Radiating culture and tradition, whilst also at the forefront of technology, design and innovation – Japan demands constant energy from its travellers. Japan will delight you, Japan will challenge you and it will exhaust you but leave you craving more.

By Catherine G.

Radiating culture and tradition, whilst also at the forefront of technology, design and innovation – Japan demands constant energy from its travellers. Japan will delight you, Japan will challenge you and it will exhaust you but leave you craving more.  

Waiting for your backpack to be birthed from the belly of the plane, you will find yourself jetlagged, dazed and exhausted from a lack of sleep that only international flights can give you. However upon stepping out into the middle of Shibuya, downtown Tokyo, Japan will instantly demand you wake up and smell the roses. The energy in Tokyo is unlike any other big city around the world. It seems as if the lights are brighter, the sounds are louder and there is something different at every corner stop to capture your attention. Tokyo refuses to let you sleep in too late or dawdle for too long. Tokyo forbids you to linger at home on a Saturday night as the Shinjuku district, full of bars, clubs and quirky Japanese theatrical shows wail for you to come out and play. Tokyo invites you to meet a robot, be pushed on to a train during rush hour, to climb to the top of an apartment block and watch the sun set. Tokyo ensures that you are as fast-paced as the city’s bullet trains. If you don’t keep up, you will be left behind. 

Mt Fuji is a welcome distraction from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. But don’t be fooled, Japan is nothing but a constant surprise, and Mt Fuji is no exception. The bus will wind through the mountains before ruthlessly discarding you at ‘Aokigahara’, from which your grim-faced bus driver will promptly depart. The haunting Aokigahara (or, as it is better known, ‘Suicide Forest’) will dampen your laughter and quieten your footsteps as you wander its 35-square kilometre dense forest. This infamous forest is known for its silence. Whilst it is free of singing birds and happy hikers, Suicide Forest rings with the echoes of successful suicide attempts. The forest cautiously whispers for you to stay on the paths, for it is well known that many who wander off in the forest are unlikely to come out again. Aokigahara will haunt you long after you have left its sea of trees.  

Escaping from Aokigahara may put you on the path to visiting Japan’s rural areas of Nagano, Magome, Kurokawa and Beppu. This mountainous region will beckon and entice you with the allure of hot springs and tea houses. Shoulders aching from your heavy pack, you put your trust in the broken English of your taxi driver who sends you off into the peaks with nothing more than a vague point in the right direction.

Perhaps the snow is falling softly during winter, or the cherry blossoms grace the country with their elegant presence in spring. The Japanese countryside may be quiet, but it is not short of things to do. As always, Japan demands the highest commitment of its companions. You may fill your days with onsen bathing (communal hot baths separated by gender), or by soaking up the healing properties of natural sulphuric mud baths in Beppu. You’ll find total serenity in the calming environments, drinking green tea and eating ramen by day, and Sake and sushi by night. 

These less populated towns of Japan’s south are a hub of culture; pure, organic displays of traditional Japanese lifestyles. The Kiso Valley boasts pilgrimage walks through the mountains, where one can trek along the single route that was used for Japanese commerce and trading between cities hundreds of years ago. Traditional towns selling local handmade ceramics, bamboo crafts or Japanese calligraphy paintings will ensnare your attention. Small cobblestone streets with traditional inns and tea houses will enchant you. It can seem as if these quaint little towns are a world away from anything else. Locals will smile welcomingly as you find your way to your Ryokan guesthouse, and gratefully make up your futon bed, upon traditional tatami bamboo floor mats. The people are fundamentally kind in Japan, reflecting a culture that emphasises politeness and courteousness above all. You will never find yourself far from a smile of an old Japanese man, or the welcoming wave of a young Japanese woman.  

