I imagined Japan to be a huge culture shock. I’d read about the frenetic pace in Tokyo, the complete contradiction between gameshows focussing on the apparently hilarious torture of participants versus the overwhelming politeness of those on the streets, the way in which tradition and humility give way to wild drunkenness in the evenings – as long as no-one talks about it the next day. The huge high rise buildings squashed in amongst sacred temples, and the Starbucks on every street jostling for space next to izakaya that have been around for years.
And those things are true – but somehow, it totally works.
In the two weeks I spent on Honshu, the country’s main island, I was most struck by the way in which, in a country known for both its technological advances (being greeted by a robot in a shop wasn’t unusual) and its more bizarre or darker elements, no opportunity to make the everyday beautiful was missed; no chance to make life that little bit easier left undone; and no interaction dismissed or underestimated.
Everywhere we went, people were almost falling over themselves to help us, and I’ve never been in a country where people are so unfailingly polite and humble. I found myself bowing left, right and centre in response to others, trying to make my “arigato”s sound as enthused and sincere as possible to repay the kindness I was being shown. But none of it felt forced – there was never a hint of “I’m doing this because I have to” – respect for others seems genuinely woven into the Japanese culture.
The central aim of Shintoism, Japan’s main religion, is to promote harmony and purity in all spheres of life, and I felt like that was reflected in so much of everyday Japan. So much of what you see is beautiful, with clean lines and thoughtful design, and the cherry blossom preparing to bloom was being celebrated everywhere. And aside from that, little things to make life that bit easier were everywhere – from umbrella covers at every shop entrance to avoid traipsing rainwater around, to the marked queuing areas for the subway to avoid the London-style stampede for the carriage the second the doors open. It’s a country where you feel like everything has been thought of!
Tokyo was an amazing city. Staying in Asakusa, with its Sensoji Temple and ryokans, we experienced a little of ‘traditional’ Tokyo, but heading into areas such as Akihabara, Shibuya and Harajuku gave you a real feel for the modern city you know from Hollywood, full of neon billboards and blaring speakers and rowdy arcades. We spent our first night dressed as computer game characters driving go-karts around the city’s roads – a perfect introduction to the city that I can’t recommend enough!
Kyoto, as the ‘old’ capital, comes with its reputation for more traditionalism, though our first day spent visiting the fantastic International Manga Museum and the ultra-modern station tower for views over the city highlighted how the city embraces the new. It was in the traditional that the city excelled though – from the Golden Pavilion to the Philosopher’s Walk and the geisha districts, you couldn’t help but be seduced by the beauty of old-world Japan.
It was also a perfect base for exploring more of the island. A day trip to Hiroshima was incredibly sobering, though brightened up by a sunset visit to the floating Torii gate and people-friendly deer of Miyajima. The impact of Japan’s military history, including Pearl Harbour and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seems a central part of the country’s identity, and was never played down, which makes for another stark yet fascinating contrast with what comes across as such a peaceful place today.
A stay in Buddhist temple lodgings on Mount Koya was a real highlight of our trip. After the busy cities, Koyasan was a gorgeous step out of the madness, with the temple we stayed in offering a beautiful retreat. It feels incredibly special as you climb the mountain on the local train and cable car before crawling round the winding roads by bus to the town, and the walks (including through the atmospheric Okunoin cemetery) are beautiful. The Shojin Ryori meal served by the monks was wonderful – a vegan display of foods focussing on simplicity, harmony and variation, cooked in a variety of ways so even the most hardened meat-eater would find something to enjoy! The morning ceremony was a perfectly meditative, grounding start to the day, drawing you into the world of the monks that live in this sacred centre of Shingon Buddhism that’s been there for more than 1200 years.
Japan turned out to be everything I imagined, but in ways that I didn’t expect. It wasn’t the insane assault on the senses that I anticipated, but it did keep me on my toes the entire time, switching from the modern to the traditional in the blink of an eye. I’ve come away with a new appreciation for the art of simplicity and the importance of making the most of the everyday – not to mention the ridiculous joy of karaoke and a desire to install heated toilet seats in my house at the first opportunity.
Two weeks wasn’t nearly long enough – I left each town with a need to see and experience more, and a feeling that I’d barely scratched the surface of what each place had to offer. It’s a country of such huge variety, contradiction and diversity, that far from ticking it off my list of places to visit, I think I’ve just given it a permanent spot there.