It was an early spring day in Tokyo. The winter chill had just begun to give way to the first tinges of spring warmth, and I got off the train at Shibuya Station.
Before walking to meet my friends, I headed into the shopping area in the basement of the station. Tokyo is full of wonderful depachika – department store food halls – and the Tokyu Food Show in Shibuya Station’s basement is no exception. I wandered the colorful aisles, admiring the impeccable displays of tantalizing sweet and savory specialties. Having picked up some lovely seasonal items, along with a bottle of sake from snowy Niigata Prefecture, I left Shibuya in the direction of the charming Naka-Meguro neighborhood.
A reasonably short walk from hyperactive Shibuya, there is perhaps nowhere more magical in hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season than the tree-lined canal in the trendy yet laid-back Naka-Meguro. During the cherry blossom season – the duration of which varies from year to year – the streets along the canal exist in an almost-constant state of celebration. The majestic cherry blossom trees sway luxuriously sway over the canal, and small groups of friends gather to eat and drink amid the sea of pink.
I found my friends under the trees with all the requisite hanami supplies: tarp, grill, beer, snacks, guitar. We joined hundreds of other revelers in relaxing with friends and family on this perfect Saturday, eating and drinking under the sakura. As night fell and the early spring chill began to envelop us, we packed up and retreated to a cozy neighborhood izakaya – a Japanese-style gastropub, or tavern – to warm up over sake and small dishes of vegetables, seafood and grilled meats.
Experiences like this first led me to fall in love with Japan, and thrill me to this day, even after all these years. I first moved from New York City to Tokyo in 2005, with a desire to master the Japanese language. Planning to stay a year, I ended up staying several, and now spend several months of every year in Tokyo, Kyoto and traveling around Japan.
I never planned on falling in love with Japan. But after moving back to the US, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and needed to devise a plan to return. And ultimately Boutique Japan was born.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found that the reasons I am continually drawn back to Japan are almost exactly the same as what our travelers tell us are the best things about Japan from their experiences.
With that said, I am thrilled to share the 6 things I love most about Japan!
1. Japanese People
On my very first visit to Japan, I arrived in Tokyo on a stormy August night. I was exhausted following the flight from New York, and a little overwhelmed by my new surroundings. After the flight and a train ride from the airport into the city, I hopped into a taxi from the station for the last leg of my journey. Not realizing that taxi doors open automatically in Japan, I committed my first etiquette faux pas – a very common one indeed, and typically laughed at. We reached our destination and I paid the white-gloved taxi driver. As I started out of the taxi, the driver stopped me. “Do you have an umbrella?” he asked. I told him I did not, but since I only had a few steps to walk, told him I was OK. But he was having none of it. From out of nowhere he unveiled a spare umbrella, and compelled me to take it. And thus, with his kindness, the first Japanese person I ever met in Japan had set a tone that would continue to this very day.
Traveler stories like this abound. Japanese people are extremely gracious hosts, and – famously – will often go out of their way to ensure that you have a wonderful experience during your visit. This could mean a taxi driver offering you an umbrella in the rain, a stranger offering to help when you’re lost (and walking you well out of their way until they’ve made sure you’ve reached your destination)*, or another touching surprise along the way. Japanese people never fail to move me with their kindness and, most of all, thoughtfulness and consideration. It permeates every aspect of life in Japan, and even short-term visitors come away with an overwhelming sense that respect — both given and received — is huge part of the Japanese experience.
*A story I briefly recount in our post on Japanese and the language barrier.
2. Japanese Food
At this point — thanks to Jiro’s fame, and countless celebrity chefs having extolled their obsession with Japanese cuisine — it is widely known that Japan has some of the best, if not the best, food on earth.
The level of love and respect that goes into food preparation in Japan is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And it’s in no way limited to high-end or fine dining. From cheap neighborhood noodle shops to Michelin-starred and other top restaurants, the quality and taste of food in Japan is of an incredibly high standard.
