Japan

April 21st — May 15th

Monday May 2nd

We've been in Japan since April 21st, a little over 10 days ago. We arrived from Beijing on a red eye flight and took a 5 o'clock train from the airport to Shibuya district where we were able to check in early and put down our backpacks.

Being in Japan felt sedating, in the best way possible. After 6-7 weeks of India and China, Japan was akin to dozing off in a cocoon of pure comfort. While our train quietly hovered above a clean and tidy city, I got the same feeling as while driving into Switzerland from France and imagined that Japan is to Asia what Helvetia is to Europe: a haven of, wealth, order and cleanliness.

On our trip to Shibuya, we gleefully compared all the ways in which Japan and China contrasted, basking in a newfound appreciation for what we didn't hesitate to call civilization. And to be fair, this wasn't just a comparison with China, it was a comparison with our entire Asian experience, which speaks to our state of mind in that moment: we had suddenly become conscious of the burden which had progressively accumulated on us over the past weeks because that burden was suddenly and unexpectedly been lifted from us.

Actual english translations, profuse courtesy and respect, unique and clearly displayed prices (no tourist treatment), abysmal levels of air pollution, spotless, fast and reliable public transit, clean water from the tap (!!), recycling, no littering, no hocking and spitting, not having to go through the slow, uncertain and friction-fraught process of connecting to a VPN to access basic information, palatable 3G connections, video streaming-worthy wifi connections, delicious and safe food, and finally, the hallmark of the select few and most evolved societies on the face of this earth: standing on one side of the escalator and walking on the other.

Japan was the source of that light at the end of the tunnel. We actually enjoyed the tunnel, in fact we didn't even realize we were in a tunnel but when we made it out, we felt like a million dollars.

We almost got lost on our way out of Shibuya station — it was huge. As we searched for our Airbnb, it was such an incredible relief to be able to enter addresses and find a route in Google maps. It even worked for public transportation! It seems that each Asian country has a different system for street addresses, so once more we struggled to find our apartment but we ultimately did. It was 6:30am ; we tossed our heavy bags on the floor and slept until noon.

I'll always remember Josh Hull telling me that Tokyo was so clean you could lick the sidewalk. I never took him up on the challenge but suffice it to say that Tokyo delivered on its reputation of modernity and cleanliness. Japan’s food however, was probably the number 1 item we were curious to investigate. But this was more than a mere matter of curiosity, it was eager anticipation to break free from the passive fear of falling sick at any given meal. Anaïs looked up a cafe inside a high rise Shibuya shopping mall where we had our first Japanese meal: a simple bowl of udon noodles with a raw egg. A comforting mood settled in, feeling finally rested as we ate our dish, contemplating Tokyo’s bustle from far above.


Despite slight showers, we braved the busy Shibuya district, marveling as we discovered how deeply organized and orderly Tokyo is. This went on for a bit until Anaïs admitted that she had been covertly guiding us towards a cat cafe. The crowd at a cafe had to be some of the most uniquely nerdy crowd I had encountered. The cafe was well organized with lockers, slippers for each guest, a place to wash our hands and an instruction manual explaining a little bit about each cat inside the pen. Of course, food is available to order (for both humans and cats) and a selection of manga was handy to read while petting your cat. They charged an hourly rate of 1000 yen, so as nice as the cats were, we didn’t extend our stay and left to get dinner. We tried our first Tokyo ramen place. Ramen joints in Tokyo are very formulaic, but the consistency and the overall quality have a comforting aspect: wherever you are, you know you'll be able to get a decent bowl of noodles, at a reasonable price and in short order. Walk up to the rectangular vending machine, hit the button (often at random if you can't read Japanese), sit down, give your ticket to the cook, and you'll be eating a bowl of ramen within a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Even an average ramen place in Tokyo will put the best SF ramen restaurants to shame, so we indulged in quite a few during our stay. A special mention for Tatsunoya, a small ramen joint that served a tsukemen that was without a doubt the best ramen we had in Japan.

That next morning, we changed Airbnb apartments and settled north of the Shinjuku district, which is a good neighborhood close to many parks, great ramen joints and JR lines.

A small digression on JR trains: having the JR pass which allows you to travel on bullet trains and a variety of local trains is one of the most freedom inducing purchases you can make in Japan. It costs about $500 per person for a 3-week pass, which feels like a big commitment upfront, but the ability to move from one city to the next and within a given city without having to think twice about it is liberating. While it doesn't allow you to use every single local train network, it's still worth it. We travelled to the south of Japan and back and the ticket paid for itself.

