Over the holidays, my husband and I spent 12 days in Japan. We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and two small villages in the mountains: Koyasan and Takayama. I kept a detailed journal on the trip and we took hundreds of photos, and I am working on distilling the many experiences we had into a focused description of the highlights of each place. But to start, I want to talk a little about what I loved about the country and culture overall. This was my first trip to an Asian country and I can’t wait to plan my next.
1. The attention to detail and sense of order and efficiency
The culture seems very meticulous. Based on my limited observations while I was there, it seems things are done well, with intention, or not done at all. A high value is placed on arts and skills that require careful attention to detail, like textiles, stationery, cooking, calligraphy, gardening. The streets and metro stations and plentiful public restrooms were spotless. Tiny pieces of pickled vegetables and fresh sashimi are cut just so and carefully presented in bento boxes. Huge metro stations with millions of people streaming in every direction are tamed by an unspoken agreement to always stay to the left and to line up on the platform before boarding the trains. Automatic doors slide open silently at every turn and public maps are abundant. People move quickly and purposefully and public outbursts seem to be rare.
2. The friendliness
Japanese people’s sense of order and purpose doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly. Despite our utter lack of Japanese language skills, people everywhere were smiling and polite to us, offering English words where they could and never implying that we were dumb Americans or conveying a distaste for travelers. We noticed this to be true in Japanese strangers’ interactions with one another too; shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and public transport operators appeared friendly and helpful across the board.
3. The cuisine
As I said, things are done right in Japan. The food was exquisite, from the multi-course feasts of many small dishes to the simple bento boxes we bought at train stations. The weather was cold (in the 30s/40s Fahrenheit) throughout our trip, so we ate many bowls of noodles in hot broth: ramen, soba, udon. We had fresh sushi, some adventurous tastes of unidentifiable fish, tofu prepared in more ways than I’ve ever seen, more types of mushrooms and mountain vegetables than I knew existed, many cups of hot green tea, bowl after bowl of rice, hot cans of coffee and tea out of vending machines, hot sake, highballs, highballs in a can, and street food snacks like rice crackers and mochi. All of it was amazing.
4. The spirituality
Most Japanese people are Shinto, the indigenous, ancient Japanese religion, and many are also Buddhist. Tradition calls for visiting a Buddhist temple on the last day of the year. The first three days of the new year are national holidays, and everyone visits a Shinto shrine during those days. We got to witness much of this and learn about Shinto beliefs in the spirituality found in nature, and the Buddhists’ ability to find peace in devotional practices and ceremonies. There is plenty I don’t know or understand about all of this, but it seems like Japanese attention to detail in the arts and in culture is linked to reverence for nature and the divine found in the natural world. Amidst the chaos of a dense, highly urbanized nation, it was powerful to find places that cultivate a sense of calm and focus.