Whether you’re going for a simple, casual meal — or splurging on an exquisite once-in-a-lifetime meal at the counter of a shokunin (master) — you can almost always count on thoughtful and considerate service, and painstakingly prepared food.
It’s no surprise that many Francophiles have fallen in love with Japan, as best put in the Food & Wine article, “7 Reasons Why Tokyo Is the New Paris.”
Indeed, it’s not just Japanese cuisine like sushi and ramen that shines in Japan. Japanese culinary professionals are so passionate about their craft, and Japanese ingredients are so good, that you will find some of the world’s best pastries, pizzas, curries, cocktails, coffee, and more!
Apart from being delicious, Japanese food is on the whole extremely healthy, and incredibly diverse (here is just a small sampling of the foods you can try in Japan).
Want to read more about food in Japan? Try one of these culinarily-oriented guidebooks.
3. Traditional & Contemporary Japanese Culture
An enduring cliché about Japan is that the old and traditional coexist harmoniously with the modern and futuristic. And yet, to a remarkable degree, it’s true.
While the country certainly modernized much more quickly than lovers of old Japan (such as the illustrious Alex Kerr) would have liked, Japan — despite its striking modernity — nevertheless retains a rich and enviable cultural heritage that even today feels very alive and relevant.
Even in an ultra-modern metropolis like Tokyo, it’s easy to slip into the past with a walk in the backstreets of the old-fashioned shitamachi district (notably in the well-preserved Yanaka and greater Yanesen area), or by decompressing at one of the city’s countless Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, stroll gardens, or neighborhood sento (bathhouses).
In an ancient city like Kyoto, it is still easy to find generations-old shops with hundreds of years of history (many of which are featured in the excellent Old Kyoto), where traditional crafts — or in the case of restaurants, dishes — have been steadily perfected for longer than the United States has been a country.
And few countries (India comes to mind) can match Japan for its wealth of traditional ceremonies and festivals.
Throughout Japan, age-old traditions remain alive in contemporary culture, and while many travelers are drawn primarily to the romance of ancient Japan, for many others (ourselves included) contemporary Japan is just as fascinating. Particularly since the Edo Period, Japan has undergone incredible transformations — with major events including the Meiji Restoration and World War II — and, despite the post-bubble economic stagnation, remains an economic and cultural powerhouse.
Japan’s art, architecture, design, film, dance, and crafts — not to mention pop culture (including anime, manga, and video games — are reason enough to visit Japan, and are today as much a part of the “real” Japan as its traditional culture.
The good news is that there is no need to choose one or the other, as you will experience Japan’s rich and complex traditional and modern culture throughout the country (see a sampling of our favorite places throughout Japan)!
4. Safety & Peace of Mind in Japan
Having moved from the United States (New York City no less) to Japan, it took me a few weeks to adjust to the wonderful fact that, unlike in the US, I didn’t need to constantly have my guard up.
Not that I ever felt real danger in New York, but it turned out that I had never fully grasped just how on alert my default way of being had been until, a few weeks after my move to Tokyo (a city much larger and more populous than New York), I felt my “guard” dissipating, apparently having received sufficient evidence in the lack of threats that it was no longer necessary.
This is certainly not to say that crime in Japan doesn’t exist. It does. I have one friend who had her wallet stolen while on a crowded subway in Tokyo, and you can read reports in the news of other crime in Tokyo and beyond. But, thankfully, crime rates are far lower in Japan than in almost anywhere else on earth (it’s one of, if not the safest large countries in the world), and you can tangibly sense it after spending a bit of time here. It’s the kind of country where kids can walk and take the subway by themselves to school.
On the whole, Japan is so safe that it’s commonplace to hear stories from travelers of lost items returned unharmed. I had one friend accidentally leave a very expensive camera on the Tokyo Metro, which he successfully recovered by contacting the Metro’s lost and found. Another friend left her passport in a taxi in Kobe. She didn’t realize until later (and hadn’t noted any details about the taxi in which she left it), but — very thankfully — the taxi driver spent hours researching how to find her, and through the local police department my friend and her passport were reunited soon after.