The next few days were spent visiting parks in Tokyo: Yoyogi, Meiji, the Imperial Palace, Senso Ji shrine, Shinjuku Goyen. At night, we discovered the Tokyo jazz scene. I always knew that Japan had a strong appreciation for black music so I figured it must have a strong set of jazz clubs. We avoided places like the Blue note and looked for some smaller venues with some jam sessions. The first one we tried, on a Saturday night was the Jazz Spot Intro. I was extremely impressed by the caliber of musicians playing there: they knew the standards, were virtuoso improvisers and good listeners. Another strange thing is how many bassists they have in Tokyo. At both jam sessions I went to, there were at least five different bassists, each excellent. It also helped that everyone there was extremely courteous. No one rushed onstage to play or pushed you off. There seemed to be no ego at play, stressing musicians out. It was all about the music and interacting with the other musicians. I have to say that this is quite a big change in what I'm used to experiencing in France and in SF. A Frenchman we met recommended we check out Somethin’ Jazz Club, so we did. Twice. It was a funk jam session, which was a little easier for me than playing the upright bass. I only got to play two tunes there but had so much fun doing it (So What and Butterfly by Herbie Hancock which I had never played before).

On Saturday April 23rd we tried out Jazz Spot Intro, but before that, we went for dinner at a small tavern next to the club. We tried it almost by chance. We had a very different type of meal and interacted with the folks in the restaurant. We placed our trust in the hands of the chef and asked him to serve us what he thought would shine the best light on his establishment. There's a specific word for this in Japanese: Omakase. We were served whole, miniature, squids, some sushi, skewers, a fish head (which was probably my favorite) and a few different varieties of sake. We also got to talk with another patron, a network engineer, with whom we traded stories about travels, work, life and living in the city. The patrons at the table behind ours were also keen to help translate and choose the right items on the menu. We definitely overspent, a frequent consequence of Omakase, but sharing a moment with new people and enjoying unique and authentic food was well worth it.

This experience summed up Tokyo in a lot of ways: being pleasantly surprised, delighted, and impressed at every turn by the quality of food and music. The mundane aspects of life such as commute, payment, even expurgation are all optimized so as to focus on more meaningful experiences.

On April 27th, we left Tokyo for Kyoto. Getting there thanks to the JR pass was a breeze. We had heard that getting from one city to the next could be complicated during golden week, but it ended up being simple and incredibly fast. In an hour and a half’s worth of train commute, we had reached a new city hundreds of kilometers away.

There is a CBD in Kyoto, and as many cities in Japan do, it contains tall and modern buildings that impressed on us the fact that we were in an important city, but we stayed further east in an area that had something very provincial about it. In fact, as we explored the city on foot and as we neared the mountain range surrounding Kyoto, it started to resemble the countryside. Many areas were deserted, the stores and buildings appeared modest and the pace of life just felt close to what I experienced in some slow summer days back home in Vourles or Saint Genis Laval. At any rate, it shattered any expectation I had from a city that used to be the capital of Japan.

We weren't quite as impressed by the food in Kyoto as we were in Tokyo. It was harder to enter any restaurant and feel secure in the knowledge that we were about to have something excellent. Prices appeared higher as well, and there were noticeably more foreign tourists than almost anywhere else we had been in Asia (barring Angkor Wat). However, once we walked out of the central areas towards the outskirts of the town, things calmed down to the point where we often found ourselves alone, stumbling from temple to temple and garden to garden. The density of monuments and parks in Kyoto is surreal. Outside of Kyoto, a temple was something exceptional that we specifically sought out. In Kyoto, the most imposing of monuments, the most ornate temples and serene gardens appeared unexpectedly, without needing to look for them. All that was needed was to let curiosity guide us from one place to the next.

The way Japan builds its temples and tends to its gardens is especially refined. You can tell that every aspect of their temples and gardens has been mulled over, optimized and improved upon over and over for centuries and now constitutes an elaborate tradition. Everything comes into play, from the layout of the facility and the garden, the method of trimming plants, the way of cutting and treating wood, the materials used in roofing, the methods for handling water, managing space with sliding doors and surely many more things I simply took for granted. This know-how culminates in the restful, harmonious ambiance that Japanese gardens are so well known for.

