Have you ever noticed how many people are totally crazy about Japan? Whether it is Japanese art, fashion, advanced technology or anime, there is always something new and exciting to be discovered about this country. Japan seems to draw more and more tourists every year. Travel+Leisure has compiled a list of the world's best cities, as voted by users worldwide. In rankings from 2015, Kyoto tops the list, which makes it literally the best city to visit in the world. Do you wonder why is Japan so popular? Let me introduce you to ten things that make it a unique travel destination.
1. Temples & Zen Gardens
Shinto and Buddhist temples are considered to be the most numerous, famous and important religious buildings in the country. Some of them were established over 1,200 years ago. Many among those are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They often have beautiful gardens where you can find peace and serenity. They were designed for contemplation and meditation. These are spaces where locals and tourists gather to share a tranquil moment. Particularly in Kyoto, you can see breathtaking shrines around every corner.
I bet every one of you has heard about hot, comforting ramen soup, delicious sushi, world-famous tofu, tempura or sashimi. Japanese cuisine offers an abundance of gastronomical delights with a boundless variety of regional and seasonal dishes. Restaurants range from mobile food stands to centuries old ryotei, atmospheric drinking places, seasonal terraces over rivers, cheap chain shops and unique theme restaurants with ninja, manga and robots. One of the most amazing facts is how chefs are trained in their profession. Food for the Japanese is an art. Becoming an itamae (sushi chef) involves years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship. Ramen masters spend all their lives on perfecting their recipes. Special dishes prepared from fugu—poisonous puffer fish—require years of rigorous training. This is why expressing your appreciation and respect to the chef is so important for the Japanese, where even sushi etiquette is a thing. As for drinks, the most common beverage is tea. Japanese teas are among the most exquisite. Tea pouring ritual is an essential tradition. We cannot forget about the well-known sake. It is the national beverage, made from fermented rice, and often served with special ceremony.
The country has four seasons and each of them has its own unique atmosphere. Summer is a time of festivals and the only opportunity to climb mount Fuji. Autumn is famous for its spectacular colours. Winters are usually sunny and dry. In some parts there are snow falls which add to the beauty of landscapes. After that, there comes spring with its alluring cherry blossoms! Seasonal influences can be seen in local cuisine as well. Some foods are found only during their particular growing period and Japanese people eagerly anticipate those specialties.
4. Respect, Courtesy and Politeness
Japanese politeness is well known around the world. People are kind, modest and generous with their time. They would go out of their way to help lost tourists. Respect is one of the most valued virtues instilled in childhood. Children are taught to behave in a respectful, public-spirited way. In Japan every encounter, whether it is on a crowded train or a busy street is transacted with a degree of quiet courtesy. Collective good manners is what makes co-existing possible in this small country. Dutiful behaviour is also present in customer service and it is very genuine. Whether it is a local convenience store, small family-owned shop, luxury mall, restaurant or hotel, they would always make you feel supremely welcomed and valued. What is more they would never expect any reward because, believe it or not, tipping is considered rude in Japan.
We all know that Japan is way ahead of us when it comes to technology and electronics. From transportation, to hotels to entertainment, everything is better in Japan. It is like a whole other dimension, where intelligent technologies just make everyday life easier. Japanese toilets would create a background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make. Some of them also have a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat and built-in water-saving sink. Super fast, clean, spacious bullet trains will cut your journey from nine hours to just three. Almost on every street, you can find vending machines offering all kinds of cold drinks and useful gadgets. There are innovative underground bicycle garages that would help to keep your bike safe, automatically opening taxi doors, touchscreen menus at upscale restaurants, popular game parlours (pachinko parlours) and more. Who among us do not dream of spending at least one day in this cosmic modern Japanese world?
6. Street Fashion
Fashion in Tokyo knows no boundaries. You would be amazed and often surprised by what people dare to wear. There are numerous styles of street fashion in Japan. What is interesting is that each style has its own name and particular characteristics. One of the most recognizable is 'Lolita' (you can find gothic, punk, sweet, classic and even 'boy style' lolita) and Ganguro which typically includes brightly coloured outfits, mini-skirts, bleached hair, a deep tan, fake eyelashes, black and white eyeliner, bracelets, earrings, rings, necklaces and platform shoes. Some other examples are Gyaru- inspired by western fashion, school girl, manga, over accessorizing, glam rock, goth, fairy tale, childlike, natural, kimono...Do you want more? Try to spot other ones when walking the streets of main Japanese cities. After some time you will start classifying them yourself. Just enjoy this awesome fashion show and you might get some inspiration for your own closet. Take a preview here.
Japanese art is different from anything you have seen before. There is ancient pottery and sculpture. Japanese ceramics are among the finest in the world. I promise you would be delighted when you see traditional ink painting and calligraphy on silk and paper, ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. The same goes for architecture. It is extraordinary and quite unlike the buildings you see in the western world. Buddhist shrines, gardens carefully designed to integrate into every season, Japanese style houses. Those sights stay in your memory long after visiting Japan. Other distinct art traditions are origami - the art of paper folding and ikebana - the art of flower arrangement. Japanese minimalism is something we can learn from. It has influenced many western designs. The latest form of art that made its way into international markets is manga - modern Japanese cartooning and comics. As you can see in Japanese art, there is something to choose from, for everyone.
8. Clean Cities & Transport
We have a lot to learn from the Japanese when it comes to managing trash. Most foreigners who have visited Japan would always go on about how clean and orderly the cities, public spaces and houses are. How do they manage to keep everything so impeccable? It is a duty of everyone to keep their surroundings clean and the Japanese take this very seriously. People are raised to be mindful of the space where they live, due to their culture, putting more emphasis on the community over individuals. In Japan, students at school have their cleaning duties every day. It is really nice to see that people just do not litter. Companies march their employees out to pick up trash around the office. Each shopkeeper cleans the street in front of his store every day. Japan has great waste management and recycling policies. There is a famous small town Kamikatsu, which recycles 80% of their trash and is aiming for 100% in a near future!
Still hesitating about travelling solo around Japan? You can relax, because it is considered one of the safest countries you could visit. There is a noticeable difference between Japanese crime rates and western crime rates and we have a lot to catch up on. In 2014, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Japan as "the safest country in the world." Japan's lack of crime makes headlines, impresses tourists, and provides a point of pride for the country. This might surprise you but the reason why common crime, especially crimes against property, are so rare in Japan, is the Japanese culture. Societal shame is a very powerful force. By doing something inappropriate you don't just shame yourself. You shame your family, friends and your community. That is why politeness and honesty are so valued in this society. It is usually female travellers who appreciate feeling secure when visiting Japan. As a tourist you do not need to worry about your bag or pockets. You can just relax and enjoy your trip.
10. Hot Baths
Wash away your stress and worries in a Japanese onsen -- geothermally-heated public bath. Onsens can be located indoors or outdoors. The long tradition of using onsens comes from Buddhist monks who made it their ritual to wash away sins. Samurai used the waters to heal their battle wounds. They are important part of Japanese culture and a superb place to de-stress after a long day. Enjoying Japanese bath is a once in a lifetime experience. At first it might be a little intimidating, but with time you will appreciate its relaxing and healing properties. Immerse yourself in a hot water and unwind. If you cannot get enough of hot Japanese baths you should visit Kinosaki, one of the country's best hot spring area.
If you had any doubts about visiting Japan before, now there are no more excuses. You just have to come and see all that magic!