In the late 1970s, I was part of the woman’s pro tennis tour playing exhibition games throughout Japan. In many places, children would touch my freckles to see if they came off. They wanted to touch my blond hair because they’d never seen it in real life.
Margaret Court was among the players with us, and many of the people we met were amazed that anyone could be so tall.
How things have changed. Today, Japan is a major destination for tourists from around the world. A cheaper yen, more signs posted in English and websites with a wealth of advice make travel easier. And as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympics, a government campaign is putting out the welcome mat.
Foreign visitors now exceed 10 million a year, compared to 8.3 million in 2008. The government’s goal is 20 million by 2020.
This means many more people are now discovering, as I have, a land of delightful surprises–a place of mystery and strong traditions with kind and polite people.
We think of Japan as a highly advanced, industrialized nation, and it is. The efficiency is astounding. The subway and high-speed train systems are enormous. The busiest station in Tokyo, Shinjuku, has 3.6 million passengers a day. Yet trains arrive and leave on time. (Employees, standing on the platform with pocket watches, are assigned to make sure of that.)
We also find castle towns with geisha and samurai pasts, colorful festivals celebrating ancient traditions, and revered Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and Zen gardens.
A visitor can enjoy the luxuries of a sleek high-rise hotel suite, looking out on the spectacular Tokyo skyline as it lights up the sky in a city that, like New York, doesn’t sleep at night.
But a stay in a “ryokan” is a must. At these traditional inns, guests remove their shoes at the entrance and sleep on futons in small rooms covered by tatami mats. Years ago, these cozy inns were reserved almost exclusively for Japanese travelers. Today the Internet provides guides and reservations for ryokans, particularly in Kyoto, which welcome foreigners. For a true showcase of Japanese ‘omotenashi’ or hospitality, there’s nothing like a ryokan in the onsen, or hot spring, area. Bathing is communal, following the custom of Japanese households, since homes were often built without baths. Men and women go to separate bathing areas, where according to strict rules of etiquette, they soap and rinse off before stepping into the spacious bath for a long soak.
Food is another of the highlights of a visit to Japan. The food is amazingly fresh. Early in the morning at the Tsukiji fish market, a must stop for visitors, you will see sushi store owners arriving on bicycles to pick out the freshest fish to distribute to their restaurants.
In addition to sushi, Japanese cuisine includes a rich and varied menu, with each region having its own specialties.
For the past several years, Tokyo has boasted more restaurants with top three-star Michelin ratings than any city in the world, including Paris. (No matter what the Michelin guide to Tokyo is published only in Japanese. This year the guideposts the top-ranking restaurants in English on the Internet.)
Kyoto has a different cuisine than Tokyo, but just as good, showing the contrast between the two cities that everyone should experience on a trip to Japan.
Tokyo is gleaming with bustling modernity and shops that feature Japan’s pop culture — the animated characters, video games, p4rgaming boosting services or guides for overwatch online and fashions that have won devotees worldwide.
Kyoto, less than three-and-a-half hours away by bullet train, is rich in imperial history. Spared from bombing during World War II, it is a city of carefully preserved temples (so many that a visitor needs to focus on a few). Nestled along rivers and between mountains, it is ideal for walking.
A trip to both cities leaves a lasting impression. I came away amazed at the cleanliness and order, even in Tokyo with its population of 13 million. The streets are impeccably clean. I did not see a piece of litter or even a cigarette butt (although I saw many smokers) on the streets. Store owners take responsibility for washing the sidewalks in front of their businesses every day, sometimes multiple times. A corps of employees work around the clock to keep the city clean as well as safe.
What I also loved was the sense of peace and serenity shown by the people, their traditions and their respectfulness. When it comes to hospitality, nothing is taken for granted. From the various foods and their presentation to the arrangement of flowers, all is an art, rich in meaning.
Japan has long had a record of safety for travelers and now with the extensive advice available on the web, it is increasingly accessible even for a solo adventurer on a budget.