Japan is an introvert’s paradise.
Especially for this particular one. Of all the places I’ve traveled to, I find the culture and structure of Japan to fit my personality the most. As someone who prefers silence and not to be bothered by outside world - that peace and serenity in the home is of utmost importance - traveling to Japan has been a revelation. In an alternate timeline, I think I would have moved to Japan a long time ago.
Let me explain why.
For me the most attractive attribute is how quiet it is. Tokyo is obviously very densely populated city, but the populace seems to have a virtue of being aurally unobtrusive. Our Airbnb suite is situated directly adjacent to the road, yet when inside there’s hardly a loud noise to be heard. Here in the States, I grew up in a neighborhood rife with people playing loud music, shouty pedestrians, and active police vehicles and ambulances driving by on a daily basis. Therefore, whenever I travel I greatly enjoy being away from all of that, and Japan happens to offer an atmosphere of quiet almost everywhere.
Perhaps it’s architecturally that way, too: I wonder how many layers of sound-deadening stuff is inside the walls of a typical home in Japan.
For sure, Japanese culture contributes a large part. Modesty and quiet are demanded from people whenever out in public. Even in crowded and packed areas such as malls, the din of the crowd never seems to reach the levels I’ve witnessed in other megacities in Asia. It’s superbly quiet on trains and buses; If you must talk with a friend, you do so in a low register, and if you need to have an argument, well, I don’t know the answer to that because we did not encounter such a thing while taking the train in Japan.
We’ve all heard of foreigners in Japan being absurdly loud on trains and annoying the local populace, and me and my friend knew better than to add to that stereotype.
Thanks to the pervasiveness of general quietness, no one bothers you in public, either. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember once when we got solicited for anything, even when we were in areas heavily frequented by tourists. There was nobody handing out flyers for restaurants, no one asking us if we’re interested in this or that. As a person with an introvert bent, this lack of intrusion was a very much welcomed.
I think it’s this respect for personal space that allows people in Japan to be completely themselves. The wacky fashion trends and personal quirks we’ve come to associate with Japan likely owe a lot to the paradigm of live and let live. It’s somewhat ironic that for a country known for the proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” it simultaneously created space for people to express themselves freely, whatever niche they so choose. Introverts tend to have hobbies, and the intense and passionate hobby habit of Japan is legendary (see Akihabara). So long as you’re not physically bothering others, people simply leave you alone. Introverts can feel safe that no one is judging you - externally, anyways.
They can also feel a sense of safety from crime. Japan is renowned for being one of the safest countries in the world, and lifting that burden of stress is not insignificant. As a hobbyist photographer I carry around quite a bit of kit, and when I’m home in the States I always have to keep my head on a swivel to assess potential threats of theft. I can’t ever leave the camera kit in the car because it’ll for sure be broken into and stolen. Contrast that with Japan, where such worries wouldn’t even manifest on my mind. We were at a Starbucks, and I saw a person simply leaving their laptop on the table whilst heading off to use the restroom.
We wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing here in America.
Japan eliminates a lot of the anxiety for introverts in public spaces, and if you rather not interact with another person for as much as possible, there’s really no better country. Many service points are automated and machined; typical restaurants have a ticket vending system where you don’t have to order with a live person. Want a cup of freshly ground coffee or espresso? There’s no need to head into a Starbucks: convenient stores have self-serve kiosks where the beans aren’t grounded until you click order.
I am definitely coming back to Japan again. Many times.
We pick up from the last time at Kyoto Station, coming here from Tokyo bright and early for a one-day trip at the old capital of Japan. My friend chose our first destination: Fushimi Inari Shrine, which requires taking a local train to Inari Station.
Immediate outside the station is the entrance way towards the shrine.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a vast temple complex nestled within a mountain, aptly named Mt. Inari. Of course, I found out about this after the fact, as I was not expecting to do any sort of hiking on this trip. Remember, it’s Summer in Japan, and simply walking around outside is enough to make me sweat like I’m in a sauna.
At least there’s cloud-cover. Doing this under a bright sunny day would have been a killer.
As you’ll see later, the place is highly instagram-able, which is largely the reason why we are here, along with everybody else.
Entrance to the main shrine. That girl is smart to bring an umbrella.
Buildings and architectural style dating back to the 1500’s.
Before entering the shrine grounds properly, one is expected to cleanse their hands and palate at the communal fountain. Don’t worry, simply follow the instructions posted on how to perform this ritual correctly.
Surely you’ve all seen this or a variation of this in Japan travel brochures.
The main attraction of the Fushimi Inari Shrine are the paths leading up to smaller shrines up in the mountain, which are canopied with these small gate structures, placed neatly one after another like a row of dominoes. These are the parts where the shrine is instagram famous, though more of an annoyance for me as people would often stop to take pictures and block the narrow path. It’s a hot and sweltering day, folks: let’s get a move on, please!
A closer look at the many, many gates.
The mountain fox is symbolic to Fushimi Inari Shrine, and statues of it appear throughout the grounds.
