Dreams do come true. It is something that we are constantly reminded about upon seeing other people’s dreams fulfilled as well as ours. However as we grow older sometimes we forget about the dreams we had when we were much younger, for there is no shortage of distractions out there.
I grew up reading manga (Japanese comics) and watching anime (Japanese animation), and at school not only did I learn about the atrocities the Japanese caused during World War II, but also its technological advancement in the decades after its defeat by Allied forces.
At the age of 10 or 11, I learned how to use chopsticks and tried to eat everything with them. My father asked why, and I confidently replied that I wanted to go to college in Japan. I ended up graduating from a university in Indonesia, though, but the dream to visit Japan remained. A friend once told me that she’d only heard positive things from her friends and relatives who went to Japan, even those who at first were not too keen on going. But distractions kept me away from visiting the country for so many years.
As a budget traveler Japan’s notoriety as an expensive destination certainly didn’t help, and the availability of cheap flights elsewhere in Asia meant putting those plans on hold. However a few months ago James and I found affordable return tickets to Japan, and last week I finally embarked on a dream trip to the land of the rising sun. So, did it live up to my expectations?
The people were very friendly, polite and considerate. When they talked they always bowed as a gesture of respect to others, when they walked they always gave way to the people walking toward them, and when they worked they did things very efficiently. A middle-aged female employee at a convenience store in Kyoto, upon seeing that we were tourists, gave us a map of the neighborhood and circled the most famous places of interest for us to visit. A young bus driver, also in Kyoto, offered us day passes which saved us quite a lot of money as we relied on the city’s public buses to go from one place to another.
The food was always delicious everywhere we went, whether it was a very expensive small restaurant in Kyoto, an affordable place at the train station in Okayama, or a small takoyaki (octopus balls) stall in Osaka. Even the desserts we bought from the local convenience stores were of the same quality as those served at fancy cafes. When being delicious was not enough, the Japanese did know how to make things look even more appealing, quirky, or kawaii (Japanese for cute). Tako tamago (boiled quail egg-stuffed baby octopus) at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market was a perfect example of such a dish.
Okayama, meanwhile, was where we tried fresh fruits of superb quality. The green grapes (Muscat of Alexandria) were so sweet, succulent, and tasted exactly like the grape candies I knew from my childhood. Eating them was such a pleasure, minus the guilt of having too many candies. On the other hand, the black grapes were big, juicy, and tasted like red wine minus the alcohol.
Japan’s technology is well-known for its reliability and sophistication, and I experienced some of its finest firsthand. Shinkansen trains (Japan’s bullet trains) transport people from one city to another through a vast network of high-speed railway lines which not only cut travel times, but also increase productivity. Meanwhile, the express and local trains, in spite of traveling at a much lower speed than the bullet trains, arrived and departed more or less on time during my week-long trip to the country. Aside from the impressive railway network, technology was implemented well into daily life. We came to Kyoto for its ancient temples and palaces, yet we got a hi-tech welcome at our hotel. Check in was done through a series of protocols which involved emails, access codes, a smartphone, an iPad, and no human interaction.
However embracing sophisticated technology doesn’t necessarily mean the Japanese are turning into a robotic society. Turn on the TV and you will find programs with bright-colored animations, background music which reminds you of the video games you grew up playing, and news programs where pink, peach, and other pastel colors replace the usual muted colors of news programs elsewhere in the world.
One week in Japan exploring the Kansai region (visiting Osaka, Himeji, Kyoto and Nara) and the Chugoku region (where we explored Okayama and Kurashiki) ended too fast for me as last night I returned to Jakarta with its constant traffic jams, pollution, and other problems the city has been facing for too long. It made me wonder, did I just visit one of my dream destinations? Or was it merely a dream?
The Spice Odyssey series will continue next week. So please be patient for the complete stories from Japan.