… and our journey through Japan continued. I’ve already covered some of the “icons”, the food and the cherry blossom craze we encountered. But that’s far from it all. Here is some more, to feed the glutton in you. If you missed Part I, click here first!
Losing my Religion
Japan’s religious architecture and art are amazing. Temples, shrines, torii gates (those oh-so-famous Japanese arches/doorways, most typically orange), pagodas, statues of Buddha, cemeteries -with no crosses-, stone lanterns and so forth. Thousands. All over. Some more impressive than others. At some point you stop counting. At some point you stop taking pictures of every single one you walk past. At some point you stop realizing you’ve just passed another one. And then there’s the praying ritual that comes with that. Claps, bows, monetary donation (of course), pulling the bell’s cord, more claps, more bows, peace of mind.
– There’s no randomness at all, in all those moves –
Such an extremely religious folk, we were convinced. So many temples. So many people performing that bowing and clapping ritual. And then we asked about the difference between temples and shrines, between Buddhism and Shinto (Japan’s traditional religion) and who practiced what. We heard stories of Buddhist monks decorating Christmas trees (?!) and eating meat. Of people going to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples indistinctively. Of single-digit percentages of truly “religious” people. Turns out it’s more like “traditions” and “rituals” than a really serious religious practice. To my Japanese friends or those in the know, please feel free to confirm. Anyway, religious or not, everything around it is visually delicious.
Just as a bonus… not really “religious” architecture (more like military), … but I didn’t find another section to put this in 😊 … here the nice castles we visited in Osaka and Himeji:
Other cultural traits
I thought I’d share some of the behavioral aspects of life in Japan, as per our experience here. Things that wouldn’t make it to the “icons” list but nevertheless add to that unique character of Japan.
- The bows. You wonder how much those lower backs must be hurting, from all the bowing. Sometimes it looks like a “who is the last one to bow” contest, like those times you’re with your girlfriend on the phone saying, “you hang up”, “no, you” … “no, you” … “nooo, you!”. Only with bows.
– Official ceremony, held on the street. Plenty of bowing. –
- Japanese are queuing experts. Everywhere. Even to cross the street, people tend to line up, waiting for the green light. Is the restaurant full?… you don’t just write your name on the list and come back in a few minutes… you wait there, making a line. Is the line already 30 meters long? Doesn’t matter, just get in line and wait, patiently. Even if the line is cut off by a big avenue. Continue across the street. There will likely be one or more “queue organizers”.
- Visiting “onsen” and “sento” communal baths (the name depends on whether they are fed by natural hot springs or not). They LOVE them. We loved them as well. Quite an experience, with the multiple lined mini stations (cubicles?) where you first need to wash yourself while seated on a small stool (never standing up), surrounded by the nakedness all of your seated neighbors; …the art of not letting your towel touch the water of the hot pools by rolling it on top of your head … the fact I had to cover up my tattoo with skin-colored tape, as tattoos are not allowed there. Too bad pictures weren’t allowed inside (go figure).
– so much for pictures around a public bath, sorry –
- We had never taken our shoes off so many times. We already knew no shoe shall ever touch a tatami floor, but pretty much every place you visit -except from high transit horeca, let’s say- demands that you take them off (more so than in the rest of Asia, I’d say). We were so happy we put elastic laces to our shoes. And felt so bad when we saw people visiting temple complexes in their hiking boots! They spent more time tying and untying than visiting. I drew the line at “shared toilet slippers”, found by the door of many toilets.
– Japanese socks, perfect to wear with flip-flops. And so sexy. –
- And that urban legend about you asking for directions and people stopping what they are doing to guide you in person (instead of just telling you)? Well yeah, it’s true.
There’s more, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Things you see on the streets
I’m forcing a little bit my categorization of things, I know. But these ones aren’t “icons”, nor necessarily “behavioral” aspects… you do see them everywhere, though. I’ll keep it short, just listing them.
