I have just had a week in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto (with a dinner in Kobe and a lunch in Osaka!). Japan was the 69th country to get to! Sadly it has taken me so many decades to finally get there! Why is Japan so amazing?
Seven reasons why Japan has made it to my Top Five countries:
1. Easy to get around
I was blown away by the phenomenal transport infrastructure.
What impressed me was the brilliant signage which meant navigating the trams (streetcars) in Hiroshima, the Shinkansen and the Tokyo metro so easy. You can easily find the right platforms, exits and trains. I always felt in control – in a country where I cannot read the local writing and I only have seven Japanese words (aside from Toyota, Mitsubishi etc)
For people with a disability, Japan has to be one of the best setup places I have seen. Tactile surfaces for blind people, wheelchair friendly trams and buses, good lift and ramp access and good signage.
The ticketing options were a letdown. There are so many different companies resulting in an overly complex system of tickets, passes and fare gates. Some simplification and standardisation would create perfection.
2. Outstanding service culture
One of my friends warned me: “Go to Japan and you will never find good customer service anywhere in the world again“. He was correct. “There is often a flourish to Japanese service culture” that I have not seen anywhere else. “Leave no customer behind” seems to be the overwhelming principle. Storekeepers kept me feeling important without feeling suffocated.
One downside is the excessive packaging. Everything is wrapped beautifully in layers of paper and plastic. Saying “no” to plastic bags was hard work. Plastic bags are left for umbrellas at store entrances and discarded. We saw no litter but I know that each person in Japan produces an average of 356.2kg of waste per person per annum. As a whole, Japan generates 45,360,000 tons of municipal waste per year making it the 8th most prolifically waste producing country in the world. An interesting discovery is how rare rubbish bins are in Japan. Recycling sorting is very, very strict when you do find a set of bins!
3. Amazing affordable food
4. Culture and history
Japan is actually known as Nihon and Nippon meaning “origin of the sun” (literally “Land of the Rising Sun“). A Buddhist country since 552, the landscape is stuffed with castles, shrines, temples, museums and shops.
Japanese art, calligraphy and gardens round out the picture.
An obvious negative was the airbrushing of history. For example, Japanese museums made a huge deal of the way they were treated in World War Two and the aftermath without mentioning that it was Japanese incursions into Asia and the Pacific that brought Australia and the USA into the war.
5. Good mix of active and restful holiday options
Tokyo is the crazy 24-hour city but even in the frenetic pace, colour and commerce, there are many peaceful spots. This was the pattern wherever we went.
Across the country, hot springs, hiking areas and beautiful shrines bring peace. I even found some Christian churches which were definitely oases of calm.
Japan has some of the lowest murder and theft rates in the world. A 2014 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development study ranked Japan as “the safest country in the world” with “the second-lowest homicide rate after Iceland and the second-lowest assault rate after Canada.” NB Crime does exist so foreigners should not be too comfortable as often strangers are targeted. There is also an undercurrent of very high rates of sexual harassment and workplace/school bullying. One day, the train I was on stopped because a “person had entered the system“, a euphemism for a suicide meaning someone had jumped in front of a train. No one seemed phased. Japan has one of the world’s highest suicide rates with 70 people a day killing themselves.
7. Cleanest public toilets in the world
I always thought Switzerland were top of the ladder in this space but Japan absolutely blew me away. I even found spotless lavatories inside underground subway stations. Believe me, this is such a bonus when travelling.
Have you been to Japan? What did you think?
My Top Five also includes: New Zealand, Switzerland, France, Spain and Costa Rica (yes I can count!)