A filmmaker’s perspective on Japan.
Back in 2011 I made the best decision of my life: to get engaged. Wanting to “pop the question” at an unforgettable location, I asked my wife, then girlfriend, to write down her top five destinations that she had not yet visited. Coincidentally, and even though we both have traveled extensively, her first pick matched mine: Japan. The decision was made, air tickets were purchased, and hotels booked, but the timing was off. Just a few days before our departure, and with the ring well hidden in my camera bag, the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan. It was the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record keeping began in 1900, and the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan.
A few weeks ago we FINALLY had the chance to visit this incredible country and culture, and on this article I’d like to share some of the most amazing things we learned and saw. Like some of my previous videos there’s a generous mix of stills, videos, soundscapes, music and narrations.
First things first
Most of us learned in school that Japan closed its borders in 1639 for more than 200 years, keeping only one seaport open for foreign trade exclusively with Dutch and Chinese sailors. A lot has changed, of course, and the country is currently the world’s third largest economy after the United States and China. This is truly a miracle for a nation that consists of more than 6,800 islands, has a population of 127 million people, and is smaller than the states of Montana or California.
As a little kid I spent countless hours poring over my grandparents National Geographic magazines. I dreamt about far and exotic places like “Antofagasta,” which I related to cannibals, “Ushuaia,” which to me was a synonym for the end of the world, “Oaxaca,” which I imagined full of little skulls everywhere, “Marrakesh,” with stunning belly dancers and crazy sword-fighting warriors, and “Kyoto,” elegant, peaceful, and extremely expensive. I loved the sound of each place.
Now, a “few” years later, I’ve had the privilege to visit all of these magical places and work in well over 700 cities in 50 countries, covering 40% of the world (according to Tripadvisor). Compared to my childhood pipe dreams, some countries have been much more interesting (Hong Kong and Thailand), and a few hugely disappointing (Russia and Vietnam top that list). There are no cannibals in Antofagasta, you can see little skulls in Oaxaca for “Dia de los Muertos,” and Ushuaia can’t be described in words. But Japan, in fact, so far, has been the one experience to closest match my dreams.
A World of Contrasts
If I had to define the country in a single word it would be contrast. Not necessarily as in the wide social and economic disparities one sees in India, China, or South America, but in the everyday culture itself; super-modern buildings next to architectural crimes, decadent meals followed by inedible dishes, massive pedestrian crossings and jam-packed subway cars followed by serene gardens, and very polite and quiet people during the daytime that get insanely wild and loud after dusk.
Random Fun Facts
Coming from New York, it always strikes me how clean and quiet other large cities are in comparison. Even Los Angeles and Houston seem muted in comparison. In that regard, Tokyo, the most populated metropolitan area in the world, is impossibly silent. And spotless. And huge. For example, Tokyo doesn’t have an actual downtown, but 23 of them, some with a daytime population seven times higher than their nighttime population.
Having been born in Colombia and experiencing first hand the country’s well documented violence during the 90s, it is hard to grasp how Japan, with the tenth largest population in the world can have the second lowest homicide rate, with only TWO gun-related homicides per year, and a conviction rate close to 99%. My brain can’t even process that information.
There are many fascinating things about Japan, from the expected, like magnificent temples, pristine gardens, and stunning package and lighting design, to the highly unexpected like the super-salty cuisine, and the lack of English speaking people and information in English even in popular tourist areas. Regarding tourism, we based most of our itineraries on Frommer’s and Fodor’s guides, which proved to be excellent sources of information.
We also tried to understand why there are virtually no public trash cans, but no garbage on the streets, millions of people everywhere, but no benches, and restaurants with vending machines, but no napkins. I’m still looking for those answers. Please hit me on Twitter if you have a good guess. And, speaking of Japanese vending machines, one can use any of the 5.5 million to buy beer, wine, canned coffee, cigarettes, food, comic books, toilet paper and even “adult literature and pleasure products.”
To widen our Japanese experience, we stayed at a high-end hotel in Tokyo, and at a Ryokan in Kyoto. The Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with tatami floors, paper blinds, a low table for tea and super tiny pillows, provided a unique, but not very comfortable, experience. As an added bonus we located a Ryokan that offered a private Onsen, or spring bath, that was masterfully built with exquisite wood, and harvested the local volcanic waters. Of course, Japan being Japan, even this relaxing moment had many strict rules to be followed in precise order before even touching the water. Overall it was an interesting experience, especially after walking 30,000 steps each day (according to my wife’s pretty handy Fitbit).
