the curious case of japan

 
Japan is certainly an interesting place. You won’t get quite as lost in translation as you would have 15 years ago, but the country has managed to retain a lot of its idiosyncrasies and cultural traits despite the obvious influences from the West. And there are so many! From the simple ones like no tipping, slurping noodles super loudly, bowing a lot, and taking everything with two hands to the more extravagant, such as peeling apples and grapes (yes, grapes), going to public baths (that custom is alive and well, much to my amazement!), getting pissed drunk and sleeping on the pavement before going to work the next day, and taking your shoes off everywhere — something that my American friends would be so confused about, but we Bulgarians are used to πŸ™‚

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; one would probably need years to understand how to “properly” live in Japan. We barely scratched the surface with our 10-day trip and mostly managed to wet our appetites to discover more. I think that’s what I found so engrossing about the Japanese culture, there are so many layers to it! Just when you think you have figured out the broad strokes, you get surprised. Luckily we stayed with friends (both Japanese and foreign) in Tokyo and Osaka who were kind enough to clue us in to a lot of the finer details.

It’s a culture focused on the group where individualism is an enemy (though it feels that the younger generation more and more is trying to break away from that), where showing respect and preserving dignity are of utmost importance, where you feel safe at all times — we were even told of a practice that called for never picking up money you found on the street, just in case the owner left it there and will return to retrieve it later! Now I’m not sure if that’s followed as much nowadays, especially in a city like Tokyo, but it just goes to show the very different mentality of the people there.

And speaking of the people, getting to know them is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the trip. Westerners often describe them as polite, punctual, hard-working, kind, respectful, shy, formal, intelligent and I have to agree with them. They seem to be all those things and a lot more. My initial impression of the young generation was that they are a little infantile and childish (with a very peculiar sense of humor, might I add), but I now think that’s just what we perceive whereas reality is different. Perhaps the fact that English still isn’t spoken by the majority of people creates a learning barrier. That is until you pour some alcohol down their throats at which point all bets are off πŸ˜‰

From the skyscrapers and hustle and bustle of Tokyo to the serenity of sacred temples and gardens in Kyoto, from the imposing beauty of Mt Fuji to the peace and quiet of the more remote places in nature, Japan will be a trip to remember!

***

 
The famous Shibuya crosswalk in Tokyo, the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. It’s not even that packed in the photo! I wanted to come back in the evening and do some long exposure shots, but there was so much to do in Tokyo that we didn’t get to it.

 
The cherry blossom season frenzy. There’s a great vibe and buzz in the air with the tons of people hanging around in parks and having a good time.

 
Fuji-san, as the Japanese call it, in all its glory. Believe it or not, taking this photo was a real ordeal that involved a 40-minute train ride up the mountain, walking for an hour, a bus ride for 50 minutes, and then another short walk. It was a super windy day so the gondola (quickest way to seeing Mount Fuji) we had intended to take was closed, hence the route above. But I’m so glad we went the extra mile, on the next day as we were passing by it on the way to Kyoto it was shrouded in clouds.

 
So many magnificent temples in Japan, I will do a separate post just for those.

 
On our last night we stayed at a buddhist temple for an “authentic” experience. It was actually quite touristy, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

 
How riding the Tokyo trains feels like sometimes. This was taken at midnight on a Friday, love the shot.

 
Okunoin, the largest Japanese cemetery in the spiritual Koyasan area. The path is over 2km long and set amongst the towering cedar trees that add a touch of mystique (picture it with a big of a fog). Some of the trees are over 500 years old!

 
I can’t say I’ve gotten to know the Japanese people well on this rather short trip, but one must have a great sense of humor to allow for this to be the storm drain πŸ™‚

 
Old Kyoto houses alongside the little shopping street.

 
A sex toy covered up as a jet fighter type toy so that (I’m guessing) teenagers can be sure their parents won’t get suspicious. Well played, Japan, well played πŸ˜‰

 
Vending machines are everywhere! In a country where every square foot is of the essence, they are a rather effective way of purchasing beverages.

 
Nothing says I’m a buddhist quite like parking your Porsche outside the temple πŸ˜€

 
Modern Japan.

 
One of over 50,000 Jizo statues in Okunoin. There is a tradition for one to place a red bib on them, thus asking Jizo Bosatsu (a bodhisattva, believed to be the protector of children in the afterlife) to watch over one’s deceased child and act as a surrogate parent. That’s how the custom started, though nowadays it has become quite popular so you can see many other statues apart from children also now wrapped in bibs.

 
Tokyo from above at sunset with Fuji-san looming in the background, almost 100km away. What an incredible view it was (despite the hundreds of people around you), I’ll share more photos from high up later.

 
Not sure what to make of this to be honest πŸ™‚

 
Meguro river, one of well known hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots in Tokyo. We were perhaps a week late to the peak season, but it was still great to walk around at dusk and not be surrounded by hundreds of people.

 
Weekends can be hectic at street level. Sitting at a cafe up above and just observing is much nicer.

