My first Japan holiday was like the most seductive blind date. I arrived with scant preconceived notions and was electrified by an intoxicating collision of ancient serene culture and fast-paced city thrills.
Alex Kerr’s legendary book, Lost Japan, sparked the desire — it’s a journey into Japanese art forms and Kerr’s restoration of an old house in the Iya Valley, Shikoku. And when I worked in marketing at an art gallery, I promoted an exhibition combining works by Claude Monet and Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. (Monet was greatly influenced by Edo period prints.)
No wonder Japan seemed like a hotbed of startling allure; especially exotic for a Malaysia-born Chinese who’d grown up in Australia since the age of three. I craved idealized, sentimentalized, bygone Asia. Thatched roofs, arched bridges and lotus flowers.
I touched down in spring 2010 and for three weeks drank a heady cocktail of castles and cherry blossoms mixed with liberal shots of kawaii (cuteness). Traveling through clean, efficient Japan, where the “customer is god,” felt like being carried along by endless white gloves.
Then I read about a nursing home attendant who deliberately broke her charges’ legs. I learnt about snaky politics, nationalist groups and crime spread like octopus tentacles. Like any country, Japan has rot festering under the sweetness and froth, not far beneath the surface.
Four trips in though, I’m in a honeymoon phase. Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Crossing remains magnificent, however with each visit, it seems to shrink a little in scale. But when my friends and I find ourselves crushed on a Tokyo peak hour train we end up laughing; it’s still a source of amusement, not a torturous daily grind. I fly in and out, suspending my state of wonder, drawing out the love affair.
I noticed something on the second trip. When I paused to draw a breath in between blasting from one famous tourist spot or world heritage site to another, I spied pieces and pockets of rough street charm. Humble, retro shotengai (shopping streets) streaming snapshots of ordinary suburban life — grandmas selling croquettes from window counters, kids queueing for crêpes after school.
The fluorescent glare of convenience stores became a beacon of comfort, promising culinary treats instead of desperation and sad sandwiches like in my own country. I was drawn to casual late-night eateries crammed under train tracks, brimming with post-work crowds; thick with smoky aromas, raucous chatter and clanking pans.
I keep going back to the big three pleasure centers — Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka — but Japan also has amazing diversity in its smaller towns. Like romantically weathered coastal Tomonoura or stately alpine Takayama. Or postcard-pretty Kurashiki and Magome-juku, lined with preserved historic streetscapes — manicured as movie sets, but there’s nothing like it back home.
Beauty is everywhere. From grand vermilion torii (Shinto shrine archway) gates to gleaming, sky-piercing modern architecture. But on trip three, I kept ending up in discreet residential lanes, taking photos of potted plant arrangements to the bemusement of local housewives. There’s an endearing sense of pride in tidy Japanese home frontages.
By trip four, I yearned to step deeper into everyday Japan — into people’s homes.
Enjoying Japanese food on a home visit
By trip four, I yearned to step deeper into everyday Japan — into people’s homes. I discovered the key to open doors was Airbnb–style websites that connect foreigners with English-speaking Japanese. Eating a private home-cooked meal with natives is less commitment than a homestay, so it was great for my short timeframe (or for expats seeking to expand their social circle).
Depending on the type of dining, fees run from ¥3,000 to ¥12,000 per person. Companies like Traveling Spoon, BonAppetour and VoulezVousDiner endorse global networks of welcoming households. Eatwith is also worldwide, but focuses more on home experiences with trained chefs and food industry professionals. Nagomi Visit and AirKitchen are solely Japan-based, and offer greater choices of home cooks and provincial cuisines across the country.
I created an account with Nagomi Visit, picked places and dates, and within a few days, two hosts replied. My friend and I were on our way to dinners in Mihara, on the coastline of the Seto Inland Sea, Hiroshima Prefecture; and Otsu, nine minutes by train from central Kyoto. I wasn’t trying to unravel the deep mysteries of Japanese people in a few visits. I suspect I never will and I don’t want to, because then the honeymoon will be over. But I hoped to gain some regional cultural insights. I keep reading about differences in Kyoto-ites to other Japanese. Really?
We stayed almost four hours both visits and the time flew. When I probed the Moritas, my Otsu hosts, a husband and wife, about unique Kyoto traits they simply offered, “Kyoto people are very proud of their traditional city.” Instead of interrogating, I relaxed into being a guest. There was one nugget. Their dog wore a shirt, like a typical pampered fashionista Japanese pooch I thought. “It’s to keep the fur from dropping in the house,” they explained. So sensible, so smart; squashing my assumption this was “Japanese wackiness.”
What this social experiment gifted to me were gorgeous surprises and memories. In Mihara, I gazed over inky water from the balcony of a traditional wooden house. Tiny islands formed ragged trails, like the humps of emerging sea monsters. My host and her friend, two women in their sixties, cooked okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) better than what I’d tried in a famed restaurant. (Tip: squid crackers add delicious crunch!) In Otsu, the Morita family — parents and three children — walked us to the train station and waved goodbye, dapper-dressed dog by their side.
I can’t forget the sake the Moritas served me — the smoothest and finest I’ve ever tasted. A revelation. Some people come to Japan on specific missions: to study a martial art or calligraphy or for explorations of sake. I can breathe easy. Japan could fascinate me over many lifetimes. I can gorge on everything in my path, then furthermore, discover entire worlds within one specialty.
And next visit, I’ve been invited to a drive to Shikoku with my Mihara host. And there’s another card game at the Morita’s table. No fee required. There was no dance, no courtship; just instant friendships with these open-hearted, open-minded locals.
“Is it true there are vending machines selling used girls’ underwear in Japan?” someone asked me back in Australia. That’s Japan through a distorted media lens. In a national population of around 127 million, there are many slices and myriad versions of “Japan.” I’ll be back again and looking forward to having more of my own presumptions blown apart.
Imagine gulping a bowl of ramen, heaving with various toppings, sucking every last drop of the complex, layered broth until your belly is round and tight as a drum. I’m greedy. Give me the monumental and miniaturized, rarefied and common, bizarre and mundane.
Last trip, my friend and I admired the simple design of a plastic milk delivery box on a front porch. Cute, compact, functional, so Japanese! One day I’ll walk past these day-to-day minutiae without a second glance, but until then, feed me Japan in mammoth, hearty portions.