Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of Japan


On 1 June of last year, I visited Japan. Despite my sister having lived off and on (currently on) in Japan for many years, it was my first visit to the country. I’m always excited to travel to any new country, but with Japan, my impending trip seemed to produce a great deal of vicarious excitement in friends and co-workers who were comparatively less thrilled by my previous trips to other countries in Asia, North America, and Europe undertaken in the past few years. “What is it about Japan?” I wondered then — and to an extent, still do. Some of the excited had visited it before — others had not but wanted to — still others were from there. Perhaps it’s the Japanese brand. It’s hard to think of a nation with a greater variety of rich cultural expressions — and all highly and methodically refined. Perhaps it’s all of those things and more…


Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s watercolor map of Japan and its neighbors

Japan is an archipelago comprised of some 6,852 islands. 97% of the nation’s land area, however, is comprised of the four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. The name, Japan — 日本 — translates to “origin of the sun,” which is why it’s also known as the “Land of the Rising Sun” (although referring to it as such is a bit much). Japan is divided into 47 prefectures (although Torrance, or “トーランス,” is sometimes referred to as the 48th). 

The Japanese archipelago was formed over hundreds of millions of years by large oceanic movements and volcanic action. There still more than 108 active volcanoes in the country. Earthquakes often strike — which often result in Japan’s famed tsunamis. There are over 90,000 species of fauna, including the iconic Japanese macaque, giant salamander, and my spirit animal, the tanuki, which live in Japan. There are also roughly 7,000 species of flora, about 2,900 of which are endemic. I have no idea how many species of fungi there are in Japan — although some of the best known include enokitake (Flammulina velutipes) and shiitake (Lentinula edodes).

The initial peopling of Japan may’ve begun as many as 30,000 years ago. The first people to colonize the archipelago were likely the ancestors of the Ainu and the Ryukyuans — two people which recent genetic studies suggest likely share a common ancestor. The Ainu homeland historically included Hokkaido, northeastern Honshu, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Ryukyuan homeland is the Ryukyu Islands, a 100+ island archipelago which stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan. The Yamato and Jōmon people inhabited Japan by the Jōmon period, which began around 14,000 BCEAround 300 BCE, the Yayaoi people arrived from the Asian mainland and intermingled with preexisting populations. 

The oldest known written mention of Japan comes from a 1st century CE Chinese text, Tale of Genji.jpgthe Old Book of Han (漢書). A centralized Japanese state arose during the Nara Period (710–784), with its capital at Nara. Smallpox decimated a huge proportion of the population from 735-737. In 784, the capital was moved to Nagaoka-kyō. In 794 it was moved to Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), an act which marks the beginning of the Heian periodThe Heian Period lasted until 1185 and was characterized by the flowering of Japanese art and culture. It was during the Heian period that the national anthem, “Kimigayo,” was composed. It was also during that period that Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, often regarded as the world’s first novel, and one which despite its age still strikes me as amongst literature’s most modern works. 

From 1185 until 1868, Japan was ruled (in the name of the emperor) by successive military shōguns. The shogunate repelled two attempted Mongol invasions before they were overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo in 1333. Missionaries from Portugal arrived in Japan in the 1500s, which lead to an exchange of technologies between Europe and Japan — including, importantly, European firearms. With their newly obtained western weaponry and notions of empire, Japan twice attempted to invade Korea — and twice was repelled. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shōgun by Emperor Go-Yōzei and established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (modern Tokyo). In 1609, Japan conquered the Kingdom of Ryukyu and turned it into a vassal state but otherwise, Japan was mostly self-isolated from its neighbors.

In 1854, the US Navy forced Japan to open its ports. The rule of the shōgun ended and order was restored under the emperor, which marked the being of the Meiji Restoration. This period was marked by a program of modernization which in the 19th century was practically synonymous with Westernization. The newly established Empire of Japan rapidly industrialized and, as was the fashion of the day, expanded its influence through brutal military action and oppressive colonial occupation. Japan conquered Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. By the 1930s, Japan had also conquered parts of China and Russia

Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany, which made it one of the Axis PowersIn 1940, the Empire of Japan invaded French-Indochina (French-occupied CambodiaGuangdongLaos, and Vietnam). In 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked British military forces in Hong KongMalaysia, and Singapore; and American military forces in Hawaiʻi and the Philippines; which led to the US declaring war and in 1945, shortly after the USSR invaded the puppet state of Manchukuo, the Empire of Japan surrendered. 

In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution with liberal democratic principles. The Allied occupation of the country ended in 1952. Japan became a member of the United Nations in 1956. It grew to have the second largest economy in the world until, following a long recession, it was overtaken by China in 2010. Today Japan has the world’s third largest GDP, is a highly developed country, and a fairly democratic one as well. In 2016, with 24 million international tourist arrivals, it was the 17th-most visited country in the world. Most of those tourists came from nearby — with those from China, Korea, and Taiwan accounting for 75% of visitors and just 4.8% visiting from the US.


Before I travel anywhere new, I inevitably explore my preconceptions and memories of the place. For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first became aware of Japan as a place. I remember, though, Samurai Futaba on Saturday Night Live and my Getter Robo G (ゲッターロボG) action figure — although it was marketed in the US as a Shogun Warrior. When I was a little older, I watched Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (retitled Battle of the Planets in the US). Japan was also the source of some of the coolest toys of the 1980s, including Transformers (adapted from Diaclone and Microman) and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although they can’t really be characterized as toys, some of my classmates also brought shuriken to school and there was a general obsession among children my age with ninjas.

I remember, too, that although kids my age were fascinated with the influx of Japanese products, adults were often alarmed by them. Japanese automobiles were derided as “rice burners” — because, presumably, what could be more offensive to the corn-fed American than the idea of a car which runs — hypothetically, mind you — on rice? Unconcerned, my mother traded in her Peugeot 405 for a Toyota Corolla (made by American workers in Kentucky, I might add).

We moved to rural Iowa in 1990 so that my dying mother could be near her family. A Japanese exchange student, Atsuko Watanabe, may’ve been the first Japanese with whom I was acquainted. We were both in a class called Drawing & Painting where she painted a rather good Mount Fuji. Although I don’t believe we had previously spoken, she asked me to prom and I said yes. I don’t think that we danced at all, instead we hovered near the punch table, both of us confounded by the exotic line-dancing performed by our inscrutable classmates. Neither of us had seen such a thing and when she asked me what it was I replied with my best guess that it appeared to be a form of aerobics.