The Japanese are undoubtedly social people. Whether it be a conversation had in smiles, a wordless exchange or participating in a tea ceremony, they will embrace your presence. Tea ceremonies have long been recognised in Japan as historic traditions. They are spiritual encounters, where each step of preparing the tea holds its own important meaning. You’ll find yourself learning how to correctly lift and turn the cup clockwise before drinking and the importance of listening to the sounds the bamboo utensils make during the preparation. The experience of attending a traditional Japanese tea house under the tea master’s careful guidance is a social and spiritual event that is culturally rich and meaningful. 

Despite a disorienting communication barrier, the Japanese language will command your attention with more than words. For foreigners the language is a maze of different tones, pitches, accented words and syllables. You will find yourself smiling in dazed confusion as the lady at the supermarket continues to converse with you, despite the fact that you are uttering nothing in return. Elongated sounds and fast-paced phrases catch you off-guard as you wander the Tsukiji Fish Market, each seller doing his best to reel you in for the best prices for his squid. Or perhaps you’re desperately trying to obtain directions in downtown Kyoto, meeting locals who will patiently listen and do their best to respond to your broken Japanese phrases, including repeated counts of the word ‘gaijin’, meaning foreigner. With little or no knowledge of the Japanese language, you will be misunderstood and you will struggle to communicate. You will be lost in translation. And you will love it. 

Japan’s city of Osaka brings new challenges to the eager traveller. It will have you laughing at karaoke bars and giggling at childish photo booths, as you digitally decorate your pictures with Hello Kitty stickers. You will compete with trendy Japanese schoolgirls for the best buys at Osaka’s huge fashion shopping malls – of which most cater to women. It remains a mystery as to where all the well-dressed Japanese men shop! In the bigger cities, youths and young adults are at the forefront of the fashion world with the season’s latest colours and designs. Teens will wear bedazzled Ugg boots, sparkly sweaters in pastel colours, paired with frilly socks and girly sandals. Pleated skirts and white platform sneakers are a hit, mixed with printed jumpers and collared shirts. Neutral greys and beiges, pale pinks, blues and lilacs are seemingly the most popular colour combinations to play with. Clad with sparkling, oversized jewellery and Chanel handbags, the women will walk the streets in tall stilettos, their faces sleek with whitening cream, their hair perfectly-curled and sitting obediently in place. The grace, beauty and natural ease of the Japanese women will make any Westerner feel like a giraffe wearing roller skates.

Not surprisingly, the grace and beauty of Japanese women has long been prized. Japan’s Geisha culture has been a long-standing tradition since the Edo period (1603–1867). Traditionally presented with white faces, red lips and elaborate kimonos, Geisha serve the simple role of entertaining men. Whilst history explains that they were originally prostitutes, modern day Geisha are mere hostesses for male customers whose skills include classical music, dance, games and the art of conversation. Popular culture has romanticised the image of the Geisha; men today continue to seek out their services after work. Despite this, Geisha numbers are dwindling.

In the downtown Gion district of Kyoto you will watch modern-day Geisha nervously gather; skittish as they hurry to-and-from their training classes. Others are braver; posing for selfies with their Geisha friends along the many picturesque streets of Kyoto. Shuffling along gracefully in the elevated wooden thongs of their Geta, these women emanate feminine, well-educated sophistication. ‘Apprentice Geisha’ as they are known, are generally teenagers or young women who commit their lives to this world of elegant, high-class culture. They still live in traditional Geisha houses called okiya and embrace their teachings and way of life to become the quintessential hostess; elegant, respectful and classy. Such is the life of those in the karyūkai…or in other words ‘the flower and willow world’. 

 Japan is the perfect fusion of old and new – ancient traditions nestled beneath electrifying modern culture. This year, I was fortunate enough to experience it myself. I have travelled to many corners of the globe and can say without hesitation that not many places can invigorate and excite you, yet also relax and renew you like Japan can. It is the intoxicating blend of country and culture that makes Japan impossible to resist. Japan is to a traveller what a good red wine is to a Frenchman; something that draws you back time and time again, craving another taste.