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Three Weeks in Japan

Posted in Personal on 2007-05-29 23:22

Japan was the first country in the far East I visited, way back in 2002. It was just a two-week business trip, but I was completely overwhelmed by the whole experience, and always wanted to come back. In 2004 I was lucky enough to get another trip, this time for a week and a half. However, all these trips did was make me want to see more of Japan than just meeting rooms and hotels, and so when my girlfriend suggested we make Japan our main holiday destination in 2007 I of course accepted immediately.

Hiroshima castle

About Japan

What I found so fascinating about Japan was its culture, which is unique to Japan, and unlike that of any other country. Japan really is the closest you can get to seeing what life might be like on another planet without actually leaving this one. Of course, Japan is heavily influenced both by China and the West, but the Japanese have put all of these influences together into something that is uniquely Japanese. Japan is also special in having retained so much of its traditional culture while at the same time being at least as modern as any other country on earth.

A large part of the reason for this is geographical, in the sense that Japan is geographically quite isolated from the rest of the world. It's a big archipelago (it's substantially bigger than, say, Italy, but smaller than Spain) whose only close neighbour is Korea, and, some distance away, China. This has enabled Japan to develop its culture over the past 2 millennia without too much interference from the outside world, a situation shared with few, if any, other countries.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Japan, however, is that until a few decades ago it was the only non-western country to have been successfully industrialized. After experiencing the superior military power of the West in the mid-19th century the Japanese essentially decided to reform the country from a highly developed feudal state into a western democracy, complete with industrialization, a western educational system, capitalism, etc etc. What is astonishing is that they actually succeeded in doing this in three-four decades, to the point that they managed to defeat Russia in the 1904-1905 war. The result is that today Japan is the only country with a non-European culture which has been modern for a considerable time.

The other fascinating thing about Japan is the people. I've found them to be unfailingly friendly, polite, and unassertive almost to a fault. What makes this so I can't really say, but one of the defining qualities of Japan is how extremely densely populated it is, and this may have something to do with it. Feudalism may have contributed, too. Whatever the reason, the result is astonishingly nice.

Gosho palace, Kyoto

The trip

As you can imagine I had high expectations for this holiday, and I was not disappointed. We really got to experience Japanese culture and people, and at the same time we got to relax and take it easy. We were also very lucky in having Naito-san (Ontopia's Japanese partner) as our guide for the first week, which made things much easier. After that we set out on our own, slightly worried about how we'd get on without an interpreter, but we turned out to get by just fine on our own.

It's not really possible to cover all of Japan in three weeks, so we limited ourselves to the area south of Tokyo, and stayed almost entirely on Honshu (the main island). For the most part, we travelled by train, and in one case by bus. Getting around was in general, somewhat to my surprise, easier than most places I've been. The Japanese don't necessarily speak much English, but they usually know the necessary keywords, and are enviably organized.

Our route followed the usual progression of big city, smaller cities, countryside, smaller cities, big city that we've used before, and this really seems to work well. Usually when you visit somewhere unfamiliar you have trouble with language, food, and so on. Things are usually easier in the big cities, but eventually want to really "see the country" and get away from the stress, and by then you've learned some of the tricks.

Some of the more interesting places we visited:

Takahama
This is Naito-san's hometown, near Kyoto. We stayed with his mother and got to experience how Japanese people live, which was very interesting.
Kyoto
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years (until 1868) and is still associated with higher culture. The city has an almost overwhelming number of sights, and we only skimmed the surface in the two days we had.
Nara
Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto and has some very special temples that have been preserved for well over a thousand years. We saw as much of this as we could in one day.
The Kiso Valley
In this valley some old villages of wooden houses have been preserved so well that it gives you a real flavour of what traditional Japanese villages must have looked like. No cars, no neon signs, no wires. We stayed in one (Magome), then walked a two-hour hike along the old, historic road over a small mountain pass to another (Tsumago).

I'll follow up with some more detailed posts later.

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo







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Comments

Marc de Graauw - 2007-06-08 06:11:43

I visited Japan April 29 - May 18, and like you, loved the place (been there once before in 1995). We were mostly on family visit (my wife is part Japanese) with our 3 small kids, so didn't cover much groud, stayed in Tokyo - Nikko - Kamakura - Yokohama.

One thing I love about Japan is their attention to detail, which is particularly evident in the food - even a simple noodle soup or plain rice with some tempura and pickles is always well made, tasty and healthy. Compare that to Western fast food!

And I love Tokyo, which is basically a 24-hour-a-day frontal assault on all senses.

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