In college, I took courses which covered Japanese art, civilization, and cinema — less out of Nipponophilia than out of a desire to fill in some of the perceived holes of my education. As fixated as I then was on fin de siècle Decadents and Art Nouveau, I suppose it was inevitable that I fell under the spell of the ukiyo-e prints of  Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Kunisada, Katsushika HokusaiAndō Hiroshige, and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi — whose names became the names of my four goldfish. Additionally, the music of Pizzicato Five and Momus (though himself not Japanese), and the films of Takeshi Kitano opened my eyes to contemporary Japanese pop culture.

When I visited Los Angeles in 1998, one of the many sites I enjoyed visiting was the nation’s oldest and most vibrant Japantown, Little Tokyo. After I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, I was excited to learn of the existence of a Japanese fast food chain, Yoshinoya. Eating there was not, to be honest, a good experience — but I can safely say that every Japanese restaurant at which I’ve since eaten has been better.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I moved into an apartment in which nearly all of my neighbors were Thai — but there were several artifacts which hinted that the previous tenants of my unit were Japanese. In the patio there was a small, cast iron bell with the monkey-shaped hook; above the parking spot there was a 1970s pachinko game wrapped in a Japanese newspaper, and 20 years later I still get mail for the Adachi family.

Los Angeles’s diversity — both environmental and human — was the main reason I chose to live here although it wasn’t until a few months ago that it dawned on me how much of that diversity was Asian, including Japanese. I was intrigued by the Taiwanese and Chinese suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley and bustling Koreatown — none of which I knew anything before visiting. On television, Huell Hower visited Iwasaki Images (then in Torrance, now in Gardena), a factory responsible for those wonderful food displays seen at Japanese restaurants… and there turned out to be more than 1,000 Japanese markets and restaurants which aren’t Yoshinoya.


When I was a child in the 1980s, Japanese food not popular in most of the US and far more Americans’ exposure to Japanese culture came from Japanese animated series. I watched a bit of television during my Japanese vacation — usually when jetlag made everything else seem like too much work. I saw no animation, no obstacle course game shows, no competitive eating contests, no baseball games, nor any tentacle erotica. Instead, I was mostly treated to children’s programming, weather forecasts, serialized period dramas, and news.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have never enjoyed television — or even Japanese television. I was unexpectedly affected by the drama, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます) and the animated series FLCL (フリクリ). I also occasionally enjoy the calming character study Terrace House (テラスハウス) and the strangely apolitical and invariably relaxing NHK segment. I just don’t know, though, how anyone could claim we’re living in a “golden age of television” when film — including Japanese film — has always been measured by standards that are so much higher.

Japanese cinema is surely one of the richest film traditions in the world. It began in 1896 when Thomas Edison‘s kinetoscope was first publicly exhibited. The following year, cameramen working for the Lumières were the first to film in Japan. The year after that, Shiro Asano became Japan’s first filmmaker when he directed Jizo the Spook (化け地蔵) and Resurrection of a Corpse (死人の蘇生). Early Japanese cinema primarily drew material from traditional theater forms like bunraku and kabuki. As with them, it relied on a narrator, in the case of film, a figure known as a benshi. Although some benshi rose (or descended, depending on your perspective) to the level of celebrity, as far as I know, beyond Japan the practice spread only (and not coincidentally) to Korea and Taiwan.

In college, my introduction to Japanese film came in a class called World Cinema. The first director with whose work I was acquainted was Kenji Mizoguchi, whose film career began in the 1920s. Our teacher mentioned Yasujirō Ozu, but many years passed before I actually watched a film by this greatest of auteurs. More recently I’ve enjoyed films by other silent-era giants including Teinosuke Kinugasa and Hiroshi Shimizu

Akira Kurosawa began making films in the 1940s but became beloved in the West with the 1951 release of the Toshiro Mifune-vehicle, Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Toho Studios‘ Gojira (1954), edited and released in the US in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! kicked off not only a massive franchise but the whole daikaiju subgenre which in turn spawned domestic competitors Daiei Film‘s Gamera as well as foreign imitations like Reptilicus, Gorgo, and Yongary. The 1950s also introduced the yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki and Toshio Masuda; the thrillers of Yoshitarô Nomura; and the nūberu bāgu films of Kaneto ShindoMasahiro ShinodaNagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Susumu Hani

Although never rivaling film in quality, the convenience and accessibility of television gnawed away at cinemas in the 1950s. Many filmmakers responded by offering in their films things television couldn’t — namely big budgets, copious amounts of blood, and depictions of sex. Samurai films, too, continued to be popular and surely one of the greatest is, Kihachi Okamoto‘s大菩薩峠; literally “Great Bodhisattva Pass” but saddled with the forgettably generic title of The Sword of Doom in the English-speaking world. The first installment of the excellent Lone Wolf and Cub (子連れ狼) franchise debuted in 1972 and offered both blood and sex. The Pinku eiga genre, too, offered sex and gore — in different proportions. After the 1973 death of Bruce Lee, Japanese actor Sonny Chiba was groomed to be his successor and starred in The Street Fighter (1974). 

Animated television series in Japan go back to Mighty Atom (Astro Boy in the US), which debuted in 1952. It was, however, the explosion in popularity of manga in the 1970s which fueled the rise of Japanese animation (or “anime” as it’s known in the English speaking world). Many major series debuted in that decade, including Mazinger Z  (1972-1974), Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975), Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1978-1980), and Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). The ’80s brought Beast King GoLion (adapted for Americans as Voltron) and Super Dimension Fortress Macross (adapted as Robotech). Animated films likeVampire Hunter D (1985), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata‘s garnered both critical praise and popular appreciation.

