54657b6612e1ef6d44fce1c0a4ee5f40“So, when are you heading back to China?”

“umm, my missions post is Japan…”

Believe me, words fail to express how frequently this dialog has played out during my visits back home.  However, it has been enlightening as I realize that there are some that still have no idea where or what Japan is, both as a country and even more so, as a culture, which is why I started the Nippon Dreamz series in the first place.  Surprisingly though, when I looked back through the archives I noticed that there was no entry serving as a proper introduction to the country, helping one to ease into the journey.  So to those who have followed this series while scratching their heads or visited those tea houses of Kyoto many moons ago, welcome back to Japan!

imagesKnown as “the land of the rising sun”, “Nippon”, as it is called in Japanese, is an East Asian country located in the Pacific Ocean near China and Korea.  Roughly the size of California, it is composed of a collection of semi-volcanic islands, the four most prominent being: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku.  These more populated land masses are surrounded by thousands of smaller islands, some of which retain their own cultures and serve as weekend getaways, such as Okinawa in the far south.

"Dotaku" bronze bell from the Yayoi period, 1st century B.C.

“Dotaku” bronze bell from the Yayoi period, 1st century B.C.

With a history stretching back thousands of years, the Japanese have produced a cultural heritage shaped from periods of isolation and international acceptance.  The leading ethnic group, the Yamato Japanese, integrated influences from places like China and Korea through the centuries, while still retaining a strong national core that is uniquely Japanese, as evidenced, for example, by its religious identity: a mix of Buddhism from China and the homegrown Japanese Shinto.

Japan's Imperial family.

Japan’s Imperial family.

All of this has culminated in a people who are prolific in their work, vibrant in artistic output, curious of other nations yet refined in taste, reserved and somewhat hesitant in regards to new relationships.  Some foreigners, like myself, have mistaken this for shyness when it is simply a cultural difference: relationships are cherished from the Japanese perspective and so should be taken time to build gradually.  There is greater respect given to subtlety in Japan, to the natural growth of things, and this permeates much of the country’s identity.

"My Neighbor Totoro" characters sculpted from snow in Hokkaido's annual snow festival.

“My Neighbor Totoro” characters sculpted from snow in Hokkaido’s annual snow festival.

At first glance this would seem a contradiction, as the country is also incredibly modern, the 3rd largest economy in the world in fact.  Then again, one could argue that the rich diversity throughout Nippon is due to that natural, subtle growth of culture spreading out over its islands, like well cultivated moss on a stone.  Hokkaido is a northern frontier and is comparable to Alaska with its snowy winters, wide open spaces and western style street layout.  The winter wonderland is famous for snow festivals and some of Japan’s best seafood.

Tokyo at night, with Tokyo tower in view at the left.

Tokyo at night, with Tokyo tower in view at the left.

The large central island of Honshu is where most of the famous metropolitan cities like Tokyo and Osaka can be found.  Its size also makes for a wide variety of regional contrasts in language and food, some of which are foreign even to natives living on opposite sides.  Tokyo life is cool and cosmopolitan, Osaka vibes friendly and energetic, Kyoto atmosphere elegant and sublime.  The Japan Sea side of the island, known as Hokuriku and “Snow Country”, receives record amounts of snowfall in the winter and early spring, creating a culture all its own.

Takachiho gorge in Miyazaki, Kyushu.  Boats can be rented to explore the safe and beautiful waters.

Takachiho gorge in Miyazaki, Kyushu. Boats can be rented to explore the safe and beautiful waters.

Shikoku, an often overlooked island, is more of a laid back countryside, ripe with natural beauty in its citrus fields, untouched rivers, streams and rugged mountains.  Many come for hikes, some of religious significance.  Finally to the southwest, Kyushu claims the right as the birthplace of Japanese civilization with the location of the original Japanese kingdom of Yamatai-koku, and its shaman queen Himiko, remaining a mystery.  The climate inches more towards the tropical, with a certain carefree attitude unique to Japan said to be lingering in the wet air.  The Okinawan islands extend from the coast of Kyushu into the Pacific, crystal clear warm waters caressing the bodies of hard-working salary-men and their families.

It is impossible to sum up the experience of Japan in a mere 800 word blog post, so consider visiting for yourself and let the locals tell you more about their country than a coffee table travel book ever could.  In the meantime, visit the “Japan” section of this site for a bit more in-depth information.  Then perhaps when you do finally set foot in Nippon, you’ll feel a confident enough start on the culture and essence of the country that the standard “hello” will be abandoned for “tadaima!” (I’m home!)


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