Japan is definitely not a destination you would think of while speaking about backpacking. And it is a real shame. This place has so much to offer and you definitely don't need to stick to organised groups and a suitcase! I visited Japan at the beginning of this year for the first time and I am already planning the next trip. This country blew my mind.
1. The best food in the world
Let's speak about food. Japanese cuisine is considered one of the best in the world and it deserves to be. The meals are brought to perfection with a careful balance between different textures, flavours and temperatures and they are crazily satisfying. My personal favourite was a meal consisting of cold soba noodles, light soy sauce-based dipping sauce, bowl of tempura (battered and fried vegetables, prawns or even chicken) and pickles. I could eat this any time of day forever.
It is not just about Japanese food either. Indian curries, Italian pasta, burgers. Basically, any food of any world cuisine cooked in Japan will amaze you. Japanese bakers also mastered the formula of crunchy baguettes, chocolate cakes and delicate croissants melting in your mouth. Seriously, forget about France. Japan is my food capital of the world.
2. unique accommodation
The Japanese have invented some pretty cool ways to spend a night. Ryokans are inns offering traditional Japanese baths. Entrance fee is usually included in the price for the room and they are usually open until late evening or even the whole night. There is nothing better than dipping into steaming hot water after a long and chilly day of sightseeing!
If your budget does not agree with ryokans, give capsule hostels a try. You can find them all over Japan in many varieties such as the newest luxury capsules the size of a small room. If you want an upgrade to normal capsules, have a look at this new hostel for book lovers in Tokyo. It is designed to maximise comfort while reading books so... you practically sleep on a book shelf. Do you remember that new year resolution to read more this year?
3. Superpolite people
The Japanese are some of the most polite people in the world. They will bow when you meet them, when they say thank you or goodbye. Taking an elevator turns into a fancy event in Japan and "sumimasen", a multi-purpose equivalent of "excuse me" is one of the first words any foreigner learns in Japanese.
Politeness affects all the areas of everyday life from the shopping assistants to the famous subway employees pushing commuters into the cars with white gloves but never forgetting to say "thank you". Respect to others is an integral part of the Japanese mindset and it is rather unusual to experience an open confrontation (unless breaking an established rule is concerned. You do not want to see the rage when you forget to change from the toilet slippers into house slippers!)
I have never been to a country as tourist-friendly as Japan. Tourist centres are near every major attraction, providing actually useful information including the means of transport, best restaurants and cultural insights. Tokyo Subway even issues quarterly magazine in English with the hottest tips of the season. You can pick it up at the receptions of the hotels and cheap hostels alike.
Unlike in many countries, foreigners are actually advantaged in comparison with the locals. They get great discounts in duty-free shops (stock up your electronics gear), concessions on certain entrance fees or even free wifi in Tokyo metro. Add the friendly locals and you realise that Japan is a traveller's dreamland!
5. more affordable than you think
Although more expensive than usual backpacking destinations, Japan is one of the most affordable developed countries in the world. Prices are set slightly higher than in Singapore and Hong Kong but the value is incomparable even with these modern Asian supercities.
With planning in advance, careful budgeting and a few travel hacks, there is no reason why you could not afford a trip to Japan. Generally, you can get by with $50 a day per person while sleeping in a hostel, eating out every meal and spending money on public transport. Using Couchsurfing, hitchhiking and other travel hacks, you can even half your daily expenses.
No matter how modern or developed Japan is, people there love their traditions from tea ceremonies to sumo fighting. You observe them in a very subtle form as a part of everyday life. Old ladies wearing kimonos on the way to the shop, the particular order of washing yourself while entering a bath and the way of holding sushi with your chopsticks.
These little rituals nowadays balance the hectic urban life many Japanese lead. It is extremely easy to escape the tourist bubble and all of this makes Japan very authentic. Traditions are observed by locals, not acted out for tourists (for that matter, you are often encouraged and sometimes even forced to join in).
7. People speak English
People in Japan speak English. Or rather, they understand it although they are too shy to start a conversation. Sometimes, a member of restaurant staff would inform you there is no English speaking staff but there is a massive chance that they will understand you anyway. Even if there is actually nobody speaking English, you will meet plenty of restaurants with models or pictures of their dishes so you can point at one. Signs in the metro and any other important information in public places are all in English.
Of course, as in any other country, the locals appreciate any effort spent on Japanese but from the practical point of view, you will not need it.
8. clean as a state of mind
Now, I do not speak just about clean streets, toilets or restaurant tables. Cleanliness is a state of mind in Japan. Rubbish-free streets can be seen elsewhere but only in Japan the men cleaning them wear immaculate black suits. Not that there is much rubbish. Littering is a serious offence and you can end up with a nasty fine. A waitress in a restaurant would discretely tap on your shoulder if you leave your handbag on the floor and she would hang it on a hook.
Only when you clean and tidy everything around you, you can concentrate on other things. The Japanese-inspired KonMari method of tidying has recently won its fans in the West so do not miss out on an opportunity to see it in real.
9. everything is convenient
Love for convenience and cosiness was one of the first things I noticed and loved about Japan. Imagine warm toilet seats with an elaborate controller changing different settings and turning every loo into a little cleaning ritual. Heated floors in flats, fluffy covers for toilet seats and hot towels for cleaning your face and hands before every meal. Everything is designed for your greatest convenience.
Japanese vending machines are a great example. They are at every corner and aside from usual options offer hot beverages. Hot coffee or chocolate in a sealed can in less than 15 seconds. Other classic vending machine items are for example sushi, rice ball warmer socks or bananas.
10. travel any time of year
You can plan a perfect trip to Japan any time of year. Japan has four seasons and while you obviously cannot do certain activities all year round, you never feel cheated because you arrived in low season.
Summer is great for hiking or mountain trekking. Some treks, for example the famous Mt. Fuji climb, are actually impossible to do any other time as the tops are covered in snow for most of the year. Autumn is perfect for classic city sightseeing as the temperatures drop and the trees around temples turn to red and brown. Winter is ideal for skiing and snowboarding (Japan is supposed to have some of the best skiing in the world) and famous cherry trees in blossom are a main selling point in spring.
11. learn that less is more
Japanese minimalism inspired artists, architects and fashion designers all around the world but it is not just a theoretical concept. You are aware of it every day, everywhere you go. The Japanese know they can achieve more with less.
Only in Japan it is possible to compose a meal consisting of a little piece of rice and raw fish but perfecting it into a state of art. Speaking about food, it is not unusual for a restaurant to only have 2 or 3 items on a menu. For example Sukiyabashi Hiro, the best sushi restaurant in the world based in Tokyo, offers only one single dish.
Modesty recently won over extravagancy during a competition for the 2020 Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Zaha Hadid's flamboyant design was rejected in favour of much simpler and more austere one. The less is more when it is done well. Come to Japan and learn it.
12. there is so much to see!
Go to Kyoto to see old temples and majestic shrines. Hand-feed city deer in Nara. Get lost among Tokyo's skyscrapers. Admire medieval castles. Go trekking to Hokkaido. Dive in tropical Okinawa. Learn about history in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meet super-cute kawaii girls. Have a drink in Osaka's tiny bar. See the sunrise on Mt. Fuji. Relax in zen gardens. Japan is such an incredible and unique country which has something for everyone!
What are your favourite things about Japan? Have you ever travelled there?
Share with us in the comments!