By the 1980s, in fact, it began to seem that live-action Japanese film was a thing of the past. That began to change when Juzo Itami‘s Tampopo proved an unlikely success with mainstream western filmgoers. Although active in the ’80s, it was only with 1997’s Cure that the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa began to attract a significant following in the West. A year later, the success of Hideo Nakata‘s Ring, positively threw open the floodgates for Japanese horror. 2000’s Battle Royale, although not exactly horror, benefit from the rising interest in dark Japanese films although when I worked at Amoeba Music I found it spectacularly interesting that the film’s many fans seemed uniformly uninterested in any of Kinji Fukasaku‘s 65 previous directorial efforts which preceded his swan song. The opposite was true, on the other hand, in the case of Takashi Miike, all of whose titles managed to sell despite his prolific average of four films per year. One of the most bizarre phenomena of Japanese cinema, during that era, was the rise of the cult of Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s House, which blew up with American audiences a mere 32 years after its initial release.

The completist in me would also like to mention Hideo GoshaHirokazu Kore-eda, Kazuo Hara, Kazuo Mori, Keisuke KinoshitaKihachi Okamoto, RintaroToshiya FujitaTeruo Ishii, and Toyoo Ashida — all of whom I recommend seeking out the films of. The enthusiast in me, on the other hand, still needs to check out the films of Hirokazu KoreedaHiroshi Teshigahara, Kazuo Kuroki, Koji Shima, Kon Ichikawa, Masahiro Makino, Mikio Naruse, and Teinosuke Kinugasa. And finally, the egalitarian in me can’t help but notice that all of the aforementioned Japanese directors are men. Sadly, in Japan as elsewhere, female directors are often sidelined — even though there are a few, including: Tazuko Sakane, Kinuyo TanakaSumiko HanedaSachiko HidariMakoto Moriwaki, Shimako Satō, Yoshiko Sembon, Hisako Matsui, Kei Fujiwara, Mika OmoriNaoko Ogigami, Naomi Kawase, Tomoko Masunashi, Yukiko MishimaAtsuko HirayanagiEriko KitagawaIguchi NamiKyoko MiyakeMari Okada, Mika NinagawaMipo OMiwa Nishikawa, Momoko AndoNaoko YamadaSayo YamamotoYang Yong-hi, Yuki Tanada, Ayumi Sakamoto, Chihiro Amano, Kiki Sugino, Lisa TakebaRinko KikuchiSachi Hamano, Kyoko Aizome, Rumi Tama, and Yumi Yoshiyuki. The last Japanese film that I saw before leaving for Japan, in fact, was directed by a woman. That was Oh Lucy!, which was screened at the Nuart Theatre with director Atsuko Hirayanagi and actress Shioli Kutsuna in attendance.



Given the ubiquity and high regard for Japanese cuisine today, you’d think that it had long been regarded in the American mainstream — but this is not the case. Although unfortunately unavoidable now, there was a time when misguided, self-impressed, newly “expert” foodies taking to YouTube to admonish viewers for eating Japanese food “incorrectly.” There was a time, not that long ago, that Americans hadn’t begun making painfully reverential food porn fetish films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Birth of Saké. In fact, from what I gather, twenty years ago, Japanese food was still largely derided and unloved outside of California and Hawai’i.

Growing up in mid-Missouri in the 1980s, “ethnic” restaurants were mostly limited to either Cantonese or Mexican establishments. Our family rarely ate out but my mother was an adventurous cook. As with all adventurers, things sometimes went awry. Without a doubt, her most notorious flop her first and only attempt at Japanese food. My sister and I — now fairly well-versed in Japanese cuisine — still have no real idea what we actually ate (or in the case of my sister, “accidentally” knocked on the floor). At the time we described it as sticks, sponges, and a rock. I’m pretty sure that the rock was an under-cooked potato and perhaps the sponge was fried tofu. I’m not sure what the sticks were but the primary color was brown and I wonder whether or not it was a karē.


It may’ve been a failure but more successful was her even more strange tradition of drinking sake (and letting her underage children drink sake) on New Year’s Eve. She may’ve known that drinking sake is a traditional New Years custom in Japan — or perhaps it was a strange coincidence as I also was tasked with preparing shrimp spring rolls for the occasion.

I didn’t eat anything recognizable Japanese until I went to college at the University of Iowa. My first dish, I remember, was yakisoba (焼きそば), which I ordered from a Korean-Japanese restaurant called Aoeshe (1975-2013). In the same building (and presumably operated by the same family) was a small market, East-West Oriental Foods, from which I ended up doing much of my grocery shopping since it was the nearest market to my apartment. It was there first bought nattō. When I got home, I opened the nattō and smelling it assumed it had gone bad and threw it out. Since then I’ve learned that nattō is actually supposed to look and smell like that — and it that it goes well with beer. The second Japanese restaurant in Iowa City was Sushi Popo (1998-2017), which was where I used to go when I wanted sushi, seaweed salad, and beer (they never carded).


Being vegetarian in Japan didn’t prove especially difficult and would’ve been a breeze if Una’s or my grasp of Japanese was stronger. Vegetarianism in Japan, in fact, is far more common than it is in the US (if not, necessarily, California). Japan is — following India, Taiwan, and Israel — perhaps the fourth most vegetarian country in Asia. Inevitably, it seems, there are those who will lament that not eating meat means not fully experiencing Japanese culture — but I wonder what these same people (just as inevitably non-Japanese) make of the cultural authenticity of the millions of Japanese vegetarians.

For most of its history, Japanese actually ate very little meat aside from sea animals (fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, whales, and dolphins) and game. Eating livestock in many non-European cultures was naturally considered quite strange. If cows pull your plow and horses your carriage — why would you want to eat either of them? In Japan, eating livestock was actually taboo until the late 19th century, at which time the Meiji emperor promoted eating one’s work animals, as was the fashion in Europe and the US, as a means of modernization. This is why tonkatsu, bīfusutēki, and teppanyaki — all characterized by most Westerners as sufficiently Japanese — are in Japan still considered to be yōshoku (洋食)– or “western food.” 

My experience was limited, of course, to the meals one can eat during a relatively short vacation — but to me the Japanese approach to Japanese cuisine seemed to be quite a bit different than that of the Western pedant — who places more importance on the fame of the chef, the number of Michelin stars, and — I don’t know — Instagramability? Most Japanese, on the other hand, seemed to me to place more importance on the seasonal appropriateness, quality of ingredients, and taste — which to me make infinitely more sense. Whereas self-appointed (and non-Japanese) cultural watchdogs seem to believe that “real” Japanese food is ancient, unchanged, and “pure” — I reckon most Japanese recognize that Japanese cuisine, like all cuisines, is influenced by foreign traditions and changing tastes.

I mentioned a few examples of yōshoku. Other popular examples include korokke, karē, omurice, sando, and spaghetti. China, naturally, has had a particularly profound influence on Japanese cuisine, having introduced Japan to teagyōza, tenshin, and ramen — the latter of which only emerged in the 1950s and thus is about as “traditional” as the food at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Denny’s. Speaking of Denny’s — that’s where Una and I had our first meal — in part because there was one near our hotel and in part, because that’s just the sort of American chain you know will be fascinating in both its similarities and differences to its cross-ocean counterpart (founded in Lakewood, California).

As annoying as Americans can be about ramen, there’s something about sushi which makes them truly insufferable — even though they almost always mistakenly equate it with fish or some other sea animal. “Sushi,” literally, is a conjunction of the words for “soured rice” and truly refers to the only intrinsic ingredients — rice and rice vinegar. The misguided authenticity-obsessed, therefore, need to accept that vegetarian sushi is not an aberration or substitution for the real thing. Common vegetarian garnishes include asparagus, cucumber, daikon, enoki, kampyo, nattō, pepper, pickled plums, shiitake, shiso leaves, tamago omelet, and yamagobo. There are also, it should additionally be noted, vegetarian seafood options frequently made us of in Japan including arame, hijiki, hirome, kajime, kombu, korume, nori, mozuku, and wakame.



Japanese beverages, I think, deserve their own subsection. Japan’s best-known alcoholic beverage is, sake, a brewed rice beverage mentioned in 3rd-century CE Chinese texts. Japanese whiskey production began around 1870. The first commercial production began in 1924, with the opening of the Yamazaki distillery. Currently, the two biggest producers are Suntory and Nikka. Beer has been brewed in Japan since 1876, when Norwegian-American, William Copeland founded Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama, which later became Kirin Brewery. Sapporo Brewery was founded the same year and Osaka Beer Brewing Company was built in 1889 and launched Asahi Beer in 1892. Deregulation in 1994 opened the door for microbreweries but they remain fairly rare and the big three macrobreweries have in recent years attempted to stave off the competition of upstart microbreweries by developing their own craft beers.


There are vending machines everywhere in Japan. According to the tourism board, there are about 5.2 million in the country — more, incidentally, than there are sushi restaurants. Although vending machines were invented in England in 1883, where they were first used to sell postcards, their possibilities were expanded when they were exported to other cultures. In 1889, they first appeared in Japan, where they were initially used to sell cigarettes. Today some are still stocked with cigarettes (something one doesn’t see very often in the US anymore) but more often with food or beverages like beer (inevitably Asahi and/or Kirin), kan kōhī, green tea, sports drinks like Pocari Sweat, and soft drinks (CalpisMitsuya cider, Ramune, &c).


My most common vending machine purchase was Ito En‘s Oi Ocha — a popular, unsweetened green tea. I’ve been an unrepentant tea drinker since I was about nine and have found, in the intervening years, that I generally prefer Japanese green teas to the black “breakfast teas” of my mother’s cupboard. Thus, my shelves are nearly always stocked with sencha (煎茶), hōjicha (ほうじ茶), and genmaicha (玄米茶). Readers in Japan might find it amusing (if they don’t already know) that matcha (抹茶) is for whatever reason riding a wave of popularity amongst the food faddists who previously sang the praises of kombucha (not to be confused with konbu-cha (昆布茶)), La Croix, and now small cans of powdered tea.

Tea seeped into to Japan around the 6th century CE and, as with elsewhere, it was first associated with religious classes and subsequently royal classes. Over time, its popularity spread to warrior classes and cultured chōnin/townspeople. The famed Japanese tea ceremony was developed in the 15th century. Sencha (煎茶), the most popular form of tea in Japan today, was developed in 1738 by Soen Nagatani. As of 2016, Japanese were the ninth biggest tea consumers per capita and the largest in East Asia. For whatever reason, however, in the US it’s still associated (outside the South, anyway) with Anglophile pretensions and low tea parties (consistently and erroneously referred to as “high tea” by the pretentious but misinformed).


Japanese music doesn’t seem to have ever been terribly popular outside of Japan, except, perhaps with Enka during the occupation of Taiwan and Korea — and later with so-called “J-Pop” — although that never captured the level of global obsession in the way that so-called K-pop has. J-Pop may’ve never troubled the American charts with a “Gangnam Style” — but what can explain the success of Kyu Sakamoto‘s “上を向いて歩こう” (literally; “I Look Up as I Walk”), which topped the American charts (re-titled “Sukiyaki”) in 1963? The lyrics, which express anti-American militarism, are in Japanese and only three non-English songs had ever before topped the American charts. It’s a great song, to be sure, but that rarely matters in cases of popularity and there were certainly great Japanese pop songs both before and since its release.

There’s definitely a cult following for Japanese electronic music of the 1970s. Isao Tomita (usually simply Tomita), Masanori Takahashi (always simply Kitarō), and Yellow Magic Orchestra are all fairly well-known within certain circles nowadays although I’m not sure how popular they were at the time of their emergence. Japanese acts like DJ Krush, Cornelius, Shonen KnifeTowa Tei, and Japanese expatriate duo Cibo Matto seemed to command a fair amount of attention from magazines, and websites in the 1990s — offering for a time a refreshing alternative to miserabilist Grunge and miserable Britpop. Pizzicato Five, for a minute, even seemed primed for mainstream success when Matador released the compilation, Made in USA (the title a play on both the American target audience and the duo’s origins in Usa, Japan) — but now they don’t even exist on Spotify.

