I recently traveled to Japan for the first time. I have never been to Asia and Japan seemed like the right place to start as I am 50% Japanese. It was also important to me to make sure that all of my kids had at least an exposure to their Japanese heritage, though I had very little idea myself of what that would look like.
Visually, Japan is a remarkable place and not what I had envisioned. Flying into Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, everything is shades of green. Agriculture for miles. Beautiful. On closer look, taking a train into the city, the agriculture is studded with country villages that are quaint and clearly very Japanese in their architecture and distinctive roofs. One thing I start to realize and will never get over during the course of our stay is how remarkably clean everywhere is. There is not a speck of trash to be found, anywhere.
Arriving in the train station in Shibuya, a district in Tokyo – I am amazed at the organization of this culture. People and trains move through the station with incredible efficiency. There are almost 38 million people living in Tokyo, the largest city in the world in population though you would not know it. Many people use the local trains but it doesn’t feel crowded or pushy or uncomfortable in any way. The mood is peaceful, the flow is smooth, everyone is polite and courteous. We find that this is true everywhere we go – stores, restaurants, sites, hotels and endless train stations.
The Japanese culture reveres the visual aesthetic in almost everything they do. It is as clear in the presentation of their food as in the beautiful and precise wrapping of everything you purchase – whether a simple banana at the market to a gift you may bring home. I was really astounded by the food markets in the basement levels of most department stores. I wandered and wandered, tirelessly amazed at the array of food items (both savory and sweet) and the magnificent packaging. I would fly all the way to Japan just to wander those halls again.
The Japanese are an earnest and hard-working people. You can see it in the pride they take in everything that they do. And you see it in their history – of many years of war and destruction, economic and physical – and their relentless drive to be back on top, from cars to motorbikes, cameras to comic books, food to fashion. One example we joyfully experienced many times was the Shinkansen or the Japanese Bullet Train. Remarkably, these trains have been running since 1964, on-time to the second and reporting zero fatalities in 50 years. You really don’t need a car to travel throughout most of Japan, very different than Los Angeles!
Japan is a rich and complicated culture, abundant with geography, history, politics and religion; pressures, emotions, perspectives and unique customs; social norms and practices like no other. One visit to Japan has only piqued my interest in this extraordinary and complicated culture, of which I am from. I plan to continue to delve into the many facets of Japanese culture before the next of hopefully many visits.