Day 135: On Japan
When I was first planning this odyssey across the globe, I geared to undergo two phases, both beginning with an initial country of shock. In Cuba, I immersed myself in a radical nation void of modern conveniences, which, while inefficient and home to an overbearing military dictatorship, quickly drew me in with its exceedingly kind and curious people. This set the stage for my journey in South America, which taught me what it means to be truly happy, even when faced with adverse hardship.
The second leg of my travels will take me inward, where I will delve deeper into myself at a more personal level. The Far East is the birthplace of notions of self-enlightenment, whose ancient cultures strive to strip away social norms and perceptions of pain to reveal the reality of our existence.
Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun. Where two worlds collide to form a twisted, paradoxical society built upon old world values and new age technology. Nothing could have prepared me for this.
To understand modern Japan, you have to understand its origins. Japan's first hunter-gathers arrived to this Pacific island around the year 10,000 BC. As ideas began to spread from the Korean Peninsula, they developed rice cultivation in the fourth century BC. The first known recorded reference of Japan came in the Book of Han, a first century Chinese document that states, "the people of Wo are located across the ocean from Leland Commandery, are divided into more than one hundred tribes, and come to offer tribute from time to time."
In the sixth century AD, Buddhism arrived to Japan from India, and became the national religion. It came to co-exist peacefully with the indigenous Shinto religion, which preaches the sacred nature of everything essential to life. Today, the average Japanese person is more spiritual than religious. Nevertheless, many still arrive to shrines in droves during religious holidays for reasons more based in superstition than observance.
Japanese history can be broken down into 11 distinct periods, beginning in the fourth century with the emergence of the first unified state. For much of this time, it followed the feudal system, with noble families controlling the land and peasants tending to it. Beneath these nobles were the warrior class, the samurai, known for their aesthetic discipline. Japan is a country whose history is wrought with civil war, as clans constantly clashed for power.
In 1853, Commodore Perry of the United States Navy strong-armed the shogun, or military dictator, into a trade agreement that would push Japan into the modern age. Today, Japan has the third largest GDP, and is the most technologically advanced nation on the globe.
Japan, known as Nippon on the homefront, is a country where you can see 1,200 year old temples one minute and a 400-story skyscraper the next. While people continue to live, worship, and die at the sites of their ancestors, they are immersed in a society so advanced that it's simply unimaginable to most.
Getting around Japan couldn't be easier, though it's hardly cheap. The high speed bullet train, known as the Shinkansen, reaches speeds of 220 miles per hour, and connects to every major city. City subway systems are clean and easy to follow. Most signs and maps include English translations, and staff are stationed throughout the metro to help tourists like me, who get lost anyways. The trains arrive and depart at the exact same time every day, and are never late.
Technology obviously plays a pretty big role in Japanese life. It is, after all, one of Japan's biggest claims to fame. One thing that shocked me when I first arrived to Tokyo was how quiet it was on a packed train. Coming from South America, where taking public transportation was always a dirty, raucous affair, it was jarring to experience silence on a train. Nearly everyone is glued to their phones, and barely anyone is speaking to one another. I enjoyed the quiet at first, and the fact that no one cared so much as to glance up at the towering foreigner next to them. But after a while, I began to wonder what amazing things were happening on those screens that made people hardly ever want to look up.
Manga comics are also very important in modern Japanese culture. At Tokyo's Akihabara district, you can find department stores that sell only manga. On Sundays, the road is blocked off and no cars can pass, crammed with people, many in costume, that want to get the latest edition or fill up the 10-story video arcades. This way of life is not restricted to the youth, and you can easily find men in suits reading comic books after work while slurping down udon.
Japanese old world heritage is based on the notion of living a simple life free from distraction. Some of the biggest, most beautiful temples and shrines in the world are located in Japan, many of which are on the same block downtown as supermodern skyscrapers. It is this paradox that has come to define Japan as it continues into the modern age.
