15 things I love about Japan
Let me be very open from the beginning: Japan is my favourite country! And this was true even before I ever stepped foot in there for the first time. Now, having been there twice already you’d think I had my fair amount of “Japan intake”. Not so much it seems! The more I go, the more I want to keep returning, the more I see, discover, understand, the deeper I want to dig. I want to see it ALL and I want to see it in ALL SEASONS!
So given my passion for Japan, this post was easy and difficult in the same time: it was easy to list things I like about Japan but to try and limit myself to a top ten…that was hard! But for the sake of keeping it at a decent length I made a compromise and created a top 15 instead… And I might just continue it in a different post 😉 . So here they are, my top 15 things I love about Japan:
1. Sakura (Cherry blossoms)
Sakura is definitely #1! This really was my dream…which finally came true in March 2015! And it was one of the most beautiful display of nature splendour I have ever seen!
Did you know that there is a Sakura forecast (which I have been following for years of course 😉 )? Sakura is HUUUUGE in Japan. And it is also the time when most tourists are flocking in of course! Who doesn’t want to see sublime beauty? The act of viewing the sakura itself is called Hanami and it is beautiful even to watch people doing Hanami. Japanese people have a genetic attraction to beauty, much more than other people. There are all kind of festivals and events organised during Sakura but one of my favourite is the picnic in the park, under the cherry trees. In the popular places, people reserve their spot ahead of the event! In other places, some people go very early in the morning to try and get a spot for the day when the rest of their friends will join.
There are so many beautiful places where you can enjoy Sakura but one of my favourite will always be Kyoto! Here is a list of the most popular spots throughout the country, for inspiration.
Yes the former capital is a reason in itself. There are so many special places in the world and I have quite a few favourites but Kyoto managed to stay #1 throughout the years,. Head over here to understand why 🙂
3. Autumn foliage
Unfortunately I have not witnessed this yet but it is getting really high on my list, especially now that I can cross off Sakura 🙂
Basically, come November, Japan transforms itself into a symphony of autumnal colours where millions of maple trees paint the landscape from yellow to orange to ruby. Breathtaking!
4. Japanese gardens
Is there anyone that has not heard of Japanese gardens? I doubt it. However one thing that is probably not so well known is the fact that there are 3 main types of Japanese gardens:
Dry landscape gardens : they are also called Zen gardens as they are usually attached to Zen Buddhist temples. These gardens are made of stones and sand, creatively arranged to always tell a story. Whenever possible, take a guide or a leaflet and read the story as you will see the garden with completely different eyes.
Stroll gardens: also called Pond and hill gardens they are somehow the modernised version of former Pure Land gardens where the nature itself was used as a backdrop on which the garden was built. Nowadays ponds, artificial hills, islands and bridges are build to recreate a mini version of nature or paradise itself in a garden.
Tea gardens: they can be a small part of the stroll gardens or just on their own. They consist on a small walkway flanked by green manicured plants and connecting the “real world” to the teahouse which hosts the tea ceremony a whole other world in Japanese culture.
5. Geishas, maiko
A Geisha (geiko in Kyoto dialect) is a well rounded artist trained in traditional Japanese arts in the areas of dance, music, singing, communication. They are professional entertainers attending private parties (dinners, banquets, ceremonies etc) as well as public performances.
Maikos are trainee or apprentice geishas. It takes a few years of training to master the art of being a geisha. The maikos can be identified mainly by the heavy hair ornaments and the more colourful clothes. A geisha looks a bit simpler compared to a maiko but both make for a beautiful and somehow mysterious appearance.
6. Mount Fuji
There are so many beautiful and popular mountains in the world but again, Fuji-san has won my heart. The icon of Japan is so beautiful that it seems surreal….if you are lucky enough to see its unique and perfectly shaped peak peeping through the clouds. Fuji-san is very important in Japanese culture and it is considered a sacred mountain.
7. Japanese food
And I don’t mean just sushi or sashimi. I mean EVERYTHING! Of course the biggest fish market in the world is in Japan. Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is an attraction in itself and the place where you can taste the best and freshest sashimi and sushi in the world.
Be it fish, meat or vegetables dish, I find Japanese food very delicate on the palette. Some of my favourite in no particular order are: sashimi & sushi, the ramen, soba or udon noodles , miso soup, yakitori, tempura, gyoza, okonomiaki (Japanese pancake usually mixed with seafood and vegetables), tofu, tofu skin (a Kyoto speciality), umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum), all varieties of donburi (rice bowl topped with various other food and ingredients), onigiri (rice wrapped in seaweed usually in the form of triangle and sometimes topped with umbeboshi), bento boxes, Japanese pickles and the list can go on and on. I don’t think there is any Japanese dish I wouldn’t like really.
And let’s not forget kaiseki cuisine originating from Kyoto. This is a traditional multi course menu cuisine and it can be pure vegetarian, called Shiojin Ryori (found mostly at temples) or a mix called Kaiseki Ryori which is in fact a haute cuisine tasting menu. What is particular about this type of cuisine is the fact that there is a strict order of the food based on the style of cooking.
