Here’s the thing: I have never been to Japan before. I’ve got a vague memory of one of my university professors, talking about great cultural differences, about how difficult it can be to master a perfectly executed Japanese bow, about misconceptions and the challenges of intercultural communication. I’ve listened to friends who have been there, and vividly pictured the amazing design and great food they talked about. I’ve had Japanese whiskey (apparently this is uber trendy stuff in Berlin) and worked with Japanese companies. I have eaten sushi and already figured that those mediocre rice and avocado nibbles and my teeny-tiny insight don’t do the real thing any justice. Not at all.

I was expecting something wild, and I was beyond curious to travel across the ocean to listen, see, smell and taste things myself. So ready to soak it all in and experience the unknown. And I did. But things did not feel as foreign as I thought they would. Yet the magic of traveling struck again and surprised me with how much I could really relate to instead. Stepping out of your background’s bubble always holds the chance to clarify what matters to you and what you feel comfortable with – similarities and new perspectives are awaiting you in the most unexpected places, in unforeseen settings; and some traits of other cultures can feel weirdly close, instantly relatable somehow. What a lovely thing about journeys, don’t you think?

So even if my trip to Japan was a short one, this beautiful archipelago revealed a lot. About it – and myself. More than I would have expected 36 hours to. Time is only relative, especially when you’re en route.

There is so much more to learn and see in and about Japan; I only scratched the surface but I’ll take those 10 thoughts and observations home with me – for now. And I’ll be back for more.

1. A great appreciation for the food

Who are we kidding, of course I’ll start with the food. I always loved prepping meals for others and myself and take great care of what I eat and how I present it. I’ll gladly invest time and effort into a meal and share it with loved ones. Turns out, that many Japanese people feel the same and the value of beautiful shared meals is deeply embedded into their rich and varied culture.

I kind of knew that there would be a lot to discover food wise, but the variety of textures, ways of prepping and ingredients enthused me even more than I could have imagined. Instead of giant, trite piles of foods (I’m looking at you, potato!) you’ll often get many little, gorgeously arranged snacks, allowing you to fully embrace and appreciate all the different flavors and textures. The ingredients often are locally sourced and in season.

And despite their love for seafood my vegan plate was always full of the tastiest stuff – fluffy mushrooms, dainty squiggles of sauce, colorful pickles and the most tender tofu. Oh and don’t even get me started about all those cute plates and bowls… Thanks to Finnair’s generous luggage allowance quite a few kgs of them made it home to Berlin with me – so inspiring.

       (Cutest little bento box)

2. A love for nature

Japan’s landscape is very diverse. There is the all-embracing sparkle of the ocean competing with rocky mountains, wild waterfalls countering fields of pastel-pink whilst cherry trees blossom, and lakes as blue as tourmalines meeting trees on fire when the seasons change. Of course it is easy to lose track of all that wonder when living in a big city, such as Tokyo – just as it is in many a metropolis all around the world. Yet I had the impression that there is a general sense of how important being in touch with nature is for people’s wellbeing in Japan.

(Some of the trees already have to be protected from too much love. People just love to hug them)

This is also partly to do with Japan’s great sense of spirituality and the two major religions Shinto and Buddhism, which both greatly appreciation contact with nature. On a pilgrimage through parts of the sacred Kumano region we were able to experience snippets of that and visited some beautiful shrines. I hugged a tree and learnt about the magical power of “shinrin-yoku”, which means forest bathing, and recently even started to be a thing in Europe.

(Forest bathing beds)

There are actual little beds in the woods and it is scientifically proven that only 15 minutes of hanging out there and soaking it all up will calm you down and make you happier and more relaxed. I moved all my beloved potted plants closer to my bed when I came home and have wild plans of strolling around in all the beautiful forests of Brandenburg more often again. Let’s see how that goes…

3. And for innovation

In science and tech, if somebody happens to be getting to the bottom of something really smart, it’s often true that this somebody is from Japan. I found it is a country that will spark your imagination when it comes to what kind of futuristic inventions are possible. Being a bit of a science-fiction lover I got really inspired, especially when staying in Osaka - which is full of history, but also a very modern city. Japan also has a thing for vending machines, which I have a weird fascination for somehow, I’ll admit.

4. They just love their trains

Talking about innovation, we have to talk about trains, just one of my all-time favorite ways to get around. Taking the Shimakaze express from Osaka to the Ise area was a real experience for a train lover like me. Sinking deep into the comfy seats, munching on beautiful food (beating any sad sandwich most train companies over here would offer you) while the gorgeous landscape is rushing by through the windows is pure joy. The Japanese have really got the train game all figured out…

(Train Bento box and the coolest train conductor outfit)

5. Some real perfectionists

Great innovation and outstanding design often come with a deep aim for perfectionism. Most of the people I met here were really into what they were doing and in a polite way very persistent about executing things just absolutely perfectly and up to their standards. This naturally comes with benefits as well as downsides, like immense pressure and a hidden sense of stubbornness – but oh yes, I can relate to that!

6. A great desire to seek balance

A yoga teacher I recently met told me that the key to a balanced life and a happy body is that whenever there is tension, there also needs to be a moment of release. That thought kind of stuck with me; it’s so simple and logical, but so hard to live up to sometimes. As perfectionist as the Japanese may often be, that important moment of letting go also plays a vital role in their culture, for example when visiting the Onsen, (natural) hot springs you’ll find all around Japan.

(Morning glory in Kumano)

The Onsen is loved by everyone, young as well as old. Everybody can go and has to go fully naked. Men and women use separate tubs and everybody has to fully wash themselves before entering the water. Sitting in the steaming hot, mineral-rich water, ideally gazing down from some beautiful mountains is just the most relaxing thing ever. And afterwards you put on your Yukata and sleep like a baby. Thank You, Japan, you are wonderful!

(By the sea in Mie)

7. Some great storytellers

I really hope you’ve figured out by now that I have a love of telling stories – but even more than that I love to listen to them. All of them, from all around the world and all kinds of people. And who would be a better candidate for great stories than a culture as rich and ancient as Japan’s? Their love for storytelling is deeply embedded into the culture, and you’ll encounter it at a bar with locals, in one of the many museums or at the world famous Noh theaters, which we were lucky to witness when we were in Osaka – all the drama you could ask for!

(Osaka Castle)

8. Flexibility in style

Another thing that I felt very comfortable was the versatility of style. On one hand there is the famous clean Japanese design: sleek, woody, smart and elegant, but then there is this whole other world: all kawaii, pastel-y and pretty often very fluffy. And if I’m honest I have a thing for both, the graphic, minimalist shapes as well as some really weird (pink) aberrations. Anything goes; it’s all about trying things out and not taking yourself too seriously.

9. Strong female characters

One of the most touching and impressive experiences during our trip was visiting the Ama diver
ladies in Toba. These independent, hardworking ladies learnt how to deep-dive to catch fish and all kind of seafood at an early age and don’t stop as they grow older. Apparently girls’ bodies are the better diving bodies, due to more body fat – pretty cool, right?

The oldest diver in their little community is over 80 and still goes out into the water on a regular basis, which I found pretty rad. The tradition itself is over 2000 years old and once again is about a life in sync with nature and the power of the sea. The divers only fish as much as they can carry and work with whatever is available during a certain season. Back in the days the women only wore self-made linen clothes when going into the water; these days they also own professional diving gear (minus the oxygen flask!) – they still love to show their visitors the traditional outfits though. We shared tea, giggles and stories as they warmly invited us into their hut and world. Their hands-on mentality, strength, positivity and community spirit really touched me; it was female-power as its best!

10. Great hospitality

To me being invited into another culture is one of the most precious feelings ever – it makes me feel so thankful and I cherish those memories forever. While the Japanese welcome may sometimes be a bit more coy, it feels very honest and extremely kind and I can actually really relate to those needed minutes to warm up with one another.

(New friends in Ise area)

More than once I was deeply touched by the thoughtfulness and courtesy that we were showed and I surely took a big chunk of calmness home with me. Once again: Thank You and Arigatou!

(Osakas evening glow)

Feel like experiencing Japan yourself? Our trip was made possible by Finnair, who offers daily routes to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka (during summer season) and who I can really  recommend as your new your travel buddy. My flight was a 8-hour direct flight from my new airport crush Helsinki to Osaka and the smoothest thing ever. Thank You, Finnair for this very special trip!

(From an airplane view straight to gorgeous Osaka)

All photos © Tabea Mathern