Of course, all of this only hints at the eclecticism and diversity of Japanese music — the lineage of which stretches back at least to the 9th century, when the koto was introduced. Folk music often features the shamisen, adapted from the Chinese sanxian, and introduced to Japan through the Ryūkyū Kingdom in the 16th century. Western Classical music, since its introduction in the late 19th century, has formed an integral part of Japanese culture and likewise, many Western composers have been influenced by Japanese imperial court music. Film score composers like Joe Hisaishi, Ryuichi Sakamoto (formerly of Yellow Magic Orchestra), Takeshi Senoo, and Taro Iwashiro, and video game scorers like Kow OtaniMichiru Ōshima, and Koji Kondo have all drawn on a variety of Western musical forms which are nevertheless recognizably Japanese.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, popular Japanese music has also often combined the influence of western music with indigenous forms. Enka first emerged in the 19th century but — as with all pop music — was remarkably malleable and by the 1920s was sometimes characterized as a strain of ryūkōka. In the 1940s, jazz was absorbed into Japanese pop, followed in the 1950s by mambo. Modern enka was most popular in the late 1950s and its popularity spread to post-colonial Korea and Taiwan. Kayōkyoku, Japanese Jazz, and Group Sounds all flourished in the mid-20th century.

City pop, basically Japan’s counterpart to British sophisti-pop, provided the slick, upbeat, and irony-free soundtrack to the economic good times of the Japanese economic miracle and seems to be gathering nostalgic steam — not to mention finding a following in the US all of these years later.

Slick, upbeat, Shibuya-kei, on the other hand, was full of irony and its heyday seems safely behind it now — although several Shibuya-kei practitioners went on the adopt the 8-bit aesthetic of old video games to make picopop — which was occasionally made by the odd, musically adventurous non-Japanese musician (i.e. Joanna Wang).

Night time in Ginza

If I know relatively little about older Japanese pop, folk music, and traditional music, I know next to nothing about the current musical mainstream. I don’t know, for example, whether or not it’s still dominated by J-pop or whether Japanese pop today is by definition still “J-Pop.” Honestly, I couldn’t name a J-pop group if you paid me. There is music everywhere in Japan, though, it seems — and all forms seem to enjoy a following, however niche. One night during our stay, Una and I went to a bluegrass and country bar where the musicians and patrons were quite excited to discover my Kentucky roots. Another night in Ginza we went to an ’80s/R&B club where, when I recognized songs by Yōko Oginome and Dreams Come True, I was aggressively poked and chopped by strangers in drunken disbelief.


I have read little Japanese literature, and only in translation. I studied a little Japanese before visiting the country — as one does — and continue to since returning — although I’m still shamefully (and slowly) solidifying my grasp on hiragana. I’m including a section on Japanese literature, then, not because I want to misrepresent myself as either an authority or even a fan but rather for my own future reference — and for the reference of anyone else interested.

The earliest works of Japanese literature include the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki chronicles, and the Man’yōshū poetry anthology, all written in the 8th Century CE. In the early Heian period, the system of phonograms known as kana (hiragana and katakana) was developed. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is considered the oldest, written Japanese narrative. The Pillow Book, completed by Sei Shōnagon in 1002, provides an account of Heian court life. The aforementioned The Tale of Genji was published around 1021. During the Edo period, townspeople became the primary producers and consumers of literature and popular writers of that era include the poets Ihara Saikaku and Matsuo Bashō. One of my favorite books of that era is the Hagakure, a practical and spiritual guide for samurai. Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai are often regarded as the first modern novelists in Japan. Other notable Japanese authors include Haruki MurakamiJun’ichirō Tanizaki, Kenzaburō Ōe, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima.


Although historical accounts of religion in the country are pretty straightforward, it was difficult for me to really get a sense of the role religion plays in Japan. Naturally, religion begins with the indigenous Ainu and Ryukyuans, both of whom were traditionally animistic and practiced ancestor worship. Shinto practices, also involving ancestor worship, were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. Shinto shrines seem to be nearly as ubiquitous as vending machines but according to one source number closer to 100,000. Only a very small percentage of Japanese describe themselves as Shintoists but the vast majority participate in some Shinto rituals and practices.


Buddhism was introduced by monks from Baekje, Korea in 552 CE. As with Shinto, a minority of Japanese self-identify as Buddhists but the majority of Japanese participate in Buddhist rituals and practices and there many Buddhist temples and shrines which double as Shinto shrines. There are approximately 77,000 Buddhist temples in Japan and the grandest ones are all undeniably impressive and popular with tourists. They seem to be particularly popular with Chinese tourists, many of whom rent kimonos seemingly for the sole purpose of taking selfies in Japanese Buddhist temples.

Confucianism arrived from China late in the Kamakura period. The pioneering Confucian scholar in Japan was a former Zen practitioner, Fujiwara Seika. There are many Confucian temples, the most famous being the Yushima Seido, built in 1630. Generally more austere in design, they seem to be less popular with tourists hunting for attractive selfie backdrops. Abrahamic religions are represented too, mostly Christianity, although only about 1% of Japanese practice it. You will know they are Christians, however, by their noise.

All that said, most Japanese identify as not belonging to any religion — and yet with the proliferation of temples, the prevalence of numerology, and the number of superstitions I was made aware of, it seems that there’s quite a bit of magical thinking taking place in the mind of the average Japanese agnostic or atheist.



73% of Japan is forested and the woodlands are dominated by Japanese sugi pine, buna, and shirakashi. The most emblematic tree is without a doubt the Japanese cherry, the sakura blooms of which are the subject of artistic depiction, poetry, and “hanami” — the contemplative practice of flower viewing. Other trees such as the hinoki are prized for their fragrance and thus used to make incense and essential oils. Kōdō (“way of fragrance), the appreciation of incense, is one of Japan’s traditional forms of high art. Other Japanese arts involving the manipulation and appreciation of plants include bonsai, incense, forest bathing, ikebana, and Japanese gardens.

Japanese gardens (日本庭園) are traditional gardens, designed with the application of traditional Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. It’s a tradition, along with Chinese, English, and French, that is recognized around the world — regardless of where the garden’s location.

A rooftop garden in Ginza


Japanese architecture (日本建築) was traditionally typified by wooden structures, often slightly elevated and topped with either thatched roofs or tiles. Walls were made of sliding doors (fusuma) and seating was limited to either cushions or the floor. Since the 19th century, however, Western design and architecture have been profoundly influential.  Japanese architecture, in turn, provided Frank Lloyd Wright with the primary influence for his all-American designs, and in turn, those of his mid-century Modernist followers, whose designs are still very much in vogue.

