Getting ready for my third visit to Japan in a row, people keep me asking: Why Japan; or better yet, why only Japan? My wife developed a unique technique to deal with this question and not be bothered: "because I like it". Sure, this is kind of obvious, but in truth, even I sometimes ask myself: Why only Japan? So I started to think about the country that attracts us so much, and even made some of our best friends also decide to go again to Japan on this third trip (they joined us on our first) entering the hall of people who visit this country more than once. Here are 10 reasons I believe will make you not want to miss out the chance to visit this country.
1. There is a something of everything
There are several types of tourism, the most common quoted being: adventure/exotic, culture, eco-tourim, leisure and relaxation, religious/mystic, shipping, visiting modern and/or developed countries (or, if you already live in a developed countries, wanting to meet others) and history. Sure, people also like to go to random famous places.
Japan offers pretty much everything mentioned, and I could probably fill up pages of places that can fit into each of these descriptions pretty well. With about 70% mountainous terrain and 60% forest (yes, Japan is an extremely green and natural country), the country offers trails, hiking, ski, tropical adventure areas, sub-tropical, snow, cosmopolitan cultural centers, oriental cultural centers, gourmet centers, over 30 World Heritage sites, hundreds of noteworthy temples or sacred gardens thanks to the awesome merge of two religions (Shinto and Buddhism), as well being know for its technological export and modernity. Its history is also not small, and can rival most European countries, with history almost back to before Christ times. It doesn't matter what you are looking for in a travel: Japan has it covered, and pretty well.
2. Scenery and impressive nature
It is amazing the number of people who are not aware how green and full of nature Japan is, and that is everywhere. Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world (as of 2014, still the biggest metropolis), has the biggest urban green area if compared with any other metropolis (yes, more than New York or São Paulo) - and they are not just "green", but multi-colored. The Japanese parks (and gardens, there is a difference. Parks are made to people to visit and socialize, gardens are all about the nature) are world-wide known for it's meticulous organization and beauty, with huge attention to detail and variety. Several gardens were designed to have flowers all year long, in all seasons. And we can't just let slide the fact that Japanese monks are just experts in mixing everything in there, not only vegetation. Minerals are also an important part of any landscaping. Stone gardens, some just stone, are also common.
And all of this just in the middle, around, beyond the most clean, modern and with inspiring architectural towns, making them even prettier - and with something like 10 minutes inside a Shinkansen (bullet train) you can leave the metropolis and sit right in the middle of nowhere, among secular villages that are not less well preserved, clean and carefully maintained. Shintoism, one of the symbiotic religions of Japan, demands a special care with nature, and that transpires everywhere.
3. Unique cultural identity
In the west people are pretty much saturated with the same old western culture, specially american. It is not surprising, therefore, that people like to go visit the US or Europe. The truth, however, is that you already know most of what you see and feel, it's still western. New York is just like in the movies, so is Paris, and even Tokyo - except you don't see Tokyo that much in movies. What people don't know is that after the American cultural exports, Japan looses only for South Korea in their cultural and entertainment assets. From the thousands of years old history to the most recent pop, there is something for every taste, and Japan culture is as varied and exotic as it can get, and keeps surprising even those who are up to date with what they have been doing. Add to this the fact that this is the most developed country in the world, with ample support for preservation, maintenance and creation of museums and heritage sites, and you have an unique cultural center - and you don't even really need to look for it, because for most westerners, the Asians are so "alien" that all you need is to walk by the streets and let it all in, with all the minute differences between westerners from the Americas or Europe, and these amazing Asians.
4. The modern, the religious, the mystic and the past
No country can mix so many contradicting characteristics at the same time: "smart" streets with mini-solar panels on the lanes and on the posts to light up led signals at night; high tech everywhere, specially (not to the surprise of many) in the toilet! All of that inside secular temples, cultural festivals, millenial forests and a religion that give emphases on the mix of nature and mystical without meddling on the modern. It doesn't matter where you are in Japan, you will always feel you are at same time in the future of gadgets, leds and LCD, and the old wood, paper and nature tradition. This is an amazing sensation, both exciting and soothing, and certainly unforgettable.
