Japan is a country I’ve always looked at with interest, being so different from my culture and lifestyle, and for a long time, I craved to go there. I finally did it in 2008: I spent almost all the time in Tokyo, but I managed to travel a bit, to see some more places and cities.
The second time I went there was for working reasons, so I stayed ten weeks again in the Greater Tokyo Area, but my house was in Yokohama and the office in Kawasaki, so I seized an opportunity to see something more of this big metropolitan region than the first time, four years before. In these two occasions, my admiration for that country skyrocketed, due to more things I discovered and learned and all the differences I could notice.
Of course, I can’t say it’s the perfect country, for sure it isn’t. I can’t say either there aren’t things I don’t like – actually, there are a lot, first of all, the ill-concealed racism towards any non-Japanese (the more you know: they use to refer to foreign people as 外人 (gaijin), that is an “outside person”, and it’s not necessarily a politically correct word). Despite all, if I only could take a flight tomorrow for the Land of the rising sun, I will surely go and enjoy that magnificent country as a first timer, and here are my 8 reasons why I adore Japan.
1 – Food
As I guess you know by now, I adore exploring different countries also to eat their food and try new flavors: Japan offers a wide choice for food lovers, and this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all sushi related. To be honest, I didn’t eat a lot of sushi there, but the rice was almost omnipresent. Rice bowls (with various ingredients) and curry rice were the most common food I ate, especially in launch break, but when I could go for something else, the choice was endless.
I love hot soups, so ramen, soba, and udon are a must (I love the thickness of udon, even if they’re harder to handle with the chopsticks), but they can also be served cold or without soup, depending on the recipe. Other things I love are gyōza (meat or vegetable filled dumplings) and takoyaki, a sort of snack consisting of a ball made of wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special pan. The heart is a lovely piece of octopus (tako in Japanese, that’s why takoyaki: octopus + to grill. Remember it when you see a word ending in –yaki).
If you think that’s not enough, here you go: okonomiyaki! That’s absolutely what I like the most about Japanese food, and I’m so sad that’s that difficult to find a restaurant in Italy where to eat it. It’s a kind of pancake, sometimes called the Japanese pizza, where you can put everything you want/like inside, as the word okonomi implies. And -yaki means it’s cooked on a grill, as I said before. Several toppings can be used to decor and finish the dish, but the main ones are mayonnaise, katsuobushi and the okonomiyaki sauce, a thick and sweets sauce.
2 – Pop culture
Pop culture is a subject it would be possible to write about for pages and pages and one of the main reason I adore Japan, so I’ll keep it as short as possible! Being a child of the 80s I grew up with cartoons and toys mainly about giant robots and monsters. Almost everything was coming from there: Godzilla, Daitarn 3, Mazinger, Grendizer, Devilman, Fist of the North Star, etc… Now I’m grateful for that childhood and what anime (Japanese cartoons) taught me: respect, willpower, honor, and that you can’t fly with a helicopter hat.
Plus you have to consider manga (Japanese comics), J-music (J-Pop, J-Rock, the Japanese peculiar way of doing pop and rock music), video games (that’s a HUGE reason since I work in that industry!), karaoke (I did it once with friends and locals in Tokyo, one of the best evening ever!), fashion, cinema, the “kawaii” factor and that’s it… I’m overwhelmed!
3 – Tokyo
Well, I know Tokyo isn’t really what Japan looks like, but it’s for sure the most famous city in the country. The Greater Tokyo Area counts 36 millions inhabitants, something extremely difficult to imagine without being there. Just consider that there are more people there than in the whole Canada.
It’s a city at the same time hard and easy to explain, where you can do, see, experience almost everything, plus things you didn’t even know about. That’s why it’s difficult to describe, I could spend hours to tell the differences between districts, habits, and places all around and at the same time it’s easy to speak about them because it’s just mesmerizing and overwhelming! For me, it’s a city where everyone should go at least once in their lifetime, no doubt about it. It’s a sensory overload, probably you might step out of your comfort zone, but I think it’s the best and safest place where it can happen.
