With lockdowns easing in some parts of the world and next year’s travel itineraries starting to feel more attainable, if you’re thinking of where to jet off to next, there are plenty of great reasons to consider Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun is steeped in history and full of personality, which is partly why over 31.88 million people visited in 2019 alone. From cat islands to its gaming culture, there might just be something for everyone in this thriving Asian locale. If you haven’t previously thought about Japan as a must-visit destination, here are 10 interesting facts about Japan that could well add it to your travel list.
1. There are ELEVEN cat islands. Yes, cat islands.
Called neko-shima or cat islands, Japan has entire islands where felines are the ruling population. Among these islands, the most popular is Aoshima in the Ehime prefecture. With the human population of Aoshima just numbering in at 13, the 150 resident cats outnumber the two-legged citizens by a ratio of 10:1.
Local lore says that fishermen used to adopt cats as a natural solution to rodent problems on their ships. Since Aoshima was a fisherman’s hub in the 1900s, some of these ship-cats ventured to land and decided to stay put. Today, the cats of Aoshima are semi-feral, but still friendly and ready to pose for a picture. This cat island is easily accessible by ferry and train but there are no other tourist attractions (who needs them?!) so a journey here is all about the cats.
2. There are also feline castle lords and station masters
Obviously, cats hold special status in Japan. As a matter of fact, some cats have even been given the honourable titles of station master and castle lord. At Wakayama Station in Kinokawa City, the current feline manager-stationmaster Nitama and super-stationmaster Yontama have their own promotional merchandise!
Meanwhile, at Bitchu Matsuyama Castle in Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture, the orange and white tom cat Sanjuro has been recognised by the local government as the feline lord of the castle! Considered a real-life maneki-neko (luck beckoning cat), Sanjuro’s friendly nature has attracted hordes of tourists who have helped the city rebuild after torrential rains in 2019. Lord Sanjuro lives in the castle’s administrative building and March 16th has been designated as his official day.
3. Japanese macaques are the only monkeys who enjoy their own onsen
Located in the mountainous Jigokudani Monkey Park, these free-roaming macaques are said to have learnt the habit of relaxing in a hot spring (onsen) from watching human visitors in the ‘50s. Since then, the local government created the dedicated monkey onsen and the rest is history.
Researchers have long studied why Japanese snow monkeys are the only primates to regularly dip into hot springs — and recent studies from National Geographic say it may be to relieve winter-related stress. These monkeys know what’s up. Today, there are over 150 macaques that frequent the hot springs. Visitors are allowed, but a distance must be maintained and feeding or touching them is prohibited.
4. There are over 4,800 game centres in Japan
The arcade scene in Japan is massive. Housed in tall and colourful buildings, these game centres have various games like crane machines, accuracy-based games, dancing games, fighting games, and even purikura photo booths to name a few. To play, you need to purchase some “coins” and you may even opt to buy a membership card that acts like a memory chip for your games.
Some people in Japan get so invested in arcade games that these membership cards are designed to allow them to save progress, store unlocked bonuses, and even record preferred game settings. Joypolis is one particularly popular game centre you might want to check out during a trip to Tokyo!
5. Japan holds the world record for the largest online game of bingo
Although there was a province named Bingo during the Edo period, Japan has only recently been introduced to bingo in comparison to its Asian neighbours. Being on the forefront of technology and having one of the fastest Internet speeds in the world, it makes sense that when bingo was finally introduced to Japan it thrived better online. An article on the game by Foxy Bingo even notes that the country holds the world record for the largest online bingo game. It was held in September 2010 with over 493,000 players in attendance! Today, Japan is the 2nd biggest online bingo game market, with the 75-ball variant as the most preferred. If you love bingo, you’ll love Japan.
6. Japanese pachinko parlours generate more money than Las Vegas and Macau
It’s impossible to go to Japan and not see at least one pachinko parlour. These loud and brightly lit establishments may look like arcades, but are definitely not. A loophole around Japan’s casino laws, pachinko’s profits equate to 4% of the country’s GDP—equal to more than 30 trillion yen. Most pachinko players are retirees or office workers taking a break from work, but tourists are also frequent visitors who enjoy the entrancing pinball-like machines. Pachinko (also called vertical pinball) is such a common part of Japanese culture, that some people are even called “pachinko pros” since they practically make a living winning the game.
7. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates worldwide
In an uncertain time, it’s comforting to know that Japan has consistently made the list of safest countries in the world. In fact, it’s been in the top 10 of the Global Peace Index for over a decade. With some of the lowest numbers of crimes, internal conflict, and political disruptions, people in many towns don’t even lock their doors. According to the Safe Cities Index, Tokyo is the world’s safest city thanks to its exemplary cybersecurity, healthcare, and infrastructure and personal security programmes.
8. Tokyo’s konbini convenience stores offer vegan and vegetarian snacks 24/7
Visiting a Japanese convenience (konbini) store is almost an unforgettable experience in itself. According to Statista, in 2019 there were roughly 56,000 konbinis—20,988 of which are 7-Elevens, the most in any country! Konbinis are open 24/7 and they sell unique seasonal snacks, full macrobiotic meals, personal items, and even event and plane tickets.
If you’re craving an affordable vegan snack, konbinis carry dozens of sweet and savoury options! Must-try’s include: soybean soft serve ice cream, marumochi potato, red bean mochi, ume onigiri, and dango. Now we’re talking.
9. You can eat traditional vegan cuisine at a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Compared to Tokyo’s bustling advancements, Kyoto is known as the historical heart of Japan. As one of the country’s oldest and largest cities, there are many cultural landmarks here—including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites! Among them, travellers shouldn’t miss the Tenryuji Temple in the Arashiyama district. Ranked first among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryuji was built in 1339. Aside from the sprawling gardens, and large drawing rooms, there is also the Shigetsu temple-style restaurant which serves shojin ryori (Zen vegetarian cuisine). Regarded as a spiritual practise in Buddhism, cooking and eating in Zen is made to be holistically nourishing without sacrificing animal life.
10. There are tonnes of epic themed cafes and restaurants
It’s safe to say nobody takes café culture as seriously as the Japanese. More than just a cosy ambiance or cleverly decorated interiors, themed cafes in Japan often involve high-tech robotics, cutting edge special effects, and trained staff who serve you in character! Aside from the viral Robot Restaurant and Kawaii Monster Café, don’t miss out on Ninja Akasaka located in Tokyo. Conde Nast Traveler notes that this concept dining experience involves guiding guests through secret passages, ninja-waiters dropping from ceilings, and an extensive multi-course menu and drinks list. Vegetarian ninja fans need not miss out, since Ninja Akasaka also serves an 8-course vegetarian menu!
Japan has been a traveller’s delight for a long, long time, because of the special way it marries modernity with tradition. As a very sustainably minded country, it’s also a pleasure for green tourists who want to support healthy tourism efforts. For more travel tips and recommendations, check out these top travel apps you shouldn’t set off without.