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Ask any traveller what it is that inspires and motivates them to travel, and at some point, you’re sure to hear some version of a desire to push themselves out of their comfort zone and experience cultures and ways of life that are different from their own.
If this is indeed one of the core sentiments that pushes many of us to travel, then perhaps there is no greater (and yet unlikely) travel destination than Japan.
For so many Western travelers, the drive to experience “exotic” travel destinations leads them to what have now become decidedly on the beaten track locations like Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia.
While these countries are all certainly drastically different from our normal lives at home in North America, Europe, or Australia, ask any traveler who’s been to Japan about the cultural experience and the responses are near unanimous: Japan offers perhaps the most distinct cultural experience in the world, bar none.
While Japan features many elements familiar to Western travelers — a high standard of living, gleaming cities brimming with technology, efficient transport, and toilets that talk to you… oh wait, forget that last one — these familiarities mask the culturally exotic travel experience that Japan offers those who visit.
Japan is a country that many of us think we already know, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a country, and a culture, full of hidden surprises waiting to be discovered.
In case you still need a bit of encouragement, here are 8 reasons why you need to move Japan up to the top of your travel bucket list.
1. The Food
Ok, we’ll start with the obvious here. Japanese food is known and loved (or hated) worldwide, and for good reason. While it shares some similarities with its regional neighbors, it manages to be wholly and unmistakably unique.
Whatever your current feelings on the seafood-heavy cuisine however, I would posit that you haven’t truly experienced Japanese cuisine until you’ve visited the country and tasted it at its best.
There’s vastly more to discover here than the familiar sushi and ramen, but even these staples take on new life in their country of origin.
2. The People Are Incredible
While they may be reserved and even shy on first encounter, Japanese people are by and large one of the most friendly and accommodating groups of people in the world.
Despite the country being highly developed, English is not widely spoken, which means interactions can be difficult for travelers with no foundation in Japanese, but this was supposed to be an adventure, right?
Almost everyone you’ll talk to who’s visited Japan will have a story of locals taking them by the hand to help them get where they’re trying to go – even if that means going an hour out of their way to lend a hand.
As a further testament to its inhabitants, Japan is widely regarded as one of the safest countries in the world. I’ve talked to many solo female travelers who felt comfortable walking home alone from the club at 4am in the middle of Tokyo without a second thought. That’s definitely not something that can be said for many other places in the world.
3. It’s Easy to Get Around
It’s no secret that Japan boasts maybe the best train system in the world. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of another transportation system of any kind to inspire so much adulation from travelers as the rail system here.
What might be a 9 hour train ride in other parts of the world is often a 2.5 hour trip on the high speed train lines in the country, opening up all of Japan to travelers even with a limited amount of time to visit.
Equally efficient are the municipal transportation systems, meaning that even the furthest reaches of a mega-city like Tokyo are easily accessible.
If you’ve never been to Japan you can be forgiven for thinking the entire country is one unending city. It is, after all, a tiny island with a massive population, and we’re more familiar with images of gleaming skyscrapers and sprawling cities than rolling hillsides, mountains, and forests.
But those in the know recognize that Japan is home to an abundance of forests, mountains, and isolated coastlines offering the more adventurous a chance to get lost in an incredible wilderness begging to be explored.
5. The Push and Pull Between Future and Past
Perhaps nowhere on Earth best encapsulates the tug of war between tradition and innovation as Japan.
While we all know Japan to be a highly technologically advanced country, filled with gadgets found nowhere else, it’s also a country with a deep connection to, and respect for, the past and the traditions on which their society is based.
This unique outlook on life can’t help but force us as travelers to reassess our own cultural histories and traditions, in an effort to ground ourselves while still keeping our eyes on the future.
6. It’s Just Straight Up Weird at Times
Did I mention the toilets that talk to you? Not to mention the — shall we say — unique fashion you can find on display while wandering the streets of Tokyo, or the obsession with cuteness in all forms. Yup, some aspects of Japan are just plain hard to make sense of for foreign travelers.
While there are many aspects of Japanese culture that Westerners might not understand, there’s no doubt that these little oddities all add to the color of any Japanese experience. The country just wouldn’t be the same without them, so you might as well dive in and embrace them as well.
7. The Sakura Bloom
The cherry blossoms, known as Sakura in Japan are known around the globe for their transcendent beauty, and visitors from around the world flood Japan during the spring in hopes of timing their stay to coincide with the bloom.
While the visual beauty is stunning in its own right, the Sakura is a time of great meaning for the Japanese, signaling the end of winter and the onset of spring. The ephemeral beauty of the bloom is also seen as a reflection of the similar nature of our lives, and a cause for reflection.
During the Sakura, many will find the usually reserved Japanese to be more open and engaging to foreigners than at other times of the year, perhaps being invited to join in a picnic under the blooming boughs of a cherry tree.
8. Japan Is Like Nowhere Else on Earth
While it would be hard to argue the fact that each country in the world is unique in its own way, there are few that take that distinction to the level of the historically isolated island nation of Japan.
For all the reasons mentioned above, and so many more, the country is a treasure trove of experiences you will find nowhere else; blending familiarity with the foreign, the past with the future, and conservatism with innovation.
While Japan is by no means an easy travel experience, if you’re willing to push yourself and dig beneath the surface, it offers a magical experience with something for every type of traveler. From culture, to food, to adventure, and so much more, Japan really has it all and will have you joining the ranks of those planning their next trip back before they even leave.