The care and attention paid to artisanry, the passion for music and art, the meticulousness applied in preparation of their food underlines a commitment to quality and substance that permeates Japanese culture. I'm well aware that Japan also makes room for the mundane and the superficial in many respects, as do all cultures, but Japan’s deep care for quality reminds me very much of France in a sense. In fact, as a kid, I always noticed that Japanese culture was held in high esteem and I think that is because the French share Japan’s commitment to rigor, discipline and tradition and are deeply impressed by it.

This appreciation for tradition is on display in Kyoto in ways that are offsetting but also delightful. For example, many women but also some men wear traditional garb in public that clash with the surroundings in obvious ways. Groups of women wear colorful kimonos with oversized ribbons in the back and white socks and wooden sandals, strolling in front of a 7/11 on a busy street, or boarding a bus or a train. In America, we slily mock our civil war reenactors and anyone dressed in this manner in public would draws great deals attention, if not mockery. In Japan, people enjoy wearing nice clothes to take a leisurely stroll, and no one bats an eye.

On May 1st, we took off for Nara, another city which once upon a time used to be Japan’s capital. Nara was much smaller and had an even greater proportion of its economy and overall activity dedicated to tourism. Most of the interest lied in the park in the east of town and in the litany of temples scattered across its hilly forest. The crown jewel of that park is the Todai-ji temple, which happens to be the largest wooden structure in the world. That blew my mind and it’s fascinating to sit under the roofs of such structures and study how the wood is carved and how the beams fit into one another, and contemplate how difficult it must have been to hoist them up into place.

We stayed an extra day in Nara, mostly because we needed some down time. We used it to plan out the rest of our trip and took off on Tuesday May 3rd.

Our next step was Osaka. There was something garish about Osaka. It was a large, modern city and an important port but something felt eerie about it. It was densely populated but it felt empty. It was a large city but felt devoid of activity. Asides from the castle, there wasn't much to see in Osaka. What I'll remember the most out of Osaka is a homeless man who spoke unusually good English and struck up a conversation with us. He was kind of an oddball, but we had had so little direct interaction with Japanese inhabitants that we felt compelled to hear him out. He lashed out at the idea of bowing, deriding it as a hypocritical display of respect lacking of any substance. His most scathing criticism of Japan was directed towards its criminal justice system in which, according to him, the police holds citizens arbitrarily for tens of days, pressuring for a confessions, and where lawyers are but paper tigers. He had harsh words for the people of Japan, insisting that they were sheep or zombies who had given up their freedom for bread and security and who were incapable of truly connecting with one another, or settling an argument in any other way than calling the police. He pointed to the thousands of oversized boulders constituting the moat of the nearby castle to illustrate how this issue is nothing new and that the Japanese people have always foregone their freedom and willfully accepted subjugation under the threat of sanguine and power-craved rulers. “If I lived in the old days and saw such an edifice, he warned, I would run in the opposite direction!” Implying that such impressive wonders of architecture can only be the fruit of coercion.

It’s common to hear of Japan’s problems: its high suicide rate, deflation, declining population, dwindling interest in romantic relationships between members of the opposite sex, and a multitude of taboos. Moreover, seeing a country so seemingly perfect gives a nagging suspicion that it all might be too good to be true and that deeper issues must lie beneath the surface. So all in all, I was disposed to hearing a little more about Japan’s darker side, but I was still a little skeptical about what our new found friend mentioned. He was a man of many experiences, apparently born in North Korea, who had fled to South Korea, but he kind of lost me when he claimed to have swam across the sea to join Japan.

On the morning of May 4th, we set out for Hiroshima. First, I should mention how easy it was to get here. We got up in the morning, packed our bags and went to Shin Osaka train station to catch a Shinkansen. Once again, our JR pass gave us the freedom to do such things on a whim. We got to the station at 11:35, and at 11:59 we were in a train to Hiroshima, a metropolis roughly 250 km away. 1h30 later, we had arrived. The ease with which you can go from point A to point B in Japan is unparalleled.

Right off the bat, Hiroshima had a liveliness that Osaka lacked. Our hotel was a short tram ride away. It was fancier than expected, definitely the most upscale place we stayed at in Japan, but for a respectable price. We were on the 15th floor and our room had a beautiful view on the city and its surroundings. Hiroshima is seated in a basin and we could notice the sea, mountains and forests bordering the city. Funk music was booming from the streets below which were densely crowded, likely in festivities related to Golden Week.

