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What I’ve Learned From Travelling Solo To Japan For The First Time

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Discovering The Nation's Identity From A Three-Week Trip

Recently Japan was once again under international scrutiny. Japan's Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, reservedly walked to the press conference. There was a cloud of doubts in his face, but surely, his determination to retain the Olympics 2020 amid COVID-19 pandemic is not because of his stubbornness. The nation believes it should keep what it has assured and prepared for years to the world.

His message is clear. He wants to prove that the human race will conquer the novel coronavirus, and the G-7 leaders gave him their initial support. But it is no surprise that his confidence has just come to an end. The International Olympic Committee recently announced the postponement of Tokyo Olympic games 2020 until June 2021.

I travelled solo to Japan for the first time from the end of March 2019 to Mid April 2019. It was a good three weeks travelling from Tokyo down to Hiroshima that brought me to understand the nation's identity. But what have I learned from the trip?

The Origin Of The Sun

There are many versions when it comes to the origin of the word 'Japan'. Some believe that the name is from Malay Jih Pun referring to Nippon the southern Chinese dialect. Nihon or Nippon which means the origin of the sun. It is the name given for the position of the sun in the east of China.

Before travelling to the rising sun nation for the first time, I watched so many videos of Japan travel and read many related articles. But my presumption about Japan was nothing else but the nation's homogeneity. Honestly, I was a little nervous before the trip. It was unusual because I have always anticipated myself with excitement before any overseas trips, particularly to the country I have never visited.

So I decided to study the Japanese language--I have been studying it for almost a year now. Learning the language has made my fascination growing fonder. Though Tokyo is overwhelming for the first time, Japan is captivating. I would think that the language barrier would have been a significant issue when travelling in Japan, but it was not the case. The language is not so much a mystery, but the people are. I am prepared to challenge myself when it comes to reading Hiragana, katakana and Kanji on most road signs.

I remember my first time speaking Japanese in Japan. "Ima Nan Ji Desu ka?" What time is it now? I asked the man who sat on the alloy silver bench next to me. He looked at me, baffled, and I was a little excited with my Japanese language skills. He replied calmly. His face was flat without expression. Maybe he didn't expect words of Japanese coming out from me. Perhaps he was just as tired as I was, after a long flight from the other side of the world.

Tokyo: The Overwhelming Megapolitan

Just like most tourists who chose Tokyo as the gateway of their first destination, there are many reasons why tourists visit megapolitan Tokyo in the first place. There is nothing like it; finding yourself in the middle of moving crowds in Shinjuku station. Tokyo is overwhelming. Amid Tokyo Lockdown, I wonder what it is like now? I remember the multi-level floors and endless commuters walking in different directions. But stepping out of the station, you are somewhat in the middle of Shinjuku's sky-high concrete jungle of buildings. Japan would greet you with multi-coloured lights and exhilarating giant screens. Kabukicho, Tokyo's entertainment hub and red zone in Shinjuku are not only seductive but also captivating.

But behind the vibrant main streets, after work hours locals go to izakaya and boutique restaurants. From the buzzing street lights to the illuminating lanterns at the back alleyways, Tokyo is made for everyone. There is even a restaurant for a solo traveller like myself. A street restaurant where you can come all alone because the restaurant is for those who come to dine alone.

Navigating their complex railway system and train stations are actually more challenging than the language barrier. Shinjuku station, for instance, is built layer upon layer, and the station is still undergoing more developments these days.

What Makes Japan the country It Is Today?

Politeness and mindfulness attitudes towards others are the first impression most tourists see when they visit Japan for the first time. Though most Japanese don't speak foreign languages other than their mother tongue, the Japanese will always help you with directions--if you ever got lost. Their withdrawal attitudes towards non-Japanese visitors may be driven by their inability to speak the foreign language. But they are appreciative towards foreigners who speak some words of their language, and in many cases, they're proud, curious travellers. The receptionist from Orizuru tower in Hiroshima asked me if I got an ID or passport with me so I could get a discounted ticket for tourists. She was surprised when I showed her my Australian driver license. She said she travelled around Australia for almost six months. She mentioned many country towns in Queensland. I wouldn't even think I knew of their existence. The bartender at the Atlantis bar in Kyoto, a boutique bar tucked in the alley of Gion district, was saving his money to travel to the Gold Coast.

Even though 91.62 % of the Japanese population lives in big cities, it's easy to say that space--either they are big and small, or horizontal and vertical--is utilised and maximised efficiency. The urban area is designed for its inhabitants to share as well as respect others' privacy.

Japanese degrees of disciplines, the leftover from the feudal era, bequeathed them determination, obedience, and resilience. But what makes Japan the country it is today? So I visited Tokyo National Museum to help me find out the in-depth look of the nation.

