|Street art, outside Fukuoka|
But there is one country I've loved for a long time: Japan. I lived there in the mid-1990s and it changed my life. I taught English there and surfed typhoon swells, found a community of like-minded friends and lived pretty simply for a year and a half. It's also where I grew my wings and started to write about my travels.
|And cosmos flowers|
A few weeks ago, I returned to Kyushu for the first time in 22 years. So much hadn't changed. And being there reminded me of some of the things I love about Japan, my Japan.
1. The people. It's never a good idea to generalise about an entire nation, even one as homogeneous as Japan (only one per cent of its population is non-Japanese). But it is basically an introvert's paradise where the ideal is to be quiet, thoughtful, bookish and sensitive (unlike the "extrovert ideal" in countries such as the US and Australia; see Susan Cain's wonderful best-seller Quiet).
|A simple vegetarian meal (a rarity|
in Japan) in Yufuin, Kyushu
3. "Irrasshaimase!" I love hearing this when I walk into a shop, cafe or restaurant. There's no expectation of a reply, it's just the staff acknowledging your presence. There's no "I'm too cool to serve you" attitude in Japan either. People seem to take genuine pride in their work, or at least don't show if they don't. There's a lot to be said for NOT expressing every thought and feeling one has, in the name of group harmony, and makes even the busiest places feel surprisingly calm.
|My own private onsen, at KAI Aso|
|The "Ship's Cat" outside|
WeBase hostel, Fukuoka
|Hello Kitty does Hokusai|
|Loved this tatami room in the|
mountains of eastern Kyushu
8. Bikes. I love seeing people of all ages riding bikes, day or night, without helmets (so European!), which makes bike-riding accessible to everyone: women in skirts and high heels on their way to work, children returning from school (they usually do have helmets on), ojichans (grandpas) riding to the shops, even police officers (who wear caps instead of helmets in Kyushu).
9. Hundred-yen shops. There are thousands of these shops in Japan, where everything costs 100 yen (well, 108 yen including tax, which is about one US dollar). They're way better than bargain $2 shops back home, selling everything from stationery to swimming goggles to homewares and kitchen tools. They're a great place to pick up reusable chopsticks too, to avoid killing a tree three times a day by using disposable wooden chopsticks.
|Black, shiny limo-like taxi|
11. Full-service petrol stations. Only in Japan would you be able to find someone to pump gas for you, in the 21st century. There are fully automated gas stations too, but if you're ever driving in Japan, try to have the full-service experience at least once. It's like being set upon by a Formula One pit crew. The uniformed attendants will even stop traffic for you as you drive out, before bowing deeply until you're out of sight.
13. It's safe. I love that you can walk down pretty much any street in Japan alone, even late at night, and feel completely at ease (my fellow womenfolk will get this). It's one reason I didn't even think twice about doing a solo campervan trip around Kyushu on my recent visit.
|Beautiful Takachiho Gorge, Miyazaki|
15. It's beautiful. Mountains, volcanoes, cedar and cypress forests, even beautiful beaches and wild horses in Kyushu. There's also beauty in human-made settings: tatami rooms, weathered wood, wabisabi (the embracing of imperfections) and Japan's trademark simplicity.
A footnote: My love for Japan isn't blind and this post wouldn't be complete without mentioning one thing I don't love about it - the excessive use of plastic packaging.
|Pretty, but plastic|
Big thanks to Kyushu Tourism, Walk Japan and Hoshino Resorts' KAI Aso for a wonderful trip in one of my favourite places in the world. I'll post more links as my stories about the trip are published - about the 10-day hike, the solo road trip in the world's cutest campervan, two nights in a boutique hot spring resort and a few days in Fukuoka, gateway to Kyushu.
Until then, I wish you all peace and a happy Saturnalia, winter/summer solstice, Christmas or whatever you like to celebrate this time of year. Maybe just the chance to slow down and take a few deep breaths. I'm all for that. Thanks for reading :-)