Another common concern while traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is the fear of being taken advantage of. This slightly paranoid worry often prevents travelers from asking strangers for assistance, and also has the unfortunate side effect of preventing travelers from more immersive and unscripted interactions with local people.
To be fair, most people in most countries would probably love to help you, but there’s no denying that in some countries a few people make a living by taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists.
In Japan, it’s not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone is out to help you. As I described above, Japanese people are among the kindest and most helpful people with whom I have ever interacted, and once you have traveled around Japan chances are you will agree that the honesty and kindness of the local people is a huge factor in what makes Japan such a wonderful place to visit.
In such a country, it’s little surprise that a key function of police officers, stationed in their ever-present koban (police boxes) in cities around the country, is to provide directions to lost tourists and locals alike (the Economist reports on Japanese police searching for things to do).
Its safety is a major reason Japan is such a family-friendly destination, as is the fact that it’s such a surprisingly easy country to navigate, which brings me to…
5. Japanese Efficiency
One of the best things about Japan – and an unexpected highlight for so many travelers – is how beautifully and efficiently everything works.
Granted, Japan is not the only country where things almost always work as they should (Germany, Switzerland, and Singapore are also great examples of highly efficient countries), but it’s far and away one of the most impressive, particularly considering its size.
Almost without fail, when friends from the United States return to the US after visiting Japan, I receive exclamatory messages of relative shock bemoaning the rundown airport, the inefficiency of the immigration and customs process, the poor condition — or lack — of public transport options (the bullet train spoils people), and the generally disheveled appearance of their post-Japan trip surroundings.
While I love the US dearly – and also love traveling in parts of the world where things don’t run nearly as well as they do in Japan – whenever I land in Japan it’s a huge relief (and pleasure) to know that pretty much everything is going to work beautifully. The trains run on time, drivers arrive on time or early, and nearly everywhere you go efficiency and order reign. Not having to worry about things like this is surprisingly relaxing.
I had my first experience of punctuality in Japan during my first visit to Kyoto. At the time I couldn’t afford the bullet train, so I took an overnight bus from Tokyo. I wasn’t that surprised when we left right on time, but I was amazed when we pulled into Kyoto precisely on time, to the minute.
I once had the chance to ride with the conductor of a shinkansen (bullet train) as part of a Japanese television program. Apart from its amazing record of safety (zero fatalities since its inception in 1964), one of the shinkansen conductor’s responsibilities is to depart and arrive within 15 seconds of the scheduled time – and, as you might expect, their success rate is astronomically high.
Thinking of using the Japan Rail Pass during your Japan trip?
Naturally, this efficiency is by no means limited to transport. Japanese people’s attention to and passion for detail — and profound passion for doing things well — permeates every aspect of life in Japan. Thus, it’s little surprise that Japan is home to so many highly-skilled chefs (see above), craftspeople, and a remarkable service culture – not to mention being one of the cleanest and tidiest countries on earth!
6. Cleanliness in Japan
If you like cleanliness and organization, prepare to love traveling around Japan, where people take great pride in taking loving care of their surroundings.
I’ll never forget, a few weeks after I first moved to Japan, one day I spotted some litter in a park and found it so noteworthy that I felt impelled to photograph it. It seems silly now, but I continue to be amazed that, even in a densely populated metropolis like Tokyo, litter can be so rare – especially considering the noticeable lack of trash cans (a perennial pet peeve of travelers to Japan).
This is not to say that there is no litter, and in particularly crowded areas — for example, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ueno — it’s not rare to see some trash. But considering the number of people, the clean and tidy state of the streets is almost miraculous.
If you wake up very early on a weekend morning and head to the iconic Shibuya crossing, you may come across an army of locals cleaning up the previous night’s detritus. And walk almost anywhere in any Japanese city, town or village, and you’ll see local people tidying up the streets around their homes and places of business.
This pride in caring for surroundings is contagious, and chances are you’ll find yourself doing your part to keep Japan clean for others, too!
We hope you have a chance to experience all of this during your trip to Japan!