For many travellers, Japan might be on their travel bucket list but for as far as I can remember, it was never on mine. Perhaps it was because I didn't grow up watching Japanese anime or reading Japanese manga. Growing up, there were only very few halal Japanese eateries where I come from (in Singapore) but unfortunately, they didn't manage to ignite any affection for Japan.
But that was years ago. Ask me if I love Japan now and the answer is a resounding YES! But what was it that made me change my mind? Find out in this story of how I fell in love with Japan ❤️
P.S. Conquer Japan with our 7D6N Muslim-friendly itinerary of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka
My first experience in Japan was in 2013. I was having my university break and my mom asked my sister and me if we had wanted to go on vacation to Japan with a tour. Usually, I'd refuse to follow a tour group but I was busy with the semester and the deal seemed pretty attractive. Tokyo, Hakone/Mt Fuji, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka in 6 days. Even if Japan wasn't on my list, I'd be stupid not to say yes to this ?
Truth be told, the sights were really gorgeous. The tour brought us to the Mt Fuji 5th station where I got an unobstructed view of the majestic mountain. We also managed to see the beauty of Hakone and the picturesque nature around it and I remember feeling really blessed to have seen those.
Plus, we were treated with great hospitality by our guide, Nakano. As it was a Muslim tour, he arranged for us Muslim-friendly meals and when we requested to pray, he gave us some time to do so, even though I could see that he was trying his best to keep time in true Japanese fashion. So, for that, I'll always remember his good work ?
But I just felt like something was missing. A lot of people had told me that I'd love Japan, that the people were really nice, that I'd be in awe of almost everything and anything, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, I never got that allure from my first trip. I agreed that it's a beautiful country but I felt like everything seemed too prim and proper and that the country had no "soul". It didn't help that an encounter I had with some service staff in Nagoya was really underwhelming. The bar for Japan was set really high only for me to be left slightly disappointed.
Don't get me wrong - the trip went really well but maybe it was travelling with a tour that took out that excitement of exploration for me. I didn't manage to connect with anyone beyond my guide and I could only see the country's natural charms through the eyes of a tourist.
It took me a while before I finally opened up to Japan again.
They say "once bitten, twice shy" but I knew I had to give Japan another chance. If everyone around me had sung praises for it, there must be something I haven't discovered yet. But the interest only sparked after my sister came back from a solo trip to Tokyo. She told me all about her adventures - from how she navigated the city's train system to eating really good halal Japanese food. Months later, I saw a flight promo for Tokyo on All Nippon Airways (ANA) and snagged it. After all, it was around 5 months into my first job and I needed a break, so it was perfect timing too ☺️ Plus, it was autumn and I never experienced the season before, so I was super excited!
This time, who knew I'd fall head over heels with Japan?
A city unlike any other
For me, the key to unlocking the soul of any nation is through its cities. Here's where you can see how the locals live their lives, interact with them and observe how the city works.
You see, I've only heard and read that Tokyo's population is huge (about 13 million) but it only took me a trip there to realise how crowded it REALLY was. But somehow the city managed and I was amazed. Yes, it was crowded but I loved the fact that I didn't feel suffocated. Perhaps it was the excitement of being a traveller and maybe I'm a wee bit biased because I like cities.
I loved the energy and bustling atmosphere almost everywhere I went. I remember getting excited when visiting the Shibuya Crossing - I crossed it at least 5-6 times ? And each time I crossed it, I felt an adrenaline rush. It was also really interesting that the Japanese didn't seem to care much - it's an everyday occurrence for them. But it was us travellers who were whipping out our phones to take photos/videos and doing all sorts of stunts in the middle of the crossing for that 30 seconds or so.
I've been to some major cities in the world like London, New York, and Hong Kong but Tokyo is definitely unlike any other city I've ever visited. I loved that it's a juxtaposition of everything, it's a cross between tradition and modernity. I liked that I could be walking in a crowded street one moment only to stumble into a quaint alley with unique shops, or find peace in a quiet garden.
Tokyo is definitely not "just another city," and although it was my second time in Japan, it was this visit to Tokyo that exposed me to the world of Japanese culture and its people ?
P.S. Want to explore Tokyo? Check out our 6D5N Muslim-friendly Tokyo itinerary
Finding peace amidst the city
This leads me to my next point. You'd think that Tokyo is just a concrete jungle. Well, not quite! Even though Tokyo is huge, what I like about it is that there are enough breathing spaces, especially in the quiet neighbourhoods, parks and gardens.
Perhaps there was also something about travelling alone which enabled me to explore different neighbourhoods, beyond the tourist attractions. It helped that I was there for around a week and I ventured out into the lesser-visited areas like Daikanyama, Shimokitazawa, Setagaya and Naka-meguro.
What's amazing is that these places are just a short train ride (5-10 minutes) away from the busy districts of Shibuya/Shinjuku ?
One of the places which I really liked was the Skycarrot in the Setagaya district, where I got a beautiful view of the city skyline. The best part is that it was free! So I didn't need to visit Tokyo Skytree to get a good view of the skyline or squeeze with the crowd at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. What was great here was also the fact that it was mainly locals who were at this place taking in the view.
I also managed to visit Mt Takao, a nature respite located just around an hour's train ride away from Shinjuku. On clear days, you'd be able to see Tokyo's skyline and even Mt Fuji!
