japanese culture travel japan

Glimpses of My Japan

Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible. They are evanescent, you know; they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.”

Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain gave author Lafcadio Hearn this advice soon after Hearn arrived in Japan in 1890. Hearn failed to follow it. Then spent the next 14 years until his death writing obsessively about Japan.

I failed too. No one gave me this tip when I first visited Japan in 2010. Through hazy memories, I just know somewhere between giggling at the gloved attendant bowing at our departing airport shuttle and cooing over the last cherry blossoms clinging to branches at the end of spring, I was smitten.

I might spend the rest of my life trying to recall that virgin trip’s joyous delirium. It was a whirlwind tour of iconic sites in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. But during my next two trips, I started to discover Japan’s smaller everyday charms…

japanese street travel japan

Japan’s grand castles, shrines and cutting-edge architecture impress, but many people fall equally hard for its tiny backstreets. They’re free art exhibitions—tangled sprawls of bars, restaurants and signs. Like the short-lived cherry blossom, each one an ephemeral pleasure, stumbled upon and possibly never found again.

travel japan culture garden

Like flowers pushing up through pavement cracks, beauty always finds a way, even in concrete cities. Eons ago, the Japanese composed music to the chirps of their pet crickets, built platforms to hold moon-viewing parties and wrote poetry as sake in ceremonial cups floated by in streams. Today, festivals and rituals still honour rarefied elegance from millennia past.

japanese travel japan kawaii culture

Does kawaii create pockets of happiness in tough, urban environments? You can run but you can’t hide from cute culture in Japan. Since ancient times, this has been a land of multiple gods from nature and the animal kingdom. Perhaps one takes the form of a giant teddy bear in the sky, riding a unicorn, shooting pastel confetti from a spray gun over the entire nation.

japanese food travel japan

Culinary perfection is served with a side of theatre. Even B-grade laneway joints stun the world’s best chefs. I once winced over tsukemono pickles and feared oden with its parts resembling alien tentacles. Now I down them like candy. My tastes sit somewhere between sushi and ramen and not quite game for grilled chicken offal and fermented squid guts.

japanese culture travel japan

Customer service reaches its highest expression here. I dined at an upmarket tempura restaurant in Ginza. A kimono-clad woman welcomed me. Then, like an iridescent bird, she flitted over stepping stones through an indoor garden to show me my seat. I take snapshots of facades and imagine dream worlds behind each door.

japanese garden japan culture

Life slows in a Japanese garden. Omotesando is one of Tokyo’s trendiest zones, where the latest fashions cycle rapidly and relentlessly. But near the designer shops, the Nezu Museum is a vivid green sanctuary where worn and weathered statues wear garments of moss. Sun, rain and time have lent their own stylish touches.

travel japan tokyo street

We were in Tokyo’s gay quarter on Halloween. Recently, this costume event has exploded in popularity. Crossdressers out to play as a Singapore Airlines hostess crew fixed each other’s makeup in a diner. On the jam-packed last train, we were squished against the “Ghostbusters” marshmallow man. His jaunty but crumpled hat said, “Stay Puffy.”

tokyo street travel japan

Tokyo hurtles towards the 2020 Olympics. New architectural wonders pierce the sky. But retro charm beams vibrant as neon from old, ramshackle signs. Japan even has a chain of Showa era (1926-1989) themed bars. We gaze up gasping at futuristic structures but nostalgia still flows at street level, in alleys, stirring longings for childhood and simpler times.

Dense webs of power and telephone lines that blight Japanese city skies don’t irk me. They fade into night as the soft glow of paper lanterns seeps in. An underbelly of crime and corruption runs rife. I’m unlikely to ever brush against it.

As a carefree tourist, my Japan exists in the ultra-clean, efficient space in between. A supernatural plane of wondrous 7-11s with their fluorescent tractor beam pull and shops that cater to every human desire. Tokyu Hands sells dental floss in flavours like honey and apple or cardamom and mint.

Do not fail to write down your impressions as soon as possible.

These words resonate over 120 years on. It was too late for Hearn and me; it might not be for you. Share this advice with any newcomers. They’ll thank you after recovering their senses from the 360-degree assault that is Japan.

Photos © Audrey Foo

9 thoughts on “Glimpses of My Japan

  1. Hello Audrey, I have been to Japan nine times now as a visitor. Only this morning I toted up that I have 150 nights in 24 locations. Like you, starting out in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima all of which have been fantastic.

    But the venturing out into smaller towns and rural villages has been most rewarding. The people, places, environment has been wonderful.

    Two habits from the first morning landing in Japan have been to keep a handwritten diary, and make rough draft stories for eventual posting. With 100 posts already done and 200 drafts sitting incomplete, every time I sit at the computer, diary at the side, the memories return with clarity.

    The first couple of trips were purely visiting. Then I began to explore connections around my work in emergency services, usually just one day on the trip. Most recently I have e connections to formal meet ups, attending conferences, and joining up work based research activity.

    Who’d have thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tony
      Yes, I love the rural towns too. My next trip I am going with a first-timer and I don’t want her to miss out on the big sights of Tokyo, Kyoto etc but will also do some small towns. Someone who has been going often since the 1960s nominated Hagi as their favourite town. Do you have a favourite town? I’m still a Tokyo-nut but I loved Kamakura (day trip only).

      That’s great how you write down your trip experiences. I write but mostly take notes on my phone. There have been articles about how handwriting stimulates the brain differently to typing, and how it aids memory, learning and creativity. Maybe we should all write more!

      Love how your Japanese journey is deepening more and more. I am trying to learn Japanese and will try to use it on the next trip. Got a tip that the fastest language learners are those that are not embarrassed by sounding silly. “Sumimasen, wakarimasen” might be getting a good workout anyway. Look forward to reading more of your stories!


  2. Maybe not a favourite town, but the experience of local festivals is what I like. I even time trips to catch some big festivals (though not in Tokyo) and the local ones. There are a number of websites that list festivals, then I usually also search the City Government sites as well.

    But the little ones are best for me. I have been lucky enough to fall across a few, and many others planned. If you are new to my blog stories, do a search fro ‘festival’ or ‘matsuri’ for some stories. A number of others are still in draft.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Jeff. Nishiki Market for food is great fun and easy to get to in the city center but it is narrow so I would go early – 9am is ok – before it gets crowded. My favourite Japanese dessert is called warabi mochi and is common in Kyoto. It’s a type of jelly in cubes topped with roasted soy bean powder and a dark sugar syrup. A cooling summer dessert. The side streets of places like Gion are beautiful at night. I love the touristy spots but if you want to get away from crowds there are always side streets with bars and cafes. If you have time, a day trip and short train trip away is Himeji – the castle is a UNESCO world heritage knockout.
      Tokyo – I love Ginza, especially at night. The street lights! It’s regarded as the most expensive district but it actually has a range of offerings. I wrote a story on it on this blog. The department store basement food halls are great in big cities and you can buy lots of desserts and sweets in single portions to try. There’s a monorail train to Odaiba which is beautiful and I highly recommend this spa theme park https://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/ . If you’re into electronics, Yodabashi in Akihabara is the flagship branch – 10 floors including fantastic restaurant floor! For cool household goods, stationary and lifestyle things, don’t miss Loft and Tokyu Hands shops. I’m really excited for you both and contact me again if you need more tips. Either via here or facebook message me.

      Liked by 1 person

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