It’s been three years since our visit to Japan, but I still think about it constantly. It’s an enigma of a place; I find it completely contradictory – overwhelming on the senses, but entirely peaceful; inundated with people, but undoubtedly trustworthy.
Perhaps more than anywhere else we’ve visited, Japan has inspired lingering reflection on my observations. So, what did I see and learn – what do I think makes Japan so special?
The Japanese seem to be guided by a strong code of citizenship. I’ve never been anywhere so trusting, so non-aggressive. As a tourist, I was never eyed warily or as an opportunity; there was no hustle. People, as a whole, were patient with one another; no one appeared impatient or judgmental of others. They’re reserved, aloof but not inconsiderately so, seemingly all taking part of this bigger society, understanding its unwritten rules and respecting both it and their role as a part of it. There’s a high level of personal responsibility and awareness.
Their efficiency game is strong. Here’s an opposite example to illustrate: In New York City, your main modes of public transportation through the five boroughs are NYC MTA subways and buses, which use the same ticketing method. But if you want to venture out of the boroughs, you’re suddenly overwhelmed with different regional lines that all have different ticketing systems and different stations: Metro North, Amtrak, NJ Transit, Long Island Railroad. You could be attempting a trip to the Hamptons on Long Island, but accidentally get on a train to New Jersey (because that line is at the same station), and you’d be 20+ minutes into your ride until a conductor took your ticket and informed you of your error. In Japan, despite the language barriers, the systems are so easy to navigate (once initially figured out) because everything is standardized; everything follows the same rules. Tickets are taken by machine before you get to the tracks, where you’re informed if your ticket is incorrect. There are different train lines (local, regional, etc.), but they’re not each owned by separate entities with their own systems. This efficiency extends beyond just transportation; it’s in the 7-elevens and the noodle shops – everywhere runs with a process and procedure. It takes the some of the frustrating guesswork out of everyday living, and things just run smoother.
Personal economics are not on obvious display. Of my observations, this one most qualifies as a “snap judgment” and definitely requires a closer look. However, throughout our ten days, I hardly noticed any clues as to individual economic status or class. I did not find prominent display of status symbols or rampant materialism. Street style was, overall, modest and gave no major indication of a vast income gap. My surface-level internet research gives me slightly conflicting information: in some regards, Japan is an uncommonly egalitarian major economy (partly because of high taxation of the wealthy), but other evidence indicates the income gap is apparently rising at a quick pace.
Age is only a number. No matter where we were or how we were getting around, we were always surrounded by people of all ages. In the more rural area of Magome, where the terrain was steep enough to get me winded, the elderly hiked those super steep hillsides much better than I did. (Additionally, zero obesity exists.) The elderly don’t seem to use age as an excuse for inability; others don’t view it as a handicap or reason to warrant special treatment. Age doesn’t make you “less than;” you simply exist with the same capabilities as anyone else. I think that must be a very powerful mentality to possess as one does age.
Life requires a balance between peace and chaos. It’s both a stereotype and a fact that Japan is crowded – a large number of people living on a small piece of land (equivalent to roughly 1/3 of the US population cramped into the state of California). Its major cities bustle with activity, but there are ample opportunities to escape the chaos – parks, temples, shrines. Perhaps it’s a feature inherent to the country’s traditional, cultural, and religious histories. It’s almost as if there’s an off-switch, and people know when to take a break. You can find yourself wandering seemingly-unoccupied side streets and alleyways, just feet away from busy avenues; community spaces seem to drown out the city noise surrounding them; and once the sun goes down, you can find yourself almost alone on streets that were packed just a few hours ago.
As a traveler, you visit new places and wonder – hope, maybe – that what you’re seeing and experiencing is an accurate representation of the people and culture. You will find snippets you want to bring home and absorb into your own life, your perspective, your sense of being. Of course, as a visitor, you’ll never fully know the true authenticity of your experience, but regardless, this observation on different ways of life is one of the most rewarding things about travel.