Everybody and their dogs used to travel to Japan in the 1990s and 2000s. It was considered one of the ultimate backpacking destinations (kind of like a more expensive version of Thailand) and was often thought of as a true coming of age country through which to travel. Nowadays, though, it seems that less and less people are focusing on Japan during their Far East Asian travels, and instead concentrating on China or South Korea. But what are the reasons for this?
For all its hypnotic majesty, Japan is a VERY expensive country. Backpackers from around the world may struggle to afford the accommodation and transport prices in Japan. Now, it is possible to budget, but as backpackers we like to haggle and bargain our way down to an acceptable price (i.e. for taxi rides). Yet in Japan, they are not used to this culture – and tourists must pay the asking price or clear off!
Despite its expensive reputation, history is on Japan’s side: ancient history. When you think of cultures of a bygone age, it is probably Japan’s feudal past that invigorates travellers the most. China and Korea also have long histories worthy of checking out (and to a lesser extent Taiwan), but for westerners in particular there has always been a long fascination with Japan’s colourful history. All over the country, you can find incredible tributes and reminders of the past, such as temples, pavilions, and cemeteries, each with their own backstory to enchant you. Nowhere more so than Kyoto in Kanto Prefecture is this obvious (the ancient capital of Japan). But whereas Kyoto and the modern day capital city, Tokyo, are located in Kanto, it is perhaps the Kansai region that offers the most places of interest for backpackers, including archaic castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines (not to mention the sites of the only atomic bomb explosions in history).
City life in Japan is fast-paced and action-packed, but this is no different in major cities in China and South Korea. What you find in Japan, however, is a large degree of politeness and orderly fashion that is certainly not present in mainland China! Whereas even in the busiest train stations in Tokyo (try Shinjuku Station in rush hour!) you can be sure of being treated with a bit of respect, in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will wish you had stayed in bed! While Japan is overall an easy country to navigate, its capital city of Tokyo is a tough nut to crack for a first time visitor, as its tourist infrastructure is so embedded by now that people seem to have forgotten about it! In cities like Seoul in South Korea, or Guangzhou or Chengdu in China, tourism is only just beginning (compared to Japan), therefore you may find more signs written in English to help you on your way.
Ancient history is something that Japan has in abundance, from the Shinto shrines of Kyoto to the temples of Zen Buddhism that are scattered around the country (especially in Nikko and Kyoto). There is a great theme park called Edo Wonderland in Nikko that showcases what Japan was like in its Feudal Era, and is well worth a visit even as a day trip from Tokyo. That said, China and South Korea are also full of history, and especially in the case of China, much of that history is so grand that is almost overshadows Japan: the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army of Xi’an, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing…and I haven’t even mentioned the wonders of Tibet yet! As far as South Korea is concerned, you will find most of the key ancient and religious sites in and around the Seoul Metropolitan area, and these will include the 5 Grand Palaces from the Joseon Dynasty, which are all well worth a look (especially Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung). In fact, the Grand Palaces of Seoul could be considered equal (if not better) than anything similar in Japan.
Nature and wildlife might not be on your mind when you visit Japan (not unless you want to ski in the north or visit the beaches of Okinawa in the south, anyway!), but everywhere you look you can find manicured gardens and beautiful parks. More so than any other country I have visited, Japan also really changes with the seasons: in autumn expect to see orange and brown trees, whereas in the spring, you may be lucky enough to witness Cherry Blossom season. And Japan in the snow is heavenly (if a little cold). South Korea has some great national parks, such as Bukhansan and Seoraksan, but none of them hold a candle to the kind of beauty you will see in Japan. As for China, it is full of scenic splendour. If you made your way to Yunnan Province, you can see spectacles such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, Black Dragon Pool, and the tropical nature of Xishuangbanna, whereas in Sichuan Province, you can travel from Chengdu up to Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area to marvel at the paradise there (but it’s a bit of a journey)! As far as wildlife goes, China is also famous for its pandas, some of which still live in the semi-wild in Sichuan. Did you know every panda in the world is property of the People’s Republic of China?
Japanese food is arguably more popular worldwide than Chinese food, and certainly more popular than Korean food. Street food in Japan is a huge business and on every corner of the road you can usually see something being cooked up from a roadside vendor, such as yakitori (meat skewers) or takoyaki (octopus in balls of batter). Japanese people eat less fish than Chinese and Korean people put together – or at least it seems that way! For some deep-fried breaded pork, why not try some tonkatsu, or perhaps the national dish of Japan, ramen? South Korea has its own versions of most Japanese dishes, and a form of Korean ramen is called jajangmyeon. China has an incredible amount of noodle dishes, including bang bang mian from Shaanxi Province, and Dan Dan mian from Sichuan. Snack foods in South Korea are probably just as popular as those from Japan, although it takes some getting used to Chinese snack food, although make sure you try the Rou Jia Mo, which is the Chinese-style hamburger.
So does Japan really offer the traveller anything particularly special compared to other Far East Asian heavyweights? Bearing in mind that nowadays anybody can look up TripAdvisor to research destinations, and as such the world becomes a much smaller place. Whereas in the past, Japan was known as THE Asian destination, it now has to share its accolades with mainland China, and to a lesser extend South Korea.