The first day I returned to Japan after not having been in the country for over a decade threw me for a loop. I mean, I felt prepared for it and all (I felt more prepared for it than I would have been, say, if I wasn’t comfortable with the language), but there was still some degree of trepidation there after not being a part of it for a while. Japan is one of those places that never leaves you. There are so many beautiful aspects of this country that it’s hard to lay one’s finger on just one and say, “This is the one thing I will miss about Japan,” or “This is, by far, the most prominent feature of Japan.” There are convenience stores (They are truly convenient. You can pay your phone bill, electric/utility bill here and do it while grabbing a CD and a warm beverage before you head to work), people in uniform on every corner (the Anime capital of the world – this country strives to be cute, colorful and full of warmth, courtesy and the idea that life truly is something to be enjoyed), and mysterious places that still hold refuge for the pantheon of gods that reside in the world of Shinto. Arguably, there are temples in almost every town (some sort of place to pay homage and pray for the gods to look upon you favorably) and, with the sharp neighboring contrast of the technological world, there are 144 airports permeating the nation.
For over two hundred years (in the 17th century) Japan was closed to the outside world and now it has become one of the hallmarks of international trade, commerce and business. It’s capital, Tokyo, is, in a sense of diversity, a microcosm of the United States comprising droplets of the entire globe (merchants/vendors, nomads, monks and students et cetera) in a single, though exuberant and thirsty, city. The urban life in the metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka are unlike any other with the karaoke bars, exotic culinary treats, sumo tournaments, cell phones, vending machines, train stations, subways and omnipresent neon lights while uniformed gas station attendants bow courteously after stopping oncoming traffic to allow you to safely drive on about your day.
Yet just outside of the concrete and whipping and buzzing of miniature vehicles there is the countryside. This is the Japan of old – territory upon which both the samurai warrior traversed and ninjas crawled surreptitiously into legend – the serenity of it all is enrapturing. To the Japanese, it is known as shizen (自然). The English translation is simply ‘nature’, yet to the Japanese, it is much more. It is a place of tranquility, a place where the worlds of the gods and man collide and the unexplainable is recognized, respected and sought to be understood. Temples are strategically placed here in the energy of spirit, the lifeblood of man, in order to pay respect to man’s world of origin and take steps in a lifelong process to step outside of oneself, to correct oneself and, ultimately, to find peace. It is as big as Mt. Fuji (富士山), yet as minute and unnoticeable as a the leaf of grass that has been blown into a nearby stream on a journey into another unknown. The Japanese accept it all as a part of the oneness of being, and they welcome it. They are givers of themselves, and respect the lives of the living. And to the Japanese, all things are living, man breathes as much as a concrete slab, and all things have a spirit.
I am looking forward to another stay here in this place. It is a new experience and I am here again to learn something. Life gives us tests; life asks us to learn. When we do, we proceed (we advance). If we don’t learn, we repeat the test anew. Only we control where we go.