I have never been to Japan.
Audrey has, but she enjoys the distinction of having eaten a hamburger there. In fact, she requested it. Insisted even. Forgive her though, she was only seven, it was her birthday and she was tired of noodles. But she did wear a blue kimono to make up for it.
No, this is not Audrey.
When people inquire about where we’ve been and we tell them that we haven’t yet been to Japan together despite having spent almost two years across Asia, they express disbelief: “How have you not been to Japan?!?!”
In turn, we feel a void, a gap, like we really missed something and passed over a place we should have visited long ago.
Now it’s time to correct that.
Our fascination with Japan goes back, in part, to an outing in San Francisco’s Japantown in the late 1990s. It began in a row of addictive Japanese vending machines, including a booth that spat out a custom-made ink stamp based on a photo snapped of us. The image of our faces was then framed by and filled the windshield of a car — as if we were driving, on the road again. That stamp transformed us back into little children, full of the glee of simplicity and novelty. We applied that stamp to letters, random pieces of paper, anything we could get our hands on. I'd include a photo of the stamp here – it was silly and entertaining and frighteningly lifelike – but it has long since been tucked into a box somewhere.
Cheesy photo stamp-making vending machines as motivation for a trip to Japan?
Yes. This and a host of other pop culture goodies, history and personal advice all helped to plant and tend the seed.
In 2007, at the beginning of our trip, we met a travel and tour consultant that specialized in East Asia, including Japan. Why the focus there? To him, Japan represented “the perfect society.” Courtesy and respect amidst human compression and tight spaces of modern day population density.
Japan, however, always eluded us.
Then in early 2011, we made plans to live in Japan for a couple of months. But, the tsunami and earthquake struck.
We vowed to keep Japan in our sights and visit as soon as we could make it happen. We also hoped to see how it has bounced back.
What Means Japan?
I feel a bit sheepish when trying to describe what Japan means to me. Outside of a reading of Ian Baruma’s then freshly published Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, much of my mind’s image of Japan has been back-filled from a collection of dated bits of pop culture and grade school superficiality.
Speed and light. Moments and tableau. Lost in Translation, loneliness amidst a sea of humanity. Bright lights, big city. Seinfeld gave us the image of Japanese men sleeping in drawers with Kramer. Japan speaks traditional and modern. Geishas, white faces, bold colors. Pokemon and Hello Kitty. Fashion and custom, twisting and temporal. Propriety, formality, and the ultimate in organization to sustain a population stitched into a societal fabric spread across islands. On the flip side, an apparent suppression of emotion so strong that it’s said to produce some of the most profound pornography on the planet. (I am also told by Audrey that I will not consume such content while we are there. Maybe when we return?)
I was recently asked in an interview about where I most wanted to photograph, and answered that although India is likely at the top of my list in terms of places I’ve been it’s Japan – my personal unknown — that I now have a taste to capture.
But the real challenge will be to understand the story, the people, and the culture behind all those images. Clearly, this trip is just the beginning.
Our Japan Itinerary
The tour will take us from Tokyo to Takayama, Kanazawa to Hiroshima, then Kyoto before setting us down at the foot of Mount Fuji for a climb. Our route will be dotted with temples, mountains, sake breweries, and a dose of sobering history. The trains, we’re certain, will run on time.
We'll follow that up with 4-5 days of hanging in and around Tokyo on our own.
I want to see those Japanese cities of organized compression, people pushed into and subsequently disgorged from subway trains in as timely a fashion as possible. I want to be among those people.
I want to sing karaoke. I want to lavish red-faced in a steam bath.
And of course, there’s the food. Massaged beef, udon and sushi so sweet. And yes, we’ll go to that famous fish market that is scheduled to close sometime soon. I can assure you: astounding amounts of sushi will be eaten.
In spite of these few “musts” I have in my head, I'm not quite certain what I will find. I’m leaving myself open to Japan and I'm thrilled by the opportunity to explore.
I also know that Audrey has come a long way. This time, she tells me, she won’t be eating any hamburgers. But she may just look for another kimono.
If you have Japan suggestions- food, sights, karaoke bars or otherwise – for any of the places mentioned above, especially Tokyo, please let us know!
Photo credits to G Adventures