Today, the Japanese continue to practice the same social formalities of their past. These include reverence to elders, being respectful and polite to strangers, never raising your voice, and, above all, never complaining. This ancient code of conduct remains strong in Japanese culture, and has come to complement the new world order, which is one based on hard work and abidance of the rules.
But what happens when this blend is taken to the extreme? What happens when people consistently work 15 hour days; when women still look down when walking past a man; when talking aloud on a train is taboo? Up until June of 2015, dancing in public was officially prohibited by the government.
Shame plays a major role in Japanese society, and to break the rules would be dishonorable. While I think it's great that people wait patiently in an organized line to get on the train, or only smoke in the designated smoking zones, sometimes I wish I could just shake the guy that won't jaywalk at 2AM when no cars are within earshot and tell him, "live a little, man!"
The effect of this highly formalized society is noticeable on the average person's self-esteem and overall happiness. In a world where complaint isn't tolerated, many young people don't know how to express their anger or frustration. I think that's why you see so many portal into their iPhones, or dig into a manga comic book: to escape into a world of immediate gratification and excitement. The fertility rate is at its lowest point since WWII, and according to the Japan Family Planning Association, 20% of young men have little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Rather, walk inside the basement of a comic book shop, where you'll find swarms of adults reading hentai, or manga-style pornography, which is becoming increasingly more violent and bizarre in nature.
Today, Japan has the second-highest suicide rate in the world, behind South Korea. Over 70 people take their own lives every day. That's 25,000 per year. Karoshi: death from overwork. It is the single biggest killer of men in Japan aged 20-44.
On a less depressing note, let me talk about the absolute best thing to do in Japan: eat. The food here is incredible, and it's a good enough reason alone to return. Food in Japan is generally very healthy, with the basic building blocks being noodles, vegetables, and fish. There are two major types of noodles: soba (thin, made of buckwheat flour), and udon (thick, made of wheat flour). They can be served either hot or chilled, depending on the season.
If you're looking for a quick fix, you can find quite a bit in Japanese vending machines, including warm miso soup, hot coffee in an aluminum can, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, even packages of ramen noodles that include shrink-wrapped meat or seafood.
Before I get to the fun part, I just want to add that I had no clue what I was ordering most of the time. Not only does the extent of my Japanese stop at arigato (thank you), but at some places you pay for your meal first at an electronic LCD kiosk that takes your order and spits out a ticket, which you then give to the chef. In short, I'm more grateful for waiters now.
I hope these photos do the intense flavor of these dishes the justice they deserve:
I've generally said that I can get an adequate understanding of a country and its people in three to four weeks. Japan proved me wrong. While I can say that I sufficiently explored the four major cities and other essential sites, there is still so much more to see, and much of the underpinnings that form the basis of social interactions remain a mystery to me. I think that it would take upwards of three to six months to figure out Japan, which is a testament to its truly unique, complex society.
With its hip-and-gable roofs, momentous shrines, and intense adoration for its storied past, Japan has wonderfully paved the way for the next stage of my journey in Southeast Asia, which values tradition. But more than that, Japan shed valuable light on what can happen when we allow work to consume our lives, or when we use technology as an escape rather than a tool or luxury. The Japanese happen to be some of the kindest, most hospitable people that I have had the pleasure of meeting on this trip, and it's hard knowing that so many of these proud, genuine folk submit to such a bleak fate. With that said, I promise that I won't return to the US an aesthetic hippie and reject modernity, but I do think that living a more moderate lifestyle is essential to our happiness, and I'll strive to keep sight of that.
Anyways, while I've really enjoyed Japan, I saw the temperature dip into the 30s today and that's a good enough reason for me to migrate. On Christmas Eve, I head to Vietnam, and will travel by land until I reach Mumbai.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope you have a great holiday season. Please feel free to message me if you have any questions, want to see more photos, or just want to chat.