Why I Keep Coming Back to Japan (Plus Five Times the Japanese People Helped a Lost Traveler)
If you'd ask me about my favorite country to travel to, I'll speak of Japan in a heartbeat. I don't even know how to begin this without being overly biased. But six years after my first visit, I can still attest to Japan being one of the most amazing places I have traveled to all these years. There are so many reasons why I fell in love and keep coming back to Japan. And although tourism never seems to be a problem for them, I still feel like I need to share my two cents about this beautiful country.
Attractions in Japan
Japan is huge. There are 47 prefectures to explore here after all. It's impossible for a tourist to go through the entire country in one month let alone one year without missing anything. The city lights in Tokyo, the temples in Kyoto, the funky town of Osaka, and the mountains of Hokkaido— these are just a few of what makes Japan known to tourists. Whatever your interests are, it seems that Japan's got it covered. It's a hit for Filipinos no matter what the season is!
Shopping in Japan
Our first Japan trip was during Golden Week. I didn't have much idea about how busy it was going to be. But I was too happy when we got there. Sure, we had to endure the crowd when we visited Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. But when we transferred to Tokyo, we got discounts after discounts during shopping. One time, I got a 50% off plus 10% tax refund since I am a foreigner. Uniqlo and Gu never failed me. But it's also a possibility to get huge discounts even when buying imported items.
On another note, I noticed that the local brands tend to be more expensive in Japan (except for Gu and Uniqlo, of course). I mentioned this to a Filipino resident in Tokyo, and she casually told us that local items tend to be pricier than the imported ones. Somehow, it didn't make sense to me. But if the quality of a product is good, who am I to question its price, anyway?
Shopping in Japan isn't only limited to clothes. They also have areas for electronics like Akihabara in Tokyo or luxury items in Omotesando. Shopping streets are almost always available that even the quiet island of Miyajima has its own. It's just really up to you how much of your money you're willing to shell out during your trip.
I think that Japanese and Chinese cuisines are two of the most visible Asian cuisines in the world. (But if you haven't tasted Filipino cuisine, you're missing out, yo!) Even though you go to America or Europe, it won't be so hard to find Japanese food. The Japanese have somehow catered the pallets of foreigners. But you know what they say— it's different if you're eating the dish in its place of origin.
Kobe beef is different from Hida beef. Okonomiyaki has different versions from Osaka and Hiroshima. And that's what makes the food culture even more exciting in Japan. There's so much to try and explore, not to mention the influences of the Western!
Just a tip if you don't know it yet, though: follow the rule of thumb about lining up where there's a long line especially if locals patronize it, too. That's if you have enough time, though. We tried it twice in Japan, and despite the ridiculous waiting queues, it didn't disappoint.
I tried Pablo in Japan but buying it here in the Philippines was not a wise decision for me. I'm not sure if their original cheesecake changed over the years. But it merely gave off a different feeling when I tasted it here!
Japan has such a rich culture. In fact, until now, NHK airs Taiga Dramas that tackles Japanese History. You'll still see dramas starring Samurais complete with convincing chonmage on the same timeslot of an advanced science related series. I believe Japan is similar to China and South Korea in that aspect.
Tourists get the chance to wear Yukata or Kimono while visiting temples, too. It's normal to see people during the summer festivals wearing yukata. Kimonos, on the other hand, seems to be a more glamorous dress compared to the other and mostly seen during formal events and ceremonies. The Japanese also love celebrating festivals which makes visits more fun for travelers. My personal favorite is hanami or flower viewing in Hirosaki Castle in Aomori during Spring season.
I love the fact that Japan has kept its tradition while being open to foreign tourists and even expatriates. While the lifestyle of the Japanese is entirely different from other countries, it's fascinating to watch how the Japanese people live their lives in the modern world.
Music and the arts are also significant in Japan. It comes with so much variety that it makes it hard to catch up sometimes. It wouldn't be unusual to hear loud music from a roving truck near Shibuya for artists who have just released their new singles and album. In case you didn't know, CD and DVD sales are still huge in Japan even though most of us practically live with iTunes and Spotify now. Crazy, right?
And of course, who wouldn't forget about anime and manga? Children from all over the world are fans of Doraemon, Pikachu, Totoro, and many other cute characters! As for me, though, Japan got me through the animated film 5 centimeters per second. (And also, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which even had a live action!) If you haven't watched it, do it now! Although one of the recent Japanese movie hits Your Name looked really great, I still love 5cm/s the most.
