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Notes on not liking Japan as much as everyone said we would
Everyone told me that Japan would be the best vacation ever, that we'd adore it completely and never want to return to America. And then, we didn't like it that much, and were relieved to fly home. In fact, we discussed flying home halfway through, and almost did. I think that would've been a better decision, from a happiness perspective—other than a lovely lunch with a friend, the second week didn’t add much.
To be fair, Japan never asked for this kind of hype, and perhaps few experiences could live up to it.
To say that I "didn't like it" would be an oversimplification. There were many wonderful moments. But there was a negativity fog over the whole thing, a way in which it was all a drag, fabulous though the train system was. This juxtaposition was quite remarkable: I ate probably the best pizza of my life, and the best sushi, and saw some amazing temples, and had a couple of great interactions, and then I thought, "this country is really not for me."
This is confusing, so I'm trying to work it out for myself. I should also note that I'm not hard to please, as a traveler. Previously, of the many places I've been, I've disliked maybe two, in the sense that I would, in general, choose not to return: Vientiane, and St. Louis. I didn't expect to add Japan to that list, but there you go.
By the way, I don't know shit about Japan, ultimately, and I know that. Nothing I say here should be interpreted as authoritative, or trying to be. I'm simply documenting a failure to fall in love with a much-beloved location. I'm not mad––Japan has no obligation to please me. I'm just trying to get to the bottom of a feeling, and writing this as an advisory for travelers with similar sensibilities.
I don't think it's controversial that Japan is a place that prioritizes execution and harmony, decorum and thoroughness. On the whole, it's a very orderly country, where things are done well. What shouldn't have surprised me, but did, was that this highly orderly place feels really orderly. As in, it feels like there is an ambient sense of order that contains and channels human energy––a grid that everything gets locked into.
When sampling Japanese culture and living abroad, often what you see is the eccentric fashion, eccentric game shows, truly incredible guitar rock, and pornography. But on the streets, Japan gives off a palpable regularity vibe. The majority of people wear brown, navy, grey, white, and black. The majority of buildings are brown, navy, grey, white, and black. Everyone walks at the same pace without making eye contact. It's great that eccentricity is accepted—but the eccentricity exists within a powerful containment field.
This felt, to my Californian ass, like an oppressive bummer. Walking around, I knew, in my bones, that I shouldn't dance in the street, or make loud noises, or try to have a sincere conversation with a stranger (unless we'd had some alcohol, or were in a karaoke booth). It's not that I do these things all the time, but these possibilities add some aliveness to the everyday, and I do them perhaps more than the average person. Knowing that this wasn't really possible, meanwhile, contained possibility, and made the whole trip less exciting.
We were treated with immense kindness, by service workers and others, and I am grateful for the treatment. But 80% of the time, it seemed like the kindness was originating from a place of stress. There was a subtly high-strung texture to many of the interactions. By entering into someone's field of attention, I'd placed them in a position of obligation, offloading a burden that required careful management. So much of the time, I was left wishing I could wear a badge, reading "hey, I'm just some jagoff, you can relax." Interestingly, this was least true in the case of older residents—maybe the sense of obligation calmed down with age, or maybe practice just smoothes it out.
I have never traveled to a place where it felt harder to obtain genuine emotional
connection. We got it a few times—in a little izakaya, for example, the proprietor gave Cate a pair of hand-knit socks, and this was the best moment of the trip. But overall, it was distant, hard to reach. And the language barrier had something to do with it, but definitely wasn't everything: even among the fluent English speakers I met, conversation felt 10x more contained than American conversation. Of course, genuine emotional connection is possible, given that it’s a country populated by human beings. But cracking the ice does seem to require some effort, and probably a slower pace than a short visit will allow.
In this atmosphere, nothing felt real, or like it had anything to do with me, in particular. I kept having tremendously fine experiences, flashes of extreme natural beauty, or extraordinary human craft, and then thinking, oh, that's nice, but why am I here, by the way. Like who gives a fuck.
Similarly: it was incredibly safe, quiet, and clean there, and I admired that, a lot. I never had to feel concerned for my belongings or physical person for a single second. But the price of this for me personally, evidently, was not really feeling concerned with much at all.
I suspect, by the way, that this is not an atmosphere unique to Japan. I haven’t spent time in Germany, but I’m going to guess that, outside of hip parts of Berlin, it would feel similar. Perhaps there is a hip Berlin of Japan, an outpost of collective weirdness, but I imagine it’s concealed and distributed, an interpersonal network I’ll never have access to.
Oh, and did I mention that nobody touches? PDA is really uncommon in Japan. I don't know that we saw a single couple holding hands, or sitting with legs touching at candle-lit dinner. Besides romance, among acquaintances, the idea of casually hugging was obviously off-limits. This, too, felt strange and sad, and made me understand phenomena like hostess cafes more.
I have a habit. Whenever I see someone with an exceptional outfit, if it’s possible to do without being rude or making too much fuss, I make eye contact with them and say, “you look great, amazing outfit!” This has gone well every single time I’ve ever done it. Except in Japan, where I tried to make eye contact with a guy wearing an orange zoot suit, and he looked horrified, like I was about to assault him.
In the end, it was almost like the inverse of my month in India. Much in India is dysfunctional, and there's a lot of dirt, noise, and confusion, in northern cities especially. But people were extremely, genuinely welcoming, in a personal way. If someone was sitting next to me, they were reasonably likely to have a deep conversation with me, containing the exchange of messy opinions and emotions. It’s true that I spent a big chunk of that month being sick, confused, and overwhelmed. But I've thought about that trip fondly maybe every week for years, and I long to return.
Meanwhile, perhaps if I become quite rich I will return to Japan just to eat some fine meals and buy some excellent clothing, but I feel little urgency about this.
Photo credit goes to Daido Moriyama.
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