One early morning we got the rare opportunity to attend sumo training. As architecture buffs we used some rainy afternoons to visit buildings and stores by our favorite Japanese designers. We tried hard to cover as much of the Japanese culinary spectrum as possible, from quick lunches at shopping centers’ basements, vending machines, and food trucks, and dinning at traditional Izakayas where we tried delicious Yakitori and horse sashimi.
We obviously “had” to fit in a few Michelin-rated restaurants as the respected “foodies” publication has awarded Tokyo the most stars of any city in the world. More than the food itself, the service, presentation, and attention to detail are what truly offers a remarkable experience.
More Random Facts
Japan imports 85% of Jamaica’s annual coffee production, but the fancy coffees we tried were consistently inconsistent. I might get shot for saying this, but the $1 coffee at 7-Eleven was MUCH better than most of the $8 fancy brews we tried. And I’m Colombian, I do know my coffee.
Japan is also the world’s top importer of reggae music and has the largest proportion of jazz fans in the world. We treated ourselves with a jazz concert (and grossly overpriced drinks) at the Park Hyatt‘s bar, from “Lost in Translation” fame. The city views from the fancy bar are great, especially at nighttime, but you get pretty much the same view for free only two blocks away, from Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building, where you can also get a very filling lunch for about six dollars.
Gulping down your drink and slurping is NOT considered bad manners (mom, are you reading this?), but somehow eating or drinking while walking down a street is considered very rude and nobody does it. The Zen proverb “When walking, walk. When eating, eat” is silently but effectively enforced all the time, and everywhere. One day we had to go back to our hotel, just a few blocks away, to finish our Bento box lunch.
We did enjoy bowing on meeting someone, but sitting on the floor with your hands in your lap and your legs tucked under you, not so much. Perhaps because I’m less flexible than a tree. When wearing my first kimono I created a small “fashion emergency” with the Ryokan’s owner, as one should always wear the left side over the right side. The opposite of this is only observed at funerals. Something similar happens with chopsticks; do not point them at other people, never wave them in the air or stick them upright in the rice, since they’ll look like sticks of incense at a funeral. How are you supposed to know all this?
Cash is definitely king, and many ATMs in Japan do not accept international debit cards, with the wonderful exception of the ATMs found at the 10,000 7-Eleven stores. Coins are required for buses, trams, and lockers. We had read that Internet access was horrible, but I have to disagree. Both our hotels, many subway stations and bus stops provided free Internet access. If all you need is checking your map or access something on Dropbox you should be fine. If you are planning to stream movies or video games, stay home.
In terms of packing, we broke a new personal record for this trip. We were able to fit everything into ONE suitcase. In case all the women reading this article are wondering, yes, my wife wasn’t too happy at first, but she came to appreciate my logic while navigating major transport hubs like Shinjuku, which serves 4 million passengers a day, and holds the title as the world’s busiest station.
Regarding photo and video equipment, I’ve been traveling extremely light and small. This time I brought two Panasonic GH4s (Amazon • B&H), two Panasonic Lumix lenses (Amazon • B&H) , and a Fuji X100S (Amazon • B&H). This is pretty much the same gear I’ve used on assignments in Europe (article on Sigma’s website), Turkey, and commercials like this.
Something I failed to pack (and struggled to find in Tokyo) was a “3-Prong to 2-Prong Adapter.” Considering one can get two for $6 on Amazon, it was very painful to waste precious time walking from store to store and trying to explain what a “3 prong” means with body language and childish drawings. To connect multiple devices I ALWAYS bring two essential items: a mini power strip to charge phones, batteries, and laptops using a single outlet, and a compact USB hub, to connect multiple hard drives to my laptop. This year I’ve been using these small and cheap external hard drives on my travels, and so far they’ve worked perfectly. If you are interested in seeing what’s inside my camera bag, I wrote an article with “The Essential 41 Items” for photography and video assignments.
The Final Product – The Video
Shooting stills, and video, and recording soundscapes while traveling alone is hard, I’m not gonna lie. Doing all that with your (extremely patient) wife is even harder, but totally worth it.
Obviously it’s impossible to understand a country, city, or even a neighborhood in just a couple of weeks. I’ve spent nine years in New York and every weekend we find something new to do, see, or eat. But, we only have one chance to get a first impression, and I believe those first reactions are great ways to identify interesting trends and cultural differences.
The video below has tons of additional information about Japan in general and our travel adventures in particular. If you like traveling—and eating delicious food—I’m sure you will enjoy it, and if you do, please SHARE the love!