Having been in Hong Kong for a few days you’d have thought I’d have had ample opportunity to reflect on my time in Japan, but not so. From visiting night markets to climbing peaks, getting drunk with other travellers to getting caught up in gambling fever at the races, things have been a little mad. But today I’ve decided to slow down, do some laundry, darn the holes in my socks and try and get some of my thoughts down on my time spent in Japan.
Where to begin. All I can think is wow. What a magical, wonderful, strange and delightful place. My travels across the land of the rising sun took me from Tokyo to Hiroshima, then on to Kyoto, Yokohama, Kobe and finally Osaka. I made a few detours to places such as Miyajima Island and Himeji Castle which are quite well documented on my social media. Sorry for spamming your feeds everyone!
Each spot had its very own distinct flavour. Tokyo was frenetic and full of energy and neon lights; Kyoto was serene and beautiful; Hiroshima was as chilled as it gets, unless there’s baseball on, then everyone is whipped into a passionate frenzy supporting their local team the Hiroshima Carps; Yokohama and Kobe both had a salt in the air, seaside kind of vibe, with a really interesting fusion of east meets west cultural attitudes (think of an electric blue haired punk sat next to a kimono garbed, wooden sandal wearing old lady on the train, with neither batting an eyelid); with Osaka as my final destination providing me with a little of everything, from a dense neon lit area similar to Tokyo’s but much smaller, to their very own take on a local dish that the people of Hiroshima claim credit for called otonomiyaki – which is basically a Japanese version of bubble and squeak (otonomnomnomiyaki).
The highlights are too many to list, with the food being a definite one that ranks high on the list and, having trained with the grandmaster and his shihan of the art I practise, this has been a boyhood dream come true, quite literally. I absolutely loved it in Japan and I felt something akin to grief when I had to leave, although that has since subsided somewhat due to the batshit nature of the city I’m currently in. It wasn’t all violets and roses mind. I always try and maintain balance with my observations and I saw and felt a few things in Japan that were rather unpleasant, if not wholly unexpected.
Take for example the work ethic. In Tokyo, every train you get on has people sleeping. Every. Single. One. These poor overworked souls have developed the ability to get a power nap in between stops because they often don’t get the time to sleep properly. Hanging out in a bar in Hiroshima with some Japanese businessmen, I asked one of them about the work life balance. He laughed, thinking I was making a joke. When I emphasised that back home many people on a career path try to maintain that balance, he seemed totally flummoxed by the idea, like it was totally alien to him. He went on to explain that the ideal for most of these guys is to get rich or die trying. Sad thing is, most of them do die trying and, often, it’s stomach cancer through overwork that does it. He then told me that stomach cancer is beginning to be regarded as the modern form of seppuku/hara kiri, an honourable, ritualised death by disembowlment for the samurai of old. I found this deeply disturbing. Coupled to this cultural norm is the levels of loneliness many suffer with in this country. In such a densely populated place, for anyone to feel lonely seems absurd, but not so here. All you need to do is stroll into any pachinko parlour and see the glazed looks of the multitudes of people fixated on ball bearings falling through the maze, shiny ball by shiny ball, yen by yen. There’s even a psychological disorder that’s unique to this place called hikokimori, or shut in syndrome. Here it’s so much worse. I’ll not go into details but it is shocking.
One other relatively rare annoyance was getting refused entry to places. Being a tattooed person, I was turned away from a number of onsen (Japanese bathhouse) which was fair enough, I expected that and, in the end, I did find some that would accept me and I had a lovely time wallowing with naked Yakuza around me. I was also exposed to some of the more xenophobic elements of this country by being refused entry to a few restaurants for simply being a gaijin. Through my travels I’ve learnt to look for the restaurants that are full of locals – these are the places where you get the cheap, well made, tasty eats, regardless of which country you are in. A few times though, walking in, instead of being greeting by the usual shouts of “irrashimase!” I’d be greeted by a wooden faced staff member making an X with their forearms, the universal sign for no entry.
Although I’ve probably gone into more detail than I meant to on these points, they paled in comparison to the sheer glut of amazing experiences I’ve had in Japan. The food is tasty, abundant and cheap. The cities and infrastructure are well laid out and intuitive to navigate. The people are warm, generous and so welcoming! Overall, Japan is the best place I’ve visited so far and, even though I’ve only been away a few days, I simply cannot wait to go back. Nuff said.