Not surprisingly, then, many foreign tourists in Japan are especially drawn not just to Japan’s traditional castles, pagodas, and temples — but to the surviving works of celebrated Japanese architects like Hiroshi Hara, Kiyonori Kikutake, Tachū Naitō, and Yoshiro Taniguchi. I, for one found, myself strangely more frequently entranced by seemingly mundane design elements like external staircases and stack tile.




Broadly speaking, clothing in Japan can be divided into wafuku (Japanese clothing) and yōfuku (western clothing). Kimonos and kosodes are the most popular traditional items, although aside from the aforementioned Chinese tourists, I mostly saw them worn by older women. Most hotels seem to offer both terry cloth bathrobes and casual yukata for guests, the latter of which are also worn at onsen (when visitors aren’t naked). Other types of kimono include furisode, mofuku, shiromuku, tomesode, and uchikake.

There are some nominally yōfuku now so rare in the West that it’s hard not to associate them now with Japan. In this sad athleisure era, for example, very few Americans are familiar with our culture’s own formal dress. Mention “morning dress” to an American, for example, and he’s more likely to imagine some sort of pastel dress designed for a woman than he is the cutaway to which that term actually refers. In the US, the well-dressed politician exists only hypothetically — and is regarded with suspicion. American politicians assume that we prefer they wear ill-fitting suits with rolled-up sleeves (to indicate their readiness to engage in menial work), over-long neckties, and baseball caps perched atop calculatedly awful hair-dos — because they condescendingly assume that that makes them relatable to the rabble (i.e. us). In Japan, however, members of the Japanese government still wear cutaways, I’m told, and I assume Japanese people somehow don’t hold it against them.

The silk sukajan souvenir jacket was similarly introduced by westerners — in this case, American GIs, but is more closely associated with Japan than it is the West. The jacket’s origins, however, were presumably always a cross-cultural expression, since the motifs were probably in all cases created by Japanese embroiderers. Eventually, the expansion of American militarism brought the sukajan to Korea, Vietnam, and (following the 2011 film Drive) Urban Outfitters but it remains closely associated with Japan… as well as the 2011 film, Drive, and the would-be Ryan Gosling who shop at Urban Outfitters.

Before visiting Japan, I bought into some of the hype about Japanese youth subcultures. I envisioned sidewalks crowded with members of strictly differentiated style tribes. Western media tends to be preoccupied with the supposedly-strange margins of Japanese culture, after all, but during our visit, I was somewhat disappointed that I saw no aristocratsbōsōzoku, city boys, ganguro, kogal, kuroi niji, metalheads, rockabillies, punks, rugged ivies, or yamanba. I saw only a few colorful decoras — although in every instance they were white and I assume tourists. There was a “chicano, oldies & mellow music” club‬, but I wasn’t able to get there so can’t say whether or not any that attended were Japan’s fabled cholos. I also saw a handful of scooter-riding mods and the occasional lolita here and there but it was hardly The Warriors which I’d been led to expect. The most common outfit worn by men, in fact, was the run-of-the-mill business suit, nearly always worn (in public, at least) without a necktie. For women, green or mustard dresses and skirts seemed to be quite popular but their dress was nearly as conservative and overall, little of what I saw worn struck me as overtly expressive.


Japan is widely recognized for its fashion designers, though. It’s probably as much a reflection of my musical tastes as my fashion tastes that designers I’m familiar with include Kansai YamamotoHanae MoriIssey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto. Of course, everyone knows of Comme des Garçons, now, founded by Rei Kawakubo in 1969. We also visited a couple of locations of Kapital, founded in 1984 by Toshikiyo Hirata, and known to Una and me through David Sedaris‘s humorous account of clothes shopping in Tokyo with his sister, Amy. The only clothes I bought for myself, however, were a few shirts from Graniph, founded in the 1990s by three artists in Shimokitazawa.


Transit in Japan is close to perfect — although I say that having never been stuffed into a train car during rush hour. There was only one time that I waited for more than ten minutes for a train, and that was the Shinkansen at night. The only hiccups I experienced were from once boarding an express train (which overshot my intended station… so I just hopped on the local in the other direction) and buying day passes in both Kyoto and Tokyo that weren’t valid on every line as there are usually multiple train operators within each Japanese metropolis which don’t share the same pass system.

Tokyo Station

Greater Tokyo, for example, has the world’s most extensive urban rail network but the 4,714.5 kilometers of rail are operated by multiple companies — mostly Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Kyoto is served by Kyoto Municipal Subway and the Hankyu Railway. The Japan Rail Pass, or “JR Pass” is available only to foreign visitors and is valid for the Shinkansen (except Nozomi and Mizuho services), Tokyo Monorail and Aoimori Railway. In Metro Los Angeles, on the other hand, the TAP card is valid on 26 transit networks but the transit rider may have to wait more than an hour at a curbside signpost for a bus to arrive. Personally, I’ll trade a bit of minor agency incompatibility with hours-long waits any day.


It’s hard to imagine an American in Japan not noticing how much more vibrant the train stations are in Japan — where they’re often destinations in and of themselves with restaurants and shops attracting customers not necessarily heading to or from a train platform. Meanwhile, in California — a state with a GDP between that of Germany (No. 4) and the UK (no 5) — our train urban rail stations are stark, amenity-less affairs where trains run late, escalators seem as likely to be broken as to function, and passengers urinate in the elevators since there are almost never even restrooms.


As enviable as transit in Japan is, however, I’m glad that we limited ourselves to three large cities and two small towns. I had originally hoped to visit Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands. But even with the Shinkansen, a trip from Tokyo to Hokkaido takes more than nine hours. Traveling to Naha is fairly cheap and fast by plane, but still adds a couple of hours of transit time each way and in the end, both probably deserve their own visits. Hokkaido, after all, seems especially appealing in autumn and winter, hiking amongst the changing leaves or in the snow.  The Ryukyu Islands, on the other hand, seem like the sort of place where one might ideally enjoy long summer days at the beach.

Before moving on to the next section I should mention that we arrived, like most visitors to Tokyo, at Narita International Airport (成田国際空港 ) — one of Tokyo’s two major airports, the other being Tokyo International Airport (東京国際空港, commonly known as Haneda Airport (羽田空港). We then took a shuttle roughly 75 kilometers to Shinjuku (新宿). For much of the ride, a young boy in the seat behind me delineated, at length, the differences between Taiwan and Japan whilst his younger brother repeated variations on the word, “mango.” When they were quiet, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite (and most divisive) segments of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 masterpiece, Solaris. Strangely, most of Tokyo’s taxis still appear to have been built in the early 1970s!





