Japan is one of my top places to visit. It has such a unique culture, it having been largely isolated for many centuries. The history is so different to other countries, well documented and illustrated across the country. It is a wonderful, if somewhat challenging place to tour independently, learning and experiencing so much as you go. Japan, is safe, clean, efficient and so if you do get lost – and you will – it is not a big problem, unless you are in too much of a rush.
Whatever the place in Japan I love to explore the shops, the eating houses, the Temples and all the other ordinary things you come across, which in Japan are extra-ordinary.
Japanese people are endlessly polite and seemingly hate to say ‘No’ to anything or give bad news (which in business from my experience can be exasperating!). Conversations often further reveal this politeness along with the necessity to conform to the rest of society, be it the work place or elsewhere.
You may also find a real concern amongst younger people as to what the future holds, as they recognize that their hardworking parents will likely have lived through what was Japan’s golden era as some sort of decline is inevitable. No longer is Japan the leading power in the region. China is leaping ahead, South Korea has caught up and now Taiwan has done well, plus all the next tier of countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia have charted rapid growth strategies.
There are many new ‘big kids on the bloc’ and Japan is now but one of several.
I have been going to Japan regularly for over 20 years and how it is changing – noticeably!
Only 20 years ago Japan accepted, but did not encourage visitors as such. Then around 2010 as the traditional industries struggled to drive the economy forward it was realized that tourism could be a wonderful financial ‘export’.
This coincided with the thawing of relations with China and South Korea which in turn led to a rapid growth of visitors from both nearby countries. Since that time of course, spats over disputed islands, the WW2 legacy Japan inflicted on both countries and then the Korean War of 1950, means that pretty regularly political arguments spill over and visas and flights are made difficult. Or the Chinese Authorities instruct tour operators not to sell travel to Japan. So sometimes when you go there are lots of Chinese visits and sometimes not so many.
An Aging Population.
It is well documented and known that Japans population is now declining and aging. It is especially obvious outside Tokyo in more rural areas where the younger folk have left for the cities. The pressured, high cost of a high standard of living has resulted in record low birth rates.
Despite the declining population and stagnating economy, building of the infrastructure just seems to continue. There always seems lots of building going on in Tokyo and Japan really invests in and values its public transportation systems. Haneda Airport, near to Tokyo, unlike Narita (Tokyo’s original airport 50 expensive minutes away on the Narita Express) has been built and is now challenging Narita in terms of flights.
My Top Places To Explore
By the way everywhere I’ve been, has been by public transport which is just such an integral part of Japanese life. Armed with a Japan Rail (JR) Pass and perhaps a local transportation card ( I use the SUICA Card) – off we go!
Vast, intense and vibrant Tokyo and its various suburbs and neighborhoods are well worth investigating.
Tokyo Central. Tokyo Station is very near the Imperial Palace and gardens and also the Ginza district. Lots was destroyed in 1945 and so now it is mostly new buildings full of activity.
Shimbashi. I normally stay in this area as it’s a little less expensive, has great transport links and much to see. I know I am back in familiar surrounds when I see the steam locomotive stationed outside Shimbashi Station. The Japanese love animation and the Giant Gihbli Clock in the Shiodome area, set amidst the offices occupied by dark suited workers is a curiosity; its fun to see one of its daily ‘shows’ if you can time it right, for young and old alike. A short walk in the opposite direction is the iconic Tokyo Tower which offers great views.
Shinjuku. Further around the famous JR Yamanote rail line which is an operational marvel such is its frequency and capacity, Shinjuku is what you expect to see in Tokyo. Crowds of workers in confined spaces rushing around; Shinjuku Station claims to be the busiest in the world with 3.6 million passengers per day.
Ueno. It maybe that your train, if you use the Skyliner will bring you to Ueno which is another lively area to get the feel of Tokyo and Japan
Yurikamome MonoRail to the Odaiba area. Here you’ll see ‘new build’ Tokyo. The MonoRail is part of the attraction and high up offers great views of the Port area and even an Edo period old fortress. There are several exhibitions and strange ones too, reflecting interests of the Japanese today, such as a Trick Art Museum and the Digital Art Museum. I started the exploration at the Aomi Station.
Iidabashi. Seems like an older, local neighborhood, away from visitors. There is a canal and canalside cafes and traditional inexpensive restaurants.
I always buy a local paper (rather than rely just on web newsfeeds solely) and in Japan there are English language papers. The stories really give a feel of what is topical and the politics. When I was just there early 2020 (turned out to just as the CoVid19 pandemic started) the interesting stories revolved around:
- A Tokyo Professor had been fired for saying he would never hire anyone from China. Discrimination is global.
- A whole range of political and economic jibes at South Korea, largely over North Korea at this particular time
- There were, daily, polite observations on Trump and America’s policy. A very clear ‘let’s not upset him strategy’ seemed clear!
- It was the 25th anniversary of the massive Kobe Earthquake
- The English Premier League (soccer) receives endless and oversized attention!
Routes Beyond Tokyo
Nagasaki. The site of its nuclear bomb is equally well memorialized with a good and meaningful museum at the site. Being on the island of Kyushu getting to Nagasaki does demand more time and effort. I knew an American veteran, who became a surgeon and died in 2018, but as a young man fought his way up the Pacific (including Guadacanal and Iwo Jima) who I vividly remember telling me that they were moored off the coast of Kyushu awaiting the order to embark on what he regarded as a suicidal landing. Then they heard of the attack and he said, whatever, the rights and wrongs, it almost certainly saved his life.
Kyoto. Outside of Tokyo the most visited city with its beautiful Shinto Shrines, Buddhist temples, gardens, castles and temples. This is the heart of old Japan. Many hotels are in the center near the modern impressive, very light and airy station. We stayed at the New Hankyu not far from the Kyoto Tower.
Himeji. Himeji Castle built in 1333 is surely the most beautiful, and stunningly located of all Japanese monuments. This UNESCO site, it turns out is one of the most complete and historically worthy castles too. On the bright sunny day I was there it was absolutely stunning.
Matsumoto. Close behind Himeji (says he as anything but an expert in Japanese Castles!) is the wonderful structure at Matsumoto about 150 miles north west of Tokyo and not far from Nagano. Matsumoto is worth exploring but if you can arrange to have a little more time take the Highland Line. A branch line that goes to Shinshimashima Station and offers an enjoyable ride away from the bigger towns.
Yokohama. Essentially a suburb of Tokyo this famous city can easily be visited in an afternoon. As a port it has, it seemed on my Sunday afternoon visit, a lot going on including a Bavarian Bier Fest on the waterfront. Look closer and you can see and read about the devastation of the 1923 earthquake and the recovery and rebuilding that went on. Only for it to be intensively bombed during the ending phases of WW2.
Routes Beyond Tokyo
Osaka. The Shinkansen drops you off at the out of town station and you take a local service to the absolutely massive main Osaka Station. A mega modern city to explore and yet the ancient Osaka Castle is set in the middle. Osaka makes a great base to visit the towns of Nara, Kyoto and Himeji for example.
Hiroshima. It is difficult to overstate how important it is to visit the Peace Park and the place where the nuclear bomb exploded. This simply changed the course of history. A poignant and draining visit for all.
Itsukushima Shrine. Not far from Hiroshima you can take the train and ferry to the iconic orange gate on all the brochures about Japan. The island, which seems to be called Miyajima is full of trails and sights and well worth exploring. Look out for the strange wildlife too!
Next Time. Next time I go I will be heading to Hokkiado the northern most larger island where I’d like to learn about the history of the relationship with Russia…just a short way away.