Posted by: Anna | November 16, 2011

Sayonara Japan

Surprisingly weird, pleasantly polite, with hidden depths to plumb far beyond what I experienced as a tourist, travel in Japan left me hooked. My experience in Japan drew out so many reactions that I am struggling to make this post coherent. Should I write about the hot corn in a can from the ubiquitous vending machines? Perhaps I should mention the insane number of bicycles cruising the sidewalks, but never running over us? I could write a whole post about the food (oh, the food!). The fashion on the street could fill an entire blog (and does, several times over), and I never tired of people watching. It’s so hard to decide.

While Tommy had a hard time restraining himself from blurting out “That’s expensive!” a thousand times a day, I found our budget more reasonable than I expected, similar to what we would spend in any other developed country. Luckily, walking down any random street provided enough fodder for trying to puzzle out Japan — and that’s free.

Every simple activity was a (mostly) delightful adventure in answering the omnipresent question that must hover at the forefront of Japanese thought — “Sure, that is good. But how could it be perfect?”

It could be my inner perfectionist that found a culture that, while foreign on the surface, was actually a familiar comrade. Even the water machine in a casual restaurant automatically dispenses exactly the right ratio of ice and water with a single button. Brilliant! The persistent focus on doing things well is what I naturally expect of the world; I am so often disappointed by the pervasive human error and laziness that clouds everything. But Japan is different, with a high cultural value placed on excellence, in a way that Western countries do not.

Where India, another favorite country of mine from this trip, appeals to the side of my nature that seeks abandoned expression, Japan stands refined and rigid. Entering a restaurant always works exactly the same way – a bright greeting, how many people (to which the patron should respond and hold up the appropriate number of fingers), and then seating. This is followed by a warm, or cool towel, depending on the weather and cuisine. Every time, always with a smile. Fiji (my other ‘top three’ country) charmed me with genuine, casual friendliness, engaging the social, community-valuing part of me. Japan, in contrast, follows an elaborately pre-determined set of social rituals. It’s just different.

Aesthetically, Japan (like India) astounds. The volcanic landscape surrounded by ocean is truly beautiful. Even better, the leaves change in October and November, so that when we visited Shinto temples, we saw them surrounded by flaming red and gold leaves.

Even more enchanting was the artistry in the everyday and the elevated. Eating soba for lunch was more than lunch. The server carefully provided me with an attractively designed brochure that explained the proper method and order for eating my food. As I carefully followed the directions, I felt more connected with Japan. There is something to the ritual that is beautiful and cohesive, elevating the simple to the sublime. Also it was very tasty.

Of course this love letter to Japan avoids some of the uglier aspects – the high suicide rate, the effect of an authoritarian society on individual freedom, the colonial past…but I am just a tourist. Sometimes when I write the wrap up I am transported to fourth grade, when I was assigned Argentina and had to write a paper about everything in Argentina. I feel that I have failed in my wrap up because it is far too narrow and scattered to truly capture an entire country and culture.

I have come to realize that this trip has been more about using different backgrounds to divine my character than using myself to reveal the character of a place. That would be a different trip. The trip is also about fun.

Now for some haiku, in honor of the folks who invented the haiku!

Refined or rigid?

Odd around every corner

Japan enchants me


Order reigns supreme

Cleanliness is godliness

Japan is structure.



With dewdrops dripping, 
I wish somehow I could wash 
this perishing world 

–Basho (Japanese poet) putting our silly haikus to shame

Wasabi kit kat - only in Japan! Every area in Japan has their own Kit Kat flavors. I loved hunting them down.



  1. This is a great intro post. I feel you have a lot more to share- about fashion, different food experiences, etiquette, the bad parts. I would love to see several posts of your trip – why just one? Your post is fascinating to me as I’d love to go to Japan. And I agree, Fiji is such a wonderful spot on earth. India – I have yet to find out. I look forward to hearing more from you and seeing more photos!

  2. Basho is my favorite Japanese poet. I’d like to share my favorite haiku of his:

    After the bells had rung
    and were silent…flowers chimed
    a peal of fragrance.

    I have it framed and sitting on my bookcase.

    I love that you end each wrapup with haiku!! Doris

  3. As I have said before, I had no interest in visiting Japan until now.

  4. I am always in awe of the thoughtfulness and beauty of your words. xoxoxo, Kita

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