Planet Japan

Even after a few journeys, Japan remains a complete mystery to any foreigner.


My dream to visit Japan started after I had read the book 'Shogun' written by James Clavell. I wanted to see the 17th century Japan with its samurais (the noble warriors) and their bushido (a code of life similar to the one of the knights in Europe), the ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), haiku (the art of poetry) and chado (the tea ceremony), as well as the feeling of impermanence in life reflected in the Japanese wisdom in conceiving the constant danger of earthquakes and typhoons and admiring the stunning but ephemeral moments of the sakura (the cherry blossom).


Strangely, what I saw in the 21st century Japan was not so far away from what my imagination had drawn up after reading the book.


The Japanese people call their country 'Nippon' or 'Nihon', which means 'source of the sun' or 'country of the rising sun' as, if you are in China and look to the east, you will see nothing else after Japan but the majestic Pacific Ocean which gives the impression that the sun rises there. Even though this is not geographically correct, the shining of the sun rays seemed brighter to me when I was there and gave me the impression of being in a dream and definitely on another, not yet fully discovered, planet of the galaxy.


So, how does Japan look like through the eyes of a foreigner, but also through the eyes of a Japanese, my dear friend Sachiko who helped me to understand some of the mysteries Japan still upholds?


Well, it is a place where you can:


- take a hot spring bath in an onsen (a traditional bathing facility) after having enjoyed skiing and realise that in Japan there are monkeys doing exactly the same thing - taking a bath in hot springs surrounded by snow!


- get lost in translation somewhere between the bright lights, crossings with hundreds of people, Japanese teenagers dresses up as manga heroes (cosplay) and rush hour trains in Tokyo when everything seems so amazingly orderly and calm even though the trains are completely full!


And then end up in the green serenity of the bamboo forests and the traditional gardens with deers and ponds full of red fish surrounding the sober temples where you can get lucky enough to spot a Japanese wedding or be surprised when Japanese girls ask you whether they can take a picture of you (yes, foreigners, especially fair clear-eyed ones, can be celebrities in Japan)!


Actually in Japan you can really get lost even if you have in your hands at least two guides and three maps! Of course you can always check the maps on the street but remember - the north is not always on the upper side of Japanese maps as one would expect it to be, which does not relieve you from the impression, more often than not, of being stuck in a nowhere land. You would say ‘But how is it possible? You can check for the street name and look for the center of the city and you should be fine!’ Well, not exactly because Japanese cities do not have city centers or street names and even Japanese get lost!


Sachiko confirmed that it was difficult even for a Japanese to find the right exit amongst many at the Tokyo station or the right subway station as the names are quite difficult to read because of the many ways to read a single Kanji character.


- wander around Gion, the Kyoto pleasure quartier, and bump into a real geiko (or geisha, a woman of the arts, who is trained in traditional dancing, music and singing) or maiko (an apprentice geisha) hurrying up around dusk to meet the clients she will entertain for the evening with her music and elegance.


The easiest way to distinguish a geiko from a maiko is by their obi (a wide belt of stiff fabric which is wrapped around the waist) - the maiko's obi drapes down the back but a geiko's obi is much shorter and more like a square.


You can even dress up like a geiko or a maiko and discover that 1/ the outfit is really heavy which combined with the geta (the traditional Japanese wooden shoes) makes it almost impossible to walk normally and 2/ even your boyfriend or husband will not be able to recognise you under the white painting gently and perfectly applied on your face.


- realise that reigi (respect) is paramount in Japan. After a month you will start bowing to everyone and everywhere and realise that Japanese bow constantly. I was surprised when a Japanese guy, after he withdrew some cash from the ATM, actually bowed to the machine!


But the most impressive bow was when our plane from Hiroshima landed on Naha airport and the five Japanese waiting on the apron bowed all at the same time at the exact moment the engine was switched off welcoming us, the passengers, on the tropical Okinawa islands!


If you add 'Arigato gozaimashita!' (thank you very much) to your bow, you will see beautiful smiles on the faces of your interlocutors!


Sachiko explained to me that reigi is not purely a matter of respect, but rather a cultural formality that people follow without casting any doubt on. For example, at a tea ceremony, when you are served with a tea by the host, you need to offer that to the person next to you first, and only with the polite rejection from the guest (or sometimes just a bow) you can have the tea.


