I visited Japan for three weeks back in the summer of 2009 and immediately I was entranced. A life long love of this magical, alien and totally crazy nation was born, and here is why.
I think that first and foremost one of the largest reasons I love Japan is how friendly, polite and bloody wonderful the Japanese people are. I could be sat in a restaurant and a lady with her grandson on the next table would strike up conversation with the little English she had to see how I was enjoying the country and then insist that I try some of the food she had ordered. I could be staying in a traditional guesthouse and unexpectedly the owners would present me with a Japanese gift wrapped in beautiful paper on my last day. I could walk around Tokyo, one of the world’s largest and busiest cities at night and never feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I could stumble upon a local festival as the only foreigner and be welcomed (read ‘dragged’) into the celebrations where afterwards three men in traditional dress who spoke no English tried to explain the religious beliefs behind it with crazy hand gestures.
I could talk all day about the inspiringly lovely people I met everywhere I went in Japan, but instead of doing that I will tell you to visit and experience it for yourself. It’s difficult not to regain a bit of faith in humanity along the way.
The nation that invented Pokemon and the Gameboy. The home of Studio Ghibi, creator of the most imaginative and beautiful films that will always be some of my favorites. Hello Kitty ; a national treasure. Whole shops that sell nothing but the most cute and colorful socks you can possibly imagine. Rilakkuma (literal translation: Relax Bear), a lazy little bear which is basically the cutest thing I’ve ever encountered.
I must have regressed right back to childhood because all of a sudden I was buying toys again, dressing in cute frilly things and remembering how wonderful it felt to be inordinately excited about random stuff again. I got some wonder back. And the best thing was that there was nothing socially unacceptable about any of it. If I sat on a London tube playing a Gameboy I’d probably be worrying that everyone around me was judging me. On the trains in Japan, I’d be surrounded by other people playing Gameboys and getting severely jealous. When I got back to the UK and started unpacking my suitcase full of Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma memorabilia, it began to strike me that I’d maybe gotten carried away a little. But I still have the coolest socks of anyone I know.
I found that every place I went to in Japan was so different and so wonderful. I didn’t get to see nearly enough in the three short weeks I spent there, but there wasn’t a single place I visited that I didn’t fall in love with.
Tokyo was a bustling city but it certainly didn’t feel like home. The bright neon street lights that it is so commonly associated with need to be seen in the flesh to be truly appreciated. I drank coffee in my favorite people-watching vantage point; the Starbucks overlooking the crazy Shibyua pedestrian crossing, famously the busiest crossing in the world. Kyoto on the other hand felt so traditional. I saw Geishas wandering the streets, I explored winding back alleys and found myself stumbling into tiny workshops where traditional craftsmen were creating beautiful items. In Nara, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of deer that wander the city. I climbed Mt Mitake and ate crispy grilled fish in a forest of tall, ancient trees. I went rowing on the huge lake in the sleepy town of Hakone, surrounded by nature and probably one of my favorite places in Japan. I visited Hiroshima and witnessed what is now a thriving city that has completely overcome the horrible events that happened there. In Hatsukaichi I saw the incredible floating Torii gate in the ocean. Just typing this is making me miss it all so much.
Sometimes cheap, often delicious, always interesting, I loved discovering Japanese food. I ate sushi for the first time in my life, in Tsukiji Fish Market where the fish is so fresh that it’s arguably the best sushi in the world. Needless to say, all sushi I’ve eaten since that first experience has not met up to expectations. I ate donkatsu curry with black eggs (NOT to be confused with Chinese hundred year old eggs, which involve a seriously old egg which has turned black inside). Black eggs are just normal eggs which have been boiled in volcanic pools, a process which turns the shell of an otherwise normal boiled egg black. Donkatsu curry is probably one of the most popular Japanese meals, it’s breaded pork with curry sauce and rice. Seriously good stuff!
Hands down my favorite Japanese food is Okonomiyaki. I’ve heard it described as the Japanese version of pizza, and I can’t really think of a better explanation so let’s go with that! Okonomiyaki is most popular in Osaka where there are lots of restaurants dedicated especially to this yummy foodstuff. The tables in Okonomiyaki restaurants have large metal grills in the middle and your food is cooked by the chef right in front of you. The base is a mixture of cabbage, spring onion and batter, and can then be topped with a variety of things including seafood, pork, etc, or left plain if you prefer. What really makes it special however are the sauces. Once the okonomiyaki is cooked, it is smothered in mayonnaise and a special okonomiyaki sauce which I unfortunately cannot describe because there is nothing else like it. You may be thinking that on paper this all sounds disgusting, to that I would say you have to try it! It’s comfort food like no other, and I personally think it’s delicious!
The only downside to Japanese food is that it isn’t great for vegetarians. Trying to convey in Japan that you don’t eat meat, fish OR fish sauces or extracts? Not easy. Luckily I didn’t have this problem since I’m not a vegetarian, but it’s certainly worth mentioning unless you really really love cold soba noodles and vegetable tempura! And in fact I quite possibly have never eaten so few vegetables in my life as I did during those three weeks I spent in Japan (I pretty much only saw vegetables in ludicrous packaging in expensive department stores for equally ludicrous prices). As much as I enjoyed the novelty of eating beef and rice for breakfast, after three weeks I was severely craving something green.
I found the Shinto and Buddhist religions extremely interesting while I was in Japan and I enjoyed learning about them in a way I haven’t done with any other religion before. They are not in-your-face, they are never forced onto you. They work in unison with each other, and I found them peaceful and positive. My potted understanding of Shinto is that it involves praying to a multitude of different spirits (Kami) at shrines and temples, each of which serve you in a different way. For example, you can go to a shrine for the spirit which protects against road accidents to pray for the road safety of yourself and your loved ones. You can go to the shrine for a spirit which protects your mental ability to pray for a strong mind or good exam performance. My understanding ends there however, so I won’t go into further detail. The temples, shrines and torii gates are also incredibly beautiful and diverse. There are so many I’d recommend visiting, not least of all the most popular choices such as Kinkakuji Temple, Sensoji Temple and the Fushimi Inari Shrine where you can see 10,000 torii gates sweeping across a beautiful forest. It’s truly magical. I will write a separate post at some point about the best temples and shrines I visited in Japan soon.
I hope I’ve managed to somewhat convey what made me love Japan so much, but in truth it’s hard to put into words. I’ve been blessed to have never visited a place which I didn’t like, or think fondly of. But sometimes you go somewhere, and something about it just feels right. I got back from Japan and immediately signed up for classes to learn to speak Japanese, something I did for two years (sadly quite some time ago now, so I’m more than a bit rusty – but I have plans to pick it back up!), and I cannot wait till the day I can go back. I hope if you haven’t already visited that you get the chance to go soon, and I hope you love it as much as I did!
If you’ve been to Japan, let me know what you thought of it!