Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Diary of a World Traveler

Tokyo from the 45th floor
Osaka from the top of Osaka Castle

When my band director, Doc, announced that the band tour for 2014 would be to Japan, I was pleased—but only pleased. I knew that I would never plan a trip there myself, so having a tour guide and a schedule that the tour setting provided would be a good way to see the country. 

But before the announcement, I had never been particularly interested in traveling to Japan. I’m more of a Europe kind of girl, and Japan just seemed too... busy for my taste. So I turned in my deposit thankful to see another part of the world; excited, but not as excited as I'd been to go to Prague, Vienna, or England. And I was pretty certain this would be a one time visit, that I wouldn’t even think about going back after this one introductory taste.

Once we landed in Osaka, I knew I had been wrong.

Japan was the single most influential experience in my lifetime. We met so many young musicians, saw endless historical sites and temples, and experienced life in the gray area between East and West. By the time I left, I knew (extremely) rudimentary Japanese, I had made tons of friends, and I had gained and given knowledge in the art of performing music. As I sat on the plane to return to Chicago, I was certain I would go back at least once more in my life—something I never thought I would say at the beginning of tour. 

It’s not surprising, though. Japan has a captivating quality about almost every aspect of life, from shopping to dining to architecture. I soaked it all in, thankful to experience a place that held tradition so dearly and yet embraced modernity so ambitiously. We don’t get that in the States. 

As for the crowded streets I was afraid of... yes. They were crowded and busy, but they were also vibrant and beautiful. The only places that ever seemed overstuffed were the markets, which happens here, too. Everywhere else just felt comfortably filled, like the streets of New York City or Chicago (only much cleaner). 

More than anything, the people in Japan surprised me. Not only is Japan an island nation where the entire population knows how to dress, Japanese people are gracious, hard working, and talented in everything they do. They are sweet and personable, but also dangerously focused on doing their best at all times. They are kind, well dressed, and motivated. They are, as a people, everything I strive to be. 

A friend from Kinki University
An adorable little girl in Osaka
The Waseda High School and Augustana College horn sections

Almost equally surprising, however, was the condition of their cities. Every surface, no matter how far into the back alley, was pristine. Every road was paved with precision, every walkway was clean and orderly. Even the subway stations—usually the dirty downfall of any American city—were spotless. Organization holds priority in the design of each city center, and that made exploring and commuting a great experience. 

Once I got over the absolute effortlessness of functionality in Japan, I could enjoy the fun things Japan had to offer. Crepe stands and ice cream shops on every shopping corner, for one. Functioning vending on literally ever corner. Covered streets that housed arcades, stores, and food markets. Thousands of people flock to these collections of leisure, dressed impeccably as always. 

Shinsaibashi, Osaka (the best place in Japan)
One of the many arcades
Pokécenter, Osaka 
The market at Sensō-ji in Tokyo
A food market in Kyoto

The road(s) to these places were just as easy to use as the rest of the country. Subways were not only clean in themselves, but subway stations held pristine shops, department stores, and even grocery stores. I couldn’t get over the never-ending selection of consumable goods, even in places that should be devoid of such things. Basically, Japan is a modern electronic and consumer oasis. They have everything anyone could ever want, usually less than one block away. In the places they can inhabit, the Japanese are very good at not only living, but living well. 

And yet, in the middle of the metropolis of Tokyo, there are so many contrasts to the modern lifestyle.

Much like Central Park in New York City, the Meiji Jingu shrine is nestled within a large grove of trees and ancient architecture. Famous cherry and plum blossoms grow on the expanse of land within the Royal Palace of Tokyo. The Sensō-ji shrine, one of the busiest places we visited, is located in the center of city life—literally wedged between skyscrapers. 

Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto
Meiji Jengu Shrine in Tokyo
Sensō-ji Shrine in Tokyo

My anthropological mind analyzes this phenomenon as the limbo between modern and traditional that Japanese life demonstrates. As a culture, Japan is obsessed with finding the newest technology as fast as possible. But their traditions also require sculpted landscapes, impeccable manners, and traditional dress. 

As an American looking into Japan, I see a world full of advances and tradition. I see a nation full of well dressed, well mannered people who value knowledge and skill as much as nightlife and fun. I see a clean country, both inside the city and out. But most of all, I look at Japan and see a picture of what America could be like if we all just tried a little bit harder. 

This has been my general experience with traveling abroad: I become disenchanted with the American way of life, I cry a little, and ultimately schedule my return trip for sometime in the next ten years. In the end, however, I don’t hate America. I just feel that no one has worked hard enough to make it something that could be so much better. So much brighter. So much more exciting. 

I’m sure foreigners have the same view of America that I have of Japan—in fact, I know the American Dream is alive and well in many people around the world. But I also have no doubts that Americans could learn a thing or two from our fellow humans in Japan. 

First of all, Japan is clean and orderly. I don’t pretend to know anything about the inner political workings of Japan, and I’m not suggesting anything that drastic anyway. But somehow, someone has managed to keep the entirety of Japan clean, functional, and easy to use; whether it be a subway, a clothing store, or an ice cream stand. 

Secondly, everyone in Japan tries hard at something. Usually, they try hard at multiple things, sometimes all at the same time. The clothing, the musical talent, the technological ingenuity didn’t happen based on genetic markers. It happened because the culture of Japan demands that effort be put in if success is to come out. And as far as I saw, it’s working. 

Finally, I loved to see the modern advances of Western society working on the traditional Japanese way of life. A McDonald’s one block from a shrine. An American scrambled egg next to a Japanese scrambled egg at breakfast. Women in kimonos walking next to women in thigh high leather boots. It’s a fascinating dichotomy of culture, and I loved the effect it produces in any city. 

I’m not saying Japan is perfect. But I am saying that there are things that Japanese people do for their country and for their lives that make living there and visiting there equally eye opening and peace making.  

All in all, Japan surprised me. I never thought I would say I would want to go back, or that I was having Japan withdrawals. I suppose the magic of the cities captivated me, and the bond of friendship helped solidify the happy memories. I made friends and music in Japan, and I left with both a sense of pride and a sense of humility. 

Gabby found a guy... 
Cats cats cats
Bunnies in the Bunny Café--adorable
An entire arcade of Sega games, aka heaven
My favorite tour stop: Osaka Castle

Everything in Japan just works for me. The people dress well, they own nice things, and they are polite. I never felt unsafe, even in the darkest alleys of Namba. In fact, I felt more alive than I have in most other places. There’s just something about Japan that speaks, and I tried my best to listen. 

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