8. Onsens (Japanese Hot springs)
Although you can find natural hot springs in many other parts of the world, the Japanese ones are again more special. First of all, they are everywhere and secondly they are part of the day to day life in Japan. There are many types of onsens depending on the minerals contained in the water, whether they are indoor or outdoor, gender separated or mixed, in the form of a public bath or attached to a ryokan or a resort. A visit to Japan is not complete without an onsen experience. Just make sure you are aware of the onsen etiquette beforehand!
These are Japanese inns or guesthouses that nowadays come in various forms and sizes: from the small family run, no frill inn to modern ryokans with hundreds of rooms and modern facilities. I have stayed in a few types and they all have their advantages: while a small one might feel more “authentic”, the bigger ones also come with one or more onsens and other facilities like kaiseki dinner. The common characteristic to all of them though is the typical Japanese style room. This is a simple room with the floor covered by tatami mats (the size of a room is also measured in tatami mats: e.g. a 4 tatamis room). In the evening the hosts prepares the bed for the guests (usually while the guests are at dinner) in the form of a futon laid directly on the tatamis. It might not look so but it is very comfortable and I had one of the best sleeps on these.
10. Japanese unique culture & etiquette
Every country has its unique, special culture but I admit I am mostly attracted by the Japanese one. Everything in Japan is based on respect, which forms the core of the Japanese life: respect for the elders, respect for the guests, respect for the culture ( their own and others), respect for the nature, respect for traditions. I mean, you see people talking on the phone in the streets and bowing as if the other person is right in front of them! It might look strange but it is purely out of respect.
11. Way of religion, temples
When it comes to religion I think Japanese are one of (if not THE) most permissive nations. Although they might seem very religious from the outside, religion is not so extreme as in other nations but it is rather part of the tradition and culture. Japanese people have a polytheistic and rather practical approach to religion: the gods are solicited mainly to grant human requests such as: success in business or in an examination, recovery from illness, finding love, having a baby and so on.
The native religion is Shinto but with time, Buddhism was also assimilated into the country through Chinese and Korean influence. However what is again very special in Japan is that these two main religions are not mutually exclusive and many people perform both rituals, just maybe with a more focus towards one of them.
The Shinto religion or “the way of gods” has no formal creed. The gods or the spirits (called “kami“) take various forms and shapes, like parts of the nature, animals etc. and their main purpose is to keep away the evil by prayer, purification and by being good. Shinto religion is immediately identified by the Shrines and the Torii gates.
The Mahayana School of Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century and over time it has developed in a few forms out of which the most well known is probably Zen Buddhism. Buddhism is represented by temples.
Temples and shrines are found everywhere in Japan but there is no better place then Kyoto to get your intake. There are over 2000 temples in the old capital and some of the most beautiful ones with gorgeous gardens.
12. Green tea, tea ceremony
I love green tea in general but Japanese sencha is definitely one of my favourites. In fact I love green tea so much that my favourite ice-cream is the Japanese green tea ice-cream. Oh and …um…I love chocolate…and Japan has green tea chocolate, green tea candies, green tea kitkat …how can one not love Japan?!
The tea ceremony is practiced in many Asian countries but in Japan is again special especially when performed by a Geisha or a Maiko.
13. Japanese cleanliness
Japan is probably the cleanest country on the planet. Yes Singapore is very clean as well but the cleanliness takes a whole other level in Japan. I will always remember my first visit to Japan when I saw a guy standing at the bottom of the escalator cleaning and disinfecting the armrest! I have not seen this anywhere else in the world. Not even in Singapore!
14. Punctuality and the high speed trains
I love punctuality! I think it is a sign of respect to show up when you “promised”, in general. Now extend that to trains and imagine a place where you can actually rely on the schedule to the second. If a train is supposed to arrive at 20.52 and 10 seconds you can bet it will arrive exactly then. And then add the high speed to that! Is there any other place like this in the world? Oh and people do actually stay in a perfect line one behind each other while waiting for the trains. Simply Japan!
15. Land of contradictions, tradition vs. modernity
Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the expression “work hard play hard” more true than in Japan. Although not a contradiction per se, it is the way Japanese people act that create the contradiction. At work, professionalism and seriousness are the words of the day (that includes putting all phones on silent mode in order not to disturb the colleagues!) whereas, when it comes to after work gatherings, the Japanese are some of the most social people you will meet. This is probably also due to the fact that the work colleagues are most of the times considered as an extension to the family or like the second family (given that people spend so much time at work).
Or…take the old capital, Kyoto, where not only you can find most temples than anywhere else (more than 2000) but also traditional wooden houses and in the same time they have one of the most modern and futuristic train stations in the world.
Tradition is integral part of the Japanese life more so than in any other country. In my view this is due to the respect that Japanese people have for the elders. But Japan is also the most technologically advanced country on the planet!