5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Japan

I adored Japan. As I strolled through the cities, eating fresh sushi and admiring beautiful pagodas, I kept wondering why it took me so long to get there. I couldn’t help but appreciate the traditional ways, the beautiful styles, the lovely people — the simple perfection of it all. 

Beautiful gardens in Kyoto, Japan

In my opinion, Japan is the perfect place for a solo female traveler. It’s more expensive than most countries in Asia, that’s for sure, but it is so beautiful and clean, and I felt very safe there. I found it easy to navigate, there were more street signs in English than I had anticipated, and those who spoke English were always willing to help. Even though I am tall and blond I never felt intimidated, anxious or out of place. Not only did I feel safe in Japan, but I also felt respected and welcomed. 

I visited Tokyo and Kyoto on my own for 5 days, however I wasn’t prepared for the rain and cold - it even snowed one day! I did manage to get in a decent amount of sightseeing between dodging rain drops and dipping into coffee shops to warm up, but I definitely need to return to both places to experience them more fully.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine, just a few train stops from Kyoto. Most famous for it's thousands of bright orange torii gates, walking the path is hugely popular with locals and tourists.

I then boarded a cruise ship outside of Tokyo, which made a few stops in Japan before heading to Taipei. During the cruise, the ship docked in Kobe (from there I explored Kobe in the afternoon of our arrival and Osaka on my own the next full day); Hiroshima, and Kagoshima. The weather warmed as we sailed southwest: the cherry blossoms began to flower and I was able to see them in several different cities.

Cherry blossoms in Japan

I could write a lot about my visit to Japan, but I’ve chosen to just outline my absolute favorite things about this country which I enjoyed much more than I expected. Do I recommend Japan as a place to visit? Absolutely - so ANDIAMO.

Here are my 5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Japan

1. The Orderly Chaos

The first sign that Japan would appeal to my left-brain dominance was upon arrival at Narita Airport in Tokyo. I was planning to catch the Airport Limousine bus directly to my hotel, and the attendant at the ticket window was extremely helpful in telling me where to catch the bus and at what time. The smiling young woman who stood curbside to meet the busses told me exactly where to stand to board my bus, she actually BOWED at the busses when they arrived, put my bags under my bus for me, and then bowed to the bus again when it pulled away. That’s definitely not something you see at the Greyhound Bus station in Philadelphia!!

Yes, there are a LOT of people in Tokyo, yet they all move seamlessly and peacefully. There is no jay-walking, people all walk in one direction on the same side of the sidewalk, and on escalators people actually stand to the left and walk on the right — ALL. THE. TIME.  After having just spent 10 days in India, the contrast was incredibly striking!

Shibuya crossing on a rainy day in Tokyo

There are several large train stations in Tokyo and Shinjuku Station is where I always seemed to find myself. It’s said to be the busiest station in the world, with an estimated 3.6 million people passing through on an average weekday! In addition to trains and the Metro, there are so many stores, food halls and restaurants in Shinjuku Station that you could spend a lot of time just wandering around and never even board a train. Once you learn a few tricks about how to use the train/metro system, however, it’s really not as overwhelming as it appears. 

For the sheer number of trains and metro lines in Tokyo, it’s surprisingly efficient. No train I ever boarded was more than a minute behind schedule. People line up in a queue to board, and are deferential to the folks getting off the train. In Japan good manners seem to actually matter! The high-speed Shinkansen (bullet) train that I took between Tokyo to Kyoto was space age in it’s design, while immaculate and spacious inside. I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Walking the streets of Japan I noticed the same orderliness. First off, the streets are amazingly clean. I saw very little trash on the sidewalks or curbs, and yet there were only a few public garbage bins. One thing I read was that the Japanese do not eat or drink on the streets (or trains/subway), as they consider it rude - so I imagine that practice on it’s own reduces the amount of waste in the streets tremendously. The only time I did notice people walking and eating/drinking was in the touristy areas of Kyoto, where teenage girls lined up for fancy lattes and matcha ice cream cones (mostly for selfie ops!).

In addition to the lack of garbage on the streets, there was also a general lack of noise. Now granted, I had been in India recently where everyone honks their car or motorbike horn constantly and for what appears to be no good reason, but I swear that I never once heard a car horn in Japan. Even in situations that seem to call for a light tap on the horn, no one seemed to be bothered enough to honk. It was as if they all agreed to forgive each other and just go with the flow. What a concept!!

2. The shopping

Every large office building in Tokyo (and there are a lot of them!!!) seemed to contain a food hall, restaurants and/or multiple stores. The train stations and main metro stops had an abundance of shopping attached. The stores in Japan ranged from the sophisticated (all of the high end designer boutiques like Gucci, Prada, etc. were well represented) to the hip chain stores (a 7 story Uniqlo in Tokyo, Zara, H&M), to the quirky (a standalone Hello Kitty store, boutiques selling everything from perfectly formed sugar candies to incense to geisha fans). I spent an hour just browsing a 12 floor store in Tokyo dedicated entirely to the simple art of paper and stationery.

