JAPAN WILL surprise you. Though it sounds like a specialized destination for those with rarefied tastes, it in fact snugly packs an enormous and divergent variety of sensations within a compact package. It is a country reserved yet licentious, foreign yet familiar, comforting yet challenging, where, within the space of minutes, one can glory in superior efficiency or forget oneself in thousand-year-old tranquility. "Intense" is the first word that comes to mind for the experience of being there. Spend two weeks and you'll feel like you've been in quite another world.

Japan's combination of an intriguingly alien culture surrounded by the most modern appurtenances make it a splendid location for travelers of the timidly adventurous sort, those who enjoy foreign sensations but fear unforeseen consequences. Not only do the trains, buses and even subways run fantastically on time, they go to the most mind-boggling places. And topping it off is the fact that Japan is a country without street crime. The worst that can befall a visitor is getting lost. You can go anywhere at any time of day or night and be safer than you would be in your living room back home.

The most immediately striking aspect of Japan is how small it is, almost a country in miniature. About the size of California with roughly five times the population, Japan makes use of every possible inch of land. Tiny, meticulously laid out vest-pocket rice farms dot the countryside. The Japanese seem perpetually in the process of squeezing yet another building onto a postage-stamp-sized vacant lot. In the country, farms are so small the few cows seen look excessively outsized; horses are such a rarity adults pose for pictures with them in amusement parks.

In the cities, charming, atmospheric restaurants can be found tucked away in third sub-basements of department stores. Even the lanes on freeways are narrower than those in the United States. One of the reasons "Convoy," a 1970s trucking movie, was a bigger hit in Japan than almost anywhere is that the populace never had been treated to the sight of 16-wheel rigs before.

The fact that so many people are squeezed into such a small place seems to have had enormous impact on Japanese patterns of behavior. The needs of society as a whole appear to have been elevated way above the needs of the individual. That intense pressure to conform to the norm may be one reason why muggings and purse snatchings are unknown and a political system has developed, unusual by Western standards, where Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki resigned last year because, in his words, "I will be able to win the election but I will withdraw to maintain my party's unity." Consensus is everything in Japan, where one of the most quoted proverbs is that "the nail whose head sticks out gets pounded by the hammer."

That consensus is much more easily achieved than it would be in this country because Japan is thoroughly homogenous, the equivalent of a United States populated entirely by WASPs. And far from battling that sameness, the citizenry reinforces it. It is a common sight in Tokyo, for instance, to see groups of half a dozen or so young businessmen, all wearing the identical blue suits with the same style shirt, same style tie, even tie-pin, all looking as interchangeable as a group of Hasidim. And every Sunday afternoon, in that city's Yoyogi Park, the same phenomenon is observable at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, as hundreds of teen-agers, all dressed in identical 1950s greaser and sock-hop fashions, show up at the same place at the same time to officially"nonconform" together.

In such a society, the place of the overtly foreign American visitor clearly is a curious one. On the most obvious, physical level, we are too big for the country: Our feet are too large for the slippers that are essential for visiting shrines; our legs indecorously stick out of the robes provided by most hotels; even fitting into Japanese toilets occasionally is something of a squeeze, all of which inevitably leads to feelings of oafishness and worse.

Yet the Japanese, by means of unparalleled courtesy, manage to make everyone feel quite at home. Politeness is something of a national duty, and even cab drivers, wearing ties and white gloves like Mickey Mouse's, always are polite, always stop when you signal, and never give you dirty looks no matter where you want them to go or how horribly you mangle their language.

As for the English language, it has a curious place in Japan. Everyone studies it in school, and oddly chosen English words--"Viva Surf Life" or "West Coast Is Happy Coast" are but two examples out of many--appear on clothes in a way that only can be called talismanic. Yet actually speaking English is a talent beyond most Japanese, and detailed itinerary questions must be saved for the government-run Tourist Information Centers in Tokyo and Kyoto, where, as might be expected, no query is considered too outlandish for a serious, respectful answer.

