Japan is a destination that sticks with you.
After traveling there last fall, I came back completely enamored with a beautiful country and culture. I had the same questions about the language barrier and communication, but in the end any of those challenges were out weighed by the beautiful culture and connections I made with the people. It was extremely rewarding and eye opening to spend time in a place so drastically different than home.
It was a popular destination in 2016 and shows no sign of slowing down in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I've already had several friends travel there in the past few months, so I thought it would be helpful to gather my thoughts -- and recommendations -- in one place to share why this is such a special and unique destination.
1. The Food. This should already be obvious to you. Travel to Japan for the freshest sushi you'll ever have, but stay for the many varieties of ramen, udon noodles, gyoza, tempura, rice, Kobe beef and tonkatsu. Go out of your comfort zone and try something new - seafood you've never heard of, many pickled vegetables options, and have fish for breakfast. Don't forget the fabulous pizza and croissants that Japanese chefs have mastered. Be sure to slurp your noodles (a sign to the chef that you are enjoying your meal) and finish everything that is served to you (out of respect for the chef).
2. The language barrier isn't that scary. Even with limited communication abilities, everyone I met was extremely helpful and friendly. My biggest tip is to rent a pocket wifi (which you can pick up on arrival at the airport) to carry with you everywhere you go. Having access to Google Maps won't make you immune from getting lost, but will dramatically improve your changes of successfully navigating your way and boost your confidence.
3. Train travel. To me, traveling by train is infinitely more enjoyable than getting on an airplane. In Japan, the trains run on time, are convenient and a great way to see the country. Get yourself a Japan Rail Pass before you leave home (they are only available for purchase out of the country) to make your train experience affordable and flexible. Don't miss a ride on the Shinkansen, Japan's bullet train that travels at 150-200 mph. I only got in a car once on our trip from the airport to the hotel on arrival, and honestly we could have easily taken the train and saved ourselves a lot of yen.
4. Mix of tradition and modernity. Japan does old and new like nowhere else. Simultaneously honoring the rich culture of the past, the country is hurtling into the modern area faster than practically anyone else. It is utterly fascinating. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan city in the world, while Kyoto is home to some of the deepest history. Just check out a modern toilet in Tokyo if you have any doubts.
5. Respect. There is a sense of decorum and respect that permeates the culture. Whether politely queing up for the train, dressing well on a daily basis, or properly disposing of their trash (seriously the cleanest place ever), the Japanese set the bar on respect. The surgical masks people wear shouldn't alarm you. They are considerately worn to shield germs from others. Even the school children are impressively well behaved.
6. Stay in a Ryokan. One of the most unique and memorable experiences I've ever had while traveling. Arrive open minded and be ready to try (and eat) anything. Bathing in a traditional onsen is an opportunity not to be missed.
7. Shopping. From traditional hand made ceramics to electronic super stores, there is literally something for everyone here. I wish I had spent some more time exploring some of the small shops, especially in Tokyo, but that is what a return trip is for!
8. Clean & Safe. Even as one of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo is one of the cleanest places I've ever been. This extends across all cities in Japan (that I visited), including all public areas. The bathroom one of the Kyoto subway stations is seriously the nicest public restroom I've seen. While you should always be vigilant and careful when you travel, I felt safe all day every day. From early morning pre-dawn runs to late night subway rides. One of my favorite customs are the warm hand towels you receive before every meal. That is a small touch that I really appreciate and enjoyed.
And there you have it! I could easily go on and on about the vending machine situation (kind of amazing) or how to approach the Tsukiji Fish Market, so feel free to reach out with any specific questions. And go book that flight!