- change your perception of things you considered it was polite or impolite to do. In Japan it is considered impolite to eat in the street or blow your nose in public.


However it is perfectly acceptable, and even considered as a sign that you appreciate the food, to make a lot of noise when you eat your ramen (a Japanese noodle soup), and you will actually really enjoy doing it after you have queued for hours without knowing what you were going to eat (everything is written in Japanese everywhere and unless there are plastic samples of your dishes on a restaurant window, the meal is always a surprise)!


It is also considered impolite to offer your seat in the bus to an elderly person as this may offend him or her (which makes perfect sense, right? Who wants to be considered old?)! At the same time, if you commit such an offence, your statute as a foreigner can actually save your life and you can end up chatting about classical music with an elderly Japanese former piano teacher!


- enjoy the best, most exotic and most healthy food in your life and be surprised by the menu every day! Katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with a deep-fried pork cutlet, egg, vegetables and condiments), udon (wheat) and soba (buckwheat) noodles, tofu doughnuts, green tea ice-cream, red bean light pastries, generous Okinawa breakfast, fresh sushi, sweet colourful soups, tempura (buttered and deep fried seafood or vegetables) and curries - it is a carnival of flavours and colours! Besides being tasty, Japanese food is exquisitely beautiful!


You can also enjoy the food in modern restaurants or cafés in Japan, while watching a robot show in a 'robot restaurant', or being served by a maid-looking waitresses who call you 'master' or 'mistress' in a 'maid café', or playing with a cat in a 'cat café'!


- stay overnight in a real monastery, meditate in the evening, taste an exquisite meal prepared by the monks and wake up very early to join them in the enchanting fire ceremony surrounded by the sounds of the drums and the mantras (prayers)! The only inconvenience - the tatamis (Japanese bed) are really hard!


- admire a zen garden with its meticulously arranged white gravel. The 15 stones in the Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once from the veranda - only 14 stones are visible at one time. It is said that only an enlightened person would be able to also see the fifteenth stone.


- be lucky enough to spot the perfect conus of mount Fuji-san or Mister Fuji with its snowy cap and if you are bold enough, climb it or simply hike in the surrounding forests where you can enjoy the view of sailing pirate ships and immersed in the water toris (traditional bright red gates found at the entrance of temples) in the beautiful mirror lakes and even taste a black egg boiled directly in the water heated by the volcanic activity which is supposed to make you a few years younger.


- become rich by washing your money in bamboo bowls in a temple in Kamakura on your way to see the Great Buddha (Japanese believe that after this ritual their money will be multiplied)!


You can also try to break your bad luck by breaking a figurine into a rock in another temple, or drink holy water which will bring you eternal youth.


Or you can just get a piece of paper with your luck in Japanese and English (if it is bad luck, you have to tie it up on a bar in the temple for the wind to blow it away!).


- wander around under the beautiful bloomed cherry trees during the day and have a picnic under them in the evening when they are illuminated which gives them fairytale colours.


Sachiko explained to me that cherry blossom has a spiritual value to many Japanese hearts. It only blossoms for few days in a year, and it signifies the start of spring season and short-lived life, and that is exactly why people love to appreciate it as much as possible.


Spring and autumn are the most beautiful seasons in Japan full of colours. But these are also the most crowded moments to visit Japan as in addition to foreign tourists, many Japanese also travel around their country (Japanese do not travel a lot as they usually only have two weeks of holiday per year but sakura and koyo (colourful autumn leaves) are holy moments for them).


- take part in the intimate tea ceremony in a teahouse, where you will first bow to the mistress of the ceremony, taste a small Japanese sweet, appreciate the tea bowl, then rotate it the right amount of times, have a sip of the slightly bitter macha tea prepared especially for you and finally compliment the host for the tea.


You need to crawl to enter into the teahouse - the door is intentionally low in order to give the visitors the sense of humility, whether they are villagers, samurais or...foreigners!


You can have the best tea ceremony ever while you stay in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) sleeping on tatamis and even enjoying your private onsen in addition to the amazing fresh food!


- listen to the transfixing sounds of the Japanese drums – the taikos, which looks more like an epic battle of the good and the evil than to a traditional concert!


Yes, on the planet Japan there is all of this and much more! Are you longing for another planet experience far away from everything you have ever seen or felt? Japan is your dream destination…


(with the kind help of Sachiko Katayama)

Initially published in Elle Bulgaria in October 2016:


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