Japan has always loomed large over my imagination. I grew up playing Nintendo games and watching Pokémon and Dragonball Z after school. As a teenager, I discovered Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies and learned more about the country’s history and culture. Heck, even the 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “30 Minutes Over Tokyo,” grew the country in my imagination. Japan shaped much of my pop-culture diet and was always the answer when people asked, “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” So when I finally got the chance to explore the country for 16 days, I knew it would be special.
I arrived in Tokyo on May 12 after a long-haul flight from Vancouver and rode the train from Narita Airport to Ueno Station, where I got my first taste of Japan’s bustling urban culture. We caught the subway to Kanda Station well enough, but got confused about directions when we tried to exit the station into the drizzling rain. My wife (then girlfriend) and I looked confusedly at the station maps, wondering which direction was east, where our hotel laid, but we needn’t have worried. We picked an exit and it proved the right one as we found our hotel within 10 minutes. But even if we hadn’t, we would’ve found people willing to help. In fact, within a minute of looking lost in the subway station, a middle-aged man in a suit stopped and asked if we needed help. We told him “No, thank you,” and he made sure we were alright before heading on his way. That was my first taste of Japanese culture in the flesh: welcoming, polite, and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of others.
What I experienced over the next two weeks didn’t change that first impression. Everywhere we went, we found polite people who shared the communal spaces like no other people I’ve encountered. People back home can be friendly and effusive to strangers, often spontaneously so, but the status quo is to be distant, even rude. In Japan, the status quo is to be discrete and polite, giving another person the emotional space they deserve, but also a reassurance that they are committed to sharing the space together with them. I find it a wonderful blend for a culture to have, one that promotes the community without eroding social boundaries.
Over the course of my 16 days in Japan, I visited Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, and Osaka. There are countless travel memories that stick in my mind from this time period—spending the first afternoon in the park surrounding Meiji Jingu in Harajuku, Tokyo; strolling through Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa; feasting on spicy miso ramen at Kikanbo in Kanda, Tokyo—but two stand out from the rest.
An Evening Bike Ride in Takayama
The first was on our first night in Takayama, the small town in the Japanese Alps that’s increasingly become a popular vacation destination. The inn where we were staying, Minshuku Iwatakan, offered the use of bicycles throughout our trip, so my wife and I took advantage and rode the bikes all over town. After dinner at a traditional restaurant offering succulent Hida beef (a type of marbled wagyu beef, like Kobe), we went over to Red Hill Pub on the south side of the river, an eccentric basement bar run by a lovely woman who treats guests like old friends.
After a drink and a snack, we left the bar into the side street. It was silent outside as most people had gone to bed. The stars were out and we rode the bikes along the river, enjoying the town all to ourselves. I took my hands off the handlebars and let inertia carry me onward while I gazed up at the stars twinkling above the mountaintops. We continued along the whole length of the river, racing each other and enjoying the silence and stillness of that spring night. Even then, I knew this was a magical moment I’d never forget.
Encounters in Nara Park
The second memory (or memories) was during our day in Nara when we explored the variety of UNESCO-listed temples in the small city, including Todai-ji, where the famous Great Buddha statue is located. Nara was the capital of Japan during the 8th century and is located about 40 minutes southeast of Kyoto and Osaka in the Kansai region. It’s best known for Todai-ji and the other temples like Kasuga-taisha located near the very-walkable Nara Park, which is famous for its partially-domesticated deer.
That afternoon, my wife and I encountered two of the most delightful people I’ve ever met. One was an old man who happened upon us when we were strolling south of Todai-ji. As we walked along the park path, he said “Hello” in very formal English and asked us if we were travellers. We said that we were visiting from Canada and he proceeded to tell us that he had lived in Nara for 70 years and goes for a walk through the park every single day and that he makes a point of practicing different languages by speaking to the tourists he meets in the park. We were impressed and he was beaming during the conversation, a twinkle in his eye as he spoke to us. Right before he left us, he told us that there were exactly 1,210 deer living in the park. I had no way of knowing whether that number was accurate (and later learned that estimates say there are around 1,500 deer in the park) but his confidence in his assessment—as if he had counted every deer personally—has stayed with me to this day.
The other encounter happened soon after as we walked east towards Kasuga-taisha near the eastern end of the park. There were many people in the park that day, including a troop of boy scouts, most of them no more than seven years old. As my wife and I took a break and watched some of the deer interact with people, a small boy in full scout gear, khaki cap and blue scarf included, walked up to us and bowed. He held a small piece of paper and asked us if he could practice his English with us. We said “Of course” and he looked back at his scout leader, who stood nearby, smiling ear to ear, encouraging him with enthusiastic nods. He turned back to us and proceeded to ask us a few questions including where we were from, where we had visited in Japan, and what our favourite place was so far. We happily answered all his questions and signed our names at the end to authenticate that he did in fact practice his English with us. Once he was done, he excitedly ran back to his troop and we turned to continue our stroll. However, before we could leave his sight, he rushed back to us and placed a paper crane in my wife’s hand before bowing and returning to his friends. We still have that paper crane to this day.
It’s easy to be taken with Japan’s historical landmarks and futuristic attractions in the massive cities, or the sheer quality of the fresh sushi or the delicate flavours of a kaiseki meal while travelling through the country. I’m still enamoured of all that I saw and experienced there. But these quiet moments stay with me the most. They represent the kindness of the Japanese people. I’ve had many lovely encounters with strangers during my travels over the years, but none have been so gentle, nor etched into my memory in such profound ways.
I can’t wait for the world to open up once again so I can have new experiences that’ll shape who I am as a person. But until then, I’ll fondly remember moments like these, which prove that even in dark times, human kindness shines bright.
Editor’s note: The title and body of this article has been updated from the version posted on March 26, 2020. The original title was “My Favourite Travel Memory: Aren in Japan.”