Thursday, 20 December 2018

Sashimi, cats and tatami mats: 15 reasons to love Japan

What's your favourite country? People ask me this a lot. I often feel cornered by the question and end up mumbling something about every country being amazing. Or I start talking about the place I've just been.

Street art, outside Fukuoka
What makes a favourite country anyway, I wonder (sometimes out loud). There are some I would happily visit again (Jordan), others where I feel part of humanity (India), places that are special because I may never get there again (Antarctica).

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
When I think of Japan, I don't imagine Tokyo or Kyoto or even Hokkaido. I think of hot summer days, palm trees lining the main roads, bento box picnics by the sea and friendly people. I think of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

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
2. The food. Where to start? I love the fresh-off-the-boat sashimi, the sweetness of Japanese rice, miso soup and genmai cha (brown rice tea). I love okinomiyaki ("Osaka pancake"), the noodles (particularly udon, soba and ramen), teriyaki anything, bento boxes and California rolls, onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed, the perfect healthy snack) and so much more.

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
4. The onsen! Japan's natural hot spring baths come in all shapes, sizes and temperatures. Some are social, some are rustic, some have outdoor pools and ocean views, others are silent but for the trickling of volcano-warmed water. I love them all. I even love sitting on those little stools to shower and the communal (same-sex) nudity - all for just a few hundred yen (about $5).

The "Ship's Cat" outside
WeBase hostel, Fukuoka
5. Cat-love. Japan is quite possibly the world's crazy cat-lady, in a good way. Wherever you go, you'll see cats. Not just real ones - on the streets, in parks, snoozing on the steps of temples and in "cat cafes" (there are "cat hostels" too now). But cat iconography, from Hello Kitty everything (even a Hello Kitty-themed bullet train) and waving fortune cats on shop counters to a giant cat sculpture out the front of WeBase hostel in Fukuoka. Japan's No.1 courier company even has two cats on its logo, which hasn't changed in decades: a mother cat carrying her kitten.

Hello Kitty does Hokusai
6. Convenience stores. "Conbini" (as they're called) really are convenient in Japan. Not only is there a Lawson, Family Mart or 7-Eleven on almost every corner, they're usually open 24 hours, have incredibly clean toilets (good to know when travelling) and sell everything from snacks and bento boxes to toothbrushes, shirts, undies, pens and notebooks, and magazines. Even the coffee's not bad.

Loved this tatami room in the
mountains of eastern Kyushu
7. Tatami mats. Oh, how I love the sweet straw smell of tatami mats. Not to mention the feel of them under bare feet (no slippers allowed!). Traditionally made from rice straw, they just say "Japan" to me. I love paper shoji screens too and how their delicacy inspires mindfulness; one careless gesture and you can tear a hole in the wall.

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 with disposable wooden chopsticks.

Black, shiny limo-like taxi
10. Taxis! In Japan, catching a taxi makes you feel as if you're in a limo: they're black and shiny, the drivers wear uniforms with caps and white gloves, lacy doilies cover the headrests, and the back doors open automatically (Aussies, take note: one never sits in the front in Japan).

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.

Remember these?
12. It's timeless. I'm not talking about geishas and cherry blossoms, lovely as they are, but about the fact that on my latest trip I saw things I remember seeing 22 years ago. Like one-yen coins and public phone boxes and the same convenience store and department store brands. Constancy is a rare thing in this ever-changing world.

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
14. Japanese English. It's oddly comforting to see English signs in a country where you can't read the signs (I can speak a little Japanese, but I never learned to read it). And some of them make you smile, like the Hotel Grateful, The Brilliant Coffee (a cafe) and car names such as the Toyota Athlete and the Suzuki Stingray.

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
Even travelling with my own reusable water bottle, coffee cup and chopsticks, I probably threw away more plastic on my three-week trip than I do in a year back home. I bought plastic bento boxes, rice balls wrapped in plastic, even a banana wrapped in plastic. (I know. I'm going to have to change the name of this blog). I vow to do better next time.

*

Big thanks to Kyushu TourismWalk 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 :-)

4 comments:

  1. Hi Lou! I just loved reading your blog and recall how much you loved Japan from your first visit. It certainly sounds like a special place. Wishing you relaxation and special time with family and friends over summer. Katherine xo

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    1. Thanks so much, Katherine! Hope you get to go there one day. And hope you have a wonderful summer break too xx

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  2. Wonderful article Lou - you have succinctly identified things that I also love about Japan and described them so well! Agree about the plastic packaging issue though. Looking forward to walking with you in the Shizuoka Tokaido trail in March - Relle

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    1. Thanks so much, Relle! That means a lot coming from you with all your experience of Japan. Can't wait to walk with you over there! x

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