By Erin McQuilkin

Nihon is one of the most intriguing and serene places to travel in our world. For centuries the archipelago was isolated while shoguns closed the culture from outside influence during Sakoku.

During this period the island developed its unique traditions such as haiku poetry, kabuki and tea ceremonies. Samurai values or bushido profoundly affected society as duty, bravery and above all honour came to be highly valued.

This refined culture, ruled by an imperial family believed to be descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu, transformed over time into a progressive nation with fascinating metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka, high-speed Shinkansen trains and cultural oddities like cosplay cafes. This paradoxical quality is at the heart of present-day Japan, where the ancient and the ultramodern coexist. And when you are fortunate enough to find your way there, you will discover a place unlike any other. 

Only In Japan

Today’s Japan might be one of the most far-out places on the planet. The classic rituals of the past like onsens and zen temples are still a part of daily life but intertwined with their traditions lie eccentric proclivities, ranging from the whimsical to the kinky.

One of the first things you might notice in Japan is the vending machines, with the highest density of any country, there are over 5 million, they are on almost every corner. Look closer to see what’s inside, and you might get a pleasant or unpleasant surprise!

Vending machines can be found filled with sushi socks, live crabs, live horned beetles, flying fish soup, random girls phone numbers, lettuce, puppies, flower bouquets and even used women’s underwear! If you happen to turn the TV on while you’re roaming, you might catch some taboo-busting game shows including “Candy or Not Candy?” where celebrities have to figure out which objects are candy or not candy by biting them or Marshmallow Rubber Band, where people try to devour marshmallows with a rubber band around their head.

Cuddle cafes are known as Soine-ya or sleep together shops are bizarre places where male patrons pay to sleep next to females, be patted on the back or stroke the sleeping partners hair!

Other strange cafes to visit include Nagomi Cafe, or Little Sister Cafe, where workers refer to customers as big brother or big sister and employees can swing from sweet to icy or annoying. Off the wall, cultural activities include the Nai Sumo Baby Crying Festival where parents hand over their babies to giant sumo wrestlers who try to make the children cry by donning frightening masks or even yelling at the infants. The best cryer is said to win good health and long life.

And If you crave some adult delights, there is the Vibe Bar Wild One where over three hundred types of vibrators are available to examine along with the guest’s cocktails.

Umami Time

There’s a reason Japanese food has been exported around the world; its well-balanced tastes are a joy for the senses. The food culture is based on washoku, a melodic blend of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, usually made of four parts: rice, soup, side dish and tsukemono or Japanese pickles.

At the heart of Japanese dishes is the quintessential dashi broth, where umami the fifth taste, began. The finer foods you can’t miss when travelling to Japan include the world-famous sushi, fluffy, lightly battered tempura or an elegant meal of kaiseki.  But the traditional foods of Nihon are just as pleasing with earthy ramen soup, wheat noodles in a miso or soy broth with pork and vegetables, tasty yakitori skewers, Soba noodles or Okonomiyaki a kind of Japanese crepe or pizza.

The Art of Omotenashi 

Omotenashi is the essence of Japanese hospitality. As you discover the land of the rising sun, one thing will be the same everywhere, the flawless hospitality of your Japanese hosts.

Omotenashi means that you will receive the most courteous and anticipatory service straight from the heart.  From the warm welcome every guest gets entering a store to the artful tea ceremony and the seamless service when dining out the genuine and amiable nature of this culture will bring you to cherish this aspect of Japanese society. 

Kawaii Couture 

Japan has been on the cutting edge of fashion since the late 90’s when the world discovered Japanese street style and the iconic magazine Fruits was published. Suddenly bright, anime like styles, kawaii culture and gothic styles became the star of the international fashionista scene.

The west learned where Harajuku was and dreamed of going there and joining in the fashion parade. In modern Japan fashion has become more mainstream and a little more subdued, although younger generations still embrace it, they tend to wear mainstream brands like Uniqlo. Beyond the old street styles and well-known brand names, you can find everything from punk to elegant classics.

One thing is sure it is a shoppers paradise in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and whether you’re looking for kawaii ladies gear or classy and simple, there are clothes for every taste in this fashionable nation.

Wander To Your Heart’s Content 

Traversing this island kingdom, you become aware of an absolutely different quality from anywhere else in the world. It’s both soothing and electrifying. Go to small towns like Hakodate or Noboribetsu in Hokkaido and discover quaint family life alongside natural hot springs where families bathe together in onsens as they have for centuries. 

Roam the streets full of delicate cherry blossoms in April and May as boughs bring cotton candy pink to light your afternoon walk, while in central Japan, electric neon Tokyo glows through the nights in all its weird glory. Imagine it, and you can find it here, even the things you can’t imagine.