Japan consistently tops everyone’s travel lists with its anime-themed high-speed trains, futuristic vending machines, Seven-Eleven snacks, and robot waiters. With numerous friends having raved about this country, I knew I had to pay a visit while I was in Asia. My first Japan adventure lasted a total of 6 weeks, and with a desire to thoroughly explore the country, I embarked on a journey that would unexpectedly shape my future.
Awakening to Japan's Charm
As I stepped off the plane at Kansai Airport in Osaka, I was enveloped in a tapestry of sounds—the cheerful greetings of impeccably polite airline staff, the vibrant hues of Nintendo advertisements dancing in the air. The air itself held a promise of thrilling adventures waiting to unfold. Stepping into the colorful streets of Osaka after a long flight was exhilarating, and I spent the night engrossed in crane games, slurping on ramen, and people-watching.
Exploring the Beaten and Unbeaten Paths
After taking in all of Osaka's wonders (like their famous Okonomiyaki), I went to all the other major tourist destinations as one usually does on their first trip: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. Each city had a unique character, with Tokyo being a standout bustling metropolis that radiated with vibrant colors.
While I had plenty of spare time, I decided to explore some of Japan's lesser-known regions, including small towns and cities nestled amidst the sprawling metropolises. I wandered through historic castle towns, quaint post towns, charming hot spring towns, and suburban areas outside the cities. It was in these unassuming places that I discovered some of my most treasured memories of Japan.
Venturing onto the roads less traveled, I was able to fully experience the daily routines of the locals, interact with their friendly and welcoming nature, savor the unique tastes of the region, marvel at both modern and traditional architectural designs, and indulge in the breathtaking natural beauty that encompasses most of this magnificent country. It was during these moments that I truly grasped the essence of what makes Japan so special.
Journey through the Japanese Alps
Mountains and forests occupy seventy percent of Japan’s landscape, and between Japan’s two biggest cities, Osaka and Tokyo, lies a series of mountain ranges, known as the Japanese Alps. I had seen on Instagram that there was a place of scenic beauty in Nagano prefecture: a high mountain valley covered in lush green forest with crystal-clear water. So I jumped on a very windy and long bus ride from Takayama and arrived in a small town in the Japanese Apls called Kamikochi. This was easily one of my favorite places I visited during my travels.
I went to the famous picture spot that inspired my trip, along with the other tourists, and reveled in the magnificent natural beauty of the area. Wandering off the beaten path, I meandered through a different trail, guiding me away from the clusters of tourists. The woods embraced me with the calming symphony of a nearby river, where the echoes of chirping birds, a graceful deer, and even a playful monkey painted an enchanting backdrop.
Nature and Spirituality: Shintoism Unveiled
At the end of the trail appeared a crystal clear pond and something that caught my eye: a tiny Torii gate that stood at its center. The pond was beautiful just as it was, but with this little symbol, the pond became a sacred space, like something to be worshipped. Kamikochi's name, translated as "the ground that Gods descend upon," reflects not only its breathtaking beauty but also Japan's deep reverence for the natural world.
The quiet and calm of this is something I'll never forget
Immersed in the native Japanese religion, Shintoism, I discovered a profound belief that millions of Kami (divine spirits or gods) inhabit the world, manifesting in the graceful curves of mountains, the flowing embrace of ponds, the rhythmic dance of rivers, the sturdy stoicism of stones, the quiet whispers of certain trees, and the vibrant tapestry of other natural elements. Mt. Fuji, for example, is considered sacred and a place for the gods, which is why millions of people every year climb up to the summit in order the visit its shrine and give their respects.
I was inspired by the deep cultural connection and profound respect for the natural world that I witnessed during my travels - something entirely new to me. Once I understood that it was an intrinsic part of the Japanese mentality, I started to notice it everywhere in Japan. Japan’s many traditions are based on this concept: soaking in a hot spring, forest bathing (shinrin yoku), cherry blossom viewing, seasonal festivals, and even the way food is prepared and eaten.
Traditions Woven in the Fabric of Japan
Learning about Japan’s traditional calendar, I uncovered not a mere 12 months but a harmonious dance of 72 micro-seasons, each delicately lasting around 5 days. These micro-seasons, known as kō, beautifully narrate the temporal ballet of nature with names like 'Atsukaze Itaru' (Warm winds blow, 温風至), 'Suzume Hajimete Sukū' (Sparrows start to nest, 雀始巣), and 'Sakura Hajimete Saku' (First cherry blossoms, 桜始開). Naturally, modern Japan has lost some of this attachment, but we can still find threads of this tradition in everyday life when we venture into less explored areas of the country.
No matter the season, the Japanese Alps is always incredibly picturesque
Embracing the Japanese Countryside
After returning home from my 6-week Japanese adventure, the memories of the places and people that I’d encountered lingered on, ultimately shaping my decision to make the move and call the Japanese countryside my home today.
Reflecting on Japan's Duality
Travel possesses the remarkable ability to challenge and broaden our preconceptions. As I reflect on my experiences, the realization dawns—Japan is not just a country; it's a wondrous fusion of tradition and modernity, where every journey along unexplored paths unfolds continuous opportunities for learning about its remarkable culture and history.
As someone who now calls the Japanese countryside home, I look forward to guiding you to areas that can give you a similar experience in embracing the beauty of rural life in Japan. With Untold Japan, we hope to give our guests a richer understanding of what Japan has beyond the metropolises and flashing lights.