From crossing the street on the probably most crowded road crossing in the world (Shibuya) to getting lost on the busiest transport hub certified by Guinness World Records (Shinjuku Station), there’s a whole world in between. Akihabara, the electric city; the Imperial Palace, with its majestic and peaceful gardens all around; Odaiba, the artificial island in the Tokyo Bay, now mostly a commercial and leisure area. Then, Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine in the heart of the city; the Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest tower in the world (634 metres/2,080 ft) from wich is possible to have a superb view of the surrounding area, Mt. Fuji included; Omotesandō, the poshest area of the city or Ueno, the working class area now famous for the park, the zoo, and several major museums… There’s a complete world in Tokyo you have to see with your own eyes to fully understand its eclecticism, but you won’t regret it!
4 – Hanami
Someone may think that hanami is the flower blossom in the Spring period, but literally, hanami means “flower viewing” and it’s a tradition started more than a thousand years ago, probably during the Nara period (8th century). Nowadays in Japan, this is an activity bringing many tourists to see all those cherry and plum trees blooming, a show that gives you heart’s ease.
Since its relevance in Japanese culture, in 1951 the Japan Meteorological Agency started to produce forecasts about the cherry blossom front across the country, from south to north, and now is it possible to find pretty accurate forecasts telling you when and where it’s the right time to enjoy this show. It’s a big deal, I told you!
During that period, people enjoy having parties in the various parks, eating and drinking under the trees. On those days, it’s common to see people grabbing the best places under the trees hours or even days before the party starts. On the weekend parties go on until late at night, and that particular hanami is called yozakura (flowers at night), with paper lanterns hung to the trees and stalls selling delicious street food.
5 – Mount Fuji
Is it possible to appreciate a country also because of a mountain? Yes, it is. I always liked the image of Mt. Fuji, this solitary yet noble volcano, the ideal subject of thousands of pictures from people visiting Japan e being a symbol itself of its nation.
It’s the highest peak of Japan, Unesco included it in the World Heritage List together with other 25 sites nearby, as part of the Fujisan Cultural Site, and it’s possible to hike to the top of it, due to the several routes and ten stations.
Last but not least, it’s still an active volcano and after the terrible earthquake of 2011 Fuji has been under continuous monitoring to prevent or try to forecast any imminent eruption.
6 – Religious stuff
I dissociate myself from religions. I’m not a religious person and probably I’m not the right one to write about it, considering what I just said. But if you consider religions from an aesthetic point of view, they produced a damn lot of beautiful things through the centuries around the world.
Japan is no less. The majority of the population falls inside the syncretism between Shintoism and Buddhism and this, with all their diligent rituals and the need to establish connections with their ancestors, led to the realization of superb places of worship that we can still see today along the country.
Temple, shrines, torii, also gardens I’d add, plus decorative objects, handiwork, sculptures and paintings/prints, they all reflect their beliefs and folklore too, causing in me some fascinating interest, never mind it’s a religious subject.
7 – Bullet trains
Like almost every male on earth, I like speed, velocity, things with an engine that goes fast as hell and are cool to see. Therefore I like Japanese bullet trains. Usually called shinkansen, even if that name refers to the high-speed railway network more than to the trains, they’re another of the things Japan is famous for, another symbol of the country.
Fast, silent, futuristic looking, efficient, these trains were the first high-speed train in the world, back in 1964! It was a sort of revolution at that time and in the following years, more countries developed their new high-speed railways and adopted new fast trains to connect their major cities.
They’re not on a budget, but for foreigners, there’s the possibility of a train pass so, if you plan your trip ahead, you might save some money depending on how much you travel (it’s not worth for only a trip, check the JR Pass website for more info).
8 – Technology
Maybe now, with a market more and more global, there are a lot of competitors for what concerns products related to technology. I’m not speaking only about PC hardware or IT stuff, it’s something broader. Japan once was at the top in many of these sectors and still, no matter how the competition skyrocketed, it’s kicking some serious asses.
They have brands like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki for the automotive and motorcycle sector; Canon, Nikon, Fuji for the photography; plus other great names like Sony, Nintendo, Bridgestone, Komatsu, Shimano, Epson, Casio, and the list goes on.
No matter the sector, they have a company at the top of it, or close to. And for me this is really remarkable, considering how, not so may decades ago, they have almost to start from scratch after WW2.
So, you’ve just read my 8 reasons why I adore Japan. Now it’s your turn! Have you ever been there? Tell me in the comment section!
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