Japan is radically unlike any country we’ve visited. It’s an amazing blend of the dazzling and the understated, the ancient and the ultramodern. Our experience in Japan forced us to view life from a perspective that was simultaneously familiar and entirely new.
Although three weeks is hardly enough time to experience Japan’s rich culture, we tried to see as much as possible in our short visit. We started with bustling urban centers, visited an area rich with Japan’s cultural past, then spent a few days on an island where the untamed jungle meets the sea.
Our trip began in the busiest, biggest, and brightest of Japan’s cities, Tokyo. A mesmerizing mix of symbols, signs, textures, colors, lights, and people. Although we couldn’t understand a word people were speaking or the signs around us, we felt an odd calm there. It was surprisingly easy to escape the craziness by finding quiet side streets, peaceful walks by hidden rivers, and beautiful temple gardens.
Next, we traveled to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, where we visited historic temples, modern day markets, and a forest of bamboo. Kyoto was a rush of activity but, like Tokyo, it offered an easy escape to quieter neighborhoods. Kyoto quickly became a trip favorite because of its charming blend of modern and classical Japanese traditions. It’s also where we shared the best tuna that any of us had ever eaten.
From Kyoto, we hopped on another train—this time to a more mountainous region known as Koya. Koya is the birthplace of Kobo Daisha, founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism. The area was quiet and contemplative, even as we experienced our first significant rainstorm. We managed to escape the rain by catching a bus further south to a small town along a tributary of the Shingu River. We were fortunate to enjoy some relaxing time in some of the area’s famous warm springs.
After an overnight ramen stop in Osaka, it was time to leave the mainland of Japan and head to our next destination—Iriomote. This small remote jungle island is the home of a wild, endangered cat, giant coconut crabs, huntsman spiders the size of your hand, vipers, blue octopi, and many other wild, beautiful creatures. Hot days sent us looking for water in many forms. We followed quiet rivers until green curtains unveiled tall, cascading waterfalls. Other days, we retreated to the ocean to chase hermit crabs and gawk at intricate patterns on painted shells. The Okinawan reefs provided us an opportunity to swim through bright turquoise waters while vibrant fish darted around our faces.
Japan is radically unlike any country we’ve visited. Life there is lived at an exceptional level of sophistication and intentionality. It felt like a reality warp. Everything was simultaneously familiar, yet entirely new. Isn’t that one of the most wonderful parts of visiting new cultures? They expand our understanding of what it means to exist.
Japan is amazing. Find an excuse to travel there. It must be experienced firsthand to understand—it’s the perfect place to remember that words only get you so far.