The Best Possible Word To Describe Japan
“Hey Chris, hope you’re doing well! How’s Japan?”.
This, or some variation of this, is a message I have received numerous times since my arrival in Japan, and always struggled to answer. How do you condense an entire country into one sentence, let alone the one word people are often looking for? Inevitably, I go with the “It’s great, thanks for asking!”, a copy-and-paste kind of answer that appeases the other person without actually really saying anything.
Last Friday, though, I figured out how to answer this question.
My friend sent me a message on Facebook. “I miss you too!! How are you? You’re already in Japan right?”, she asked. She then asked me to share one of my favourite moments I’ve had since I arrived. After thinking back over the last few weeks, I settled on something that had happened only the previous night.
This is what I responded: “You know what, it’s too hard to decide. Let me tell you about a moment I had last night. I was meeting up with a new friend for dinner at 7pm. I got to the restaurant and couldn’t see him, so I gave him a call. Well, turns out we were at different restaurants (my fault), about 30 minutes away from one another. So, feeling rather bad as it was the first time I had hung out with him by himself and he had organised it, I started to run back the way I had come to the train station. It’s super hot here, so five minutes in I was sweating, rather stressed, and altogether rushed. I then came up the hill, and saw the most BEAUTIFUL sky I had seen in a long time. Purple and pink and like something you would see in a Miyazaki film. I stopped rushing. In fact I stopped completely on the bridge over the road ahead of me, put down my bag, and spent five minutes staring at that magical sky. It lasted only that long, and then the night well and truly rolled in, but it didn’t matter. Yes I was five minutes later than I would have been if I kept rushing, but I arrived at dinner beaming from ear to ear (in between my apologies). This has been Japan for me. You’ll be caught up in something else and then suddenly something strikes you, something unusual, or beautiful, or simply something that draws you in, and you forget what had you worried and are filled with wonder. Tokyo has been a city of wonder for me. Pure, childish wonder.”
This message contained my answer. I knew the word I should use when asked to distill an entire country into an answer of socially-acceptable length: magical.
Japan is magical for me in it’s ability to defy your expectations routinely. To pick up your preconceptions, throw them in a jar, and then shake them so much that when you take the lid off you don’t even recognise what’s inside.
In our first week we wandered towards the station in Shibuya and stumbled through a miniature door into an Alice In Wonderland themed-shop, as though we’d been swept off the street into a fairytale. In my second week, I had coffee sitting next to an owl. Twenty owls in fact. In my third week, I got lost with a Swedish guy and a Chinese girl while descending Mt Takao, and ended up walking through a small town at the bottom of the forest that was so quiet you could hear your own heartbeat. Last week, I ran in circles with four-year old children chasing hundreds of bubbles floating through the air in Yoyogi Park.
But what makes Japan so different? Why does it feel so uniquely “magical”? In truth, I’m still figuring that out. Perhaps it’s the blend of old and new. The neon lights of Shibuya alongside the quaint, bookishness of Shimo-Kitazawa. The musical toilets alongside the men picking leaves out of the gutter by hand. Japan is nothing if not a contradiction, rich in heritage and tradition, yet buoyed forward by technology and economic development. It’s as though the country is being torn in two, as the past and the future struggle to overwhelm the present. Yet, instead of destruction, this tearing is a process of creation. The creation of wonder, of magic, of awe. It’s as though the roots of tradition hold a stick, and the swelling tide of technology also carries one, and as they scrape against one another, instead of breaking, they only create sparks.
It’s the sparks that have made Japan such a special place for me.
So now, when I receive the “How’s Japan?” message, I don’t have to think twice. The answer is simple: magical.