Lessons from Japan

Growing up, I watched so much Sailor Moon and Yu-Gi-Oh! on RTL II that I accidentally learned German. Did you know you can accidentally learn a language? Yeah, you probably did – kids do it all the time! (I just wish I accidentally learned Japanese, but that’s for a different blog post!).

Probably me, age six, transforming into a weeb.

That’s really where my fascination with Japan and Japanese culture started, I’d say.

Around five years ago, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of travelling to Japan on a Japanese friendship program. Other than my above mentioned fascination with German-dubbed Japanese anime, I didn’t know what else to expect. Not a stranger to travelling as I was, how different could Japan really be, right? More than you’d expect. 🌸

Japan, to me, gives meaning to the notion that travelling takes you to a different world. And, in the case of Japan, that world is cleaner, politer, and all around better than anything else I’ve ever experienced.

My trip consisted of a week’s worth of guided travels around Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Miyajima Island. We travelled mostly by bus, but also had a chance to fly through domestic airports (see Lesson #3) and use the Shinkansen (bullet train).

Picture of Tokyo I took at a viewing deck in Roppongi Hills.

Lesson #1: It’s okay to not be assertive 🇯🇵 🌸

Miyajima Island is a holy island right off of Hiroshima, full of shrines, temples and stray deer (yes, deer! Ultra cute!). I’d say in my entire trip, this was the bit I enjoyed the most!

When visiting, we were instructed to enter the island’s Torii gates with intention and care. One was supposed to bow before entering, and never enter directly through the gate’s center. Doing so, would mean you think too highly of yourself, and are unaware that there are greater things than you in the world. Instead, you were meant to embody humbleness and non-assertiveness, and enter off-center. This felt quite refreshing.

You see, as a self-proclaimed young female professional, Sheryl Sandberg is always on my back telling me to lean in and be assertive. And perhaps, that is the way forward in our western world. In Japan, for the first and only time in my life, I felt like I could actually be appreciated for who I naturally am: a non-assertive, but arguably hard working, person. And that seems to be okay. Look at how developed Japan is! Modern western work culture to me, often feels like a competition of personalities. The loudest one is conflated with the most hard working. The flamboyant gets promoted. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as my old boss would say.

Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima Island.

Lesson #2: Your trash is your own 🇯🇵 🌸

Something I absolutely did not expect is that one of the world’s cleanest places, barely had trashcans around outdoors. Our tour guide explained that Japanese people value cleanliness and tidiness a lot (this was before Marie Kondo took Netflix by storm, else it would not have been much of a surprise to me – I binged that show in a heartbeat). As that, you are always responsible for disposing of your trash in private – and cannot really throw it at a public trash can, because there are none. Say I picked up a snack at one of the many vending machines. It was then my responsibility to carry that trash with me until I could dispose of it in my room in private.

During one of our days in Kyoto, we visited a traditional Japanese house to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Japanese houses are intentionally built off the ground, as ground level can be considered dirty. We were instructed to carefully take our shoes off in the entryway, and directly step up into the house with clean socks. Sounds easy, but you’d be surprised how many international travelers had a problem with this.

In this regard, Japan felt quite like home to me. I think Albanians prioritize cleanliness in the home too (my grandmother would shriek if she saw someone enter her house with dirty socks!). We just need to remind ourselves that we’re responsible of our trash outside the home as well. I think nurturing a strong cultural identity could help with that. But again, perhaps that’s for a different blog post.

Snippet from Kyoto.

Lesson #3: Safety is great, but it comes at a steep price 🇯🇵 🌸

I cannot count to you how many times I left my phone and backpack alone at my restaurant table to go to the restroom, only to return and find it there. Japan is very safe – and you can feel it. Our tour guide assured us of that as well. It is something I really admired about Japanese society, and something I would like to replicate all over the world.

When we travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto, we did so by domestic flight. Taking a domestic flight was as easy as getting a movie ticket to the cinema. Minimal control, minimal bureaucracy – just a tiny piece of paper with your flight details.

But that safety comes at a steep and silent price. We were told that alongside great cultural values, that aid this sense of safety, Japan also has very tough laws on crime. As a rule of thumb, you do not want to be arrested, because if you do get arrested, you’ll most likely be charged. Hence, most people do not even take the chance, and everyone is on their best behavior.

While in Tokyo, we were also invited to a discussion with university students who were debating on the death penalty. Much like the United States, Japan still uses the death penalty on extreme cases of multiple charges of murder. To a relatively European audience, this initially felt shocking. We were told however, that in Japan, your rights come to you because you are a part of Japan, part of a larger society. If you do something to disrupt Japan – or life for others in your larger society – your rights can be taken from you. I found that notion incredibly interesting: perhaps a society can have ultimate safety, if it is willing to pay the price for that.

Takeshita Street in Tokyo. Ultra busy. Ultra safe!

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I can write about my impressions from Japan forever, and I might follow up with a second blog post to discuss other impressions (and perhaps my first time using a high-tech Japanese toilet!). I fell in love with Japan and Japanese culture all over again on that trip.

What’s been your favorite travel experience? Let me know!