These paths take visitors to higher parts of the mountain, nestled in which are smaller, more discreet temples to various gods. One can literally make it a day of hiking at Mt. Inari; we obviously chose not to because A, we were very much ill-equipped, and B, we only had the single day in Kyoto so it would be a waste to spend it entirely at one place.
This particular gate design must be typical for Japan, as I’m sure everyone is familiar with the one floating in the middle of the water in Hiroshima.
We’ll make it there some day.
I didn’t expect to see such lushness in the dead of Summer, but it’s captivating all the same.
After taking enough photographs for instagram, we headed back down to the train station and reversed our course towards Kyoto Station.
From there we hopped onto another line for our second sightseeing place (my choice): the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It was the seat of Japan’s sovereign before the Meiji Restoration, when the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869. Today the palace grounds are beautifully preserved and open to the public.
There are multiple entranceways into the grounds of the Imperial Palace; I’m not sure which side of the compass this particular one is situated, as my friend merely picked the one closest to our subway stop.
As it’s typical to palaces I’ve been to in Asia, the walkways leading in are considerably lengthy.
The smaller palaces on the side provide a first glimpse of the overall architectural style; it’s definitely not disimilar to style of the period in other parts of Asia, though each region has its own subtleties, especially in the interior.
After a grueling walk (by now the sun has snuck out from clouds and beating on us mightily), we reached the outer protective wall of the main palace.
The surrounding plaza is surprisingly vast, as you can see with the truck on the right for scale.
It’s like an exquisite life-size banzai tree, though I guess it’d just be called a tree…
After circumnavigating a bit around the palace wall, we arrived at the ceremonial main entrance called Kenreimon. It’s definitely less ornate and ostentatious than what I had expected, but the view opposite to this picture makes up for it.
Because immediately after crossing through Kenreimon is yet another gate - Jomeimon - that leads to the inner courtyard where the main hall of the palace is situated.
It’s a really interesting shade of red the builders chose to color major parts of the inner courtyard wall.
Here is the Hall of Ceremonies - Shishinden - in all its glory; indeed the structure is so big, I didn’t have a wide enough lens to capture the entirety of it from a head-on perspective.
Tiled roof: a tradition of Asia.
Sadly the interior of the main hall isn’t on display for the public, so we quickly moved on to the other parts of the compound, consisting of smaller halls and various gardens.
This picture gives me feelings of being a ninja, covertly poking a hole through the white paper screen and spying on the secrets inside.
With the palace tour done, it was time for a late lunch. Tofu is a well-known staple food of Japan, more so than even for the Chinese; my friend recommended a traditional tofu restaurant right next to Kamo River, in the heart of Kyoto, called Tousuiro.
Unfortunately, my kanji illiterate friend utterly missed the signage for Tousuiro, and instead, we went to the shop on the left of the picture. The style of food is largely the same - and delicious - just not tofu-centric. Perhaps the person with more grasp of Asian languages should have been in charge of navigating…
Like Tousuiro, the restaurant we went to had a deck level with open views of Kamo River and the surrounding recreation area. If it weren’t low 90s F with a beaming sun, we definitely would’ve at outside.
Indeed, the views around Kamo River are so good that instead of ducking down the subway to escape the heat as we headed to our next interest point, we instead chose to walk alongside the river. It helped to burn off a few lunch calories, too.
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Being back in an urban area allowed me to resume a bit of car spotting. As we walked around Gion district, I saw this red first-generation Honda NSX parked nonchalantly on the side of a thoroughfare. It seems to be bone-stock as well, which for this type of car I would say is quite rare. To capture a scene like the above is precisely what I had hoped for traveling to Japan.
Another one of Kyoto’s specialities is matcha green tea, as the birthplace of matcha is right nearby in the city of Uji. Naturally, there’s plenty of tea rooms and cafes in the Gion district, though the particular one we went to is called Tsujiri. It’s a popular matcha cafe whose claim to fame - with tourist and locals - is the desserts.
I ordered this matcha contraption filled with various jellies, cakes, and ice cream. I’ve not the biggest sweet tooth, but I have to say this was absolutely the most delicious piece of dessert I’ve ever eaten, almost to the point that when I return to Japan in the future, I must come back to this exact cafe to eat it again.
The ground level of Tsujiri is a shop area with many variety of green tea products, making a perfect opportunity to stock up on souvenirs.
After the most delicious dessert ever, we had plans to go to the neighboring city of Nara to see the deers. However, when we came out of the cafe, we were greet by this dreary scene.
Being from southeastern China, I’m not unfamiliar with great thunderstorms, but I had not expected to see it while in Japan. The sunny scene only half an hour ago turned dark and ominous, with the sky pouring down a level rain that will soak you completely within seconds of exposure. Our subway stop was across several open streets, so we were effectively locked in until the storm passes over.
Soon enough the amount of rain did subside enough for us to make it back to Kyoto Station. The bad news is, the locus of the thunderstorm happens to be going exactly where we wanted to go at Nara. Defeated, we decided to call it a day and head back to Tokyo.
And on that terrible disappointment, I’ll end part four of this Japan Escape here. Join me next time for the concluding fifth part where we spend two days in a resort town near the base of the eternal Mount Fuji: