Countless folks have gone to Nippon and come back waxing lyrical about its charms, from the gargantuan catches they’ve spotted at Tsukiji fish market to the geishas in Gion. But with so much already said and written about this fantastic country, I travelled there wondering where it might be that I find its true heart and soul.
Tokyo’s furry charm
In Tokyo, I started in Shibuya, a usual suspect with its bevy of shops and the famed statue of the dog Hachiko outside the subway station. But after finding myself caught in a swarm of people trying to get across its infamous crossing, I went back on my initial suspicions: this wasn’t the heart of Japan, but it was certainly the pulse of the city. Avoid the mob by viewing the spectacle from the first floor of the mall that’s directly across the station. I did so briefly, and then ran further afield to Odaiba.
A slight anomaly against Tokyo’s background of skyscrapers and cosmopolitan areas like Roppongi, I had come to the reclaimed beach area in pursuit of Puppy the World, a pet supply and rental store that boggles. Polaroids of the crème de la crème of their daily canine rentals are posted on a wall, and after choosing my desired pooch and forking over a fee, a furry friend named Chai came running into my arms.
We walked along Odaiba’s beachfront for a couple of hours with other animal-human pairings, Chai was fussed over and had her photo taken by Japanese teenagers on their mobile phones, and whilst PETA will balk at this ridiculous service, I’m not going to lie – it wasn’t Japan’s heart and soul, but it certainly warmed the cockles of my heart.
And so, I kept looking. I trawled izakaya (Japanese bars), sang karaoke, ran amok in 100Yen stores, and dined in curry houses, but whilst searching amidst concrete structures, it suddenly hit me – perhaps Japan’s heart and soul was in its natural world instead.
Most Japanese have a strong connection with nature and it’s easy to see why. With four seasons at her disposal, Japan offers some of the world’s most picturesque views. Winters allows mountains to strike vivid contrasts with blue skies, autumn leaves set parks and forests ablaze in orange and red, and sakura season, which begins in late March and ends in late April, sends hearts in a pink-tinted-flutter.
It’s not necessary to seek out designated hanami spots. “People just find cherry blossom trees and go sit under them,” said Tomoko Clark, a native of Himeji. She told me that crowds are common in spring, but if you see someone sitting alone on a big spread of tarpaulin cutting a sorry sight, don’t fret as it’s probably a junior member of a company fulfilling his hierarchical dues by reserving a spot for his co-workers. “I remember in my company, the junior guy had to leave a couple of hours before us so he could save us some space,” she laughed.
You may not have a minion at your disposal during your travels, but parks like Tokyo’s Ueno-Onshi Koen or Yoyogi Koen are good bets for hanami and Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Walk is popular too. Weather forecasts will tell you when mankai (‘fully bloomed day’) is, and, it’s a brief but amazing spectacle when the flowers start to fall.
Nature, it seemed, was a definite frontrunner for Japan’s heart and soul, but when I asked Tomoko what Japan’s heart and soul was, her answer was one I couldn’t help but agree with somewhat. “The toilets. They’re so high-tech, don’t you think so?”
Whilst I was busy looking for Japan’s kernel, my tummy was rumbling and I found sustenance in Nagoya. A couple of hours from Tokyo, the city lacks the buzz or history of other locations – a friend even described it as the ‘Wales of Japan’ – but like any place, you simply have to know where to look.
Fortunately, my stomach guided me. The famed Osu Kannon area was a worthy contender for title of Japan’s heart and soul. Boasting a namesake temple, as well as arcades with old businesses and secondhand stores, the area also hosts great Portuguese roast chicken and Neapolitan Pizza, but it wasn’t just international cuisine in the city; Nagoya’s epicurean delights are notorious amongst Japanese folk. A spot called Mountain Café in Showa-ku famously dishes up unorthodox combinations like whipped cream and green tea pasta, but I settled for more sensible options. I was looking for Japan’s heart and soul, not looking to lose faith in humanity.
And so, I ate my way through more palatable delights like kishimen (a flat udon-like noodle dish in broth), miso pork katsu (breaded pork cutlets with a thick miso sauce), and ogura toast (toast with margarine and a red bean spread), though it was in the humble chicken wing that I found salvation.
Yamachan’s tebasaki (chicken wings) have Japanese salaryman (businessmen) hunting down one of their many outlets in Nagoya during their business trips, and after one bite of Yamachan’s deep-fried wings, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. A dozen chicken wings later and a substantial contribution to the country’s GDP by way of chicken parts, I left Nagoya concluding that Japan’s crux could be in its food and that the quickest way to anyone’s heart is truly via the stomach.
Let it soak
When in Japan, soak. Their onsen, or baths, are world-renowned, and after the initial reservation of stripping down to your birthday suit wears off, you’ll be taken by the delicate ritual involved – a good ole scrub on a little wooden stool, a thorough shower, and a leisurely soak in a steaming hot bath
In Nagano, I headed to Shirahone Onsen in search of Japan’s heart and soul. Getting there entailed a pitstop via Matsumoto – a city with a spectacular castle and delicious apples – and a windy trip through the Japanese Alps, but nestled in the mountain range was Yumoto Saito Ryokan, a traditional inn harbouring the milky hot baths of Shirahone.
Here, I enjoyed the consummate Japanese experience. I walked around the ryokan dressed in yukata, ate Japanese meals prepared with sublime attention to detail, and soaked in the milky white baths that have garnered a reputation for their holistic benefits (three-baths-a-year in Shirahone Onsen is reputed to keep you flu-free for three years).
I left the onsen a little light-headed from the heat, but I found my balance quickly by looking out the ryokan’s windows; there were sublime views of the forest and it was no wonder that this was the exact spot where some of Japan’s top literati sought relief. Other onsen are arguably more accessible for the average tourist and more communal experiences are to be had at sento (public baths), but even if this wasn’t Japan’s heart or soul, my mind and body begged to stay.
So, where is it?
If it’s your first time in Japan, you’ll probably hunt down all the oddities you’ve ever read about (I rented a dog) or eat your weight in sushi, but ostensibly – and don’t even trivialize this for a moment – what binds most people together in Japan is the skinkansen (bullet train).
Traveling or otherwise, you’re bound to find yourself on the platforms of a Japan Rail (JR) Station, and there, you’ll hear a woman announce the bullet train’s arrival using about 4 different adjectives to emphasize its speed. It runs across a rail network of almost 2,500km and at speeds of up to 300 km/h, making it – to use a popular Japanese word – sugoi or cool.
Avoid steep fares with the Japan Rail Pass. A boon for travelers (you get limitless travel on Japan’s rail network for a relatively paltry sum), this was my key to the country, but after my various stops and encounters, I ultimately came to realise that the heart and soul of Japan lies in the experience that you shape for yourself. Like the great things nobody told me about Japan – how you’ll see stark contrasts between a hunched-over post-war generation and a towering youth that’s been generously fed; how kind Japanese folk are, that even with language as a barrier, they would go out of their way to take you to places you couldn’t find; that bicycles are great ways to discover Japan (most cities have bike rental services); how girls leave their handbags unattended and walk off to collect their coffees at the counter and nobody – and this bears repeating – absolutely nobody will touch their possessions.
People-watching coupled with amazing views from the skinkansen – of a charming countryside and Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) peeking teasingly between the clouds – were among the things that made my heart skip a beat, and not only did I find my own version of Japan’s heart and soul in a few of its top destinations, I ended up falling in love too.