Honestly, Japan was the location I was least excited about on this 12-month trip. The first 3 things that popped up in my head about Japan were crowded, dirty and uninviting. Well, it turns out that I was BEYOND wrong because it was BEYOND amazing.
“Minimalism is an appreciation of space."
I have a genuine fear of small spaces. When I learned that our living quarters would be around 40 square meters, I had a slight panic attack. I must say, however, that I grew to enjoy the confinement. It not only forced me to find comfort in something I once hated, but it made me realize that you really don't need a heck of a lot of space to live a comfortable life. In Japanese culture, where you live is where you sleep and sometimes eat. There are no living rooms to hang out in. Rarely does one enter a home beyond the front vestibule. To socialize, we'd typically meet at a restaurant or maybe dabble in some karaoke, which was entertaining.
"When you look at Japanese traditional architecture, you have to look at Japanese culture and its relationship with nature. You can actually live in a harmonious, close contact with nature - this is very unique to Japan." - Tadao Ando
The city of Kyoto had such a harmonious mix of modern architecture and traditional temple architecture all nestled into nature. I recall many train rides where my eyes danced along the skyline so gracefully I could almost hear the music. Each building flowing into the next with little effort, while still holding onto their own unique style. Most of the buildings were made of natural woods, which added a warm and inviting characteristic to the streets as well.
Kyoto has been the capital for 1,000 years and most Japanese people try to visit it at least once in their lifetime. The people of Kyoto have a strong sense of respect and pride in their city’s rich history. This was most evident in how well they took care of their streets, homes, and establishments. Impeccable to say the very least. It was not acceptable to eat or drink as you walked and there were little to no garbage cans down any street or alley. They are so ahead of the game on recycling that I was literally scared to throw something away in the wrong container. I waited until the end of the month and asked someone to help me make sure I threw away all my garbage from my apartment correctly! I certainly didn't want to disrespect something their culture has worked so hard to achieve.
Japan's service industry sets the global standard for excellence. What's even more impressive is they're not doing it to receive a good tip. They are simply hardworking and courteous to a fault. I found it difficult to NOT tip. But to them, they're just doing their job.
Although Kyoto is quite a large city, with busy streets and an abundance of people, I always felt safe and comfortable. I did not hear an excessive amount of honking or felt people knocking into me on the sidewalk as they rushed to get somewhere. Rather, there was a gracefulness to the way people moved from place to place. A calmness that I really appreciated and was inspired by.
Bowing happens on every street corner, every entrance and down every alley. Two people take turns bowing, backing up slowly and bowing again for a rather large number of steps. I counted 15 bowing situations one day. In all seriousness, this is how Japanese are taught from a young age to say anything from thank you to I'm sorry. It is also done as a sign of respect and a way to give honor to their elders. I grew to really enjoy my daily bows paired with "arigatou gozaimasu"! (thank you - in Japanese)
Traditional Maiko and Geisha girls are still seen within certain areas of Kyoto, such as Hanami-koji Street and Pontocho. The Maiko (Geisha apprentices only found in Kyoto) are seen more often, walking the streets wearing the traditional Japanese kimono. Each girl wearing a unique color and pattern, as well as wooden shoes, white painted faces and dark hair elegantly twisted at the back of their neck.
Part of me is glad that I had such a misguided perception of Japan before this month began because it really made me appreciate it that much more. What other locations have I built up negative thoughts around? Time will tell. But, I sure hope I will be proved wrong about them as well.