On Japan

I’ve never felt particularly competent when writing about travel.

In theory, it should be a union of two of my favorite things. But realistically, it’s a struggle, much the way that writing coherently about music has always been just out of reach for me. It may be because I process both music and travel more as a series of impressions and feelings than as a narrative — images and moments and memories, but not necessarily a story.

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So here’s how I’ll remember Japan: a forest of cherry blossoms and a sea of ramen bowls, elbow-to-elbow crowds in Ikebukuro and Shibuya and stunning quiet along the Meguro River. Arriving for a short stay in Takayama and wishing I could stay for a week. The slow build of Kyoto, from wondering why we’d decided to go at all to flinging my arms open to it, aided by a hike among monkeys and a night tasting sake poured by a trilingual sake expert while listening to The National as salarymen got tanked all around us.

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Bustling food markets, fancy toilets, colorful bicycles, rice balls for breakfast, coffee cans from a vending machine, Green Da-Ka-Ra, cartoon mascots everywhere, songs in the subway, fifty-dollar apples, Hida beef, dogs in tutus, arcades filled with claw machines and photoshop photo booths, matcha everything, prayers tied to trees. Umeshu and soda, yuzu and peppers, kabocha pudding, sushi rolls with sushi rolls inside. It was so much muchness, all excess, everything done with precision and care — tiny ice packs taped to to-go food, routines practiced for arcade performances of Dance Evolution, trains rocketing through towns at nearly 200 mph. And so many contradictions: hygienic masks everywhere but no sanitizer at the airport fingerprinting station; all the restrooms where I could dry my rear but not my hands.

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It’s the most foreign I’ve ever felt — being functionally illiterate will do that, I suppose. And yet, there was so much that clicked from the start: the pulse of a city, the love of nature, the way “beer nerd” is a universal language. I could never begin to understand Tokyo, but it vibrated at a rhythm close to one I could recognize.

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I want more — more tiny cans of coffee, more hot springs, more snow-capped mountains, more intensely functional public transit, more fresh fish, more delicately pickled radishes. But more will have to wait for later. For now, I’ll be content with that one packet of pickles and the funny stationery and the wooden owl staring down at me from the living room shelf and the stuffed Kirby I won at the arcade in Shibuya, memories and moments, impressions that stick.

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3 thoughts on “On Japan

  1. Linda says:

    Really enjoyed reading this!

  2. Michaela says:

    Gorgeous post — I think you described it perfectly. And you’ve confirmed that Japan is still No.1 on my dream trip list. Sigh.

  3. Naomi says:

    I loved this! I have yet to travel to Japan but I want to someday! Fascinating!

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