I’m a big believer that your experience of a place depends not only on the place itself, but also on where you are in your life when you visit it. And I got to Tokyo right at the perfect time!
I was never particularly interested in Japan when I was growing up, but when I first started planning my sabbatical it was at the top of my list.
The night I arrived in Tokyo, as soon as I got out of Tokyo Station and started walking to my capsule hotel, I knew this was going to be a great trip. From the start of my trip I loved everything: the bright neon signs, the cute packaging, the quietness of zen gardens and the loudness of busy streets.
Most people I know like Kyoto better than Tokyo – Kyoto has more of what we expect traditional Japan to be: it has endless amounts of incredible temples and lots of cool restaurants and bars. And although I had a great time in Kyoto, Tokyo for me just doesn’t compare. It is the most incredible city ever.
Tokyo goes forever – I spent 23 days there and I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface. Just walking around, day or night, I’d spend hours trying to soak it all in. From the sensory overload of Shinjuku to the attractiveness of Ginza to the traditional liveliness of Asakusa, Tokyo has it all, and then some.
I’m an urban soul, and I always feel recharged when I’m in a good big city – and Tokyo is the ‘citiest’ of cities.
THOUGHTS ON JAPAN
I don’t really believe in perfection, but Japan gets very close. Everything works incredibly well, and given how different their culture is from that of Europe, it is amazing how easy things are.
Their famous transport network really works incredibly – and despite how busy it is, you’re really struck by how clean and quiet the trains are.
There are lots of things to make your life easy: the vending machines, convenience stores, products you never knew you needed, toilets with lots of buttons, restaurants where you place your order through a machine – everything is efficient and works.
Japan also has an interesting dualism, being maximalist and minimalist at the same time. There’s the OTT neon signs, the kawaii cartoon characters on anything from sweets to health & safety messages, the insanity of discount stores filled floor to ceiling with all the tat in the world.
Then there’s the quiet of zen gardens, the simplicity of interior design where nothing is superfluous, the streamlined processes. Japan wouldn’t be the same without both.
Another interesting paradox is that Japanese society, despite placing a greater emphasis on the collective, actually delivers greatness at the individual level too (of course this doesn’t apply to the exploitation of their workforce).
When you buy something in Japan, no matter how small, the rituals and formality around it always made me feel great about it – things are presented to you like they matter (even if you’re just buying a bottle of water) – and you’re treated like the only customer in the world. I’m a terrible shopper but in Japan I always felt good after buying something. This attention to detail really has a great impact on the individual experience.
The Japanese people I met along the way were always interested to know my impressions of Japan and asked if I was having a good time – which of course I was. They seemed eager to please and to ensure I had a good experience.
Japanese people are discreet, but they are also helpful – without asking I was quickly shown how to do something or where to go on a number of occasions.
I had the most wonderful time in Japan. It’s a magical country that is a whole world in itself. After one month, I still felt in awe at the smallest things like the potholes decorated with cherry blossoms or the way things always work.
This was the trip of a lifetime, and I would love to go back, but as they say in Lost in Translation:
“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”