We were scruffy-looking and well aware of it, in desperate need of a haircut so we got a cheap cut and wandered the streets. They were so lively, with people grilling meat on the sidewalk, selling and drinking wine. Folks were well dressed. Many other spots had music blasting out into the streets which made for a light hearted, estival spirit in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. It reminded me a lot of the Fête de la Musique back in France. We hadn't really seen this side of Japan yet.

Seeing the great Torii gate is of course an important experience in Hiroshima, but more meaningful was the World Peace Museum and the details it reveals about what it actually means to be hit by an atomic bomb. Understanding the devastation inflicted by such a weapon is crucial in understanding the world we live in. And I don't mean understanding a death toll, which is just a number. I mean understanding how radiation works, how it can reach across buildings and heavy materials to burn and damage in ways that defy intuition and may be invisible but can last for ages. But even the immediate effects are crucial to grasp: the pressure of the explosion, the blow back (and forth), the level of heat, the burns, and how that affects your skin and clothes.

History has been shaped by technology and the destructive power it wields. Entire civilizations routinely fall to those possessing superior fire power. In this sense, citizens of the US, France, Russia, the U.K., China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and their allies are very much at the top of the food chain. International relations are couched in this fact but citizens of these nations tend to forget it, likely because serious nuclear threats are no longer issued and attacks happened so long ago that they become a thing of the distant past — with a caveat for countries neighboring the Korean peninsula. Visiting Hiroshima is a vivid reminder of these dynamics and how they frame our world.

On May 8th, we finally traveled down to Miyazaki. Anaïs had been looking forward to meeting with her Trion colleague, Scott. Hanging out with friends we meet on the road often makes for some of the best moments on our journey, so I was looking forward to it as well. I'll confess to not researching Miyazaki at all. From what I gathered overhearing conversations between Anaïs and Scott, I imagined it to be a small to medium-sized country town. It turns out Miyazaki was quite modern, with broad streets, tall-ish buildings, trains and buses. Definitely nothing to scoff at. Japan is reminiscent of China in this respect: even the smaller towns are impressive. Kunming was the same way ; Raphaël strongly downplayed it and urged us not to spend too much time there.

I enjoy coming to a place with little to no expectations because everything is a complete surprise. I was delighted by the nature we got to see: the ogre’s washboard next to Aoshima shrine, as well as the suspended bridge nearby Aya which provided valley views from far above that I would never have gotten a chance to enjoy otherwise.

The climate in Miyazaki is markedly different from what we'd experienced further north. It’s much more humid and warm, almost tropical. Palm trees line the train station and many of the coastal areas reminded me of Hawaii. Miyazaki was apparently one of Japan’s top honeymoon, golfing and vacationing destinations before the archipelago of Okinawa was returned to Japan by the US. I had no idea that this massive piece of land had been traded by the two nations in such recent history! It's interesting that Okinawa fell under Japanese influence seeing how far it is from the Japanese mainland.

Miyazaki had us rained in for most of our time there which meant we also got to do some normal things such as going to the movies, sitting in a cafe or a restaurant longer than you otherwise might, and just overall taking your time which was nice and restful for a change.

Spending time with Anaïs’ friends was an opportunity to get some more insights into Japanese culture from an expat’s perspective. Of course we had our own observations and intuitions, but it was fun to see whether or not they were shared. They also clued us into some aspects we hadn’t picked up on. I was eager to discuss the conversation we had with the homeless man in Osaka. Neither Scott nor his wife knew for sure but they had a friend who lived in Japan for a while and studied some law there who ended up confirming most of what we were told: you can legally be held for 21 days, during which you are pressured to admit guilt by means of sleep deprivation and constant exhortations to confess. The conviction rate is indeed 99%. This would explain at least in part why crime is so low and everything is so orderly in Japan. Without any further context, such facts leave a chasm open for foreigners to peer into, leading to all kinds of speculations on the Japanese psyche, its history and political culture. There appears to be mountains of complexities, attitudes, and reflexes baked in as a result of such a relationship with government and authority.

The reason why I find this more shocking in Japan than I did in China is that Japan doesn't correspond to the stereotype I had of governments with such practices. Japan seems to have freedom of speech, and while many subjects are apparently taboo, censorship seems light, you can use the web freely, citizens vote and Japan has the reputation on the world stage as a well functioning democracy.

We took off from Miyazaki on May 12th. I was looking forward to spending a final few days in Tokyo and taking a final bath of modernity and organization before heading off to the US where Washington state awaited us as the first destination on our road trip.