been here for six months when it happened. Riding
a single-carriage local train through the countryside
of Tottori-prefecture, South-Western Honshu,
I looked out my window at a scene that could
only be described as timeless. Small, weathered
houses clustered together like a nucleus within
a cell of rice fields; old women bent double
over their share of soil, seemingly oblivious
to the afternoon sun; kids playing happily in
the rusted-out shell of an old ‘67 Cadillac.
to that point, Japan had been one thing for
me: the city; grey skylines; perpetually busy
sidewalks- an epileptic’s nightmare of
blinking signs and neon stimuli. Apart from
certain obvious differences in language and
urban custom, it was simple enough to adjust.
I’d get through the work week, meet with
friends in the local shoebox on the weekend,
and spend the rest of my time wandering aimlessly,
giving something the opportunity to happen.
Months passed this way, and it was easy to believe
I’d done it, made it, in Japan. I’d
figured out the nature of the beast and she,
for the most part, had accepted me.
then, all of a sudden, here I was, meandering
down a small dirt track in what felt like an entirely
different country, exchanging hellos for curious
stares and discreet whispers. For the first time
since arriving, I truly felt like the foreigner
I was, with Japan the strange and distant land
I’d imagined it to be. I felt cheated, as
though all this time I’d been purposely
distracted by the noise and bustle of the city,
when just beyond its limits thrived a radiant
culture I hadn’t even thought to explore.
that day, my entire experience of Japan was irrevocably
changed. In other lands, the newly-arrived approach
everything with a kind of rampant curiosity, ducking
down alleyways and into musty shops just to see
what can be found. In Japan, one quickly forms
the impression that everything is on display.
There is so much action on the surface that it’s
easy to ignore the undercurrents. In other words,
it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
one not interested in truly grasping the context
of a people or place, the day need never arise.
Contemporary Japan, with all its trappings,
certainly offers enough to keep a person occupied
for however long their contract lasts. But to
anyone interested in understanding rather than
just experiencing their surroundings, it takes
a deliberate effort.
there isn’t a guidebook out there thorough
enough to light the path in its entirety; our
faithful Lonely Planets can only go so far in
mapping the backwaters of a country. Small things,
such as taking a train with no particular destination
in mind, or spending an afternoon at the local
shrine, just to see who comes along, can start
the process. But more than anything, it’s
simply remembering there is a whole new world
out there. Japan is something new, and if you
let it, the offerings will be greater than anything
a pachinko parlor can dish out.