“If we can make it in Japan, we can make it everywhere!” That was our mantra back in 1996 when we headed to the land of the Rising Sun. Everybody told us Japan was such a strange country.
Indeed, Japan was not a very popular travel destination back in 1996, mainly because it was seen as too different and not many people were able to speak English.
There were also rumors that the cost of living was unbelievably high. Rumors indeed, because we soon discovered that you could still travel Japan and even Tokyo on a Budget.
Inspiration from Japan
We went and discovered Japan as being a fascinating country. We dare to say that Japan changed the way we look at our lives. The cultural differences have an impact, especially when you spend a longer period of time like we did. Our stay in Japan also changed the way we value the act of traveling.
The intriguing culture behind the façade
Geisha’s hide their face behind a mask of white make-up (shiro-nuri). Famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami describes parallel worlds where cats can talk and a second moon shines its light upon the world.
Japanese people by habit don’t show their emotions and it’s not common practice to talk about personal life when you meet for the first time. Japanese TV game shows go to the extreme and readers of manga (violent comics that are very popular in Japan) immerse in another extreme world that allows them to hide from reality. There’s more to Japan than meets the eye. It’s a fascinating culture, overlooked by many, neglected by some.
For most Westerners, Japan is all about strange people and strange habits, hi-tech, the concrete sky-scraper city of Tokyo and an ever-present threat of earthquakes and tsunamis.
Connecting With the Japanese
I did speak some words of Japanese after my 3-month stay in the country back in 1996. While we back-packed from north to south we got some glimpses of the world behind the façade. We were staying in smaller fisher towns where hardly any foreigners ever sat foot. To these people, we were their link to the outside world and we were willing to answer all their questions (and so we did!).
Kyoto is a must-visit place in Japan that gives great insights into ancient Japan. Go to the geisha district of Gion, where you can stroll through narrow alleys with historical buildings.
This is the Japan of centuries ago!
When you’re lucky you can bump into a geisha, quickly walking from one appointment to another. Visit the wide variety of temples and shrines in Kyoto. Sit down and just look at the so-called Zen gardens. Representing the ocean with islands, these gardens offer relaxation and tranquility in the midst of a hectic outside world. The gardens are mostly not understood by foreigners, but see them as some kind of meditation. When you watch them, you will soon discover the true meaning behind the rocks and gravel.
The Tradition of Respect in Japan
Always when you enter a store in Japan, people greet you. It is an obliged way of politeness, but still, I was impressed. In Japanese society, younger people, in general, show respect to the elderly, even in the way they talk!
The Japanese language has special words and phrases that young people use when they talk to someone they respect (a teacher or an elderly person). We were indeed impressed by that level of respect and we compared it to our own lives. When we enter a shop in our country we might need to actively draw the attention of shop personnel. It’s the other way around! In Japan, respect is embedded in the culture, originating from the tenet of Confucianism.
Japanese are Punctual
Next to the respect we loved the Japanese punctuality! Trains drive for hundreds of miles, arriving on exactly the time planned (you can count the seconds).
Japanese people are driven by punctuality because it shows respect to others. For a train driver punctuality is priority no 1 because that’s the way he can show respect to his passengers.
For us, Japan is a different society, a different way of living together. Traveling in such a country makes you aware of differences in how people live together, how customers are approached and how to respect one another. It’s a lesson learned that you take home with you.
The importance of speed versus slow travel
You probably know those high-speed bullet trains in Japan called the Shinkansen. But you probably did not know that these trains were already running in 1964! It’s all part of the technological leadership position that made Japan famous in the 70s and 80s.
Through the extensive Shinkansen network, we could travel to the other side of the country in only a couple of hours. Traveling high-speed saves a lot of time, but at the same time, we skipped thousands of kilometers of people, towns and actual discoveries.
We were heading for an important sight-seeing spot so we choose to travel like that. But never will we know what we have missed would we have traveled more slowly. In another part of the country, however, we changed things around.
We picked an area that was not in any of the travel guide books (according to these factual guide books nothing interesting was to be found there). But we went anyway. And we had a fab time!
We went to Wakajima prefecture and stayed at a small hotel. The owner of the hotel was so proud of her foreign guests that she took us to the market and showed us to all her friends!
We traveled by local train services to smaller sight-seeing spots and the rocky coastal area. We were the only ones around. How different a travel experience can be if you decide to travel slow into an area that is not highlighted in travel guides.
So that is our Japan story. Japan is a fascinating country where you can switch between extremes. It showed us that traveling is far more than going from one famous sight-seeing spot to another. There is nothing wrong with that, but we learned that you have to actively search for the real world (culture) behind the tourist places.
There is far more to discover if you actively go out and observe it.
29 thoughts on “Inspiration – How Japan changed the way we travel”
This was a very interesting post on Japan. I wonder what it’s like for backpackers now? I read a lot of travel blogs as I’m planning a few long-overdue trips, but Japan seems to be pretty expensive in the cities. I’ve been living just a couple countries over in Taiwan for 8 years, and the extent of my Japan travel experience has been changing planes on my way back to Canada for a visit.
It was also a great point about respect. As I live in a Chinese-speaking country, there’s more courtesy than respect here. People follow the protocols, but don’t much care about personal space, private information, or general health and safety. Except surgical masks when they’re sick. That’s pretty common.
So thanks for you look into Japan. It remains near the top of my list of go-to places.
