The story of modern Japan is one of profound change and upheaval but, writes Anthony Dennis, it's the nation's essential, unwavering traits that appeal most.
It's hardly haiku but the maxim "the more things change, the more they stay the same" seems more applicable to Japan than any other country. Few races have so fully embraced change, over such eventful postwar times, while managing to retain the facets of society that render it one of the most distinctive on the planet. On each occasion I visit Japan - and I've lost count of how many times - I'm braced to be confronted by the shock of the new, while remaining relaxed in the knowledge that the aspects of Japan I came to love long ago will be reassuringly unaltered.
The innate camaraderie of the sushi counter - usually seating as few as a dozen people, fuelled by quantities of sake or beer - allows the inner extrovert to emerge from naturally reserved Japanese. At the sight of a foreigner at the bar, the Japanese are delighted to see you enjoy raw fish and are competent in the use of chopsticks, and may nod at you across the bar with approving smiles, perhaps even shouting you a drink. Japan's convivial counter culture extends well beyond the sushi bar - to tempura, soba and udon noodle, ramen, yakitori bars and more.
Rooms at the inns
Ryokans, Japan's exquisite, often centuries-old traditional lodgings, have declined in popularity among Westernising Japanese, but foreigners have in recent years been embracing them as culturally immersive alternatives to Western-style hotels. Certainly, the ryokan is accommodation par excellence, and an assured means of connecting with a traditional way of life. Each stay at a ryokan, often in an attractive rural location or onsen spa town with an authentic ambience, features not only the most gracious of service but fine Japanese meals served in your tatami-matted, ricepaper-walled room as you relax in a cotton yukata (bathrobe). Even at modest ryokans, the food is almost always outstanding.
If there's a single aspect of society that the Japanese would never relinquish, it's the bathing ritual. Indeed, after last year's tsunami, Japanese defence forces erected giant portable communal (no soap, please) baths at emergency shelters so survivors could still have a daily soak. Throughout the country, hot-springs towns are dedicated to the bathing ritual. If you are too shy to bathe naked with others, as is the custom, you'll find many onsens and ryokans have private baths.
Right on track
From humble commuter service to the high-speed bullet, trains run to the timetable. But that's only part of the story. Huge railway stations in key centres are like small cities, housing upscale department stores, shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. And then there are the stalls where locals and tourists alike buy bento boxes, Japan's remarkably high-quality pre-packaged portable fresh feasts designed to be eaten on the go, which in Japan inevitably equates to a train journey somewhere.
The vend is nigh
Japan remains the home of the ubiquitous vending machine - by night, they are beacons of white light that are at once visually polluting, energy-zapping and immensely convenient. These machines offer everything you need, and don't: large bottles of beer, water, soft drinks, hot and cold tinned coffee, noodles and, reputedly, underwear is available everywhere 24/7. You'll find the machines all over the country, from street corner to rice paddy.
A land for all seasons
The Japanese are the French of Asia, not only because they are magnificent cooks but because of the manner in which they revere seasonality. Each season brings a range of produce - from a vast variety of mushrooms in winter to roasted chestnuts on city streets in autumn. The obsession extends to traditional, aesthetically beautiful, seasonally based Japanese sweets, or wagashi - an acquired taste for the Western palate - often sold from lavish, salon-like shops, complete with beautiful packaging.
The kindness of strangers
Unwelcome wandering male hands on crowded peak-hour subway trains aside, Japan is a safe and co-operative society where foreigners are subject to rare levels of kindness and generosity. If you're caught in a downpour sans an umbrella, don't be surprised if a Japanese stranger insists on giving his or her brolly to you, as happened to this foreigner. Even the largest cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, with some of the world's lowest crime rates, are safe late at night, even for female visitors.
All hail the taxi
Japan vies with Singapore for the title of the world's best country for cabs. But Japan goes one (or two or three) better than Singapore, with Nissan Cedric-driving Japanese cabbies wearing white gloves, their dashboards covered in white doilies, the windows of their vehicles adorned with neat lace curtains along with doors that fling open automatically for arriving and departing passengers. The drivers are skilled, are unfailingly honest and what they lack in English skills they make up for in boundless courtesy and a commendable "no gratuities necessary" ethic.
Take a bow
It can be a surprise for foreigners to encounter not only a courteous, immaculately uniformed conductor on every train but also to watch him pause before departing one carriage for the next, turn around, face the passengers and exhibit a heartfelt bow. Even the perfect, porcelain doll-like lift hostesses at department stores are proficient in this ancient gesture. Then one recalls the touching sight of an elderly man farewell-ing a beloved relative on a station platform, lowering his frame as the train leaves to the point where he could fairly touch his toes.
Strange days, indeed
Automatic toilets that warm, spray, rinse, play music and more; traffic lights that emit bird-like sounds when it's safe to cross; elaborate hotels, spas and grooming salons for dogs; kidult stores; coffin-like capsule hotels; Elvis impersonators in Tokyo's Harajuku district; saucy love hotels everywhere; deceptively realistic-looking plastic food in restaurant windows; raucous technicolour pachinko slot-machine parlours; death-defying fugu (pufferfish) restaurants ... this is one seriously kooky, but lovable, land. And, really, if you still think you needn't visit Japan, it's time you changed your mind.
This article produced with support from Japan National Tourism Organisation.