Having travelled Asia before (read bout my trip to China here), I had been anticipating a similar environment to that I had experienced in Beijing prior to setting off for Japan. I had spent weeks eagerly awaiting bustling markets and hidden ancient temples, convinced that I was embarking on another ‘traditional’ Asian adventure.
It soon became incredibly clear, however, that there is simply no such thing as ‘traditional’ when referring to one of the world’s most unpredictable continents. I have come to realise that when you are in this part of the world, it’s almost a necessity to dismiss your expectations because I can guarantee they’ll be surpassed within moments. This is a fact that was brutally demonstrated to me during my first encounter with a self-heating toilet. I must admit, it was a rather unique wake up call.
I should emphasize that the aforementioned elements do play a significant role in Japanese culture and I had an utterly magical time exploring tiny Buddhist havens in Kyoto and shopping for trinkets in down-town Tokyo. However, it became apparent to me very quickly that I had underestimated the utterly unique nature of the country I had arrived in.
Describing a place in just a sentence is something of a challenge, it goes without saying that it’s almost impossible to encompass an entire country’s culture in only a few words. Nevertheless, I feel it is perhaps worth noting that I was awarded with a very specific enlightenmnet following my explorations. When visiting Japan, I was struck by a startling truth. A realisation that a flight to Tokyo consisted of far more than simple transport across the sea, it was a gateway to the future.
The idea appears rather childish written down and I can understand why some may consider such comments the product of an overactive imagination. Yet, for those lucky enough to have visited the country, I have no doubt that you can appreciate my comparison. Japan is a technological oasis that is at the forefront of progress in the modern world.
Upon boarding my very first bullet train in Tokyo Central station, I must confess I was not paticularly enthralled with the idea of a three hour journey. The memories of thirteen hours worth of aeroplane meals (that somehow defy all logic by tasting exactly the same regardless of their ingredients) were all too fresh in my mind. Yet, with little choice in the matter, board the train we did, a collection of tired looking suitcases in tow.
Before embarking, I’d read many a comment regarding the disturbingly impressive levels of cleanliness the country boasts, yet I must admit, I had dismissed many of these ravings as the grateful relief of worn-out backpackers. Needless to say, it took only one glance at my train to Kyoto for me to notice the error in my judgement. Having become accustomed to the rather dreary nature of British railways, I found myself quite alarmed by the sheer blinding quality of spotless white table top surfaces and soon began to realise that the magic of this mode of transport was truly something to behold.
A bullet train. Looking back, it seems I probably should have been expecting the sudden, awfully disconcerting feeling of pressure in my brain as the train departed the station. I mean, the clue really was in the name. The speed with which these futuristic pods travel is almost incomprehensible, thus making the smooth nature of every journey even more impressive.
I can honestly say that after experiencing the sensation of being shot into the atmosphere and being greeted with options offered by lavatories that would put some spas to shame, Japan had already blown my mind.
As my journey continued, my fondness for the surreal country in which I found myself only continued to blossom. With each and every day, my imagination developed as I witnessed things I had only seen on television or in magazines come to life. Harajuku girls that appeared as if they had leapt from the pages of an anime comic book brightened my strolls and smartly dressed businessmen delivering renditions of Beatles’ songs in karaoke pods, with nothing less that 100% passion (to an audience of 0), put our attempts to shame.
If these quirky characters are not enough to spark your interest in Japan (something I highly doubt), Geisha spotting in Gion, Kyoto and visiting a Sumo Stables in Nihonbashi, Tokyo are experiences that will remain with me forever.
Japan is the perfect combination of weird, wonderful and wild that leaves you wanting more. Kamakura is a tropical paradise where you can spend the day lounging on white sands and Nikko is a ghost town that really is worth visiting. Kyoto brings the stories you have heard of a culture cemented in tradition to life right before your eyes and Tokyo is a teeming metropolis like no other I have ever encountered.
Wherever you go in this beautifully complex country, aided by the constant presence of vending machines (seriously, they’re everywhere) and the excited ‘konichiwa’ of everyone you meet, you are destined to find something that will undoubtedly ensure that your trip to Japan is one to remember.