The trip I so eagerly awaited for so long has come and gone, and I’m back home dreaming of Japan (every single night, in fact).
In many ways, Japan was exactly like I expected (and hoped) it would be. I got to see cyberpunk landscapes and eat tons of delicious food and see loads of amazing fake food and speak some Japanese and ride bullet trains and stay in a traditional inn and experience the beauty of Kyoto in the autumn and the craziness of Osaka and the unimaginable vastness of Tokyo.
But Japan did surprise me in one key way: it felt much less alien to me than I thought it would. For all its apparent other-ness—and for all that I, as a tall blonde, stuck out like a sore thumb—Japan felt oddly comfortable to me. Jeremy agreed that the weirdest thing about Japan was how not weird it was, and we both said that we could quite easily imagine living there (okay, I say that about every place I visit and fall in love with, from Sydney, Australia to Sitka, Alaska—but for Jeremy to say that is really rather remarkable).
This may be in part because it reminded us both quite a lot of Germany, with its cleanliness and orderliness, its feeling of security, and with the formality that governs day-to-day interactions with others. The blinding neon landscapes and blaring pachinko parlors are deceptive, I think; they give an impression of chaos where very little chaos exists. It feels completely chaotic as you try to navigate gigantic Shinjuku station or the teeming streets of Shibuya, but at the same time it feels like there’s a method to the madness, and as someone who doesn’t deal particularly well with uncertainty or chaos, I liked that a lot.
I also liked (nay, loved) the fact that you could stroll the streets at night and not encounter people getting into fights/shouting at the top of their lungs/upchucking kebabs on the sidewalk/vandalizing cars and bikes/generally being wankers. Even the seediest little alleyway we wandered down in “edgy” Osaka felt safer and more civilized than any street in Brighton on a Saturday night. It was very heartening to be reminded that there are places in the world where people can have a good night out and not feel compelled to break something afterwards.
There were other pleasant surprises, too: I have never, ever seen such spotlessly clean hotel rooms in all my life, I’ve never had even the simplest of foods presented with such attention to detail, and I’ve never had so many people call out greetings to me as I walked through a store (Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! - actually, that got to be a bit much after a while).
I was also very pleased to find that the minimal Japanese I managed to learn before going really came in handy, because there sure wasn’t a whole lot of English around. It’s perfectly possible to get by without speaking or reading any Japanese, of course, but just knowing hiragana and katakana and being able to figure out what were ramen shops and what were yakitori joints, for example, made me feel a lot more confident. Plus, it was great fun trying to work things out—and sometimes even succeeding.
Between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I think Jeremy and I got to experience a nice slice of urban Japanese living. Tokyo offered all the neon canyons and noodle bars you could want, but there were also surprisingly peaceful places to be found, like the forested walk to the Meiji Shrine, or even the top floor of the Takashimaya department store in the middle of Shinjuku, where you could escape from the hordes and enjoy a cup of coffee on a little rooftop terrace. We got a brief taste of Akihabara and its manga madness, we got to do a spot of karaoke, and we got in a lot of people-watching at the Starbucks overlooking Shibuya crossing. And we even managed to get up at the crack of dawn to visit the absolutely massive Tsukiji fish market and then dine on a big sushi breakfast.
Kyoto was a welcome respite from bustling Tokyo. It’s not that Kyoto wasn’t bustling itself; the streets were thronged with shoppers and the tourist sites were thronged with visitors enjoying the fall colors. But the pace and atmosphere were still different. With its traditional buildings, serene wooded hills and women shopping in kimonos—not to mention the occasional glimpse of a geisha—Kyoto has a much more stately air about it. It’s also a stunningly beautiful city, and one of my most treasured memories from the entire trip to Japan is of the lantern-lit alleyways and temples of Kyoto at dusk, which are simply magical (one of my least favorite parts of the trip was wandering around those alleyways in the heat for 45 minutes with a splitting headache while we tried to find our inn—but it was all worth it once we were settled in our room overlooking a tiny Japanese garden, with some traditional Kyoto sweets and a pot of hot green tea to soothe us).
I loved Kyoto so much that I was a bit worried when we left to spend a few days in Osaka; despite the lure of good food, I wondered if we were making a mistake giving up gorgeous Kyoto for gritty Osaka. I shouldn’t have fretted: Osaka was awesome. The entertainment district is like all of the bright wackiness of Tokyo compressed into a single street—and if any place I saw in Japan reminded me of Blade Runner, Osaka did. We did head out of Osaka during the day for a quick trip to quiet Nara, with its giant wooden temples and pushy deer, but we spent our evenings on gaudy Dotonbori, eating street food and looking out for men with missing fingers (we never did see any).
We spent our last night back in Tokyo with new and old friends, drinking at the J-Pop Café and dining on yummy fried things on sticks. Jeremy and I had also treated ourselves to a big room at the swanky Cerulean Tower hotel in Shibuya, and as we sipped early-evening cocktails there and looked down on the glittering Tokyo skyline from 35 floors up, I had a sudden feeling of utter conviction that I would be visiting again some day. And I fully intend to learn more Japanese and do just that.
Finally, I have to say thank you, thank you, thank you to John Allsopp and the rest of the Web Directions East team (Satoshi, Akane…) for making this trip possible in the first place and then going way above and beyond the call of duty in making sure everyone (including me, who was just along for the ride) was happy, comfortable and very well fed—and thank you to Oli for the wonderful company and great meal in Osaka—and to Jon for taking us to Yakitori Alley—and to the other WDE speakers for being so much fun to hang out and sing karaoke with—and to Jeremy, my partner in exploring Japan’s highways and byways, its finest hotels and tiniest bars, its craziest sights and its endless culinary delights.
Domo arigato gozaimasu!