April is a spring month in Tokyo. Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa usually attracts crowds of tourists, is now probably dotted with a few pedestrians as cherry blossoms linger under the falling snow. It was this time of the month last year when I walked around Ueno park before heading to the museum. There were lines of sakura trees, but cherry blossoms have just unfortunately ended. I always wondered what it looked like during the Hanami season in the park with street buskers showing off their talents from blowing bubbles, music to magic performances under the blossoming sakura trees.

Thanks to youtube--self-isolation is giving me more time to watch youtube channels--I can see cherry blossoms seem to last longer this time of the year. The trees just turned into the cherry blossom tunnel under the blue sky. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Hanami enthusiasts can be seen walking, but this time no buskers are showing off their talent along the footpath. The park is quiet, but the cherry blossoms linger longer before the snow falls deserted the park in the cold.

Just a block away from the park, Tokyo National Museum keeps the history of Japan. Modern Japan has evolved from a country merely built-in awe of Shinto and Buddhism intertwined with civil wars led by the shogunates. My visit to the museum brought me down to Nara, an ancient city in the south of Kyoto.

The mid-spring mild weather has left the cherry blossom season behind, leaving traces of pink dots on skeletal trees. I decided to walk up from Nara station and walked up the hill to Todai-Ji temple. I brushed off strings of shops, offices, and houses, I saw a towering pagoda looming from the treetop canopy. The five-story pagoda was once Japan's second tallest dating back from 1426.

The constant flowing traffic held me up to cross the street until a deer, curiously staring at me from across the street. Not a single vehicle let me cross the road, but a deer from the other side of the street was curiously staring at me. Maybe it thought this poor tourist needed a little help. It just made a sudden move, crossing the road with confidence, and then traffic from both directions stopped to allow the deer to cross the street. I thanked the deer for helping me out crossing the street.

The Buddhist Capital Of Nara

Nara is an ancient city with the mystery of the past blended with spiritual wealth and folklore. Walking through the grand southern gate of Todai-Ji Nandai-mon, no one can deny that this city once housed the greatest scholars of Buddhism. Even until now, Buddhist monks from various disciplines throughout the country and overseas still pay a visit, meditating under the feet of Daibutsu, the great Buddha.

Nara was Japan's capital of spirituality and intellectuality established in 710, and it was flourishing until 794. The grand Todai-Ji temple is a massive complex of campus where students studied Mahayana Buddhism brought from India in the 6th century through the silk road via Central Asia, China and Korea. It was undoubtedly built twice--burnt twice, and rebuilt in the Kamakura and Edo periods--to make a statement to the prosperity of Japan's Nara period. The complex is the evidence that it was once the bridge between the sacred and secular power of ruling aristocracies for centuries.

The Beginning Of Feudalism

After the night of rains, the sun emerged from the sweeping clouds in the morning. Golden lights and fresh air glazed Kyoto's quiet streets and gardens of spring in the early hours. In front of Nijo-jo's decorative golden gate, I was standing, looking up admiring the craftsmanship. The shape of the portal itself reminds me of Kabuto, the helmet worn by a Samurai soldier. Nijo-jo is a castle marking the shogunate era of Tokugawa. Inside the stone-imposing walled castle, I walked into a magnificent palace. I learned a significant reminder of feudalism in Japan at the time when I stepped on its squeaky cypress wood floor.

It was until 1185, An emperor who was also their religious leader ruled Japan, but through many wars, the emperor was losing his power. In 1336 a civil war caused the loss of emperor power. What we now know as a Samurai was the emperor army who fought against many civil wars. Shogun is the title given to the leader of Samurai armies. Shogun governed on the different land of regions--called Shoen-- throughout Japan. Farmers cultivated their lands. Shoguns gained their incomes from taxations and rented farms. As farmers would have to obey rules by developing properties and paying taxes, these obedient and disciplined customs are engrained. It marked the beginning of feudalism. Though Japan had always looked for China as the model, feudalism gave its way to the new identity of Japan. So we see how Japanese today. A disciplined and respectful citizen nation is born.

The Roots Of Minimalism

An oversize portion consumption of food and beverages has never been a part of the Japanese way of life. It's neither about cutting off a particular diet nor the amount of the food you consume. Japanese food is always served in a small bowl with several assorted dishes, such as a bowl of rice along with a bowl of miso, choice of protein usually fish or meat, and two or three kinds of vegetable. From a young age, parents teach their children' Hara Hachi bu', which means to eat until you're 80% full. So a bit of everything in a meal set is pretty much ingrained in the Japanese way of eating.

I discovered Japan's true identity of determination, disciplines, obedience, and resilience that has shaped the nation for centuries. Minimalism isn't a newfound culture that was created overnight, but it engrained in Japanese tradition for centuries. The roots of minimalism manifest in many forms such as zen garden, Chado (tea ceremony), Kado (flower compositional art), Kyomai (dance performance), Bunraku (puppet play) and the list goes on and on.

In the elegance of beauty, lies simplicity, practicality, and efficiency.

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