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Here is a fresh look at Japan from a first-time visitor to the country.  This entry was written by Ken Exner for his travelogue and was slightly abridged with permission from the author. Although it's a bit dated, it still seems to accurately tap into the emotions and surprises first-time visitors to this country experience.

Tokyo-Nikko-Hakone-Takayama-Hiroshima-Kyoto
October 24-November 11, 2002

For three weeks now, I haven't needed or wanted the counsel of the empty page. Japan has been a warm embrace, a beguiling friend, a show of lights, a geisha bow. Twenty days have felt like two. I didn't need to write because my waking thoughts were deeply invested in Japan.

window mtfuji ramon kagie 58 J9vByMmY unsplashThis country is for me, and may always be, a flash of excitement -- a window seat on a bullet train, time-lapse travel through a time-warped land. Japan is a place that has seemingly reset the properties of time. It moves at a frenetic pace, but stops to idly sip tea. It's a place that hurls eagerly into the future with a velocity unimpeded by the weight of its reverence for the past. It preserves as much as it reinvents.

Japan is a riddle of contradictions. It is as much about Zen, Kabuki, Sumo, and Geisha as it is about Sony, Toyota, and Panasonic. It is a hyper-modern sprawling metropolis; it is Mt. Fuji peering through the clouds over miles and miles of autumn-burnt parklands. It is a maze of metal and glass skyrises; it is a narrow alleyway with wooden homes with dragon-tiled roofs.

Japan is heavy drinking—sake, whiskey and beer—but it is also a work ethic that revolutionized the world. It is Sweet Home Alabama crooned karaoke-style; it is a late-night Yakitori snack from 7-11 (or wait—was that just me?) Japan is a public bathhouse where tattooed and fingerless gangsters (yakuza) bathe communally in lavender- and chamomile-scented spas (onsens). I could go on, but put simply –

Japan is an enchanting amalgam of contrasts, where the juxtaposition of old and new, delicate and bold, revelry and refrain, colors the country brilliant and fires the pulse of its people electric.

Japan is also a land of gentle grace that survives long-forfeited imperial ambitions. With honorific salutations and demure bows, the people of Japan are as hospitable and polite as you may find anywhere in the world. If you pull out a map on the street and look at it cross-eyed, a random pedestrian will present himself to you within ten seconds to offer help. Say "Arigato gozaimasu" (thank you) and he may even walk you to your destination.

In striking contrast to the rest of Asia (and maybe even the rest of the world), Japan is a teenage wonderland of post-modern punk. It is a Hello Kitty button on a Sex Pistols T-shirt. Gothic makeup, black taffeta and steel-studded belts seem to be as acceptable as rainbow stickers and Powder Puff Girl handbags. For all the piercings and all the hairstyles that would make even a Londoner turn his head, the youth of Japan have an enduring affinity (that seems to follow them late into their twenties) for anything that is cute. From saccharine Sanrio to the cries of "Kawaii!" (how cute!), it's hard not to notice this generation’s obsession with the commercially cute. (They even manage to make punk rock look cute.) They may try to act sick and twisted in outfits that make their parents cringe, but the kids in Japan are still cheek-pinchingly adorable.

It's too early for me to know how lasting an impression this place will have on me, but what I do know is that I am compelled to visit again.

Ken Exner

 

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