Japan. One of the world’s most thickly populated countries, its most popular attractions swarming with tourists local and foreign every spring and fall, and one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever been to, introvert though I am. How did that happen? Let me share with you three big reasons why Japan is paradise for introverts like thee and me:
Reverence for Nature
Both of Japan’s major religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have a very deep-seated reverence for nature and quiet spaces. Both have an affinity for mountains; Buddhism because mountains make the perfect retreats for their monastic communities, and Shinto because its nature worship gravitated to the grandest natural features around. Both have lovingly preserved vast areas of forest within their temple and shrine grounds, and many maintain gardens specifically designed for contemplation and getting lost with your thoughts in.
Some of the most ancient trees (and rocks) are ringed with shimenawa, rice straw ropes hung with paper charms, that mark them as the homes of kami, Japanese nature spirits. Pathways through these glades are made deliberately meandering to make the visitor slow down and soak in the atmosphere. The meanders also serve to block off the paths into little private nooks from which other walkers are invisible to you. All this was designed to cultivate a reverent, contemplative state of mind, perfect for detoxifying the spirit.
Open Spaces Galore
It’s surprising how much open space even the most crowded cities like Tokyo have. The temples, government, and quite a few wealthy individuals together have managed to preserve many spaces free of urban creep. There are big public parks like Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, Kyoto’s Maruyama Park, and my favorite, Nara Park, so large that their sheer size just absorbs the visiting crowd. (It’s a rather different story in parks with cherry trees during sakura season, but more on that below.)
The Okochi Sanso in Arashiyama was the private garden villa of a famous actor, while Osaka’s enormous Osakajokoen park, surrrounding Osaka Castle, was set up to contain Osaka’s most famous historical landmark. Both banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto have been paved to make pleasant walks to the sound of gurgling water.
Outside the cities, Japan still has large areas of wilderness. The rugged mountains of Japan’s interior have effectively restricted access and development to the coasts and valleys like the Kanto Plain, leaving large areas of forest intact. National parks and preserved historical trails like the Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail to Mount Koya and the Nakasendo trail through the Kiso Mountains allow visitors to enjoy the wilds without straying too far from the comforts of civilization.
Respect for Personal Space
These spaces are complemented by Japanese culture’s deep respect for personal space. It’s how they’ve adapted to living in such crowded conditions. Train passengers talk in hushed tones and avoid making calls on their mobile phones. Everywhere the Japanese have a way of somehow effacing their presence so that you can feel alone even in a crowd. Unless they’re trying to sell you something, of course, in which case you’re likely in a busy market or dining district like Dotonbori in Osaka.
Tip: How to Enjoy Japan as an Introvert
With all that said, it’s still true that Japan is a very crowded country and extremely, repeat extremely, popular with tourists. If you go with the normal tourist flow you’re unlikely to find the peace you wanted. Here’s how you can enjoy Japan without the crowds getting under your skin:
0) Don’t take the bus tours. Plan to do your sightseeing the DIY way so you don’t have to move with the crowd, or book a custom, small-group tour.
1) Start early. Try to be at the most popular attractions at their opening times, when they have the fewest visitors. Prime spots like Kinkakuji and the Arashiyama bamboo grove become crowded after 9:30 a.m.
2) Stay out late. If you’ve the stamina, or if you’d rather not get up early in the morning, try staying out late at places that remain open till evening like Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha. The crowds will fade away by 7:00 p.m., and the atmosphere at night can be really unique too.
3) Research and visit the out-of-the-way gems. Tofukuji is massively popular for its beauty in autumn, but the busloads of tourists rarely make it to Tofukuji’s equally beautiful subtemples just nearby. Inside the big temple and shrine complexes, look out for the sub-temples and sub-shrines tucked away in the farther corners.
4) Plan your trip to avoid the major Japanese holidays, like Golden Week.
5) Plan to visit the bucket-list sites on weekdays, you can go for the off-the-beaten-track attractions on the weekends.