Underlying the politeness and deference with which Westerners are treated in Japan, however, is the feeling that we Occidentals all are infants, not to be taken seriously, and that our presence in Japan is a cause for tolerant amusement. Children especially often treat the appearance of a foreigner as a signal for riotous laughter, and it is common when visiting the major sights to run into busloads of kids who surround the gaijin screaming "hello, hello, hello" until he responds in kind, which provokes even more laughter. As a foreigner, it is inevitable that you will make gaffes in a country so crowded the most complicated, ritualized forms of behavior have evolved, but though the leeway you are given is essential, it is hard to fight the notion that you are being a bit patronized as well.

The best place to begin a journey to Japan is also the most obvious--Tokyo, where intense westernization provides the visitor familiar things to hold onto as the strangeness of the society sinks in. The city is blessed with an extensive, modern, color-coded subway system, with signs in English at every stop. So with the aid of the Japan National Tourist Office's map, getting anywhere in Tokyo is simpler than trying to find your way around Los Angeles.

Japan is not one of those places where Western influence seems a pernicious overlay. The Japanese have for the past 100 years taken to modernism with a vengeance and made it their own. As a result Tokyo, which was almost totally flattened during World War II, has been rebuilt into perhaps the world's greatest city. Everything city lovers die for--the madness, the fervor, the concentrated amenities, the undertone of eroticism--is present in plentiful amounts, with the added bonus that the fear, so ever-present in Western cities, is totally absent.

Because Tokyo was so devastated, it is also a city with hardly any ancient sights to visit, and the best way to appreciate its attractions is to walk around its many neighborhoods by day and, more profitably, by night. There is the bustling central Ginza, with its combination of Times Square's neon and Fifth Avenue's elegance, the trendy Roppongi, and, best of all, the unbelievable Shinjuku. Located near a major rail center, Shinjuku is so astonishing even seeing is not believing. A district of bars, restaurants, pachinko parlors, sex shows and who knows what else, it stretches for tens of dozens of blocks in all directions, with literally thousands of neon and electric lights competing with each other like beserk fireflies. Shinjuku makes Las Vegas look like Toonerville, and calling it, as a local resident did, Pompeii before Vesuvius, seems almost like damning with faint praise.

Yet if the word teeming seems to have been invented just for Japan, the same goes for the concept of tranquility, and nowhere more so than in parts of Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and merely three hours from Tokyo on the justly famous bullet train. Kyoto is not some mummified Williamsburg of a town; it is a major, bustling city. But tucked away all through it are, by best estimate, some 3,000 shrines, not to mention a pleasantly seedy geisha area. But it is those shrines--easily accessible either by moderately priced taxis, buses or on foot--that everyone comes to visit, and with the best of reasons.

Since the country looks so striking in photographs, one of the pleasantest surprises of Japan is how wonderfully three-dimensional it is, how many additional qualities its sights take on in fully formed reality. This is true of all the major shrines but most especially of the Zen Buddhist rock gardens. While rock gardens have a tendency to look no more than coolly interesting in pictures, their exquisite design and proportions create an overwhelming totality of sensation that, like Venice, simply must be experienced to be understood.

Sitting alongside a zen garden for hours turns out to be the simplest thing in the world; what is difficult is getting up and leaving. And while Kyoto's most-famous garden, Ryoanji, is often jammed with hoardes of indefatigable Japanese tourists, the nearby Daitokuji is inexplicably empty and has close to half a dozen exceptional gardens to experience.

On the non-Zen side of Buddhism--most Japanese families have some ties to Buddhism--the one sight in Kyoto that should not be missed is the 700-year-old temple of Sanjusangendo. Imagine the shrine encased in a narrow building as long as a football field. At the center is an enormous, tranquil Buddha, flanked for a full 50 yards on each side by row after row after row of identical, life-sized statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy: 1,001 statues in all. No other sight gives off such a fearsomely ancient and holy aura, as well as the sense, central to Japan, that this is a totally self-contained culture which grew and developed in ways that could not be more different from those of the West if they had been nurtured on a different planet altogether.

When one comes to leave Japan, however, it is the people that finally make the biggest impression. A visit, no matter how short, reinforces how much there is to be said for honesty and politeness and makes us realize things about ourselves as Americans as well: How big we are, how devoted we are--with good and bad results--to the kind of individualism that is anathema to the Japanese. Most of all, a visit to Japan gives one hope for modern society. To paraphrase Lincoln Steffens, I have seen the present and it works.