If you happen to visit Harajuku or anywhere near especially during Sundays, you'd probably see a lot of young ones doing cosplay. It's cute and fun to see and identify the characters they try to be!
Transportation in Japan
Japan has over 10,000 train stations in the whole country. Sugoi desu ne! It's easy to travel domestically even without using the airplane. Who knew you could take the overnight bus from Tokyo to Osaka? Kakkoi! Ferries like the one that goes to Miyajima Island are also available. Cabs are on the expensive side. But fret not because you don't usually have to take them since the train is reliable.
Bigger train stations have tourist information centers most of the time. These are great help to tourists. Sometimes, I would even ask the train station officers because they are willing to help travelers if they want to go to a specific place using the best route.
Safety in Japan
For me, Japan is one of the safest places to travel to in the word. And that includes solo female travelers, alright? I may have gone solo for only two days, but I had a fantastic experience out of it. More on that story later, but the point Is that while Japan does not have zero crime rate— it's easy to say that exploring at least the big cities alone doesn't mean that you'll be in trouble.
But then again, accidents and crime happen everywhere whether you're at the comfort of your own home or on a holiday in Japan. Although Japan is generally safe, never let your guard down. Instead, always be alert whether you're traveling solo or with a group.
Sure, the reason why I wanted to visit Japan during my first time was because of cherry blossoms. But I realized that it's not only nature, technology, and the culture that makes Japan so special— mostly, it's the people. I have only been to Japan three times, but I've already had numerous encounters with kind Japanese men and women. I've come prepared for this part, and I have a lot of stories to tell!
Search for popcorn stand in Tokyo DisneySea
When my sister and I visited Tokyo DisneySea (the only DisneySea in the whole world), we decided to stay for the night show. Like many others, we saved our space and camped out 30 minutes before the show started. So, of course, I decided to grab some popcorn to kill some time.
Now, DisneySea, like any other Disney parks in the world is crazy huge, right? Naturally, I was pretty lost. I didn't have my map with me then, and I was having a hard time finding my beloved popcorn. But since they started making markers already, more park attendants were in place. So, I decided to bug one of them.
A lovely lady park attendant helped me find the nearest popcorn stand. And since some of them weren't open, she walked with me for about ten minutes to find a popcorn place. She only left when I was already lining up in front of the stall! What a great lady, right? I mean, yes, they are attendants. They are supposed to help people inside the park. But I didn't exactly expect any of them to come with me to find what I was looking for especially for about 10 minutes! I think I've had one of my most special popcorns because of that lady.
We were walking along Gion in Kyoto when we decided to go back to our hotel. But I didn't have an internet connection then, so I kept on asking people so we could get to the closest train station. I was so desperate because it's becoming dark already. So, I chose one of the empty shops and asked a lady if she could help me.
I was only expecting her to tell me where to go or how many meters until I have to turn north or south. But she didn't! She took off her apron and went outside the shop. She didn't go as far as bring us to the train station itself. But she did send us off with clear instructions on how to get there. We're lucky the station was close to the shop already albeit, without signs, it was pretty unnoticeable. The lady was more than happy to help even though she couldn't understand much English. For that, I was very thankful.
Phones out in front of strangers
When I got lost once in Osaka on my way back to the hotel, it was already past midnight, and I had to use a different exit in Namba station. Naturally, I didn't know how to get back to my hotel. So, I had no choice but ask strangers! Again! I asked around, and if they didn't know the hotel exactly, they would pull out their phones and look at the map for me!
I talked to about three strangers at that time, and no one acted strangely or was weirded out using their phones in front of me. It could be that snatching isn't a thing in Japan at all. Or they're just naturally helpful to tourists even if they don't understand English that much.
Chocolate for the lost girl
A convenience store is my favorite place to ask questions back when I'd still travel without internet. They often have neighborhood maps which helps out tourists like me. So, I think they are pretty used to strangers asking for directions. As a continuation of my previous story, I also thought of checking in at 711 and ask again about my hotel. At first, there was only one clerk inside so I waited until there was no one else in need of his assistance.
