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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 2: Exploration as Recreation

One of the nicest things about living in Japan was that there was always something new and unique to see anytime I felt like going out to find it. Going to a new country, you expect to be surprised and delighted by the differences at first, but for the novelty to gradually fade. I suppose that process did eventually begin in Japan, but it took a lot longer than I expected.

The most noticeable differences between Japan and the US are of scale: Japan, as a rule, tends towards smaller and denser construction. What’s impressive is the lengths to which the Japanese take this tendancy. My first day there, I saw a one-car driveway with a small hydraulic lift installed so that it could fit two; I saw a little purple excavator not much larger than a typical American SUV. Roads themselves tend to be about as wide as one and a half American lanes, and they lack sidewalks; the expectation is that most traffic is pedestrian and that cars will just scoot carefully past one another when they do meet.

The real fun wasn’t in any individual artifact or oddity, though, however amusing. It lay in the simple fact that whenever I wanted, I could set out on my bicycle and find something new and cool. I explored a giant temple one day on nothing more than a whim, and found acres of carefully landscaped Buddhism. I rode out another day and found a flooded golf course: perfect challenge terrain for a mountain biker. I went out on an extended trip once and saw the World’s Fair, featuring huge and elaborate displays of corporate prowess. Another extended trip got me to the International Robot Exhibition. Other days brought nothing more than the simple satisfaction of seeing the sun rise over a canal in the outskirts of Tokyo, and realizing that the national emblem of a red circle on white background is a perfect illustration of the sight.

There was the first weekend I arrived in my apartment, when I went out to explore my surrounding area. I got tremendously lost, and wandered for a good four hours–but the things that I found! I saw ordinary road bridges, decorated with gull sculptures spaced so that bypassing cars would see them rotoscoped into flight. I saw factories and ironworks adjacent to apartments; I saw machinery which looked both well-worn and far too preposterous to be real. I saw farmers’ houses with ripe onions sitting on the stone fence and beans hanging by strings from the eaves. I saw rice paddies stretching to the horizon in one direction, and busy suburbia in the other.

There was an unimportant summer night when I went out for a walk, expecting nothing more than fresh air. What I found, instead, were two separate fireworks displays; two towns celebrating for no reason more than that fireworks are fun. To simply walk toward unexpected festival explosions on a whim for over an hour, through rice fields and hamlets, was a uniquely Japanese experience.

There aren’t many places in the world where one can wander easily on foot and see all of this. I was privileged to have been able to live in such a place; the satisfaction of exploration was one of the reasons I loved living in that country so much.

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