 
The red torii gates in the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. The grounds of the temple (located at a hilltop) are said to hold over 10,000 of these! Make no mistake, it’s one of the most popular sites in all of Japan, but we just got up and were here super early before the crowds came in. By the time we walked to the top of the hill and back, the place was literally swarming with people. Perhaps my favorite shot of the trip.

 
What happens when you visit an old friend in Osaka? It’s cause for a party of course so we head to the local bar where you realize he’s essentially created his own R-rated version of Friends — instead of a cafe, it’s a bar and instead of 6 friends, it’s more like 15 and they were all taught some magical Bulgarian phrases like “Ebi mu maikata” πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ One of the guys had had his firstborn that morning so all the more reason to celebrate. What a fun night.

 
Time creeps up on us.

 
It’s hard to be lost in translation nowadays with all of the McDonald’s and Starbucks chains around. Notice how long the line is!

 
This says a lot about the culture.

 
Japan is where I ate both the most expensive and the cheapest sushi. In this case I forgot to take a photo before, but this was a gigantic platter of sashimi (which looked like it was for at least 4 people) that along with two other smaller dishes we ordered cost around €32… crazy.

 
Tourists.

 
The famous Tsukiji fish market after the morning rush. You don’t even want to know what that “little” piece of tuna costs… It was a fascinating place and I’ll probably do a separate post just on this.

 
Kabuki theater in Tokyo. It’s an acquired taste with its slow pace and very traditional (and deceptively simple) plotlines, but a glimpse of old Japan.

 
I knew that Bulgarian yoghurt was popular in Japan, but never did I think I’d see a “Licensed by Bulgaria” label on it! πŸ™‚

 
The Shinkansen bullet train, certainly the best way to travel around the country. Unlike regular trains (surprisingly), these were always on time.

 
I think you can tell a lot about a nation by how the departed are treated. I just love the order and precision.

 
Modern day “geishas”.

 
The simple version of Tokyo’s train map. In the actual trains there was a more condensed one which I’m not sure how anyone could understand πŸ™‚

 
The Kiyomizu-dera buddhist temple overlooking Kyoto, founded in 780!

 
J-pop on the streets of Osaka.

 
I found it interesting that most of the cables and communications I saw were above ground and actually quite… messy. Very different to the otherwise really orderly culture we saw. I wonder why that is?

 
Salmon fishing in the Kamo.

 
In some places in Japan you can order your food from a vending machine and then sit in a small cubicle by yourself, the front “window” of which will open and your food will appear. You don’t see the person serving you, just their hands. Weird and fascinating at the same time.

 
The Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto. I have to say, it’s not as impressive as in photos and descriptions you see in guidebooks. In fact, it’s one the places that put me off from buying Lonely Planet again, which described it as continuing “endlessly”, amongst other things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice (and would be even more so without the throng of visitors), but the over extolling / clickbait type descriptions make you see if differently.

 
We were lucky enough (with the help of a friend) to land a reservation at one of the Michelin star sushi places in Tokyo. Was it worth it? Yes, it was a great experience to have a private chef to yourself, selecting the best fish and preparing it intricately. Even though we were fed sushi for 2 straight hours, we didn’t feel stuffed — well balanced, delicious, palete provoking, exotic, you name it. Would I do it again? Probably, but I need a bit of time between the next experience of this kind πŸ™‚

 
What happens when the fight for every inch of construction space meets the needs of building infrastructure in Japan? The Gate Tower building in Osaka. So cool.

 
The permanently lit lanterns in the Hall of Lamps (Torodo Hall) in Okunoin.

 
Stay tuned for more πŸ™‚

 
 

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26 thoughts

  1. Loved this post. Was a nice reminder of a trip we had to Japan a couple of years ago. One of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. So much so, we hope to go back next Spring. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great photos! And from the way you describe the people I can tell you see the dichotomy in everything. There is always a surface and an underside and every positive trait has an equally important opposite. Like Ruth Benedict say “they are both insolent and polite, ridged and adaptable…” etc. It makes understanding things for the average tourist difficult. It took me 21 years– but that was back in the day when information was not so much available (and I was young, naive…and all that!)

      • I didn’t live there 21 years. I lived in the culture meaning that regardless of Japan or US we lived a completely Japanese lifestyle in a Japanese community most of the time. Many years were spent in automotive transplant communities as the Japanese brought families to the US to manage their operations here. But even that is a special experience!

  3. I like the way you’ve presented the narrative through pictures. Even though my travel posts have pictures, I also write quite a bit. Am going to try your way some time soon – it makes for easier and interesting reading.

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  5. Thank you for this wonderful blog post! Your photos are stunning. My boyfriend and I intend to visit in November and we cannot wait! I am already planning πŸ™‚

  6. What a fantastic and detailed description of Japanese culture , supported with brilliant pictures. One of my friend is living here since 4 years and I get the glimpse of Japanese culture and the country through her posts. And I agree, this culture has many layers. Takes some time to absorb and completely understand it. 😊

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