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I’d 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.

Up 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.

And 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.

From 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.

To 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.

Unfortunately, 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.