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Japan – my story (part I)

October 2, 2010

Japan is strange.

Is that a way to start a travel post on this beautiful country? Yes, why not.

Someone asked me recently why I love Japan. Well, good question. I was thinking of the right answer but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Of course there are dozens of reasons why you could be impressed by this country. Beautiful temples and shrines in Kyoto, the mega-mega city Tokyo, enjoying  hot-springs (onsen), trains running exactly on time for a change or even the respect people have for each other, especially for the elderly.

But this was not it, this was not the answer I was looking for. What really impresses me when I am in Japan? Why do I want to go back again and again?

Sake barrels

Japan is strange
Japan is fascinating…to some of us. “I cannot imagine that you fancy a strange country like that!”, is the most common heard response when I speak highly of the Japanese culture, the nature and it’s people.

But hey, don’t get me mistaken, there are indeed some strange things about this country! Just check out the video, it’s placed at the end of this post. And mind you, it has been made by a Japanese man, so no Japan bashing ideas behind it.

My experiences in Japan
I have so much to tell you about Japan: the way I first got in touch with Japanese culture through my Kyoto penpal Hiromi, my very first visit in 1995 as a research student, my 3-month stay in rural area north of Kyoto in 1996 and subsequent backpack travel from Kyoto to Kyushu. Even the return to my rural ‘hometown’ 5 years later, an emotional welcome with open arms and tears. Too much, so many memories, so many unique experiences. Where to even start?

Kyoto street Children statues

I will split this post in two. In this first part I will try to explain my fascination for Japan. If I have managed to do so, I will write a second post with some great travel tips. Well, you might be reading even more posts about Japan..

Himeiji behind trees Strange location vending

3 months in Adogawa.
Back in 1996 I spent 3 months in the rural town of Adogawa. It was a time when speaking English in Japan was not very common. That was my challenge.

The town can be reached by train from Kyoto, one hour up north on the left bank of Lake Biwa.

Could I even speak Japanese? I studied Japanese for 2 years and I was able to manage quite well. However, for some people I deliberately played dumb.

For example that very nice lady from NHK television trying to have me pay a monthly fee for cable TV. She knocked on the door of my apartment several times, but I politely sent her back home pretending I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying. But what could I do, my daily budget was very tight! However, I guess this is the moment to apologise to her and NHK. Gomennasai (see me bow deeply).

I was young at that time, only 26 years old. Why not stay in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto for that matter? Well, I was granted this unique opportunity by a company based in this area. The Japanese company Tokuden invited me to come and work for them. I am still very grateful for Tokuden to have given me this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Arigatoo gozaimasu! (see me bow deeply again).

Zen garden

The secret of my fascination
Enough about the background of my stay in Japan. Figuring out my fascination for Japan could turn into a long, psychological story. But the secret is not that complicated, it’s only hidden. Hidden behind daily life. Hidden behind the first glance of Japanese culture. You have to take a distance first in order to figure it out.

When I’m in Japan, everywhere it feels like I’m at home. Checking into a ryokan, strolling around temple grounds in Kyoto, riding the amazing subway lines, smelling meals being prepared in a Yaki Soba restaurant, walking the busy streets of Ginza, it always feels comfortable and safe. I get a certain sense of happiness and satisfaction. That’s why I’m fascinated.

Although life in Japan can be really stressful, it is very much organised. That’s the safe part, you know you will never get lost because you will be taken care of.

The happiness lies in the beauty of the culture. Taking your shoes of before entering a temple, trying to silently walking the temple’s ‘nightingale floors’, opening paper walls and sliding through to watch this amazing Zen garden. The serenity, the silence, the beauty of simplicity.

Yes, I guess that’s it.

Japanese paper walls

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From → Asia

12 Comments
  1. I call Japan a different planet, fascinating and amazing, unique and hardly a part of Asia or part of this world….and yes strange too but I too love Japan and all things Japanese with a deep love – I think the few exceptions are Japan’s take on whaling because I do love whales so perhaps someday they will change that policy (hardly likely these days)! – anyway, Emiel, I had no idea you had lived in Japan. I have visited 4 times, 3 were for business but we added “pleasure” and we have loved every city, from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, Osaka and Nikko…we loved every part and we will go back soon again….Great start…..! I could not summarize all my feelings about Japan in even a long series ;)!

    • Emiel permalink

      Thanks Farnoosh! And I am glad you couldn’t wait reading the post before getting home…I guess that’s a good sign!
      I know we share a lot if we’re talking Japan. And yes, I lived in Japan. It wasn’t long, only 3 months. But these 3 months were so amazing…I have been visiting for example all parts of Kyoto. For me Kyoto was a weekend trip. Now that I started writing about Japan and digitized my first analog pictures, I’m sure more inspirational posts will follow..

  2. Dear Emiel,
    I can certainly understand your attraction for Japan. A few years ago, I visited 3 times within 2 years! And now I live in Okinawa. I think it’s great that you visited a less commercialized city where traditions ran strong and people spoke little English. I love exploring those areas myself.

    I also feel that Japan is a strange and distinctive place and there are so many things to admire about it. Looking forward to reading the continuation…

    • Thanks Mary.
      I recently discovered your blog World Curious Traveler and I immediately loved it. Of course your ‘Kyoto’s Blue Eyed Geisha’ attracted my attention, but moreover, your stories have such a great, uncommon approach towards traveling. I am looking forward to reading and sharing our Japan (and other traveling) experiences!

  3. Amanda permalink

    Lovely post. I can’t wait for the next one!

    • Emiel permalink

      Thanks Amanda and great to see you here! It has been a long time…I haven’t been able to stick on BC for a long time, but I’m glad to see you back on FB! A whole new you, am I right?
      I’m busy digitizing all my 35mm negatives at the moment and that results in a huge stock of great travel pictures. And with those pictures come valuable travel memories.

  4. I love Japan, Emiel. And this post opened my eyes much wider. Thanks.

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