We ended up in Japan on a whim. Sure, we had long wanted to visit the country, but it had always seemed so very far away, almost out of grasp. Then there was a special offer, the flights were cheap, and before we knew it, we had booked the tickets. In the weeks before departure, I bought a travel guide (the venerable Lonely Planet, more about that soon) and kept insisting that I would prepare for this trip. I set aside time, sat down with the guide, made a rough outline, saved some maps for offline use and then, before I knew it, the time had come to go – with me having prepared almost nothing.
Panic set it. I had just read an entirely unrelated interview with the British author Geoff Dyer, who said that his life motto was “If you are not over-prepared, you are under-prepared”. We were everything but. I ended up booking a hostel for the second night from the airport Wifi, then stepped on the plane with a feeling of mild unease and the suspicious that we would get lost and/or starve, since I didn’t even know the word “vegetarian” in Japanese.
Japan strikes a balance between unknown and familiar. It is very far, you have most likely heard some strange stories about it, and yet you have probably seen some of its products (thanks to Muji, UniQlo, Godzilla and Nintendo) and will recognize a startling number of words. Consequently, arriving in Japan is both surreal and affirming: Many of the things you have heard are actually true: Yes, it is very clean. Yes, it is relatively quiet. People bow when you walk into a store. There is green tea with everything (Mouthwash?!). No, nobody speaks English. Karaoke, manga, smartphones, Dance Dance Revolution: They are a thing. It is historic and modern: There are wooden sliding doors lined with paper and their toilets are plugged into an electrical outlet because they have so many functions. Going to Japan means discovering all those things – and so much more.
We spent our first days in Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands. We landed in Fukuoka, saw Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Mount Aso. It was the “rain season” and not a whole lot of tourists come to Kyushu anyway, so it sometimes felt like we had entered right into an incredibly isolated country. We were often stared at, though not uncomfortably – just out of curiosity. People were extremely friendly, but spoke almost no English. Getting food was a matter of pointing, guessing, eating convenience store food – or indulging in mystery food.
In the end, there probably wasn’t that much we could have prepared for.