but somehow familiar new world. Luckily, budget airfares have made Japan far more accessible, which means it’s high time you went and discovered it for yourself. Here’s what awaits.

Photo c/o Eric (Flickr)

1. The Sushi: Caught At 3am, Auctioned At 5am, On The Plate By 7am

The Japanese take their fish seriously. Very seriously. Each and every day, Monday to Sunday, tuna fisherman begin the gruelling task of catching fresh fish, getting it into the Tsuksiji Fish Markets at the heart of Tokyo and auctioning it off to the highest bidder, from where it ends up on restaurant plates.

It’s not uncommon to see menus boasting that their fish is bought daily from the market. For the ambitious traveller, head to Tsuksiji at some ungodly hour of the morning (such as 2am) to join the queue and watch this loud Japanese ritual take place: be warned, places are limited, and the market is a very happening place.

2. The Trains: Osaka One Minute, Kyoto The Next – Literally

The bullet train – the world’s fastest train in the 1960s – was a Japanese invention like no other. Racing up and down the country, the Shinkansen (as it’s officially known) is a futuristic high-speed train that runs through most of the country, whizzing along at speeds up to 320 km/h. That’s seriously fast. It takes just 13 minutes to travel from Osaka to Kyoto, and less than 3 hours express from Osaka to Tokyo, the country’s two largest cities, which are 500 kilometres apart.

It’s not just the intercity trains that are world leaders in transportation either. With clockwork precision, Tokyo’s spaghetti bowl of railway lines propel people through the city in dizzyingly intense proportions. Head to Shinjuku Station at 8am to see what rush hour really means, and witness station staff pushing commuters onto trains so the doors can close on time.

Kinkaku-ji-Temple in Kyoto. Photo c/o-sorimachi

3. The Temples: So Much Zen

Japanese temples and their manicured gardens are some of the most ornate and tranquil spaces you will ever find. These Shinto and Buddhist temples bear their own unique history and come in all shapes and sizes, from those built on water (Miyajima, near Hiroshima), to those in the dense urban jungle (Hozen-ji, Osaka), and extending as far as mountaintops (Mount Koya). Take a trip to Kyoto to marvel at the Golden Pavillion, or hike up a mountain under the thousands of Torii leading from the iconic Inari Shrine. When visiting temples remember that etiquette is important. There are a series of rituals that need to be carried out when approaching spiritual places and it’s best to observe the locals.

4. The History: War And Peace

Japan’s history is marked with significant, history-altering events that reminds visitors just how resilient the Japanese people really are. Take time out to learn about the disastrous impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Visit the A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, a moment in time forever preserved that will leave you touched.

Elsewhere, Japan has much to offer in the way of legends and stories. Learn how samurai and ninjas really fit into the Japanese equation on a visit to Tokyo’s Edo Museum, or travel to Kyoto – the epitome of old-school Japan, which boasts a modest imperial palace as well as a geisha district. Visit Gion in the early evening for your best chance at catching one of these rare cultural icons going about their job.

5. The Onsens: Dust Off Your Birthday Suit

What’s not to love about taking a nice relaxing bath with nothing but you and your birthday suit? Add in 10-15 other people (who you hopefully don’t know) and you have yourself a Japanese onsen. The traditional bathing experience, an onsen is a no clothes, gender segregated affair. Don your yakuta (robe) and sandals, say good bye to your phone, and pluck up the courage to take a skinny dip. Young and old will be there, and be assured that they will not stare (even if you happen to be the only gaijin in the building).

6. People and Culture: Where Good Manners Reign Supreme

Surpassing everything on this list is the extraordinary politeness with which the Japanese people conduct themselves. Observe as businessmen back away from each other bowing profusely. Watch carefully and you will notice a bag will never touch the floor or the seat of a train, only one’s lap. Helpful directions for the lost traveller are never too much to ask, and will no doubt be volunteered from time to time. Thankfully there are many online guides for navigating the tangle of etiquette in Japanese culture. The easiest ones to follow involve taking off your shoes at temples, not resting your chopsticks on your bowl, and always remembering to bow low.

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