5. Unique Tourism: infrastructure and tradition.
Japan is also one of the few countries where you find people that visit not only because of an important historic place or a special adventure, but because of something their society reached thanks to their unique people: The unique public transportation system, with or without their 50-year-old Shinkansen (can you believe it? They have it for 5 decades, some big developed countries don't have even one yet), attracts hundreds of tourists just to take a ride! People visit just for that, to meet the nearly-perfect transit system - safe, timely, clean, modern. In 2010, the average departure "delay" of every single Shinkansen on every station were a record low 6 seconds. Yes, 6 seconds is the average their trains delay all year long! You have got to admit they have a unique sense of professionalism and modernity in a country that have such contrasts (check out the train to the right, that's real, I rode that! it's has parts made of wood, and it is not touristic, it's an actual city train in Kamakura!)
But it is not only for their amazing train system that people flock to Japan: The traditional Hanami, the "flower viewing" festival that happens at the end of march and beginning of April (spring) in Japan is widely known. It's when the exquisite cherry trees blossom and transform cities, villages, mountains and valleys in a big flowery field where people gather to pic-nic with family and friends in a big celebration of life and nature. Several parks and gardens all over the country are dedicated only for these few days, keeping everything just ready for when the trees are ready. After the weather forecast on TV, you have the flower forecast with actual color tone and quantity of flowers on each district! And that during the autumn as well. Japan is one of he countries with the biggest internal tourism business, with people moving around to see this spectacle in different towns and gardens during the year. Sure, foreign tourists are always there too, but here goes a tip: if you are planning on flower viewing, get your reservations a lot early, since during Hanami the best cost/benefit hotels are packed full sometimes one year early! This country does not have only one of the prettiest springs in the world, it has the most celebrated one!
But it goes on: The autumn season also have an important flower viewing (neglected by foreigners), and even during the summer and winter there are special gardens that beautify each season on this country that a little over 60 years, have all the reasons to celebrate their rebirth after destruction. And their festivals are not about strong sounds, naked girls and weird colored cars, but filled with cultural depth and tradition, religion, and life and death celebration, of Gods and Spirits, or simply cherry or peach trees. You really need to see to appreciate it all. More than once, mind you.
6. Unique people
People think the average Japanese is all the same stereotyped one: closed, secluded, serious, disciplined. Up to the last one, they are wrong. The Japanese is extremely nice and open, and they simply love the different, the unusual, and therefore, the foreigners. They open up a smile for no reason, they laugh by themselves, and they just love to watch and figure it out what they are not used to. They are a very curious people, simply in love with anyone outside their island. A couple of old folks in a traditional restaurant couldn't be nicer while observing the 4 clumsy foreigners, probably doing a lot of rude stuff, in the table besides them; yet, when one of the clumsy foreigners seem to be at trouble to call a waiter, the old man open up a smile and call her. Those 4 tourists were me and my wife and friends, and me too got a kick of observing the old could with the edge of my view and how they were oh so curious about us.
Most Japanese people are just like that, always ready to help you. In a Kyoto temple, as I am getting ready to take a picture of my 3 fellow travelers, out of nowhere 4 high-school girls pop out pretty much fighting to see who would call my attention to ask me to take our picture; In a quiet garden in Arashiyama, an old man and a young girl in a very typical attire approach me and almost grab the camera out of my hands saying, with a clumsy english, that he will take a picture of us. And he is good at it. The young waiter at a fancy restaurant tries out a few sentences in portuguese (we are from Brazil, mind you) and are curious on how to speak this or that, not forgetting to mention the Brazilian soccer. The officer inside the metro station notices the (stupid) tourist got past the automatic turnstile without getting his return ticket, but instead of yelling or starting up alarms, he calls me with simple gestures and a smile, runs up to the machine, opens it up (at this point, it "ate" my ticket back), show me how I should do and give the ticket back almost apologetic for interrupting me, with no stress, no worries. The immigration officer in the biggest airport laugh out loud when I fail to get my finger in the right position on the fingerprint scanner. A metro worker notices the novice tourists are clueless on how to get tickets to a specific train, and all by himself decides to sheppard me all the way to the (not so close) ticket office, waits in line with me for over 5 minutes (practically an eternity in Japan), and proceed to ask for the exact ticket I need, and then he takes me back to my wife ... all with a smile, and he even multitasks: people stop him once in a while to ask questions, and he does it.
