Known as the ‘land of the rising sun’, Japan balances tradition with high-tech modern technologies. Japan is truly a country of contrasts – from the natural spectacle of Mount Fuji and idyllic islands and beaches in the south, to the cosmopolitan energy of Tokyo and Osaka and the ancient temples, shrines and wooden houses of Kyoto. Japan is unlike anywhere else in Asia and is a truly enthralling holiday destination.
Lost in Translation: Pete discovers Japan
Japan is a place of contradictions – visitors often describe it as both comfortably familiar and endlessly surprising at the same time. It’s an intricate blend of East and West, and past and present. The delights on offer range from Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, tea ceremonies, sumo tournaments, and beautifully clad Geisha, to sleek, modern shopping malls, high-tech gadgetry and delectable cuisine – not to mention the raft of intricate customs, etiquette and traditions. We spoke to Pete, our Imagine Asia specialist, who recently returned from this intriguing country.
What one bit of advice would you give those travelling to Japan?
Go with an open mind. It is going to be different to what you know, but this is what I found most exciting – Japan’s history and culture is fascinating. Dive right in and enjoy! I would also add that you have to visit somewhere other than Tokyo because, although the capital is great, heading to other towns and the countryside will give you a much better insight into what the country has to offer.
Is it hard to travel around Japan?
No. Travelling around Japan was what I was most anxious about before I went, but it was incredibly easy. It was hard to get lost and public transport is so punctual – 30 seconds late is considered a delay.
Japan is famed for its customs and etiquette. Will you share with us your biggest faux pas?
As my trip was drawing to a close, I was feeling rather smug about how well I had done, having read extensively about the customs and etiquette beforehand. I had been bowing rather than hand-shaking, receiving and giving business cards with two hands and been very careful with my chopsticks never to let them be too vertical. But then, I took an onsen. These are hot springs found throughout the country in both indoor and outdoor facilities – and they come with strict rules. I will spare you the details, but basically you have to bathe nude – and males and females are separated into two separate areas. I got a little muddled up – it was all very embarrassing.
What was the most ingenious use of technology you discovered in Japan?
Technology is everywhere. If there’s a perceived need for a gadget, they have it. I’m not sure I’d call it ingenious, but the technology I was wowed by the most is found in the toilets. Wherever the facilities were located, whether in a five star hotel or humble public loos on a side street, they were impressive. They all had a seat heater, massage facilities, and a button you could press to get the flushing noise without actually flushing the loo –to name just a few. To be honest, I was too scared to try out all the buttons but it was a rarity to find a seat without these extras.
What was the weirdest thing you ate in Japan?
I wasn’t daring enough with the food and I have come back regretting this. I gorged on miso soup in the mornings (which I thoroughly enjoyed); ate some chicken giblets (which I really didn’t enjoy) at an izakaya restaurant (which is a bit like a tapas bar); tried some octopus sushi (a bit plain); and had more types of fish than I knew there were in the world. Overall, I thought the food was excellent though, and I went to some of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in. One thing I noticed, which I wasn’t expecting, was how often the Japanese eat. Walking around a city, you’ll see one person munching on a stick of chicken, another eating a bit of fish – their meals are much smaller and snacking is the norm.
What was your favourite place you visited?
What I loved the most was the variety, but if I had to pick one place, I think Kanazawa would win. It’s a reasonably small town, with a bustling feel, but not overcrowded and you can go everywhere on foot. The Kenroku-en Gardens, with their classic design incorporating ponds and streams, were the best I visited. I was incredibly lucky that I was there during the Hyakumangoku Matsuri Festival that commemorates Lord Maeda Toshiie’s first entry into the castle in 1581. There was loads going on over three days, but my highlight was seeing thousands of lanterns lit and floating down the river. It was very romantic and it was at this point I wished I could transport my girlfriend straight there.
Is there a best time of year to go?
Japan is a year round holiday destination and there is really no bad time to go. Cherry blossom season in April is by far the most popular time to travel and even though this is really beautiful, I would argue that autumn is just as good. Starting from mid-November, all the trees begin to turn a stunning, autumnal deep red. It is a really special time to be there and is far cheaper and less crowded than the cherry blossom season.
Our Japan Highlights itinerary is a great starting point for a first-time visitor to Japan
Explore Japan’s distinct culture on our Japan Highlights itinerary, uncovering both the fascinating old and new faces of Japan.
For a little more luxury along with seeing the highlights, check out our Luxury Japan itinerary
Immerse yourself in this country of dramatic contrasts, exploring bustling cities packed with delicious cuisine and historical buildings, whilst staying in luxurious accommodation and making your journey along picturesque Japanese rail roads.