It seems that this year, Japan fever had gripped many travelers over the summer. For so long, friends have been sharing travel stories of how much they loved Japan and what it has to offer. And so, after being swayed by an airline promo, we finally booked our summer flight to the Land of the Rising Sun.
As friends suggested, we did every touristy thing possible we could—took a picture with the statue of Hachiko, crossed the infamous Shibuya crossing; rode the Shinkansen and back; posed for a picture-perfect moment at Mt. Fuji; sat in front of the closed gates of the Imperial Palace; dared ride the JR trains in Shinjuku Station at rush hour; lounged naked in an outdoor onsen or hot springs; sipped whiskey at a 100-year old distillery; and had dinner at a standing sushi restaurant with the locals.
To my teenaged kids, ordering from a menu they could barely understand and to simply follow what fellow diners did proved as fun as a Disneyland ride.
Like all tourists, we tried to capture picture-perfect backdrops each time. Yet, I realize that photographs can never entirely depict the sense of place travel offers. It is often the intangible familiarity one acquires about being in an unfamiliar place and culture that makes traveling worthwhile.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” wrote the American writer Henry Miller, and how precise was he.
Traveling around Asia is too often associated with places humming with pedestrians, bumper-to-bumper cars, hectic sidewalks, and traffic just moving fast. In fact, Tokyo is no different; maybe even more bustling than other cities.
As early as 5 a.m., early morning office workers are up and walking on the streets. All day long, train stations are full to the rim, with half of the city’s population moving in all directions underground. Bikes roll along the streets wheel to wheel with buses and cabs too. Yet, there is a palpable order and discipline wherever one goes that will leave any traveler amazed about this country. Nary would you hear people shouting on street corners or car horns bleeping on busy streets. Courtesy and politeness are second nature just as young teenagers would offer seats to the elderly in cramped trains and buses. Shopkeepers never frown upon you as you brows at curios and even tried as best to answer in English as they could. The Japanese keep to themselves, ever mindful of how their behavior affects the person near them.
After tiring walks and long days, you often seek quiet and silence. And surprisingly so, I found quiet spaces in this country even if I stood in the midst of a crowd or even sat in a train full of commuters. No mobile phones rang with nerve-racking ring tones on trains or in restaurants. It was an experience to dine in silence, with friends speaking more in whispers than in loud guffaws we are so used to while nature sounds played subtly around. Even more, diners never picked up their phone for private conversations in restaurants or cafes.
In the end, aside from the best Japanese food we’ve ever had, the nuances of a highly respectful culture and well-preserved traditions rightly made this long overdue trip to Japan extraordinary for my family and I. The timeless lesson on self-restraint and politeness was something I hope that my children brought back home from this trip. After all, aside from the standing sushi restaurant, there are so many other cultural impressions to learn that are remarkably the best memories of Japan.