The Japanese Cultural Experiences That Changed Me

I put my sunglasses on as I board the plane. I can wipe the tears but I don’t want anyone to see my red, swollen eyes. I want to keep looking at the country I fell in love with but the view through the clean window is blurred. My tears mess it all up. Soon, clouds cover Japan and this is when I realize my trip is over. The announcements start. I know them by heart so I don’t listen to them. The flight attendant comes to me and asks me what I want. ‘I want to come back. And a glass of vodka, please.’

Two weeks in Japan were not enough. After a bad break up, I decide to reward myself and go on a solo adventure. I have always felt an attraction toward Japan, curiosity to learn its language and fascination of its culture. I feel excited, nervous, awed, euphoric, scared and alive when I buy my plane ticket. My plan is to arrive just in time for the cherry blossom season. And so I do.

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I love walking under these sakura ‘tunnels’ in Kyoto.

HANAMI

The first time I hear the word ‘hanami’ I think, ‘Who has time to go out and do that?’ Focused on our work, personal problems and political issues that make us believe the world is a horrible place, we often forget to appreciate the small details around us. I flick through the Japanese TV channels and few of them show reporters commenting on sakura. The camera reveals close-ups, long and aerial shots of the luscious pink and white blooms. The reporter seems enchanted, ‘Oooh, this is beautiful, isn’t it?’ Then the happy voiceover mentions the best places to go for a flower watch, as well as the sponsors of the program.

Hanami is a traditional thousand-year-old Japanese custom that celebrates the beauty of the blooming trees. Now, it is a picnic with friends or family under the gorgeous branches in the parks. I do it with some fun strangers I meet at my hostel in Kyoto. The beauty around us helps us bond and engage in meaningful conversations.

Before coming to Japan, I used a sakura calendar to plan my trip in the cherry blossom season. Every year, the dates are different and the blooming lasts only for few days.

A TRADITIONAL TEA CEREMONY LESSON

‘It seems easier to host a tea ceremony than to be a guest at it.’ That is the conclusion I make after my first tea ceremony lesson at a special Japanese school to which my host in Tokyo, Yuta, takes me. I feel privileged to be the only non-Japanese person to enter something that to me feels like a secret society. It is is an actual lesson where most people learn the art of being a tea ceremony master. And there is me, the outsider who doesn’t even speak the language but is enthusiastic enough to try and understand what is happening. Yuta knows I am trying to learn Japanese so he doesn’t translate anything in English unless I look at him with my lost-in-translation face.

We all must sit in seiza, a traditional form of seating. I kneel and fold my legs underneath my thighs. It gets painful after ten minutes but this builds character. Those of us who play the part of the guests line on the soft tatami mat. We have to count an exact number of lines. The last line marks the place where our knees have to be. I have to repeat certain expressions in Japanese when I greet the host, take a sweet or before I drink my tea. There are rules for the position of every part of my body, for the order I use my hands to take and drink from the bowl. I fear I will hate the matcha tea when I try it and this will show on my face and everyone will think I am impolite. But the tea is not that bad, it tastes like coffee but more bitter. Regardless if I like it or not, the etiquette requires me to say, ‘mmm it was very tasty,’ with passion and in Japanese.

It is my turn to be the host. I perform the routine I have watched others do. I take some of the green powder, pour water and start whisking it inside a bowl. The Japanese start laughing as our teacher Tomoko comments my performance. I turn to Yuta with a confused look and he explains, ‘You are doing it too fast! Slow down.’

I think about these words long after the lesson is over. So far, I have been traveling in a rush to see and experience all amazing places in Japan. I am so obsessed with this country that I sometimes forget to eat, rest or enjoy the journey. Tomoko may not realize it but she gave me a valuable advice on how to continue my trip without having a heart attack and how to enjoy life at a slower pace. Slow down. Drink a cup of tea. Take the time to enjoy it.

PUTTING A KIMONO

Excited to have my ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ moment, I decide to do something super touristy and get a Geisha makeover, complemented with a stroll in the old town and a photo shoot. Wearing this camouflage for half a day costs at least 10 000 yen ($84) and for some reason I believe it is worth it.

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I am lucky to spot a Geisha and hurry to take a picture. It seems like a legit image of Kyoto, one you would expect to see and photograph.
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But these Geisha we love to photograph are normal women who are just having fun with their makeover. The real ones are hard to spot as they come out in the evening and are usually in a rush.

But then I go to the market next to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine where I stumble upon a stand that sells second-hand traditional dresses. I buy it and start making plans of how to accessorize it, instead of renting one for a short time. It costs $150 in total but I can keep the outfit.

