When visiting a foreign country for the first time, it is unlikely for an amateur traveller (and I lump myself in that group) to experience anything other than cliché. Therefore, with regards to our recent voyage to Japan: Kimonos! Sushi! Lanterns! Samurai! Zen! Bamboo! Temples! Technology! Tea! I didn’t see any ninjas, but that’s probably because I wasn’t supposed to see them. By definition, if you see one, it’s probably not really a ninja so much as some dude in a ski mask.
But though our days were filled with cliché, that isn’t to say that the experience wasn’t satisfying. Far from it. We delighted when we saw stone lanterns whether they were centuries old or newly carved, and the Japanese put them everywhere. In quantity. Where they don’t have room for stone lanterns, they hang paper ones. Tired of lanterns? Then it’s time to leave the country. For my part, I couldn’t get enough of them, as the hundreds of lantern photos on my camera are testament.
So we ate up the cliché buffet that Japan served us. Actually, mostly we ate Indian food because we’re not really fans of sushi and I don’t get turned on by seafood. Melina had a bit of “row” fish, which I assume was raw and not in fact a description of its alignment. Regardless, she wasn’t impressed by the indigenous fare and at the end of the trip raved more about the Indian butter chicken than the miso soup she’d had. Seriously, we found a couple of great restaurants serving foods from the subcontinent. And I don’t feel like I missed out on the whole “Japan” thing.
We also didn’t see a sumo wrestling match, bathe in an onsen, or climb Mount Fuji, but that isn’t to say that we somehow missed authentic Japan. We squeezed into subways during Tokyo rush hour. We wandered through markets where locals buy their sea weed. Ate shaved ice after visiting a temple on a hot day. Sat next to businessmen on the bullet train. Melina got to use a traditional Japanese squat toilet, and we both experienced the joys of the washlet. We even got locked in a Buddhist temple. It doesn’t get more real than that.
We also petted a dog. Watched cats. In a sudden downpour, we darted for the cover of storefront awnings because we didn’t have umbrellas. We ate at Subway, because sandwiches (tandoori chicken!) are easier than chopsticks. And it turns out that the Japanese do the same things. They eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks just like we do. The differences are in the details, and while the details are everything, at the end of the day we share more than differ. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the Japanese people have done a marvelous job of appropriating good ideas from other places into their own milieu. It’s not always pretty, or neat, as Tokyo demonstrates. But it does work. American xenophobes could take a cue there.
I really enjoyed the confirmation of my suspicion that they’re fundamentally just like us. Things look different when written in kanji, of course, and Japanese television makes absolutely no sense, but at the end of the day the Japanese have the same wants, needs, hopes, and dreams that we do. They go to work and take walks in the park. They pray for their loved ones. They get bored so they divert themselves with cell phones. Hot weather makes us all sweat. Cute school kids petting deer make us all smile. Call it rock-and-roll or J-Pop, it’s the same thing. Play it loud.
Cultural commentary aside, the best part of the trip was not eating fresh bean-filled pastries or shopping for pens in a stationery store as big as my house, although those events do rank highly. The best part was traveling with Melina. We’ve been discovering the world together for 10 years, and its fair to say that we’ve gotten rather good at it. I look forward to seeing wherever the next decade takes us.
I took about 2000 photos during our trip. You can see a select few, if you’d like.