Over and over again, Japan felt like the exact opposite of America. Despite being a similarly "modern" country, it felt as opposite as east and west. Some examples: you board buses at the back and pay before you get off (as opposed to boarding at the front and paying as your board); there are no trash cans anywhere (yet no litter!); traditional beds are just mats on the floor (and way more comfortable than that sounds); and I could write a whole blog on bizarre toilets and bathrooms alone! In short, Japan is weird. It feels like the most foreign place I've ever been and I found it really fascinating.
Gardens, tea ceremonies, kimonos, origami and stunning Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines: just some of the more well-known aspects of Japanese art and religion. I could and did spend hours wandering in and out of shops of beautiful ceramics and textiles shops in Kyoto. I even stalked a few ladies in beautiful kimonos to get a good picture, since they were dressed for traditional ceremonies or visiting temples. Every meal is beautifully presented and proportioned, even the simplest and cheapest ones. Even in the chaos of Tokyo, we found beautiful gardens and tidy, residential neighborhoods that exuded Zen. The gardens surrounding some of the temples in Kyoto were still peaceful and colorful despite the beginning of winter.
I'm not sure why I was surprised but we met so many lovely people all over Japan. Cultural values of honor and hospitality coupled with a deep love of their traditions equaled amazing people and great cultural exchanges. People were very helpful and eager to meet and talk with us about all kinds of things...especially Japanese cars.
Like I said in the beginning, at times traveling in Japan was really frustrating. Not a lot of people spoke English and outside of touristy areas, things were not written in English either. We traveled by train which was generally easy, but the chaos of the stations and the public transit, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, was difficult to navigate. Wandering around was fun and interesting but looking for something specific often led to “Lost in Translation” moments (or hours). Despite the frustrations, Japan was amazing because of the people and the culture. For anyone not wearing their Adventure Pants I would recommend an organized tour, but it ended up being the number one place we can't wait to return to.