Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Love Japan

Ohayu Gozaimasu!

I love travelling so much it is almost an understatement. But like many others, I dreamt of travelling to far-flung places like America, Europe and even the Middle East. Asia, much less Japan, was never on the horizon. It did not help by the fact that the older generation always told me that "Japan is a ridiculously expensive place no one else can afford to go" and in school we learnt that Japan was the major villain in the Pacific Theatre of War in World War II. All those unfortunate preconceptions!

I vividly remember my first encounter with Japan. I was 17 and travelling to the US of A for the first time, and we were transiting at Narita Airport. Unfortunately Narita left a bad impression on me. First, there was no aerobridge and we had to trudge from the tarmac to the main building. And processing though customs took more than an hour (where was the famed Japanese efficiency?) and a can of drink cost about 100 or 150yen in the early 1990s which was very expensive compared to in Singapore! Thereafter I did not reacquaint with Japan for another 15 years while we visited most part of Europe and spectacular Egypt.

But Japan continues to seep into our daily consciousness. Samurai Teh and I found that we love all the second rate Japanese food in Singapore, from ramen to sashimi to sushi. I watch an increasing number of Japanese drama serials and became a fan of animated films like Howls' Moving Castle and Spirited Away. I started appreciating Asian culture as a whole and found slowly that they are just as fascinating if not more so than European ones. Samurai T was also helpful in sharing interesting historical titbits on Japan which he learnt while playing Nobunaga's Ambition (a computer game). And Tokyo is well-known as a hotbed of fashion and culture and remains one of the top must-go cities of the world.

And so at the end of 2008, we finally made our first ever trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. And we went again, and again -travelling to Tokyo, Hakone, Kamakura, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Nikko within three years, and already we are planning on another trip, this time to Hokkaido. Now I am totally crazy about the country and these are the reasons why:

1) It is only a 6 and a half hours flight (max 7) from Singapore. I hate long flights (actually I hate flying - period) and with a short overnight flight and I am transported to a different world.!

2) Japan is comfortingly like home, being an Asian country but startlingly different in everything else. I do not feel like the odd one out but at the same time everything is so fresh and new to me - the people, the culture, the technology and the sights.

3) It is incredibly CLEAN. I cannot state how important cleanliness is when we are on holiday, especially when looking for clean washrooms. This country is so sanitary and even cleaner than Singapore. The level of civic consciousness is unparelled. Even their "longkangs", drains/small streams have such clear water you are likely to be able to drink from them. Whether it is in the big cities or small towns, the whole environment is so unbearably clean, and what makes it even more amazing is that there are hardly any rubbish bins in public! The Japanese keep and throw their waste at home!

4) The amazing food and the freshest of seafood. Yes, I do feel a little regretful over their whaling policy but their sashimi and sushi are TO DIE FOR. After we tasted the real thing, we could never go back to the lousy second rate food offered by many establishments here (yes, Sakae is a culprit). The ramen, the tonkatsu, the tempura, the wagyu beef - Samurai T and I get very excited about our food options everytime we visit Japan, and time is never quite enough for us to eat all that we want to eat. The food is superb whether we go to a big restaurant or a side street family owned cafe. Of course, we have dislikes as well - like sea urchin (NASTY) and natto beans (ugh x 10) which I have the misfortune to try during my most recent trip to Tokyo.

5) The natural scenery and terrain is one of the most beautiful on earth - in large part thanks to it being located in an area of plentiful sesmic activity and flanked by the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. You want soaring mountains? You've got mountains. Beautiful beaches? You have them as well. Rolling greenery? Yep. Waterfalls, rivers, gorges? Yes, yes and yes.

6) Unbeknownst to me before, Japan is also a country full of history and unique culture, and this is evident in their myriad ancient temples, shrines, castles and small town architecture. Much more than the bright lights of the big city, Samurai T and I are attracted to these wonderful historical places, many of them world heritage sites, and we can prowl them for a very long time.

7) Shopping is fantastic which goes without saying. Besides being at the very forefront of fashion, the Japanese has a penchant for a wide array of strange and colourful knick-knacks that one cannot resist in buying, whether we have use of it or not. They have everything for every budget, and I can buy cartloads of goodies from 100yen shops, bags from Samantha Thavasa, colourful accessories for my iPad from Bic Camera and lovely affordable clothes from Uniqlo.

8) And related to shopping is the to-die-for service you get in Japan. They are so polite, you know you have to reciprocate with equally good behaviour otherwise you will feel like a monster. Most of them may not speak English, but they will do all their best to help you. Regardless of where you go, in a restaurant, department store or small town shop, it is always service with a smile. And your purchases are always wrapped up beautifully!

9) Japan feels as safe as in Singapore, perhaps even more so. Yes I have read about psychos going on shooting binges in Ginza, but this is generally how I feel everytime I am in Japan. I am normally quite watchful during my overseas trips, but I generally feel relaxed in Japan, which means a lot during a holiday. I also know if we do get lost, there will be plenty of people willing to help us!!

10) Japan, contrary to old thinking, is VERY AFFORDABLE. In 1992, at Narita that can of soft drink cost 100-150 yen. Almost 2 decades later, the same can of drink cost the SAME amount. Obviously the effects of Japan's lost decade is disastrous for the people, but good for the rest of the world. Our living standards have finally caught up with the Japanese and I can spend very liberally!

There are plenty more things about what I love about Japan, but the above are my top 10 reasons. Here's one of my favourite photos of Mount Fuji in winter 2008.

What are you waiting for now? Let's go Nihon!

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