Last year was a good year when it comes to travelling. Not only was I so lucky to see the amazing Iceland with Doro, thanks to her identity as an international woman of mystery she could bring me along to Japan as well.
And so I left Europe for the first time ever on an international flight to Tokyo.
Doro flew over to Tokyo for work stuff and I followed a bit over a week later. I pretty much headed from the lab retreat at the cold baltic sea with my work to the airport and flew 15 hours East and landed in Tokyo. I really enjoyed the long flight with food and movies and a very nice young Italian next to me. There were Onigiri snacks available at all times. I checked.
Still, I was jetlagged on day one. We cut the day short for me to recover and with the help of litres of matcha latte I did enjoy the upcoming days so much more.
Japan is fascinating. The promised culture shock did not really hit me, thanks to the feats of mobile technology. A little pocket Wifi router provided us with google maps at all times so we never really got lost, and we found our train connections and places to eat without any problem. The people we met in shops and restaurants were so genuinely nice that my cold Berlin heart was first confused and then full of love for this country. Even at the most tourist hot spots nobody took advantage of our touristyness. When returning our city ticket card (kinda like London’s oyster card), the train clerk offered us to exchange our handful of coins for some easy to handle bills. After he was done with the actual task, and while people were waiting. Just because it was a nice thing to do.
I don’t want to go through all the basics of an European in Japan. Just this: the contrasts in many aspects of culture did not cease to amaze me. Cool and simplistic design meets the explosions of colour and cuteness of manga and anime, modern inner cities are broken up by traditional temples, and the newest technology is made in Japan while the websites barely moved on since 1997. The expected clashes of cultures however did not visibly take place. The different approaches co-exist peacefully, rather complementing each other than existing in competition.
And so we could see traditional temples and buy tools to shape rice balls like cute little cats at the same day.
Speaking of temples: I am not a spiritual person. At all. I don’t care for European churches, monasteries, or sacred places if they’re not architecturally interesting. That being said, I was surprised by the authenticity the Japanese temples expressed. The attention to detail, the great care taken in gardening to make it look natural, the locations, everything emitted this peaceful feeling of Zen. Even in a crowd of chatty tourists I could enjoy and embrace the energy, for lack of a better word, of the temple setting. On one particular day we wandered through Kyoto, our second stop, and it was raining the whole day. A light, but persisting drizzle tapped on our umbrellas. Suddenly, after having taken a left from a busy street, there was this zen temple. We entered, left our umbrella and shoes outside and silently wandered through the compound. The rain turned into the background of a scenery, and we became observers, feeling the wood under our bare feet, smelled the bamboo mats, listening to the drops of rain falling from the roof edges into the gravelled court yard. I will always remember this particular combination of senses and the feeling of absolute calmness.
Food. I don’t even know where to begin. I had sushi unmatched by even the best stuff I could get in Berlin, endless supply of matcha things, takoyaki, fried cabbage, bento boxes, onigiri, sesame ice cream, ramen, curry, tempura, and even a corndog. It was all so good (apart from the corn dog, maybe). While the flavours are often very delicately balanced, or mostly focussed on umami, like sticky soy sauces and curries, the textures made the dishes. I haven’t had so many variations of sticky, soft, mushy, gelatinous, or squeezy before. I have to say, after a few days I did miss something crunchy, a baked piece of pastry, some crunchy veggies, anything, as even the tempura we ordered were fried to a crisp and then drowned in the curry. However, I am still longing for all that food now that I’m back here, especially for the very fresh fish, grilled with a blow torch and served on a hand shaped ball of rice.
There are so many things left to say. The way the cities felt, the reliability and service quality of public transport, the skill and attention to detail in everything Japanese people do, the ubiquity of cartoon characters on official signs and posts, the massive department stores, the loud pachinko halls, the congeniality of their toilets, the feeling of sleeping in a traditional ryokan, the constant blaring of music in shibuya, the way that all the cars were polished and shiny at any time of day, the uniformity of dressing in contrast to the anime costume culture, the streets free of both litter and trash bins, …
I have been in Japan for one week. And it was not nearly enough. I didn’t see the countryside, did not bath in an onsen, and did not hike through the mountains or see the coast. These are just a few of the things I will do the next time I will be in Japan.