Before I set foot in Japan, my expectations were set. Pop culture, news, and my favorite imported technology composed a menu of superlatives and stereotypes. And I was ready to dine. I dialed up the ISO on my Nikon to capture the clear, shiny neon-lit wonderland of the streets at night, steeled myself against the dense throngs I would encounter on every bus and subway, and greeted each person I met with a smile and a bow, eager to return their legendary composure and politeness.
But Japan was not so simple.
Through the window of a train, I saw Mount Fuji framed between two smokestacks. Japan was supposed to be a gaudy Technicolor light show, and here was the national symbol obscured by smoggy, industrial-era energy. These were not the clean emissions I expected from the country home to the namesake of the Kyoto Protocols. On the other hand, I spotted this scene from a world-class Shinkansen bullet train moving at 186 miles per hour, so the country must be on the right track (get it?).
Nor was the technology anywhere as advanced as I imagined. While I’m sure there are sophisticated servant robots somewhere in Japan, on an average day, “hi-tech” meant few wi-fi hotspots; but lots of heated toilet seats, electronic price tags and water heater displays which announce in cheery Japanese that you can now shower at a comfortable 40-degrees Celsius.
My assumption of densely-packed humanity crowding every livable square meter was also soon deflated. Maybe I would have found Japan dense if I hadn’t just arrived from Taiwan. To use airplanes as a metaphor, if America is first class, then Japan is Economy and Taiwan is the cargo hold underneath the plane. I spent my first week in Kitakyushu, Tacoma’s Japanese Sister City, which is home to a million people—the same amount as Taichung, Tacoma’s Sister City in Taiwan. Yet Kitakyusu has far more spacious streets, is more walkable, and has better public transport and public spaces.
Once I made it out to the countryside, I found the openness even more striking. At the side of Tazawa Lake, the deepest in Japan and a thus a draw for domestic tourism, the word desolate came to mind. Granted, frigid November is not peak season for visitors, but feeling so isolated inside Japan still defied my expectations.
Up to this point, Kitakyushu and the countryside had dashed my expectations yet added nuance to my understanding of Japan. But soon as I headed to fewer “off the map” places, I began to see that Japan was still everything I anticipated.
I awoke my first morning in Tokyo, Mount Fuji was back—and much closer to my original mental image. At dawn, Fuji caught the first rays of the sun, and quietly but majestically stood guard over the sprawling city below. Witnessing the noble strength of the nation’s greatest peak gave me both a sense of personal satisfaction, and a mixture of envy and respect for the Japanese for living in such a beautiful place.
A night in the same city added to my awe by exceeding my expectations. I visited the famed Shibuya crosswalk on a Saturday night, jumped into the throng of thousands and surged across roads painted with the vivid light of billboards and the squawk and blare of a million ads and jingles. And then I crossed it again and again, just for the thrill of it. Japan was dense, and it was great!
I had spent my first nights in little known Kitakyushu and my last nights on the famed streets of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I did Japan in reverse. And once I had reached the end of my time there, I realized that the true nature of traveling in Japan—and a lesson to be learned about travel in general—could actually be found in Kitakyushu all along. It’s all summed up in this photo:
The ultramodern skyline of the Riverwalk mall is a backdrop for the black tiles atop a sitting room used by Kokura Castle’s past lords. Like all the expected and the unexpected things I had found along the way, these two opposites stand side by side, even overlap, and it’s the job of the traveler to pick which one to focus on. The best understanding comes from including both.
Travelers have to do the work of weighing expectations and realities, sifting through the imagined and the actual to arrive at a balance. Travel should always be an act of confirming the known and discovering the unknown. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding. To summarize this reality, I suggest a catchphrase: travel—it’s no vacation.