A lot of people ask me what is the Country that I've been to that is the most culturally different from the United States.
There are many places I visit where I feel instantly transported to another world, such as India and Guatemala, but the one that sticks out in my mind is Japan. You may not notice it if you are there one or two days, but after being in Japan for a week, you may see, experience and feel immense cultural differences--the kind of things that make traveling exciting and intriguing.
One of the things I've noticed about Japanese culture is that there is a strong emphasis on making everything beautiful, and I am not just speaking of their stunning Japanese gardens. This alone makes it an incredible place to visit.
I remember when I stayed in a monastery in Mount Koya, even the "basic" food that the monks were eating was exquisitely and beautifully prepared. There were vegetables steamed in an edible bag made of bean curd, and tied with a scallion ribbon. This is a far cry from the food of the Benedictine monastery where I stayed in Elgin, Scotland years ago, where everything was the same muted color.
In Japan, their emphasis on quality and beauty makes shopping particularly enjoyable. Often when you go to a store to buy something, even a simple T-shirt, it will be beautifully wrapped in tissue and placed in a pretty bag. Little things like this make you feel special at every turn.
Along with this attention to beauty is an adherence to rules and structure. Don't expect to find reasons that make sense to us nor rationale for rules you may notice. I was alone on a train and on my phone trying to get directions to where I was going, and the only other person on the train was a train employee who made me turn off my phone, in observance and respect for other passengers (there were none). When things like this happen, they are always minor, and provide more of an internal chuckle than anything else.
Speaking of trains, Japan is lightyears ahead of the US in terms of its train travel. The efficiency, speed, and timeliness is indeed impressive. And much like other things in Japan, the trains are sleek, stylish, efficient, and beautiful as well.
Tokyo is as modern a city as you will ever find, and it should be noted that it has more Michelin star restaurants than any other place on earth. This is not surprising for a place that prides itself on quality.
This emphasis on quality carries through to things that many wouldn't think would be expertly produced in Japan. For instance, people are very surprised to learn that Japan produces some of the best whiskey in the world, which are actually more like Scotch and less like the US whiskey varieties. So, if you are a whiskey love, take note!
What I find fascinating, is that as high tech and cutting-edge as Japan is, it also has a huge adherence and respect for its history, rituals, and customs, from tea ceremonies to how you hold your chopsticks. Especially if you are unfamiliar with certain customs, their steadfast, unwavering adherence to them may seem a little extreme. But especially, for the well-traveled, you will find yourself loving these little differences.
This is probably the thing that makes traveling to Japan so interesting and perhaps even a little challenging. Well, this and the fact that there is very little written in English and almost everything is solely in Japanese. I experienced this for myself and from talking to other ex-pats it seems very common that there are often little miscommunications. Sometimes you can say one thing and something completely different seems to be heard. Perhaps the same somewhat rigid internal structures that make things efficient, orderly, and in many ways beautiful, also make it at times hard to look at things in a different or new way.
For me, going somewhere that really takes me out of my element, and into a new world is what traveling is all about. It is in these kind of places where I grow and I find my mind swelling with the richness of the new experience. However, because some of these things can produce challenges for travelers coming to Japan, it is such a perfect destination to go with an experienced group. I am not just saying this because I own a gay tour company, Zoom Vacations. Almost anyone can go to England and figure things out on their own, but Japan is simply a different destination: different and beautifully inspirational.