“Japan is the future,” a verse that’s been spoken a thousand times, but why? What makes Japan so different to the rest of the world? Was it the strong links to cultural heritage or their dedication to the technological future? As if the constant barraging of a borderline ‘robotic’ ideology is something that the rest of the world is destined for. The stark contrast between cluttered subways and empty suburban streets shows the cost of such a dramatic vision.
Never have I been to a place with such strong connections to their cultural heritage while still remaining so focused on shaping the ‘new’ world. Everything takes place with such uniformity – there are no signs yet foot traffic has assigned lanes, almost as if everyone was stuck in such routine that the daily commute was now autonomous. There was a certain feel of anonymity to everyone walking in that station, no one was really looking up or attempting to engage in conversation. Yet at the same time none of the people I saw were really focusing on anything in particular. So often in our society we just accept that people walk around looking down at their phones, yet for some reason the idea that these people were simply just looking down was discerning to me. I understand and appreciate that their culture insists that making eye contact is a rude gesture but one got the feeling that this wasn’t the relevant reasoning. A city wide dress code of short hair and straight black suits reigns over men regardless of their position. Moving to an unfamiliar sound of a kind of melancholy madness – it almost feels as though this robotic ideal has already come into fruition. Yet amongst all of this emotionless routine, it’s hard to not wonder what’s actually going on in their heads – what were their dreams; and what stopped them from striving for them. Not to say that the locals were anything short of beautiful; as I found whilst lost somewhere in the overwhelming experience that is the Shinjuku Train Station at peak hour – these people no matter how busy their schedule, will lend a hand to those in need. Almost as if this small break in their day was a quick sigh of relief from their overworked lifestyles. Their smiles revealing a glimpse of the humble origins that the entire culture had been built around.
Walking the streets of a night time is an entirely different experience. The black night sky serves as nothing more than a blank canvas for the sheer visual overload of neon signs and office buildings – office lights still well alight at 10pm. The streets themselves are filled with people of all ages; young families to older couples, teenagers trying their luck in the field to business men just trying to make it home before their kids are too tired to wait any longer. It’s almost as if someone had flicked a switch in the people of Tokyo, no more was the solemn mood of the morning commute and the eerie silence while waiting at a set of lights with 200 strangers. The concept of ‘lanes’ was completely amiss – families roamed in a spasmodic fashion and the air was full of conversation, and while I could understand absolutely none of it; it was still one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve heard.
The famed Japanese bullet train was an experience and a childhood dream all at once, incredible views of the picturesque snow capped mountains while shooting at 300km/hr was something not easily forgotten. As incredible as this moment was I couldn’t help but feel as though I was on a journey into Japan’s rich history; long gone were the masses and their accompanying high-rise office buildings. No more was there a strong presence of neon signs and overcrowded train stations; in fact, I was one of about 30 on the entirety of the train at this point. The next stop was Nagano, famed for playing host to the 1998 winter Olympics – which in all honesty is solely responsible for the infrastructural progression of the area. I visited houses that had stood for hundreds of years without a single nail in what were the most complex architectural designs I have seen in my short life. The occupants of the simple and old fashioned houses were of similar stature, traditional in every sense of the word. While all the progression was taking place in order to host the Olympics, many of the locals chose to continue in their ways. It was not uncommon to see frail old farmers trudging through knee deep snow just to ensure that their crops were not dying from frost.
These same traditional Japanese farmers still take part in weekly pilgrimage journeys to visit the temples of the area, much like their major city counterparts. I was lucky enough to visit the temple village of Zenko-ji, and despite the push to make this a tourist epicentre—the tradition of the religion still dominated. The crowd of this area was far different from that of Tokyo; while congestion levels were similar—there was a distinct sense of purpose to the movements of everyone. Some come seeking guidance, other good luck; but all demonstrate the blind hope and appreciation for something higher. The central temple of the village was built in the 8th century and since that time has been quintessential to local life as well as Japan’s cultural heritage. This temple was not a place of high volume preaching but rather a chamber of reflection and quiet praise. After sitting in the temple and watching the masses enter and pay their homage, it was easy to see how the Japanese people always seem so calm and content; throughout the entirety of their life they have been taught that self-worth is key to making the machine of society work. Something that I think gets lost in a lot of the world; Japan as a nation is so far advanced in the way they operate yet still have parts of society that live traditionally. This traditional side of Japan isn’t treated as a disadvantage to progression but is instead praised for the abilities that they do well.
So if you’re thinking of travelling to Japan I could not suggest it enough; but don’t fall into the trap of generalising due to the cultural distortion. Don’t simply assume that the people of Japan have nothing more on their mind other than working, because if you do make that mistake you will miss out on the essential beauty of the country. You won’t see their secret smiles and their innate happiness derived from hundreds of years of cultural worth; see these people have a desire to work because they want to make the world a better place—an idea that is so often lost in our modern world.