A recent trip to land of the rising sun has placed further evidence to a case i’ve been filing that Japan could be the greatest country in the world.
It was my fourth visit, and, flying into Kansai with my brother, we took a train straight to Shirahama beach in southern Wakayama where we met up with a friend. Thus began six days of binge sake drinking, compulsive sushi eating and excessive sunburn.
We stayed at the only hostel in town, in a lush coastal setting boasting vibrant green and blue hues in every direction. After a short walk to scout out the beach, we were taken aback to be invited by a mother/daughter/daughter’s friend trio to be guests at their holiday home that night.
We’d only been there for an hour. We promptly said yes.
The Japanese have the world’s highest life expectancy. The same mother that picked us up a few hours later was eighty years old and showed no signs of being of such a ripe old age. She was agile, beaming with energy, and drove her 4×4 with ease.
This wasn’t your average pensioner.
We were further humbled when we arrived where a banquet fit for a king had been laid out for us. Wines were ready to be emptied and premium beers stocked the fridge. At this point we were heavily regretting the decision to bring a two liter carton of cheap sake between the three of us.
As the impeccably prepared dining table devolved into a beer bottle graveyard, we were offered the spare room to bed down for the night. It was here that I got a small glimpse of this generous soul’s life.
In the picture above, she’s holding her portrait at 40 years old, half her current age.
This was from an album of her late husband. They had both built the house from scratch when Shirahama was on the rise. Even more touching than the invitation to gaze into this window to the past was the speed of events – we’d not long arrived in town, the country no less. Now I was knelt beside someone in their own home, a person that didn’t even speak my language, being shown undeserved amounts of generosity.
We’d only booked two nights in Shirahama, but fortune stayed on our side as we discovered that an annual fireworks display was being held on the second evening. Half the attendees were wearing traditional kimonos and yakutas and I couldn’t help but stop the young girl above for some shots of her strawberry ensemble.
When the explosions rang out, flashing over the ocean for forty minutes, they were breathtaking – the best we’d ever seen, and perfectly timed to an assortment of tunes that climaxed to an operatic number. It was at that point that we collectively broke off a piece of our hearts and buried it under the sand.
This girl was sixteen years old and about to start the 3rd day shooting for a film being cast from first-time locals. Her on-screen romantic interests nearby were both a year older. I asked the primary lover if he got to kiss her. “No”, he said with a straight face and unflinchingly tone solemn, “It’s pure love.”
Japan, Japan, Japan. What seventeen year old boy would say that in the West?
From pure love to bare-faced cheek – all of the beach goers we encountered in the three days we were there were wildly engaging with an uninhibited spirit that is too much of a rarity in my more conservative residence of South Korea. The jokers above, showing off their new tattoos, were prime examples.
What also struck us, beyond the ease of interactions, was that the Japanese love a good dose of vitamin D – quite the reverse of neighboring Korea where pale skin is a prized asset. Covering up is not the agenda at Shirahama.
The final three days were spent in a rainswept Osaka. The monsoon season brought rain showers as dramatic as the country’s many castles.
Have you ever seen a monk in full robes dump a stack of animated erotica onto a cashiers table of a comic book store? The same store where groups of girls casually browse for gay male fiction? The one across the street from where adult men stack baskets of cartoon school girl porn? It’s next to the maid cafes where awkward teens a few floors above will pay girls for no more than a loving gaze, whilst business men somewhere in the block opposite are being tied up and spanked.
I have. It’s weird. It’s unsettling and I can’t help but spend a lot of time wandering around places like Nipponbashi, the geeky district of Osaka where video game shops are like museums and the dolls aren’t just for cuddling. It’s fascinating to see just how deep the roots of Japanese culture are and just how far the branches have grown with regard to their current tastes and obsessions.
Japan is a beautiful and exotic hybrid of heart warming traditional values blended into the unforgettably, mind meltingly modern. If you’re willing to taste a little of each of the cultural dishes on offer, you’ll come away with a unique taste where, more likely than not, you’ll eagerly return for more.
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