My first response to this piece is to feel amazed at how you have a baseline of genuine emotional connection in most(?) of your travels! Having a connection on the level of getting a pair of hand-knit socks is probably something that would happen in less than like 10% of my trips, except ones to see existing friends. I'd love to read about how you make that happen in other trips.
I have been to Japan about thirty times for business trips, and twice for vacation. And have been to 25 or so other countries. This post is a completely understandable and normal experience with Japan, especially if you are naturally extroverted or enjoy expression.
Everyone I know that goes to Japan and loves it usually loves it for three reasons, what they can buy, what they can eat, and the politeness of society. I never hear anyone tell me about how they made Japanese friends that they will see again or talk to again, or much stories with locals. If the best part of traveling for you is the people, then I can see how a trip to Japan could feel claustrophobic or stifling.
My favorite places I have lived or spent more than a month in are : Turkey, Taiwan, and The Philippines, pretty much because of my experiences with people. I would love to go to India.
Thanks for the write up!
funny. i enjoyed my time there - this was 2006 - because at that point i really wanted to be alone and talk to no one for a few weeks. japan delivered on that, big time.
I've lived in Japan for more than a decade and I think a lot of this is really well-observed. I'm also sometimes frustrated by the vibe of ostensible efficiency that you capture well.
That said, the language barrier is a pretty big thing to dismiss. You're not going to have insight into regular Japanese people without speaking their language, and equally you can't really over-index on the experiences of English-speaking weirdos like me who end up moving here.
I mostly learnt practical Japanese by working at a clothes store in Osaka when I was 22. I had to figure out how to fit in with people who were way hipper than me and (accurately) didn't trust my basic competence as an adult operating in this country. It was deeply formative because I just had to get over myself and do it, and I ended up making great friends there.
I don't think that situation would've been much different in most other countries with clothes stores that employ 22-year-old foreigners. The kind of people that you'd expect to be cool anywhere are also cool in Japan and go to cool places that are more or less like the cool places in California. But cultural norms inevitably map differently on this level of scale and density.
None of this is good travel advice, of course, and I know you're not claiming to be an authority, and learning Japanese is indeed a pain in the ass. But I did do it and don't regret it and still live here, so.
Also if you like Boris' more garagey stuff on Akuma no Uta I recommend Yura Yura Teikoku https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9CM44MohAs
I deeply appreciate how authentic and open you feel to me
Did I miss it, which city (cities) did you visit? e.g., I didn't enjoy Tokyo, but loved Kyoto
I've been to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nara. It was lovely, but as you describe. I think I get frustrated with Westerners who see Japan, its art, and its culture as Valhalla or Shangri La, and won't stop talking about it or comparing it against "here."
This is really interesting. I’ve been thinking of the problems we are trying to tackle in the USA (healthcare, homelessness, addiction, inequality, immigration, meaning, connection) and how they compare to other more healthy, functional, liveable, places. Before this, I would have put Japan on the list, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Nordics, the Netherlands, etc. But now you’ve got me rethinking what is best about a place and culture. With unlimited resources, what would be the ideal place to live? Amsterdam? Barcelona? Or maybe an intentional rural community? It’s such a great question, that seems to be more pressing the smaller our world gets.
Very much felt this one. It’s lonely being in a place emotionally distant and seemingly flawless. Your observation on kindness was particularly interesting “it seemed like the kindness was originating from a place of stress. There was a subtly high-strung texture to many of the interactions.”
Curious what you think led to the lovely hand-knit socks gift
Having been raised in Texas, I’m used to speaking to everyone and hugging strangers. I certainly wouldn’t fit well in Japan. It’s hard to understand the lack of warmth.
Just wanted to offer a different perspective.
I’ve been to Japan 7 times now.
Most trips are as you described, but one year I did a LOT of hiking in Hokkaido.
On the trails I made many friends - a park ranger who invited me to share an omelette at midnight that he was making for him and the other rangers, an old man who built a hut on a mountain that he hosts hikers in, a dentist who let me Couchsurf in his house and cooked me a hotpot, and a few more.
They told me about road-trips they did abroad, the first time they smoked weed, the relationships they were in, their plans for the future, the deer that would come and sit in their outdoor hot springs, and a dozen other stories of their lives!
Japanese people are more reserved, it’s true. But I think it’s a 20-30% difference, not a 2-3x difference. I tried a bit harder to make friends, and realized that we are more similar than different no matter which country we’re from.
As a total introvert, I think I would enjoy Japan and would hate to go to India. I live in France and always hated the « bise » (greeting kiss) ritual that was expected with friends, acquaintances, and even when meeting strangers who are friends of friends or acquaintances. The pandemic put a stop to that. Now with people forgetting that covid is still with us, people are going back to this bas habit. I still wear my mask in public as much for avoiding infection as for avoiding the dreaded bise.
I have been in Japan twice this year, first time solo, second time with a korean friend I made during the first trip. I spent my whole time in Tokyo in both trips, besides a quick same-day trip to Hiroshima. Before going I prepared my plan focused only my interests (music related stores / bars / vintage clothing ) and did nothing else. I made some friends on the first day, met them again a few days after, with some of them we’re still in touch. They were’t the deepest connections I will make in life but I think that bonding over a common passion really helps, as neither of the groups has to really amend their plans to meet again. They made me feel extremely welcomed and were key in sharing info that made my trip much richer.
Having said that, I would need to go back and see how easy/difficult would be to step those relationships up. Language was def a larger barrier with Japanese than Koreans I met there. But I think they deeply respect effort and work, and if you show you put in real work (in the common passion) that’ll probably make up for the rest.
I live in Japan and I feel the exact same way. It gets better when you move away from Tokyo. Yokohama feels more intimate (mostly because I grew up there). It's not uncommon here to live in an apartment building for years and not know what your neighbors look like. It's the polar opposite in India (split my childhood between India and Japan), where I know all of my neighbors personally. I can see how this experience may be jarring for people that like to feel like they... belong??
I found Japan so different - in many ways the flip side of the West - that it makes sense it doesn’t connect with everyone. The order, structure, method and rhythm of Tokyo isn’t the same as any other city in the world. And yet, I found that mystique fascinating - like truly visiting another world - and it appealed to me as a philosopher and photographer.
Still, there are places that everyone is “supposed to Love!” that didn’t do it for me, either - like Paris, Prague, Athens - that when I mention that, people think I’ve gone daft. But gimme Bologna or London or Christchurch any day👍
Guess that’s why the world is so huge- there somewhere or two for us all. 🙂