- Vending machines. Everywhere. Offering everything. From mixed cocktails to SIM cards to adult toys. Tiny and huge. Analog and digital.
- Neon lights. Some streets look like taken out of a theme park.
- Garbage. Or, more accurately, NO garbage. And even more interesting, almost no garbage bins! You are expected to take with you any rubbish you generate. Should we try that in Peru? Hah.
- 100-Yen shops. Like your usual 1-dollar-shop. Only with much cooler stuff (be aware, you’ll spend a few thousand Yens anyway).
– was dying to buy some audio tapes and CD cases –
- Never ending “shopping arcades” (meaning covered shopping streets) and underground labyrinths of shopping malls. In every city. There’s not GPS coverage down there, so you’ll get lost, guaranteed.
- Sculpted gardens … it’s definitely a form of art.
– yup… he is using tweezers –
- Dark wood, sliding doors, gray roofs and landscapes comparable to those of New Zealand (however not seen from a campervan but from a train at 300 kilometers per hour).
- Weird products and weird sponsored brands. Supermarkets and drugstores are so fun to visit. I’m sure some of these celebrities are confident their pictures will never make it to the West (or don’t even know they are being used).
To my surprise, it was harder to communicate here than in some of the other south-east Asian countries we visited. Not so many people speak English and if they do, their pronunciation will most likely be challenging to understand. Nevertheless, Japanese as a language is phonetically easier than, say Vietnamese, as there’s no intonation elements. This means you can read from the guide book and people will somewhat understand you (try that with Thai…). And luckily, there’s Google translate, flawlessly supporting image-based translation. Flawlessly being a relative term, of course.
– See? Who needs to learn Japanese!? –
Funny enough, there are so many words and expressions derived from English!… just add a “u” or an “o” at the end of the words and you’ll nail it. “what is the passwordo for the internetto?”… “do you want your tea hotto or izu?”
It was also kind of contradictory, how Japanese people tend to be very reserved in public. Never saw someone openly talking to a neighbor on the train. If the bus is full and someone needs to pass through, you will never hear them saying “excuse me please, I need to pass!”. They will just carefully make their ways in silence. On the other hand, if they are in their circle of trust or if it’s part of their jobs, believe me they will speak. Loud. And with very long sentences and stretching that final vowel as if it was Mr. Fantastic’s arm.
– clips go in crescendo, so watch till the end 🙂 –
Oh, and they looooove saying thank you (arigato gozaimasu):
– there will be a prize if you guess the number of times he says thank you 😉 –
… and etc.
That was supposed to be my last “category” for this different, weird, unique, crazy and wonderful country. And then, going through my pictures and videos, I noticed there was some stuff I left out! Stuff related to places we visited and things we did.
Interesting places we visited, which I didn’t specifically mention so far… Hiroshima and the emotions around it’s Peace Memorial Park. Koyasan and it’s atmospheric temples, mausoleums and huge cemetery. Nara and its huge Buddha, its world’s largest wooden structure and many many wild deer which, as you can see in the video, we did a great job feeding.
– even cute Bambi can be a bit intimidating –
On the activity front, we had Origami lessons, walked through bamboo forests and hiked in bear territory. They said that making noise while hiking would keep bears away, so I nervously took my iPhone out and played some random music… it’s now verified: bears stay way from Justin Bieber.
– No bear following us. Thank you Justin! –
And that put an end to our journey through (part of) Asia! From there, it was now time to cross the Pacific towards Mexico, for my cousin’s wedding. And then for a final month in Lima, getting spoiled (read: fed to the point of explosion) by our families, catching up with old friends and remembering what it felt like that whole “not doing anything” modus.
This could perfectly be the final post of the year …the actual trip finished almost 45 days after leaving Japan, however the storytelling will pretty much end here.
I might have some material for a final, conclusive post, though… we’ll see, we’ll see…
– Leaving Asia, we chartered a plane just for ourselves –
Amsterdam – The Netherlands, July 6th, 2018
(yup, I’m finishing this post being already back home!)