Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Reflections on a trip to Japan

     Recently, one of our staff here at Unique Japan Tours, returned to Japan for his first trip since moving home. He spent two weeks there, and we've asked him to share some of his thoughts on his trip. Thoughts about Japan, life there and the country in general. So, without further ado, here is Patrick, sharing his reflections on Japan.
     Just to start off, I want to clarify that this is not my first trip to Japan, and it won't be my last. I lived there between 2008 and 2013 and while there I had am incredible time. The purpose of this trip was to see my wife's family. So, while we didn't do much of the traditional sightseeing you might expect on a trip to Japan, I feel can still reflect on the time there and chat about what makes Japan so special.

The Food.

     Everybody love Japanese food, or what they think of as Japanese food. Sushi is usually the first thing that springs to mind, and though it was my first meal off the plane, sushi is something that Japanese people don't eat everyday. There's a whole variety of food that a lot of people don't know about: things like oyakodon (chicken and egg served on a bowl of rice) or tonkatsu (deep friend pork cutlet). Even the rice is amazing. But what I think might surprise some people the most is how much fried food there is; karaage is a type of deep friend chicken that is both delicious and cheap, tempura is of course deep fried, as is the previously mentioned tonkatsu. As a matter of fact, there is a whole range of katsu that is deep fried, be it chicken, shrimp, beef or pork.
Let's not forget ramen, with the perfectly prepared egg!
      But the best part of this food, is that everything is made with care and attention. From Yoshinoya, where you get a beef bowl for about 300yen, to a high class sushi restaurant, the Japanese make sure that everything is made with care and attention, and tastes amazing. One of my first meals was a chain tonkatsu restaurant with a friend. Nothing special you might think, but the meal I was served was delicious, carefully cooked, perfectly crisp, and like a flavor explosion in my mouth. It's easy to forget that care and attention when you've not been to Japan before, or not been in a while.

The People.

     Which brings me onto the Japanese people themselves. They are polite and kind, smiling and friendly. From the staff in restaurants (even if they are getting minimum wage) to strangers in the streets, to my parents in law to their neighbors, everyone is unfailingly polite and friendly. I'm sure many of the staff, especially on minimum wage, are gritting their teeth, and dislike their jobs as much as anyone does, but they don't let it phase them. They smile, they're polite, they're great at their jobs. One thing I did notice was the lack of small talk; in Ireland you can chat a little to the staff in shops, ask them about their day, the weather and maybe have a little banter. It doesn't really happen in Japan, but when the service is so good, you don't miss it.
A Zen Garden in the middle of a city; no wonder the Japanese are so peaceful and polite!
     I will add this though; I had forgotten that sometimes you stick out. I'm 6'1" and blond. I stick out in a country where the average man is 5'8" and dark haired. This can range from a prolonged stare in the street, to kids openly pointing at you as they whisper "gaijin" (foreigner) to themselves. This can make you feel uncomfortable, or special, depending on how you choose to take it. Personally, I felt special. (^_^)

The Transport.

     I'm sure everyone reading this blog knows about the legendary efficiency of the Japanese public transport system. Let me reassure you, whenever someone sings the praises of the Japanese transport infrastructure, don't dismiss them. They are telling the truth! It's stunning. Trains leave and arrive on time every few minutes. Buses arrive exactly when they're scheduled to. The vehicles are clean, and while you might have to stand sometimes, I've never been pushed onto a train like you often seen in YouTube videos, even when I lived and worked there. Never. I'm wondering if this is an outdated urban legend.

     I'm going to touch on another aspect of people in Japan, but in relation to transport. If you've ever gotten on a bus in Dublin, you've probably been pushed aside by an older lady, and probably hit with her walking stick, as she makes her way to the front of an already disorganised crowd all waiting to get on the bus. This doesn't happen over in Japan, where people will, the majority of the time, queue in an orderly fashion and board the train in order, after everyone disembarks. In addition, their politeness extends to riding the trains too. No one talks on their phone, most people are silent and not overly loud. Music seldom bleeds from the earphones of the people around you. Overall, it makes public transport more relaxing, enjoyable and less of a rushed, stressed experience, which it can often be in Dublin.

The Beauty.

     Japan is a truly beautiful country. There's two types of beauty. First, the beauty of the cities. In Tokyo, it's the beauty of the lights at night, especially if you have a good vantage point. In my case, it was Osaka, a bustling neon paradise. When I lived there I became a bit desensitised to the man made beauty that surrounded me. But visiting it, seeing it with fresh eyes, I was blown away. The same goes for any of the older cities, be that Kyoto, Takayama or even smaller towns like Tsumago and Magome. Towards the end of my time living in Japan I very much came to the opinion that if you've seen one temple, you've seen them all. I had become cynical. The beauty of these reverential structures, the tradition and history oozing from every nail, joint and piece of wood instills a sense of peace and quiet awe.
Even in the middle of big cities you can find small, peaceful streets like this.
     Then there is the natural beauty of rural Japan. It could be the neatly organised squares of rice paddy, or other fields of vegetables, interspersed with the occasional cottage or copse of wood. It could be the wide, lazy rivers, cutting deep valleys into the mountains, a path the road you're on follows, taking your breath away and revealing another stunning landscape just around a corner. Or it could be the mountains themselves, steep, wooded giants, knifing toward the sky, appearing to rise suddenly from the flat land that surrounds it. Shrouded in mist, these mountains look like something taken from a fantasy movie.
Token picture of big city lights.

The Conclusion.

     This post has already gone on long enough. There's a few more points that I would love to cover, but I've already taken too much of your time. I would have loved to talk about meibutsu, the respect everyone shows, and the value of travelling off the beaten path.

     I think though, that I can wrap up here and just say I love Japan. It's an amazing country. I lived there for 5 years and it still surprises me, makes me happy and brings joy to my life. I don't think I'll ever get tired of visiting there, and I expect every time I visit, I'll learn something new.
     We'd like to thank Patrick for taking the time to write out these reflections. If you're interest has been piqued, and you would like to visit Japan, send us an email and let us know. If you'd like a bit more information, why not check out our small group tours, our tailor made, self guided tours or order a brochure

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