Thoughts on Japan
Created on Oct. 5, 2013, 2:47 p.m.
This summer I spent three weeks in Japan. Unlike many people that visit Japan I had no previous interest in the place. I'd never had a longing to visit. I don't really like manga, a gateway drug for many Europeans, and didn't have a soft spot for Japanese culture. In fact I knew very little about Japan at all. I'd traveled all around Europe, but I'd never actually been to Asia. The furthest east I'd been previously was Poland or Hungary. So perhaps I was in a somewhat unique position to become impressionable.
I spent two weeks working in Tokyo for Marza Animation Planet, the company funding my PhD. I then spent a week traveling. It was my first time traveling alone. I am a very classical introvert, so I enjoyed the time in many respects, but three weeks is still too long to be in a foreign country alone. Especially a place like Japan, where so much of the experience is about observation and sharing. Overall my experience was fantastic and I'm a shameless convert to Japan now. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts on the place.
My previous knowledge about Japan, as minuscule as it was, often turned out to be shallow or simply wrong. For example Japan in the west often gets a bad rap for having weird or sick pop culture. I had always wondered myself about the obsession with cartoons, innocence, and schoolgirls. Is there something creepy, suppressed under the surface? In the west people are rarely interested in cartoons and cute characters. And in Japan they are everywhere - from the bus stop to the office.
After visiting it hits you right away. It's just fun. All that weirdness is conscious - it's silly. Everyone in Japan loves cute, silly, weird things, and there isn't anything sinister about that. I felt stupid realizing it. To different people, Japan must be both the most fun country on earth, and one of the most depressing. The brightness of everything really hits you with it's intensity. In a good mood it feels ecstatic, but for a depressive there must be few things more isolating.
Another expectation I had was of a very traditional culture. In particular with respect to family values and gender. I didn't see much of that either. Plenty of women commuted to work with me and many were highly respected in the office. For adults the difference in culture seemed minimal. To put it simply, I've seen a lot of European countries that appeared a lot worse. As for a focus on tradition, it was not how we might think of it in the UK. There was tradition out of habit, rather than tradition out of patriotism. In many places things are done in the traditional style (that is different to the west), but the same is true in the UK (we do it different to the east). The heritage and habitual ways of doing things are just different - and remain popular in certain situations such as in pubs and restaurants.
My final expectation was that of the work culture. This one did turn out to be pretty accurate. While the company I was working for was not an extreme case, and nor was my position, it was clear that many workers were expected to work many hours of unpaid overtime. The Japanese Salarymen is a very real stereotype. Many people are expected to simply be there for a huge number of hours, even if they are just sitting at their desk staring at a screen. Of the many things I loved about Japan this was not one. I don't believe in the nobility of hard-work for hard-work's sake. Nor do I believe that a company has the right to ask a person for their time outside of work.
My biggest surprise was probably the food. Getting traditional Japanese food in the UK is extremely difficult, so I had no idea what to expect. In Tokyo the food ticked all the right boxes. Good quality, huge portions, delicious and cheap. My best experience was sushi from Tokyo Fish Market for breakfast - where I ate, for the first time, sea urchin and several types of fish eggs. The dish would probably have cost over £50 in the UK, but I got it for around £10! I was also surprised that curry and Italian food are both very popular in Japan. Much like in the UK these dishes are commonly cooked at home. I did have some Italian food over there, and while I can't say it was like the Italian food I know and love, it wasn't bad!
On the flight back there was a transfer in Amsterdam. As we flew over the beautiful fields and canals of Holland I realized I hadn't seen an open field in Japan. Literally every square inch that can be built on is either rice paddies or houses. The population there really is quite incredible. Even in the countryside it was inescapable. Many of the popular temples, although dedicated to peace, are some of the most stressful places I've been. But if you can get off the beaten track - and it isn't easy - it was a wholly peaceful place.
I met some Canadians in a cat cafe and they mentioned that the beauty of Japan appeared very sculpted in comparison to the mountains in Canada. This rang with me. I remember thinking before I visited that Japanese art was always too precise and fine, and that the country(side) itself could surely not be so elegant and perfected. I thought it was somehow dishonest or simplified. When I arrived it surprised me that Japan actually as crisp as it is portrayed in art. Much of it's beauty is sculpted by man, as when in temples. But much of the countryside simply appears sculpted, when it is in fact very precise and sharp naturally. I thought this was a really wonderful thing.
There are really too many things to mention. I have so many good memories of the place. Walking in the mountains, chilling in hot springs with a thunderstorm overhead, riding the bullet train, eating in the local yakatori, going to a cat cafe. It is really difficult to get an impression of the place without actually going. But I hope I have piqued some people's curiosity a little more.
For those traveling alone I found everyone in Japan exceedingly helpful and friendly - and felt incredibly safe wherever I went. Some people did chat or practice their English on me, but it wasn't spoken by most people I met. I managed to get around fine on signals and bows. I am really looking forward to the next time I can visit.