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Amy's Reflections on Japan

On our first day in Tokyo, I walked the bustling streets with wide-eyed confidence, somehow feeling very much at home...perhaps because of its obvious similarities to my city, perhaps because I was already familiar with various aspects of the culture, or perhaps because I was Japanese in a past life. Regardless of the reasons, Japan makes it easy to be an English-speaking tourist.

Nearly all signs and announcements—including subway maps and ticket machines—are in English as well as Japanese, and English menus are readily available. Every chef, clerk, and concierge spoke enough English to communicate, with some trying very hard to explain their entire menu, while people on the street were eager to help when it was clear we’d lost our way. Sometimes the kindness went above and beyond: the owner/chef of Morpho Cafe in Kyoto wiped off our wet bike seats with a towel, while the proprietor of Kinatei in Nara drove us to the entrance of Todai-ji Temple, since it would have taken us forty-five minutes on foot. She even stopped the car so we could feed scraps of lettuce and carrots to the sacred deer that roam free throughout Nara—definitely an unparalleled experience!

Edited Image 2014-9-11-9:38:29

Japan is helpful and efficient in other ways as well. Brightly lit soda machines are systemically located on every other street, with attached recycling containers. Public restrooms appear all over the cities and especially in public parks and stations; they are relatively spotless, even when the sinks lack soap. The bathroom surplus is laughable compared to New York, where your only daytime option is usually Starbucks. Japanese toilets are quite considerate, providing flushing sounds for the pee-shy and warming seats for colder days. And since taking off shoes is required at temples, Tenryu-ji provides a pair of slippers in every bathroom stall.

People wear masks when they feel ill, keeping their germs to themselves. Fruit, napkins, and other products come wrapped in plastic, and restaurants provide baskets to keep your bag off the floor. The cleanliness doesn’t stop there: the population itself is perfectly groomed. Girls are almost too porcelain, stylish, and beautiful to be real, with nary a stray hair. Construction workers, crossing guards, train operators, and women who clean bullet trains in a flash seem to take pride in both their jobs and appearance. And when it rains, everyone is ready: the clear plastic umbrellas look choreographed, like a grandiose, monochromatic ballet.

In our two weeks here, we didn’t encounter a single unfriendly disposition. People trust each other—you can leave your bike unlocked and still sleep soundly. Around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, runners leave water bottles unattended on benches, returning to them later. Japan’s level of reverence and formality can be uncomfortable at times, particularly when it comes to all the bowing and prolonged repetition of gozaimasu, which is a sign of respect usually paired with “thank you.”

Bowing also occurs at temples as part of prayer, where citizens young and old experience their country’s history. School kids on field trips (who actually obey dress code rules, unlike my teenage self!) appeared genuinely excited to learn about their spiritual ancestors. It was nice to see World Heritage destinations still functioning as pilgrimage sites. For almost every foreigner with a camera (myself included) there was also a kimono-wearing woman performing Buddhist or Shinto rituals, actively using the shrines the way they were intended.

Of course, Japan is also leading the world technologically, so iPhones and other gadgets appear in many hands. People might not make calls on the trains, but they sure do scroll through their phones a lot (as well as read books, thankfully).


Tokyo itself is a neon explosion, dazzling and dizzying. Karaoke, strip clubs, mini bars, glowing arcades, and skyhigh signs juxtapose shrines. Dollar (or 100 yen) stores compete with high-end boutiques. Elsewhere, capsular archiecture sits between traditional wooden buildings. Red lanterns hang near pulsing fluorescent advertisements. Pachinko slot machines are loud-mouthed monsters, breathing heavily onto jampacked streets.

I couldn’t help but catalogue a barrage of bizarre sights. There was a bar with real penguins; a dancing Cup ‘o Noodles; love hotels where you can “rest”; sun protection arm sleeves, “white washing” creams, and other questionable beauty products (one containing placenta! I wonder whose...); and general eye candy overload. Think Times Square times ten, on Halloween.

Also, a surprisingly large number of young people were wearing some New York related clothing item, like a Bronx beanie, a bookbag with a Yankees symbol (especially popular among school-age girls), or Tompkins Square splashed across a jacket. Surely this indicates an interesting cultural crossroads whereby New York City as a symbol of cool is easily bought and proudly displayed. America has committed its fair share of cultural appropriation though, so perhaps I can take this with a grain of salt, but it still felt inauthentic and made me cringe. Ironically, since Joel and I are actually from New York, we are the ones wearing New York fashion, even if we’re not perceived as fashionable.

Despite this eyebrow-raising America-love, and an obvious homogeneity that’s difficult to swallow, I fell hard for Japan. We hung out with monkeys, rode bikes along the Kamo River, ogled a temple made of gold, sat in impossibly immaculate gardens, ate delicious vegan meals and desserts, listened to the shrill shrieks of insects and papery rustling of willows, pedaled a swan boat, watched a robot show, and wandered through graveyards, shrines, nightlife districts, and quaint neighborhoods. Plus, I squeezed through a hole the size of the Great Buddah’s nostril to achieve enlightenment.


words by Amy.

photos by Amy and Joel.

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