Great article! Completely agree with all your points. I’ve lived in Osaka for a year and a half now. I love it here. Respect and hospitality are better than anywhere in the world I have travelled to. The Japanese do have some strange habits, yes, but the positives far out-weight the negatives! Thanks for the great article!
Thank you so much James! It’s great to have confirmation from insiders, enjoy your time in Osaka.
Beautiful post, Emiel! It’s funny… it is only because of manga that one of my daughters is suddenly excited about going to Japan. Before she became a fan of Hatsune Miku she had no interest in traveling.
That indeed is funny Paige. Sometimes interests in countries or cultures start in an unexpected way, but hey, any interest from kids in other cultures is only to be stimulated!
Wonderful post! I’ve been to Japan 5 times, but unfortunately more than 30 years ago. Your post brought out so many fond memories of my traveling in the country. I took 3 years of Japanese in high school and another 3 in college. The first time my family took me to Japan, I had only a half-year (one-semester) of high school level Japanese. I could pick up on a few essential words (such as “where’s the toilet”, “help, I’m lost. Where’s this hotel.” and “place to eat?”), but I wasn’t even close to being fluent. We found many, many Japanese (particularly students) wanting to practice their English on us. So, our lack of Japanese wasn’t an issue. Japan is truly an interesting place — from snow skiing in Hokkaido to exploring the hidden temple grounds of Narita, there’s a lot of hidden yet fascinating things to see and do in this country. The last time I was in Japan, I had completed 6 years of Japanese… so getting around was quite fun, and exploring things off the beaten path was also more of an adventure.
Dave, you must be fluent in Japanese. Thanks for your comment. And yes, this fellow thought back in 1996 that it was a tough destination….if I had been a more experienced traveler I of course would have thought otherwise. But really, people looked at me like crazy when I told them we went to Japan for a while. Luckily things changed.
I would just like to clarify that manga are not violent comics, rather they are just any sort of comic that is produced in Japan, there are many that lack any sort of viloence. Also Japanese manga are very popular internationally now and not just in Japan. There are a few other small errors as well, but overall it was very good read, even for someone who has studied Japanese culture and language for several years and experienced life and travel in Japan. Thanks!
Hi Matt, you know that personal stories are all about our own experiences. My stories describe how I felt, what I experienced, learned and yes, I did create my own opinions. But I’m glad you corrected me on the manga!
In the Gion district of Kyoto you probably saw maiko not geiko rushing down the street. Maiko are apprentice geiko. Geiko would not be rushing down the walkway to an appointment.
Also, as a ‘manga-holic’, I’m hurt by your definition of manga “(violent comics that are very popular in Japan)”. Manga cover a broad spectrum of story lines; simple children’s stories, romances, battles, mysteries, comedies, young-adult, historic fiction, adult, there are even manga that teach science and biographies of famous people. Some of the story lines are very complex and entertaining. Yes, a percentage are very violent or ‘adult’, but the same could be said about any media.
You are right CM Conley, glad you also corrected that. Only part of Manga is violent or ‘adult’.
You said “manga (violent comics that are very popular in Japan)”. Seriously? Where does this information come from? This is so not true. Manga has as many genres as movies: drama, romance, comedy, action, sci fiction, etc. Lot’s of people who are reading this article never heard about somethings you tell about Japan. Try to be more careful with the information you give.
Setsuna, you are right. Manga or anime is not only about what I have written. I am glad you have corrected that.
Leaving on 1/26 for 2 glorious weeks in Japan starting in Tokyo for our exchange students wedding. We will spend some time there and then go on to Osaka, Kyoto, Zentsuji and Hiroshima. Our Japanese hosts are also ensuring that we see some places off the beaten path. So excited and honored to be making this trip. Thanks for your blog!
I trust you will have a blast Arlene! Enjoy it and let me know if you plan to write about your off the beaten path experiences.
This is a very inspiring post! It is refreshing to read about a travel experience where the culture was embraced and respected. I would like to visit Japan someday. The atmosphere and lifestyle looks completely different to the U.S.
I offer a small correction. In Kyoto Those that look like Geisha are called Geiko. In Tokyo there are women called Geisha They are not the same. Do not make the mistake of refering to a Geiko and a Geisha. It is most offensive to the Geiko.
Thanks Scott for that correction. I do know a Maiko is also different from a Geisha (Maiko is like the Geisha-to-be). Geiko would fall in that same category?
I had tried to go to Japan for 20 years and finally just said, No more delays I’m going even if i have to go by myself, and that’s just what I did. That was June 2008. It rained allot. I went to Japan because it was so different. I only wish I could have stayed longer and have been able to speak the language better, and still do. I will go there again. I just don’t know when. I love it there, and the Japanese people are wonderful. I love their Culture and traditions.
I love picking an area that wasn’t in any of the guidebooks! I think I’ll try that. Let’s go to the places nobody talks about!
Great Post! I can’t wait to visit Japan.
You should Justin, add Japan to your plans. Do you know what is great about places nobody talks about? There are so many of it!!
We can’t wait to visit Japan either. I was only in Yokohama in 1994, so we have a lot to explore.
Thanks for the opportunity to guest post on your blog! Lots of memories came back while reading this story again. On the day that many websites go black, this post again reminded me that sometimes we have to stop moving forward so quickly and just think about what we are acutally doing. In the world of traveling that means that we need to stop, look around and really observe a different culture.
We’re heading to Japan this year so I’m heading to ActOfTravelling to find out more about your time there!! Thanks for the intro!
That’s great news! Feel free to also drop me an email when you have particular questions.
Wicked, Enjoy your time in Japan!