It is a truth universally acknowledged… that you can have too much of a good thing. From home comforts to public services, from friends, families and relationships to health, safety and the gift of life, we take things for granted. Call it complacency, call it being spoiled, call it temple syndrome. It’s human nature. And there’s no denying after six months of treating our eyes, ears and tastebuds we’ve become a little inured. We still enjoy new places, still appreciate the sights, still relish meeting new people, trying new things. But perhaps with less zest than day one, without reaching the same levels of wide-eyed wonderment.
And yet, Japan still blew us away.
This land of history, mystery, mythology and tradition, this land of futurism, neon cityscapes, and pioneering technology. A country oozing cool from half its pores; high-end fashion, cutting-edge streetwear, effortless style. And from the other half seeps chintzy kidulthood, manga and maid cafes, the fetishisation of infantilisation (“kawaii”). A country whose public face of respect, restraint and control represses private and hidden emotion, frustration, trauma and torture, both individually and collectively. Japan has a multitude of faces, complexity and depth beyond simple comprehension. It’s intriguing, bewitching and beguiling, at once so different from what we know and yet, at heart, quite similar. We’re only humans, after all.
Japan has a long and storied history and experienced many influences but due to its island geography retains a self-containment, a sense of isolation, an undeniable, singular uniqueness. Visiting seems, in many ways, to be visiting the future; but it’s the here and now, a modern civilisation playing out in parallel to our own on the other side of the world, similarly advanced, highly sophisticated, but fundamentally different. An alternative storyline for the progress of developed society; tweaked here and there, but not wholly remodelled.
Surprisingly I found more “similarities” to the UK – my home and most that I know – here than anywhere else in Asia, despite the other-worldliness Japan projects. Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos et al are simpler worlds; in many ways (but not every) decades behind Western Europe. But Japan sits shoulder to shoulder, maybe ahead, a wealthy, welfare-centric modern society built on deep and rich history and tradition, and contending with 21st century issues. They are resonances I recognise.
I don’t think we stopped goggling the entire time. Japan can – broadly – be divided into cities, which are megalopolises rather than typical “defined” urban areas, and its countryside. And, using the same broad brush strokes, its cities are vibrant, pulsating concrete jungles, its countryside, coastline and islands dazzling feats of nature. It’s crazy inside cities, and crazily beautiful outside them. People – publicly – are remarkably polite and respectful from obediently queuing for public transport to facing the same way on trains and lifts (to avoid to awkwardness of facing each other), from their delight at hosting you in their bar, cafe or restaurant to the pleasure they take helping you find your way in their often perplexing gargantuan train stations cum underground cities, or happily helping you understand menus, protocols and procedures, giggles and smiles abounding. Our ears rung with constant cheery “kon’nichiwa”s (hello)/ “irasshaimase”s (welcome) everywhere we arrived, and “sayonara”s (goodbye) and “arigatou gozaimasu”s (thank-you) everywhere we left.
From Osaka to Kyosan to Hiroshima to Miyajima to Kyoto to Hakone to Tokyo Japan was an experience like no other and in many ways a lesson; a lesson in respect, tradition, manners, a lesson in cleanliness, hygiene and duty, a lesson in urban development and rural preservation, a lesson that taught us how humanity can thrive contemporaneously in different conditions and circumstances and reach a point roughly level with but so fascinatingly divergent from good ol’ blighty. Same same, but different.
Once I’ve overcome the tragedy that is our departure I’ll write about what we actually did.