I put on my new wooden flip flops and white socks when I go out to meet Taka who is going to show me around Kyoto. ‘Who wears flip flops with socks?!’, I seem to be the only person laughing. As me and Taka greet, I explain my weird shoe choice as I point at the bag where I am carrying the dress. He takes me to a public toilet at the train station where I can change into my kimono. I spend the next twenty minutes inside, wrestling with the belt that seems impossible to put. But I better wrap it around my waist and get out of here soon. I don’t want my new friend to think I have stomach problems. I am happy with the belt wrapping job I do. And yet when I go out, I see the grumpy face of a Japanese granny in the mirror. She doesn’t say anything when she approaches me to adjust the obi belt. My back straightens from her strong pull. I show her the exit door as she starts to explain something. I need Taka’s help.

Both adjust and discuss my dress and I feel as soulless as a shop window mannequin. Apparently, there are pieces that I have missed. But the granny manages to wrap my belt as Taka learns something new. Suddenly, he jumps in excitement, ‘Picture, picture! Where is your camera?’ He snaps a few shots before the woman is done fixing my dress. Later that day, I understand his eagerness to capture this moment. I look like a giant next to her.

Putting a kimono requires time and dedication. It teaches us to master confidence and self-respect.

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She takes some plastic bags and makes a cushion out of them – the part that I missed buying.

TEMPLE LODGING AND PRAYING WITH MONKS

I feel nervous before my very first telephone conversation in Japanese. To make it more intimidating, it is with a monk from a traditional temple in the country. I would have otherwise used email and Google Translate. I write my script, practice it a few times, take a deep breath and dial the number. It works, we understand each other, even when I ask him to repeat some words several times. He starts making my reservation, asking me when I want to come and how long I want to stay. I answer all his questions and he confirms. ‘For how many people?’ It is just for me. I can hear him getting anxious on the other side of the line. ‘Ugh… No… Useless… It is not possible.’ What do you mean? Why? ‘Rules.’ I hung up.

Koyasan is too popular for my taste but at least its temples are solo-female-friendly and I can book by room online. It is the most I have ever paid for accommodation – $100 for one night, which is a lot for someone who usually stays at hostels or uses Couchsurfing.

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Soon after entering this beautiful forest, I realize that it is a graveyard and I am walking alone through it.
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I am politely asked to take my shoes off at the very first entrance.
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A small bite from every dish helps me find out if it is sweet or savory and whether I like it or not.

I expect the temple lodging conditions to be modest. Instead, I get a huge traditional Japanese room where I am served a multi-course vegetarian dinner, the typical Buddhist shoji cuisine. But there are rules for communicating with women. Monks always arrive in a pair when they come to do my bed, clear my table or wake me up for the morning prayer.

Before sunrise, I am invited to pray and participate in a ritual I don’t quite understand. As the only non-Japanese person, I just sit and observe the chanting monks, soaking the serene energy in the room. Suddenly, all of us have to perform a certain routine, one after another. I watch and repeat, try and fail. The monks’ patience makes me feel calm.

I close my eyes and take a moment to appreciate the zen garden inside me.

SUMIMASEN (EXCUSE ME)

Before I head to Japan, friends warn me I am going to a country where people don’t speak English. ‘Yeah, yeah. I am sure there are plenty of locals who can communicate in English’, I reply. Few days later, I almost end up sleeping on Shirakawago’s dark and still snowy streets, under a heavy rain. The bus drops me in the village at night. There is only one other person who arrives with me, a guy about my age. I assume he speaks English and ask him if he can help me find my way, phone my hosts or, at least, show some moral support. Instead, he runs away.

From now on, I can only rely on my luck. I know how the house looks – dark wood and thatch roof. Just like any other house in the area. There are no street lights but there is plenty of water soaked in my clothes and backpack as I wander. I look like a sad character from a romantic French drama, alone and dumped under the rain. A cheesy ballad plays inside my head. I think the cold is making me hallucinate. My backup plan is to hide somewhere where I won’t freeze and wait for the long night to pass, wearing layers of wet clothes.

I see a shadow in the distance. An umbrella, a person. I shout “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!”. He hears me and turns. I ask him for directions, in Japanese. He orders me to walk with him. I only use a few words in Japanese and yet he gets chatty and curious to communicate with me. I understand vaguely and either say yes, no or “I only speak a little Japanese.” The man takes me to the house. My host is waiting for me with an authentic home-cooked dinner.

A simple excuse me opens all doors.

 

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Ironically, the house I have booked is called ‘Furosoto’ – bath outside.
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Even though it is spring, Shirakawago’s streets are still snowy.
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