When I approached him, he couldn't understand me at all. But I was lucky because there was another guy in the stock room and he could follow my words at least a little. I showed them my reservation ticket which had the hotel address and name. A few minutes later, they were able to figure out that I was very near already. I only checked if I was in the right direction after all. (Writing about this annoys 2019 me who no longer bothers people when lost, to be honest.)
I was grateful for the Japanese hospitality at that time until one of the guys gave me a piece of chocolate before sending me off outside. Really, what's with the Japanese people and their kindness to strangers?
No bus, no problem
If I need to tell only one story about Japan, it's going to be about this experience. I wanted to see a field of tulips for the first time in 2015. So, even though it was pretty far from Osaka, I still went to Hyogo after half a day spent in Kyoto. I like to believe that I have researched well what I needed to do. Take the train, hop off, ride a bus, then walk to Tanto Tulip Festival. I was pretty confident when I was able to get to the last train station smoothly. Outside it was the bus terminal as well, after all. Just one ride and I'd reach my destination.
But the thing is, there were so many buses with only a few departing ones. I couldn't find any parked vehicle of the number I was looking for, so I was losing hope. But then, I didn't want to waste my time and money, so I took the courage to ask the guys taking a cigarette break to help me out.
At first, only one man was trying to help me out, until there were already five. When they finally figured out the bus that would stop on my desired place, they taught me how to use the system and even talked to the driver when he finally arrived.
The Tanto Tulip Festival Journey in Hyogo
I hopped on for a 30 -minute bus ride. And when I was about to get off, the driver gave me a copy of the bus schedule and reminded me about the last time the same bus would drop by that station to get me home. I thought that maybe, one of those five guys from earlier asked him to take note of my stop.
After visiting the tulips, I decided to go back to the station earlier to make sure that I get to catch the last trip. After all, Japanese transportation is notorious for being on time, and they for sure aren't going to adjust to my tardiness. Luckily, I was able to go back earlier than 5:30. But I just realized then that the waiting shed was all kinds of shady. There were two broken chairs as well as an abandoned bike parked under the waiting shed. There were no signs of life within the one-kilometer radius, too. I was all alone!
There weren't many cars let alone buses passing through the highway. Then, 5:30 struck and the bus was not in sight. I was starting to get scared. I was alone, and the place was in the suburbs, after all! But before I could go on a full-on panic attack, a car suddenly pulled up in front of me. I wasn't going to pay attention to him as I was facing my dilemma, but he started talking to me in broken English.
My Japanese Hero
"Are you the lady from the Tulip Festival?" he asked. The festival?
"There's no more bus coming today. Let me get you to the train station!"
Even though I knew that talking to strangers is risky, I didn't want to spend the night in the middle of nowhere. So, I hopped onto the car with him in good faith that he was going to send me back to the train station so I could ultimately go back to Osaka. He couldn't recommend a train station, but he dropped me off at another bus station after the ride. He also made sure that I would be able to get to a train station from there. And guess what? He didn't even make me pay no matter how many times I asked him to accept it!
The driver wasn't one of the guys that I talked to when I was in the station. He wasn't the bus driver that brought me to Tanto, either. How he knew about my situation would only be through them, but he couldn't even accept my money! My heart's still full of gratitude when I recall this story. I also feel a pinch of regret that I didn't even get to take a photo of him. I don't know why exactly he did that and probably will never do. But if I have to give only one reason why Japan is my favorite country— it's because of this experience.
Japan for the Lost Ones (and those who want to meet amazing people)
I know that most of my stories were related to me being a lost girl in Japan. After all, all these happened during the time that I was still able to travel without an internet connection. Social interaction as a solo traveler wasn't as minimal as today. I used to talk to the train station officers all the time. In fact, I'd ask for their advice whenever I didn't feel confident even if when was with my best friend or family.
But I realized that even though I was pretty lame for always relying on the locals, I've proven how helpful the Japanese people are despite the language barrier. I have become a more responsible traveler since then, but that doesn't mean that my perception of the kindness of the Japanese people has changed.
I know that Japan doesn't need any more blog posts to boost its tourism. A lot of people are going there for the holidays already. But really, I just had to get this off my chest. Japan is not perfect, but there are a lot of things to love about it, too. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people. So, if in case you came across this article while daydreaming about going to Japan, I hope I got you more excited. And if you're still be having second thoughts on visiting, I suggest go book that ticket and pack your bags immediately. Japan is waiting with its arms wide open!