Japan is a place that, at first, can seem a little overwhelming to the newcomer. There will undoubtedly be moments when you feel as if all of your senses are being simultaneously assaulted. But, if you stay calm and focused, Japan is a surprisingly easy country to travel around and explore . Maps and directions are generally available in English, and Japanese people are surprisingly friendly and helpful.
There’s a lot to love about Japan. It’s a fascinating country with an extraordinarily rich history and culture.
Here are some of the highlights.
The Shinkansen bullet trains are an absolute dream. This is how train travel should be. There are constant departures, the trains are modern, spacious, and efficient. Plus, the service is super-professional - the sleek and stylish ticket inspectors bow politely as they enter each carriage, and then politely bow again as they leave.
It’s not just the bullet trains that set the standard – Japan’s entire rail network is impressive and always seems to be running smoothly.
At first, the train maps and ticketing system can seem a bit incomprehensible, but it works like most other train systems that you will have encountered around the world, and there’s generally an English-language interpretation of the map somewhere. Plus, the ticket machines will have an English-language option that you can select.
Peak hours in the major cities can be a bit of a crush and, like any big city in the world, are best avoided if possible. Generally, train travel in Japan is a fairly relaxed experience.
The Japanese take public health seriously. The majority of people seem to wear protective face masks when they’re out and about.
If you ask anyone about it, they’ll explain that it’s a form of politeness - that if you have a cold or are sick in any way, then you wear a face mask to prevent passing your germs on to anyone else. But the face masks do seem to have become a bit of a safety blanket as well.
It can be a bit surreal to be travelling the train or walking the street and realising that everyone around you is wearing a protective face mask – like you’ve suddenly landed in a strange science fiction movie, or that there’s some airborne epidemic that no one has told you about.
If you’re in Tokyo, visit the neighbourhood of Akihabara - known for its numerous electronic stores. This is the neighbourhood where you’ll also find lots of anime and manga stores, and some of the over-the-top themed restaurants you might have heard of. The sounds and lights of this precinct are so intense that it makes you almost feel as if you’ve been immersed in a manga adventure.
In Japan, you’re supposed to cycle on the sidewalks. The sidewalks are generally fairly wide, so there’s usually enough space for pedestrians and cyclists to dodge each other.
Cycling is very common in a city like Kyoto – it’s the local’s preferred method of getting around. Cycling is less common in Tokyo, although apparently a lot more people in Tokyo began to cycle after the 2011 earthquake left hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded in the crowded subway system.
Most people cycle fairly slowly, wobbling down the pavement towards you as you try and judge which way to move in order to best avoid a collision.
There’s a dumpling outlet that’s ubiquitous in Japan, called Hoorai 551 – it’s a chain that’s originally from Osaka, but you can find them at most airports and train stations. My favourites are the gyoza style, but they’re all worth exploring.
If you’re in Osaka, you’ll be tempted to try Takoyaki – one of Osaka’s most iconic street-foods. These are the octopus balls.
What’s deceptive about Takoyaki is that they’re not a firm ball of dumpling, but have sort of a crisp outside shell and then a soft gooey mixture inside that contains the pieces of octopus. I can’t tell you how many times I have seriously burnt my mouth eating Takoyaki - the soft mixture inside seems to stay incredibly hot for a long period of time.
This is one of the iconic after-work snacks for Japanese workers - ideally accompanied by beer.
A short walk from Tokyo’s Yurakucho station, underneath the railway tracks, you’ll find a whole street of small restaurants offering these tasty grilled skewers of meat. My favourites were at the restaurant called Teppei, but they’re all pretty good.
You can play it safe and opt for chicken or beef, but it’s worth challenging yourself with some more adventurous choices.
These are small fish-shaped pastries that are traditionally filled with red bean paste.
Red bean is good, but even better are the chocolate or caramel filled versions that you can find at outlets such as Chichai Taiyaki – generally within the train stations.
The Tsukishima area of Tokyo is where you’ll find Monja Street – a little street where there are about 70 restaurants, all serving the traditional local dish of monjayaki.
You might be familiar with okonomiyaki, which is a similar dish from Osaka – essentially a big savoury pancake that you cook on a hot plate at the table. Monjayaki is the Tokyo version, and it has a different consistency but is equally delicious.