It’s no secret that Japan is one of my favorite places. Even though I’ve only lived there for a short time as a student and visited for a week or a month at a time since that, every time I plan a trip I end up visiting Japan for the umpteenth time rather than visiting a country I’ve never been to before (although there are a lot of countries I haven’t visited yet).
So what is so great about Japan? I’ve met many people who have visited Japan, and when I ask them what their favorite thing about Japan is, I get just as many different answers. Here I’ve compiled a list of favorites, including both my experiences and those of people I know.
- Public Transportation
Riding on the train – photo by kei
In the US you can’t get anywhere easily without a car. And streets, residences, and markets are laid out such that it’s not often feasible to just walk to the super market – it’s too far or too perilous to reach on foot. When you do use public transportation it can be grimy (think NY subways) or costly (taxi fares to downtown), or just really slow (how long do I have to wait for a bus?).
In Japan, public transportation is efficient, frequent, and clean. You can be sure that the train will be on time down to the minute – yes, 14:17 means that it will arrive at 2:17 PM on the dot – barring a disaster or accident, of course. If your apartment is far from the train station or eki 駅 you can ride your bike or take the bus to the station, then take the train to your destination. Taxis can be expensive, but the bus is often an inexpensive option, and you can look up bus or train schedules on your smart phone. No wifi? Find a 7/11 convenience store and you can connect to their 7-SPOT wifi. You can use the same ID and password for the Tokyo Metro wifi as well.
2. Public Toilets
Separate toilet rooms keep things clean – photo by kei
Toilets in Japan are something you need to experience yourself to truly understand and appreciate. Before I went to Japan, I wondered what the big deal about oto-hime and bidet was, but once I spent some time there I understood why people write articles about Japanese toilets. Japanese toilets have lots of bells and whistles, including seat warmers, buttons that emit flushing sounds, and a variety of bidet settings. At first the array of buttons is intimidating, but once you figure out what each button does, you will wonder how you ever lived without the button that plays a charming little tune.
Public toilets in Japan often contain these high-tech toilets. Some even have lids that open automatically when you approach. You often find the high-tech Western-style toilets in shopping centers and super markets. However, there are still Japanese-style toilets interspersed with the high-tech toilets in stores and train stations. Many parks have both low-tech Western-style toilets and Japanese-style toilets, or just Japanese toilets. These are the hole-in-the-ground type, which can be an adjustment for many Westerners, but when you need to go they are just as welcome as the Western-style toilets.
The abundance of public toilets available in Japan is quite helpful when you are exploring a new place, as you are usually not far from a public toilet. Even when I climbed Mt. Fuji there were public toilets available! (Due to the difficulty of accessing and cleaning the loo at 3000+ meters altitude, they request a small donation, and although this is honor-based, I am sure most visitors pay the small donation.) Public toilets in Japan are also incredibly clean. A public toilet in a park in the US can be pretty disgusting, but I’ve never been to a public toilet in Japan that I literally couldn’t use because someone mucked it up.
3. Fast Food
The number one thing that people comment on about their trip to Japan is the food. Even people who don’t eat sushi find the food to be delicious. Japan indeed does dining well, from traditional favorites to international cuisine, the food is always well made but at reasonable prices. The same is true for fast food in Japan. Whether it’s the internationally famous McDonald’s or Japan-based Mos Burger, fast food just seems better in Japan. Aside from Western hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japanese udon and beef bowls count among the ranks of fast foods. The food choices are more varied and some of the places seem healthier than your typical fast food joints. Some of the fast food restaurants in Japan don’t even seem like fast food, and so sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you’re eating healthier (although I haven’t checked the nutrition values).
You can even pick up frozen or refrigerated meals at the convenience store that taste almost fresh after you heat them up in the microwave. I’ve had 7/11 fish heated up in a microwave that tastes like it was freshly cooked. It’s hard to go back to US frozen food after that experience…
4. Mascot Characters
Japan essentially has the market cornered on cute. Cute accessories, cute characters, even cute food (like kyara-ben キャラ弁). That’s why Hello Kitty has endured worldwide for over 40 years and why I always stop at the capsule vending machines to get a new character key chain in game centers. One of my favorite Japanese things is mascot characters.
Japan has a mascot for everything – TV stations, stores, even every prefecture and city has its own mascot character. You may be familiar with the TV station NHK’s Domo-kun (どーもくん), the brown furry square monster, or Kumamon (くまモン), the black bear that is the representative of Kumamoto Prefecture. The mascot characters are my favorite cute characters, and I wouldn’t mind having a mascot for everything in my life. You can even meet the mascot characters if you get lucky. City mascots appear at festivals and other events, and store mascots sometimes wander about while you shop.
Sakura blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen – photo by kei
Spring is my favorite season, next to summer, and with spring comes cherry blossoms or sakura 桜, which bloom for a very short time across Japan. When it just begins to warm up, but before the rain falls, cherry blossoms bloom for a couple of weeks. The light pink blossoms all bloom at the same time, and then begin to fall or are washed away by the rain. The ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms is very poetic, and has begun a primary symbol in Japanese culture.
When the cherry blossoms bloom, people come out for dates or in groups to view the cherry blossoms, taste sakura-inspired snacks and drinks, and consume alcohol in the parks. The warmer weather that accompanies the blooms and the short viewing period inspire crowds to congregate outdoors. Celebrating the coming spring and viewing the beautiful blossoms (hanami 花見) creates an atmosphere that is unique to these blooms.
Other seasonal events that bring out the crowds in Japan are the changing leaves in the fall, and the illuminations (seasonal lights) in the winter. The beach is a cool relief from the humidity of summer. Any season that you visit Japan offers specialty events and delicacies, and each offers a unique experience!
What are your favorite things about Japan? Do you agree with my list? What about your home country? Let me know in the comments!