Exploring Japan

The land of the rising sun..how can I begin to describe my fascination with this culture?  It started with enjoying the cuisine (honestly, who doesn’t love Japanese food..?), which is widely popular and just available all over the metro.  Then an opportunity came for me to study Nihonggo, the Japanese language, for a year while honing my I.T. skills, and this gave me more than a glimpse into the culture and traditions of this once ruthless conqueror of a nation.  While history was another story, a lot of what has become of Japan now is so very admirable, noteworthy and imitable, I just had to see more.  A week-long visit was barely enough time to explore but more than enough for me to gush.

The City That is Tokyo

Tokyo is the perfect blend of busy, dynamic and tranquil.  Everything is efficiently run, from the trains, roads, shops, yet the people, whether in a large crowd or in smaller numbers, are so orderly it is hard to distinguish a weekend from a weekday traffic.  Dining in popular restaurants, as seen from the long lines at the door, does not differ much from dining anywhere else since people are so considerate; they tend to eat fast and leave quietly, making the lines move quickly if ever there was one.

Staying most of the time in the city, in this case Tokyo, with the flurry of activities, albeit quietly, the beauty and cleanliness of the surrounding, the many manifestations of development, the politeness of the locals and the their deliberateness in doing almost anything (even food serving), is like an assault on the senses.  The energy, the buzz, the intentionality, all contribute to the sensation.  It is not unpleasant, but it feels larger than life, even to the point of overwhelming.  It is like quiet strength in a person, you don’t see it but you sense it is there.  Such is the impression of cool confidence and assurance I get when interacting with the locals.  It’s like the rich culture emanating from the daily, mundane things we can see, feel and taste.  I can hardly get enough of this vibe.

Instead of taking the usual tourist stops, we decided to explore Tokyo by foot or train, again with loose itinerary, check out the rural villages and, fingers crossed, take a hike to Mt. Fuji.  Luckily enough, we were able to secure slots at the last minute to tour Fujisan by bus with a local guide/translator.

Sidetrip to Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji was a sight to behold.  It is one of Japan’s sacred mountains, if not considered the most sacred, and the country’s tallest peak, with snow capping it almost five months within a year.  In good enough weather, the ascent takes 5 to 7 hours while it takes 3 to 5 hours to descend, if taking the most popular route from the 5th station via Yoshida trail.  The official Fuji hiking season is from July to September, when the climate is warm and safe and establishments like cafes and shops nearby are open, with some selling hiking supplies and/or souvenirs.  Many hikers prefer to climb the mountain at night in order to witness the sunrise at the summit.

In case of bad weather, don’t despair as the mere sight of the icy mountain from the Fujisan World Heritage Center, from its cafe or from a nearby rural village, is enough to elicit involuntary ooohhs and aahhs from you and your company, guaranteed.

Worth the Hype?

Yes, yes, yes and YES!  Japan is worth that trip of a lifetime, although I highly doubt going there once on a short trip will ever be enough.  Without setting it out to be so, the trip becomes a cultural one — from the big, bustling city to the sleepy rural villages, to food tripping, shopping or just simply sight-seeing — the country is so culturally rich, you’ll be left in awe and maybe start questioning your roots or chosen residence, or just the way you live, behave and look at things.  I’ve only been to a few places that had me feeling like I learned a lot more from the trip than in any number of other trips, and this one definitely tops the list.  From the kitschy, kawaii items sold in the shopping district, the purikura stops in trendy Harajuku, the excellent food in restaurants, michelin-starred or otherwise, to the oh, so polite and genteel people, Japan’s food and culture game is strong, and arguably without par.

It was no surprise to find out that Japan tops the countries with the most Michelin stars, with three of its cities making it to the list of the most starred cities in the world, even with some restaurants rejecting their stars.  What’s more exciting about this is that many of its Michelin-starred restaurants are not pricey at all, some even quite cheap.  And yet the food quality is top-notch, it is even hard to distinguish fine dining from diner types, except maybe if you look at the interior, dinnerware and location.  That being said, I’d go on and say that living in Japan is not that expensive, or at least not the way I heard it, if one knew where to go and eat.

Overall, Japan for me is a seemingly harmonious mix of old and new, ancient and futuristic, progress and tradition, along with all its ups and downs.  If you’ve heard of relationships for hire in Japan, the high occurrence of suicides, the ageing population and the depleting workforce, a seemingly perfect society still, after all, has its fair share of problems and crises.  Nevertheless, Japan is worth emulating in so many ways in its value-driven, character-building, trust-based societal norms and humane approach to advancement.  The way it has grown without abandoning its lessons, values and traditions and in heavy consideration of nature and the environment, is an outstanding achievement in and of itself.  Because of these and more, Japan is by far my most favourite country.  I might even live there for awhile, we’ll see 🙂