Japan is a study in contrasts. Standing at the center of the latest technology and trends, you might discover the traditions that have been kept alive in Japan for hundreds of years. In the lobby of a modern hotel in Hakone, I stumbled upon a sliding wooden door which led to a traditional chamber with tatami mats and a tea ceremony. Being in Japan is like opening a door between the future and the past.
Japan has something for every type of traveler—traditional temples in serene settings, the hiking and skiing slopes at Mount Fuji, and irresistible foods. The country also has an advanced tourism infrastructure that makes traveling overland easy. I visited for the first time in 2016. After a month at sea, I stood under Hakone’s red tori gates and heard nothing but the birds. Japan holds something to be unlocked in everyone. There are some concerns for responsible travel, so be sure to check the sustainable tourism section.
Continue reading for what you need to know before you go, or skip ahead to the city and regional guides for Japan:
Socially Responsible Travel
Responsible travel in any country requires conversation, research, and a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and to adhere to them. Japan is a country steeped in tradition and ritual. As a country, the Japanese are proud of their unique cultural heritage, a heritage that backs the traditions and customs of behavioral norms. As a first-time tourist, it’s impossibly hard to remember everything, but it will make a world of difference, and goes a long way in feeling welcome in a foreign country.
Understand Cultural Norms
Hierarchies of respect are an important part of Japanese society. Under this umbrella is everything from the bowing etiquette to the form of "thank you" you choose to use. Customs like not using shoes on tatami mats, and how you enter the baths have precise, specific behaviors associated with them. Elders are given respect and it’s polite to allow them to enter before you on buses, businesses, and other locations. Although the Japanese are polite and know their rules are complex and their behavioral secrets difficult to unlock, it's better memorize a few greetings and phrases of thanks, as it will be appreciated. The phrase I memorized that I used the most was "Sumimasen (sue-me-ma-sen)," or "Excuse me." I remember stopping to take a photo in Kasuga Taisha, and gently repeating "Sumi masen," until a Japanese couple shuffled past me, saying "Arigato gozaimas (are-E-got-oh go-zI-mas)," or "Thank you."
Make Ethical Food Choices
Japan is one of just a few countries that still consumes whale and dolphin meat, though the global community dislikes the continued consumption of both of these animals. As responsible travelers, we should avoid supporting this aspect of the country’s food industry and tradition. Download the Seafood Watch for current lists of marine life in hot water.
Avoid Animal Tourism
Documentaries like Blackfish shed light on the cruel practices involved in keeping marine mammals like dolphins and orcas for tourism purpose. But Japan's animal tourism industry is still growing — many of these animals are still being caught from the wild. I wouldn't recommend visiting "owl cafes" or "cat cafes." These enviroments are unnatual, and cause unhealthy lifestyles for the animals. Instead, visit Nara Park, where 2,000 to 3,000 tame deer roam happily.
Lower Your Environmental Impact
You'll notice the country's recycling bins. Use them. It is also expected of you to clean your plate-an excuse to eat every last grain of rice! Japan is a beautiful country, and the Japanese have designed preservation techniques for all areas of life. Be respectful and courteous. As always, when you are traveling in another country, you are a guest there. Treat it like you are visitng a home.
Support Local Artisans
Buying from local artists in Japan supporting cultural heritage, and ensures the preservation of things like silk fans, caligraphy, and painting that are Japanese art icons. Japan has many beautiful arts, and artists throughout the country are continuing traditional arts forms hundreds of years old.
Explore City & Regional Guides for Japan
Japan is a relatively small country (compare it to California) and the high-speed train system allows you to travel at lightning speed. You can see all of the top destinations in just a one-week or two-week trip, but to really understand someone, you want to spend as much time with them as possible, and by knowing them initimately, you'll love them deeply. For me, it took a couple of days just to plan the rest of my week. The Japanese love systems, so from ordering your food to navigating their trains, there’s a precise system and you’ll need to figure it out! Below are tips from notes from my trip, as well as journal entries from my travels that will help you connect with a place.
Traveling writer learning what it means to love the world and to love people. "If I don't come back, tell my lover I'm fine."
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