Tokyo is Japan’s capital and, with a population of roughly 37.8 million people, the most populous metropolis on Earth. It is the neon-lights and gleaming skyscrapers of “Neo Tokyo” as well as the bleak, likely-haunted abandoned factories, condemned spaces, and run down industrial spaces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films. Despite its vastness, is also a tidy, orderly, and seemingly well-managed city in which it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most sheltered urbanphobe feeling remotely uncomfortable.


Tokyo (東京, literally “eastern capital”), officially Tokyo Metropolis, was formerly known as Edo (江戸, literally “estuary”), founded by the Edo clan in the 12th century. Since 1603, when Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself there, it has been Japan’s de facto seat of government. It became the official capital in 1868 when the Meiji Emperor moved his seat to the city and had it renamed. Tokyo Metropolis was formed in 1943 from the merger of  Tokyo Prefecture (東京府) and the city of Tokyo (東京市). There are 23 “Special Wards” of Tokyo City, thirty municipalities in the Tokyo prefecture, and two outlying island chains — the Izu Islands and the Ogasawara Islands.

Recent history has twice left the metropolis in ruins. In 1923, the Great Kantō Earthquake leveled the city, which was rebuilt only to be firebombed to the ground during World War II, killing in the process an estimated 200,000 civilians. After the war, Tokyo was again rebuilt. Japan abolished its 31-meter height limit in 1963 and by the 1970s, high-rises dominated the city. Real estate skyrocketed in the 1980s which was followed in the 1990s by a major recession known as Japan’s “Lost Decade.”


There are architectural attractions in Toyko, including Asahi Beer Hall, Ebisu Garden Place, Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, Tennozu Isle, Shiodome, Rainbow Bridge, Roppongi Hills, Shinagawa, Tokyo International ForumTokyo Skytree, and Tokyo Tower. Although each surely has its champions, none seemed to me to be essential destinations during a short visit. With over 800 buildings rising more than 35 meters, none, for example, stood out for me in the way that they might’ve in a less vertical city and my gaze was drawn less frequently to the skyline than to street level.


As of 2008, 36% of the Tokyo prefecture’s total land area was designated for parks. There are four national parks in Tokyo Prefecture. There are many museums, performing arts theaters. Festivals occur throughout the year. There are 62 urban rail lines in Tokyo, and the more than 900 stations, it should be pointed out, are bustling attractions in an of themselves. Honestly, the thought of trying to make an itinerary heavy on any such attractions seems hopelessly overwhelming in the world’s largest city and thus I mostly contented myself to explore with less direction, checking out what seemed interesting and stopping to eat and drink throughout.




We spent a couple of days and one night in Fujiyoshida (富士吉田市), a small city located at the base of Mount Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture. The view of the mountain was magnificent. We stayed at the Fujizakura Inn but the profusely apologetic concierge informed us that the onsen we’d hoped to visit was temporarily closed. We were instead directed to Fujiyama Onsen.

I had wanted to visit the town’s main attraction, Kitaguchi Hongū Fuji Sengen Jinja, a shrine at which many climbers of Japan’s most famous mountain begin their treks up Japan’s most famous mountain — but after a nap, it was dark, and thus I walked towards town in search of supper. I popped into Trattoria La Luce, where I picked up a white pizza topped with wedges of soft cheese and honey for dipping. It was unlike any pizza I’d ever encountered and were I a fragile, conservative New Yorker, I’d probably have thrown a fit and flown home. I’m not, however, and it proved to be rewardingly tasty.


The next morning I awoke early and went for a reasonably long ramble in the rain. There were few people on the roads and none, that I saw, in the woods. At one point I did stumble across the swollen carcass of a deer. It had a strange red mark on it. There was a stream of foamy saliva coming from its mouth. Elsewhere there were signposts the meaning of which eluded me, some dead ends, and some sort of campus that I traversed before heading back to the hotel. After that, we headed to the onsen.

I’d previously only been to two hot springs, one in Desert Hot Springs and the other the Taiwanese equivalent of an onsen, a shì wēnquán. I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed either of those experiences — namely because it’s exceptionally hard for me to sit still — especially when sitting still in unpleasantly hot water. I prefer cold water and previously very much enjoyed a cold sulfur spring in Taiwan’s Yilan County. Fujiyama Onsen had cold baths too, which were where I did much of my relaxing — but even the hot baths were relaxing after an extended cold soak and with the chilly rain falling down from above.


With over 19 million inhabitants, Osaka (大阪市, literally “large hill” city) is the second largest city in Japan (if one doesn’t count Yokohama, which is part of the Toyko metropolitan area), the capital of Osaka Prefecture, and the largest city in the Keihanshin Metropolitan Area.


Although aesthetically most Japanese cities that I visited or passed through looked rather similar to me, the people of Osaka seemed recognizably different, on the whole, from those of Tokyo. A similar dynamic, I reckon, exists in many countries. In the capital or largest city, residents are more reserved and introverted whereas in the second city, people seem to be more laid-back and comparatively outgoing. This seemed to be the case in Korea and is certainly the case in the US. It also seemed to be the case in Japan, where Osakans readily offered help with directions, ordering food, and in a few cases were just seemed eager to chat… something hard to imagine in Tokyo except for in train stations, where elderly men are known to lurk and help tourists navigate the mass transit system.


The Japanese, of course, have their own stereotypes about one another. Osaka was long considered Japan’s primary economic center but Osakans are sometimes characterized (sometimes contradictorily) by non-Osakans (especially Tokyo-ites, it seems) as calculating, chaste, generous, gluttonous, greedy, lewd, shrewd, stingy, and vulgar. It was also sometimes referred to as “the Manchester of the Orient,” although presumably more for the cities’ levels of industrialization than for any purported similarities between their people — although maybe I’m wrong. It was in part that industrialization, in fact, that attracted many Korean immigrants and today Osaka is still home to the largest population of Koreans in Japan which undoubtedly influences its collective character. Osaka was the birthplace of Ikutaro Kakehashi (梯 郁太郎), who founded Ace Tone in 1960 and Roland in 1972. He’s therefore often credited as the father of the TR-808, TR-909, and the TB-303 — without whom modern pop music would sound very different today.