And everything works, and you have help to anything, and everyone smiles, and despite the mishaps triggered usually by the clueless outsiders, trains leave on time, accidents don't happen, and you feel safe ... and what about safety?
7. You can finally know what it is to relax.
If you think you know what relaxing is, but you have never been to Japan, then you don't know what relaxing is. With a near null criminal rate (an actual zero murder rate, the only country that reports homicides to UN together with "attempts" just so it isn't zero), where homeless sleep to the sound of iPods (yes, true story) and don't bother people be it on Tokyo Station or Kyoto Station, in Japan it is the only place you literally have no worries. You can leave your wallet full of cash on a desk and go grab a coffee, you can not mind your purse in the middle of thousands of holidayers in central Tokyo, you can walk in the darkest alleys in the capital (ok, maybe not near Roppongi, too many drunk people), and even then, help is so close (check this out!↗) that it would be ridiculous to worry! You will only notice how relaxed you are when you get on your flight back, and then you start remembering it's better to keep an eye on your bag, hide your wallet, and be vigilant. Whatever place you are going back to!
In 2015, the first two safest cities in the world according to BBC (and The Economist Intelligence Unit)↗ were Japanese: Tokyo and Osaka.
8. There is the developed world ... and way ahead ... Japan.
There is already a lot to say about how Japan is the most developed country in the world. I could start throwing you numbers like the biggest i-HDI in the world (with exception of random islands states), how even with 20 years in crisis (when you are there, you will swear someone forgot to tell them they are supposed to be in crisis) Japan is still on top 5 economies. Other is to remember that not only they are all that on the paper, but they are also so full of improvements and advances that you don't count, like the smallest criminal rate, highest safety, better health system (even for foreigners!), best transit system, biggest technological advances on social areas, one of the nicest people with one of the richest history, culture, beauty and nature I already mentioned. Yes, you could compare Japan, maybe, from time to time, with Norway for instance. But add what numbers and statistics can't see, and you will realize it is a whole different world.
And after you meet all that, when you finally realize there is everything of the best on that small island, you will inevitably ask ...
9. Why waste time and money on something inevitably inferior?
Ok, you are curious about the biggest ball of tar in US, on visiting all those fancy cities you see on the movies. You want to check out Versailles or the Eifel tower, the London tub, the Spanish castles, or even get to the cradle (more like hornet's nest) of civilization. An African safari perhaps? hell, maybe you want the urban jungle of the Brazilian shantytowns. It doesn't matter, whatever you choose will be based on something you want to check out, not because you want to be impressed or relax, and no matter what destination you choose, there is simply none that will offer you all that small 377.000Km² archipelago has. Compared to Japan, the whole world is just a big human safari.
10. And there is no end to it!
And there are so much more to it, obviously this article can't cover everything, and one could start up lists of interest and points you must check out - and would take your whole life doing so - like the 88 shrine circuit↗, the 3 visions of Japan↗, The tropical↗ and the temperate↗, maybe the 18 world heritage sites↗, and so much more ... why bother with some place else when you can spend your whole life meeting and been in this enriching experience that Japan offers you? Yet, if these 10 reasons did not suffice, that is ok, you can always check this site: 100 reasons why you should visit Japan↗
Do I really need to fallback and say "because I like it" when asked why I want to go back?
Bellow: Map of my points of interest/favorite places. Stars mean I already visited.