If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Japan, you’ll understand when I say it’s the land of the unpredictable. Just when you think you’ve got Japan all figured out, it has a way of producing something completely unexpected. Like ordering fries expecting hot, salty, deep-fried potatoes, only to be served cold potatoes covered in toffee (which is delicious, if you’re wondering). Or pointing to the pumpkin soup on the menu, only to be served what is actually pumpkin flavoured crème brulee (which again, is delicious).
At first I struggle with this un-predictableness, frustrated by the language barrier that sees me eating desserts for lunch and heading the wrong way on the subway. In time though, I start to enjoy this uncertainty, and understand that this is what makes Japan unique.
It’s the land of the quirky and the kitsch, with hedgehog cafés and toilets that play sounds of the ocean when you’re doing your business. It’s almost as if – if it can be imagined – you’ll find it in Japan. There’s vending machines producing origami kits for less than a dollar, and restaurants where you order your food, pay through a machine out the front and then eat inside. There’s a robot café, an owl forest and a stationery store that covers 12 floors. The quirkiness of Japan feels never ending, but you come to expect it and love them for it.
I arrived in Japan at 5am on a cold Autumn day, with temperatures hovering around 8 degrees and skies of continuous grey. Before long I realise this is typical for Japan, grey skies that seem go on forever, where you’re lucky to get a ray of sunshine. This feels especially typical for Tokyo, where the buildings dominate the landscape and colour is provided not by nature, but by neon lights.
Tokyo is busy, but organised. This proves true with a visit to the famous Shibuya Crossing (or better known as ‘The Scramble’). It is here that I expect a million people and cars rushing in different directions, but instead I find an orderly chaos, where up to 2,500 people cross at any one time, and the mood is peaceful and pleasant.
In addition to neon signs, you could say the colour of Tokyo is provided by the people. These unique characters that offer self expression through their fashionable style. It’s colourful, quirky and always well thought out. In Harajuku this is amplified, with the famous ‘Harajuku Girls’ living up to their namesake (the one provided by Gwen Stefani’s song, how could we ever forget)?! It’s in Harajuku that I meet two ‘Harajuku Girls’, who when pressed for their names tell me it’s ‘Harajuku’. I try to explain that I want their personal names, but they insist. So it’s here that I meet ‘Harajuku 1’ and ‘Harajuku 2’.
Just as I start to appreciate city life with its colourful people, we make our way to Nikko. Nikko is about 2 hours away from Tokyo and the name literally means ‘sunlight’. After spending a few days here with all its beautiful nature, yet more grey skies, I decide the name is a little symbolic. Especially since in Nikko the sun goes down at 4:30pm, and when it’s up, it struggles against grey clouds and rain. I decide that the meaning ‘sunlight’ refers to the local people. If I could describe them in a few words it would be ‘beautiful rays of light’. They’re friendly, generous and happy, despite being incredibly poor. They’ll welcome you into their business with open arms and present you with gifts of origami. They’ll smile brightly, even though you can see a sadness in their eyes. The meaning sunlight, in it’s many forms, really does represent this town, and although it might not always refer to the sky above, you can always feel its warmth.
After Nikko we head to Kyoto, the place famous for geishas, streets lined with lanterns and tofu (needless to say, this vegetarian girl is excited). I find most restaurants brimming with tofu and even though it’s coated in a sweet sauce, it’s still delicious. We wander those streets lined with lanterns and suddenly I’m on a mission (which for once doesn’t involve food). The mission is to find those ever elusive geishas, those who have kept me obsessed and intrigued ever since reading ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ as a teenager. To my delight, we meet several on our second day, most found wandering the streets of Gion. They offer bright smiles complemented by brightly coloured kimonos, and contrasted with their shy eyes. I feel lucky to have encountered Geishas in real life, yet I’m still left with a feeling of intrigue (which perhaps will never go away).
As my time in Japan looms to an end, I think again about this land of un-predictableness and smile. The Japanese culture feels like one of the few cultures left in the world that has its own entity. They’re traditional, specific in their ways, and not at all affected by overly westernised cultures like Americas. Japan feels almost untouched, unique, and like everything has been considered to ensure it aligns with their individuality.
Japan really is like no other and whilst I long for a bit of routine and regular potato fries, I do think I might miss this place. You can truly never know what to expect in Japan and yes, this feeling might not appeal to everyone at first, but you can rest assured that in time you’ll come to love it. You’ll love that even though you might not know what you’re eating, you’ve been served a unique version of the original dish (which chances are, you’ll never find anywhere else in the world). You’ll love being able to buy a hot coffee in a can out of a vending machine on the street, or being able to purchase your fortune from a machine (and if it’s not a good one, then you just tie it to a tree).
In the end, you’ll come to love everything about Japan, with its quirkiness and intrigue the very things that make it special. You might even come to miss Japan, because where else in the world can you get fries covered in toffee?