During my first trip to Japan, I only spent a night in Tokyo and we only managed to visit Tokyo Disneyland which I felt didn't represent the city enough. But this solo trip made me see so much more of Tokyo and it changed my perception of it. I've always thought it was just a concrete jungle but I knew better after this trip and in fact, it made me want to explore other parts of Japan, which I've always had preconceived notions about.
Efficient public transport
Anyone who's been to Tokyo would tell you how efficient public transport is in the city. Trust me, that isn't an overstatement. Every time I was on public transport, I was marvelling at just how busy it was but everything ran like clockwork.
Trains come every 2 minutes or so and the fact that there were so many lines in major stations like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno still baffles me till today. I've always wondered how everything still manages to run smoothly despite the sheer volume of commuters.
The train system and the lines confused and excited me at the same time. I was confused that there were different types of lines - semi-express, limited express, local and so on. I even got lost on some occasions but that made it a thrill to find my way around. I finally felt that feeling of exploration which I had not experienced during my first visit to Japan.
Through it all, I found that using Google Maps is really reliable! The timings were accurate and they'd tell you exactly which train to take and at which platform. I even tried to "test" the system once by following a different train but as expected, I failed ? There are also other apps like Hyperdia or Japan Navitime which are made specifically for finding directions in Japan.
Besides the almost foolproof transport system, one thing which amazed me was the locals. People moved fast and they were orderly. Rush hour can be really crowded but commuters were considerate and moved in when they needed to. There was crowd but without the noise and chaos, which made travelling on public transport a better experience.
Seeing the locals through my eyes
One thing which I really loved during my solo trip was the ability to observe the life of the locals and their culture. I guess being alone helped me to focus more on what was happening around me.
I observed housewives at Daikanyama Station donning their kimono meeting up with one another on a casual weekday. They reminded me of any other housewives from any other countries, joking, gossiping and talking about life.
I observed parents waiting eagerly while their children were having fun at the neighbourhood playground.
I also observed how locals interacted with one another and had casual conversations, I saw children about, 7 or 8 years old, going home from school alone with their cute rectangular backpacks, and so on and so forth.
For me, observing the locals helped to break the barriers which I thought they once had. They are not as prim and proper as I initially thought they were; they are just like everyone else.
Halal Japanese food
One of the things that I was really looking forward to during this trip was halal Japanese food. I've heard so much about the growing halal food scene in Tokyo
(this was 2016!) and from what my sister told me too. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by the standard of halal Japanese food in Tokyo. The fact that many eateries have gone the extra mile to make their meals Muslim-friendly is also a welcoming sign for Muslim travellers ?
What amazed me was that I could get by every day in Tokyo with just eating halal Japanese food as there were that many choices. No need to worry about going vegetarian or having just seafood!
P.S. Need help checking if something is Muslim-friendly? Our guide of Japanese phrases will be useful!
They say one of the best ways to learn about a country's culture is through its food and one of my most memorable dining experiences was none other than a meal at Shinjuku Gyoen Ramen Ouka, one of the popular halal ramen shops in Tokyo. As the eatery is really small, I had to wait very long (around 1 hour) in the cold before I could have my dinner but this was all worth it when the food was served to me.
Part of the meal includes a bowl of ramen, yakitori, grilled chicken and rice. Although there were instructions on the table as to how to savour your meal, one of the owners (who's Japanese-Muslim) took the time to explain to me how I should eat my ramen. Turns out that after you finish enjoying your ramen noodles, you're supposed to pour the broth into the bowl of rice (called ochazuke) and eat it, which I thought was really fascinating. Plus, it made the meal even heartier than it already was, which was a comforting feeling especially to a solo traveller like me. The owner even served me some tea after my meal to sort of cleanse my palate. After the experience, I managed to have a conversation with her and asked her which part of Japan she came from and how it was like being a Muslim in Tokyo.
Guess what, the meal left such an impression on me that I came back a few days later just to enjoy the ramen again ?But perhaps my only regret was not snapping a photo with her :(
Another experience which I really remembered was a halal yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) meal which I had at Gyumon. I didn't make a reservation but thankfully, there was a table for me as I arrived right when they opened for dinner (at 5pm). What struck me at first was how the interior looked so authentically Japanese.
Not to mention that the food was exactly what I had imagined it to be - juicy and tender meat which instantly melts in your mouth. I wasn't really experienced in eating yakiniku but it was pretty easy to figure it out. The meal was a little expensive for 1 (from JPY3500) but it was worth it and I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Other than halal ramen and yakiniku, I had so much good food in Tokyo that it left such an indelible impression on me and brought me even closer to Japanese culture.
P.S. Check out all the amazing food options in our Tokyo halal food guide here
Some people say they like Tokyo the least out of all the other popular places in Japan but for me, it will forever be the city which made me fall in love with the country! If you'd asked me years ago if I felt anything for Japan, I would have said no but I'm so glad I made this solo trip to Tokyo or I would have never discovered why everyone loves Japan so much ❤️ And trust me when I say this was just the start of my many adventures in Japan ?
Ever had a similar experience? Let us know in the comments section!
P.S. Conquered Tokyo and ready to explore other parts of Japan? Check out our 6D5N Muslim-friendly itinerary to the Tohoku region