The people in Japan are very fashionable and never seem to dress down. Even the teenage boys take obvious care in their appearance, wearing the latest skinny jeans and designed-to-order Adidas shoes. And the women - wow! They were so stylish from their hairstyles down to their shoes. I didn’t buy any clothes, but loved browsing and window shopping in Japan. Every time I entered a store, all the sales people greeted me, and bid me goodbye when I left…they were just so nice.

3. The food

One cannot talk about Japan without talking about the food. If you are a vegetarian or aren’t a lover of fish, you probably won’t enjoy the cuisine as much as i did. The sushi was amazing, no matter where I ordered it - even at the small conveyor belt sushi restaurant near my hotel in Shinjuku! Really good food was also found in the most unlikely places: I had highly recommended and delicious ramen in a train station basement.

And like most things in Japan, it wasn’t just about the food itself - the presentation was spectacular. The care in the smallest details made every meal I had memorable. At the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) where I stayed in Kyoto and at my hotel in Tokyo, I enjoyed the traditional Japanese breakfast. Served in a bento box, it was an interesting mix of beautifully presented delicacies - and most were unusual for me to eat for breakfast, such as miso soup, smoked fish, rice, etc.  

I splurged one night in Kyoto and enjoyed the Kaiseki offered at my ryokan in Kyoto. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dining experience involving multiple courses, known for its meticulous preparation, fresh seasonal ingredients and beautiful artistic presentation. Each course was a work of art, and is created at the discretion of a master chef who works with complete freedom and no specific formula in place. It is designed to create a perfect balance and harmony of taste, texture, color and appearance. Although I’m unsure of half of what was served to me, I tried everything at least a little bit and very much appreciated the striking beauty of each dish.

4. The Culture

To me, religion in Japan wasn’t as “in your face” as in other Asian countries. That’s not to say that there weren’t religious structures to visit, but I felt as if reverence was more subtle than in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. 

A shrine complex and gardens in Osaka, Japan

Shintoism is Japan's indigenous spirituality. It is believed that every living thing in nature (trees, rocks, flowers, animals - even sounds) contains kami, or gods. As such, Shinto principles can be seen throughout Japanese culture, where nature and the turning of the seasons are cherished. This is evident in arts such asikebana (flower arranging) and bonsai, Japanese garden design. During my time in Japan I was lucky enough to visit during sakura (cherry blossom season) and saw cherry blossoms in bloom in most every town I visited. Picnicking with family and friends during sakura is a sweet and enduring tradition.

A couple quietly enjoying sakura in Japan.

Shinto got it's name when Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century. In essence, Shintoism is the spirituality of this world and this life, whereas Buddhism is concerned with the soul and the afterlife. This explains why for the Japanese the two religions exist so successfully together, without contradiction.

In Japan, as a general rule of thumb, shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist. In most cities, these exist side by side in the same complex of buildings. Typically, shrines can be identified by the huge entrance gate or torii. 

O-Torii, the Grand Gate, sits in the sea off the coast of Miyajima Island

Luck, fate and superstition are important to the Japanese. Many people buy small charms at temples or shrines, which are then attached to handbags, key chains, mobile phones or hung in cars to bring good luck. Different charms grant luck on things ranging from good exam success to good parenting and fertility. 

Prayers and good luck charms in Japan

Prayers are often written on wooden boards called ema that are hung in their hundreds around temple grounds. Another way to learn your destiny is to take a fortune slip. Sometimes available in English, a fortune slip rates your future in different areas: success, money, love, marriage, travel and more. If your fortune is poor, tie your slip to a tree branch in the temple grounds; leaving the slip at the temple should improve your luck.

Prayers and good luck charms in Japan

5. The kind, helpful and elegant people

The people in Japan were so interesting to watch. Definitely a mobile phone driven culture, I rarely saw anyone who did not have their mobile out at every possible moment, although people rarely talked on their phone in public which was a pleasant surprise. On the metro sitting next to a 40 year old business man carrying a briefcase, I glanced over at his phone. Yep, he was intently playing an animated game. The young girls dressed in traditional kimonos during school holiday week in Kyoto? Yep, they were all taking selfies, like most other teenagers around the world.

I never felt on edge or needed to have my guard up when I was in Japan. After 10 days of being continually accosted on the banks of the River Ganges in India (“boat lady? boat lady? good price - maybe later?), it was so nice to just walk and not have hawkers trying to sell me something. Unlike most of Southeast Asia, in the cities that I visited in Japan I never felt like I was being stared at and I never felt that i was being taken advantage of when I tried to buy something. It was incredibly refreshing. The people were so incredibly helpful and kind.

I came across these women when I was walking in a park in Kyoto. I've been told that it's likely these ladies were not real geisha or even maiko (apprentice geisha), but probably two young Japanese friends who were dressing up in order to take photos. I wasn't aware of that at the time, and even if I knew that, I would have still been enthralled with their outfits - and flattered when they asked to take a photo with me!!!

There is so much of the Japanese countryside that I’d love to explore, in addition to spending more time in the cities. I felt completely comfortable and at peace during my time in Japan, and I know that I will be back for another visit soon!