Central Osaka is informally divided between downtown 北 (north) and uptown 南 (south). Kita is home to the business and retail-oriented Umeda neighborhood. Skyscraper-dominated Kita and Nakanoshima often appear in photographs of the city’s skyline. Miniami, despite its name meaning “south” is essentially in the central Chūō Ward (中央区) and includes shopping areas like Dōtonbori, Namba, and Shinsaibashi; Nipponbashi Den Den Town; and culture-oriented Amerikamura and Horie. In the city’s actual south are Shinsekai, Tennoji, Abeno, and Kamagasaki — the largest slum in Japan. The western side of Osaka is dominated by the port and tourist attractions like Tempozan Harbour Village, Kyocera Dome, and Universal Studios Japan. East Osaka is its own municipality and includes Tsuruhashi Korea Town, Osaka Castle Park, and Osaka Business Park.

Osaka is known for its okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), a type of savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. As vegetarians, we struggled to explain which of those ingredients we’d like and which we’d not. Soon, it evolved (or devolved) into a sort of game in which the whole izakaya became involved but ultimately we achieved success. Osaka is also known for bunraku and is home to the National Bunraku Theatre. As with other large Japanese cities, there are many performing arts venues, parks, museums, and festivals — far too many, in fact, to visit more than a few of during a short stay. It was probably, though, in Osaka, that I did most of my aimless rambling.

One evening, we met up with our friends Colin and Jae, who live in Seoul, who met us at a quiet whiskey bar where much Chet Baker was playing. Afterward, we ate taco rice around the corner, in a restaurant where drunk, flush-faced girls swooned over the televised performance of a pop idol. The next day we visited Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan — the world’s largest aquarium. We also attempted to ride a boat along Dōtonbori canal but were too late — although we did marvel along with all the other tourists at the Glico Man, an attraction since 1935.



Between Ōsaka and Kyōto is the small town of Ōyamazaki (大山崎町), located in the Otokuni District (乙訓郡). Although tiny, (as of 2017, it had a population of 15,452), it’s the home of several large companies and attractions including Maxell (日立マクセル株式会社), the Daihatsu Kyoto plant (ダイハツ工業株式会社), the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art, and the Ōyamazaki Town Historical Museum. It’s also served by two train stations — Ōyamazaki Station (大山崎駅) and Yamazaki Station (山崎駅). Next to Ōyamazaki is a small but slightly larger town, Shimamoto (島本町), where the Yamazaki Distillery (山崎蒸溜所) is located — and which was the reason for our visit.


Yamazaki Distillery was completed in 1923, which makes it Japan’s first commercial whiskey distillery. It was built for Shinjirō Torii (鳥井 信治郎), whose Suntory company (サントリーホールディングス株式会社) was founded in 1899 and is one of the oldest distributors of alcoholic beverages in Japan.


Having taken an express train and overshot our station — and having more importantly written down the wrong tour time — we arrived too late to the distillery for our reservation and thus were limited to exploring the gift shop, several exhibits, and most importantly, the tasting room.


One of the most visually appealing features was the amber-hued “Whisky Library,” a collection of over 7,000 bottles of unblended malt whiskey. After slowly sipping several whiskeys in the tasting room, we picked up a few items in the gift shop, including some Tarukun smoked cheese. I believe the cheese was originally intended to be part of someone’s omiyage but it soon to be so irresistibly tasty that they never made it out of our hotel room.


Kyoto Tower (京都タワー)

The last city that we visited was Kyōto (京都市), part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe Metropolitan Area and capital of Kyoto Prefecture. For more than 1,000 years, it was also the Imperial capital of Japan. Its name is even derived from the Chinese “jingdu” (京都), meaning “capital city.”


Although today only the seventh most populous Japanese city, I suppose the fact that residents of Kyōto are often characterized as sophisticated and sometimes pretentious is derived in part from the city’s imperial past. It’s also likely that Kyōto, after Tokyo, is the most popular city with visitors. A friend who doesn’t like bustling cities spoke highly of it on account of its parks, temples, and traditional atmosphere. As someone who loves bustling cities as well as parks, temples, and traditional atmosphere, I also found it very charming.


With some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, it would take years to visit all of Kyōto’s holy spaces and so Una chose Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神) the spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry, prosperity, and worldly success. It is one of the principal kami of Shinto. I knew Kyōto was popular with tourists but I was somewhat surprised at the throngs of Chinese tourists in rented kimonos, seemingly concerned little more than picturesque selfies.


As with most tourists, the crowds thinned dramatically as we made our way from the entrance. Before long, our trek was mostly quiet except for the buzz of mosquitos. The climb up the hill, in the sweltering humidity, proved unexpectedly challenging and I was grateful for the ubiquity of Japan’s vending machines when I needed more tea.



Through the Edo period, Kyoto flourished along with Osaka and Tokyo as one of Japan’s three major cities — although today it is only the eighth most populous. Unlike Osaka and Tokyo, Kyoto hasn’t seen extensive destruction since the Ōnin War of 1467–1477 and was largely spared bombings by Allied forces during World War II. It thus retains a more antiquated, less hectic-air than other Japanese metropolises and is popular with tourists drawn to its abundance of temples, palaces, gardens, machiya townhouses, and other historic, prewar buildings. However, with its numerous museums, festivals, and performing arts spaces, I can imagine even this smallish city overwhelming and frustrating the tourist with too exhaustive itinerary and thus I mostly wandered it without any real purpose.


The final stint of our trip saw us return to Tokyo for a few more days before returning to the US. Since returning, Una has often expressed a desire to return — I assume to spend more time thoroughly exploring the cities which we visited. That sounds nice to me as I felt like we barely scratched the surface of any of them — then again curiosity impels me to want to visit Nagoya, Sapporo, and Naha. I suppose they’ll all still be there in the future… but as a working-class man of limited financial means, I’ll have to content myself in the meantime with trips to Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, and the Japanese suburbs of the South Bay. Things could be worse. じゃあまたね!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

17 thoughts on “Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of Japan

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