If you can only go to one more country ...

Cutting edge ... Tokyo's Shinjuku district.
Cutting edge ... Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Photo: Getty Images

You play these sorts of games when you travel. There's a lot of down time in amongst all those train rides and plane flights and everything, so you have to kill it somehow.

One of my standard time-fillers is the "one more" conversations that I seem to get into all the time – the High Fidelity-style nerdy chats about favourite things. OK, you can only have one more meal in your life – what do you eat? You can only listen to one more album for the rest of your life – what's it going to be?

Another one: you can only travel to one more country for the rest of your life – what's it going to be?

The Japanese can seem conservative, but they also have a streak of eccentricity, as evidenced by the 'Lolita' fashions some young women wear.
The Japanese can seem conservative, but they also have a streak of eccentricity, as evidenced by the 'Lolita' fashions some young women wear. Photo: AP

This one, I ponder frequently. The rules are you can travel there as many times as you want, but that's the only country you'll ever get to visit outside of your homeland.

So if you were into beaches I guess you'd choose an island nation. If you were into nature you might go with Canada. If you were into fast food you'd choose the States.

Mine? There are a few in contention. India is up there, because it's endlessly interesting – human existence there is often boiled down to its smallest, most important elements, but it's all done on a dizzyingly grand scale. But maybe the hassle of India would get tiring after a while, maybe you'd just pine for somewhere to relax.

New Zealand is up there, because it's beautiful and exciting. But maybe you'd want a more foreign culture to explore? Mexico, too, is a place that's diverse and amazing, but it's quite volatile, and gun violence isn't always as fun as the movies make it out to be.

So here's my choice: Japan. I don't think I'd ever tire of Japan. There's something about the country that I've always found fascinating. It's the sort of place that will keep surprising you, keep interesting you.

It's the clash of cultures within a culture that's the source of so much of Japan's appeal. It's all of the contrasts that make it so fascinating.

Japan is old, a place of ancient cities and emperors' rule. You can wander around these tiny old mountain villages, through temples strewn with knotted trees and monks in traditional dress.

But it's also an ultra-modern country, a place of megalopolises, these huge cities that flash and beep at you, with forests of skyscrapers, bustling pavements, and all the trappings of contemporary urban life. Stroll around Shinjuku in Tokyo and you wouldn't think a place could be more modern, more cutting edge.

Japan has ancient traditions that are fiercely preserved. It's built on strict societal rules that are always obeyed. It has cultural quirks from times past that are still adhered to.

But it's also mental. Anyone who's wandered around Harajuku on a Sunday and seen the cosplay girls and gothic lolitas would know that. Anyone who's been out in Amerikamura in Osaka would know. There's a streak of eccentricity that runs deep through Japan, but which seems completely at odds with the neat, orderly façade of the country's society.

Japan can seem extremely conservative. Repressed, even. But then you sit down at an izakaya and the businessman next to you is reading a porn magazine. You hear about the love hotels in the heart of Shibuya, or the fetish clubs in the depths of Roppongi. How does that gel with the buttoned down country you think you know?

It's not just the clashes that make Japan interesting though, and perfect for travel. It's an easy place to get around once you figure out how things work. The language barrier can be a challenge, but one that's always negotiated with good humour.

The food is amazing. From soba to ramen to nigiri to okonomiyaki to takoyaki to tataki and tempura, eating in Japan is one of life's great experiences. Even the convenience store food is good. Everything is perfectly presented, expertly crafted. It all tastes good.

The bars, from traditional izakayas to tiny whiskey dens to huge nightclubs and weird theme pubs, are always great. And sake rules.

As for Japanese people ... you'll never meet a friendlier bunch.

This doesn't mean that the Land of the Rising Sun is necessarily the best tourist destination in the world. But if I could only visit one more country for the rest of my days, that would have to be it.

Which country would you choose if you could only visit one for the rest of your life? Post a comment and tell us where and why below.

Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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Australian Festival of Travel Writing

Melbourne dwellers, I'll be heading down your way next month to speak at the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, and it would be great to see you there. The program is yet to be confirmed, but keep an eye on the website for more details.

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