Travel

Japan the Magnificent

07/27/2016 03:31pm ET | Updated September 6, 2017

Japan is the only country currently living in the twenty-second century. So, if one wants to see a positive version of the future of humanity, a glimpse of the planet after all of us will have passed away, Japan is the place to visit.

Japan came as one of the biggest surprises of my 6.5-year-around-the-world journey. No other country turned out to be so different from my original expectations and in such contrast from what my studies before my visit had suggested.

Japan is, first of all, the greenest country I have ever seen. Even more so than Bali or New Zealand—a great part of which became grazing fields. Its natural beauty is overwhelming, not least because it strikes the unsuspecting traveler departing from any modern Japanese city with a strange contrasting force. Verdant mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, geothermic areas, and active volcanoes are to be found throughout the country. Furthermore, the Japanese augment what nature has bestowed upon them: The Japanese man-made landscaping is simply beyond anything else on the planet with its masterly rice terraces, geometrical cultivated fields, manicured flower beds, and traditional tsukiyama gardens. Japan’s rural architecture, although modern, has traditional design elements. Many villages and isolated houses in the countryside blend into their surrounding landscape, often as perfectly as the villages of Tuscany or Provence.

Photo by Nicos Hadjicostis

Flower fields with manicured rolling hills in the background. Biei, Hokkaido, Japan.

The strangest thing is that the visitor encounters all these rural marvels in a highly advanced industrial nation—one with the fastest trains and Internet, the most well-preserved highways, and the best mobile-phone connectivity in the world. Trains in Tokyo run by the second, not by the minute. Japan is the most technologically advanced society in the world, by far. Tokyo is the most futuristic-looking city (even though Dubai perhaps surpasses it in outward appearance) with advanced systems, small and big, that permeate everything, whether it be traffic signals, the subway, or facilities in offices, restaurants, or cafes. Strolling the streets of Tokyo or Fukuoka, getting lost inside the futuristic shopping malls or visiting an industrial complex, one cannot fail to realize that the Japanese have a technological “literacy” on a completely different level than the rest of the world. For example, everybody under the age of sixty knows how to program the ten or so different brands of GPS systems in cars in less than a minute—something that is critical in helping one travel with a rental car along the whole length of the country.

Although Japan is so advanced technologically, and one would have expected automation to have replaced human contact almost everywhere, the opposite is the case. In some utterly unexplainable way, Japan manages not only to retain its human face and values, but to cultivate the art of human services to an unimaginable degree. Customer service in Japan is a century ahead of the US. This is so, because at the heart of the extremely complicated and elaborate Japanese customs lies a deep respect of “the other” (any other) and an authentic passion to serve and please. In which other place on earth does the taxi driver round down the fare in favor of the customer? In which other city in the world does a senior manager walking in the street with his colleagues leave his group to accompany a tourist (who has just asked him for directions) to his destination 300 meters away, so that he makes sure the tourist does not get lost? I will never forget a restaurant owner who accompanied us to the street bowing a hundred times on the way. He then stayed with us until the ordered taxi came, and never losing eye-contact, he kept waving good-bye for a minute after we entered the taxi until the car was out of his sight.

But customer service is only the most visible outward expression of this complex society. The Japanese culture encompasses a myriad of other aspects that cannot be explored in a short essay. Still, I would like to highlight a few things about these unique people. The Japanese have very sophisticated social and ethical norms. There is a social awareness that is grounded in mutual respect, politeness, aesthetics, refined rules of conduct. The passing visitor cannot easily unveil this, although he can easily feel and experience it. Education and child-rearing have reached a level unequaled in any other country. Young and adult Japanese alike exude a maturity beyond their years. I have not seen a child crying in Japan, nor a mother holding a kid by the hand when walking in the street. Most often children walk behind or next to their mothers, with a confident stride, the mother almost oblivious to their presence. Elementary school children demonstrate an air of independence and focus of attention that I have not encountered elsewhere. This is an advanced society, in a definitive and absolute way, however one may wish to define the term. And precisely because it is so advanced, it is sometimes mysterious to the rest of us, or, oftentimes, utterly misunderstood. That is why many visits are necessary to delve deeper and understand this fascinating culture.

If I were to choose one word to describe Japan, one that would include all of the above and more, it would be Beauty. In everything the Japanese create, in all they do, and in their social interactions and manners, there is an underlining emphasis on beauty, harmony, and exceptional quality. In landscaping and interior design, in the way they dress and walk, in how they pack the items in the supermarket, or serve food in a restaurant, or refuel the tank at a gas station, the Japanese express beauty in their everyday life like no other nation on earth does. Actually, since the Japanese are the best-dressed people in the world, we could go so far as to claim that they literally embody beauty! It is not that they are wealthy and spend an inordinate amount of money on good clothes and accessories (although this may be partly true). Rather, it is that they grew up being taught how to dress with style and taste, and they carry this for life as part of their personal well-being. They consider it their obligation, both to themselves and especially to others, to be aesthetically pleasant, attractive and beautiful. Some of these well-dressed moving bodies resemble living ikebana arrangements or mini landscaped gardens beautifying the stern lifeless cityscapes through which they move. One wonders how the rest of the world came up with the strange and quite irrational idea of dressing up only for special occasions! For the Japanese every single working day is a special day.

But beauty extends beyond form, to manners. The Japanese have a grace of movement in whatever they do: walk, sit, talk, eat, lie down to relax. This is one of the most difficult things to describe, because it is not specific to any one thing. This gracefulness permeates everything, yet it is ungraspable. To the sensitive eye, it unveils a depth of upbringing and overall education of the highest order. When a shopgirl passes you the small tray to put your money on to pay her (the Japanese don’t like to exchange money hand to hand) while uttering a soft-spoken arigato, there is a harmony in her movements and sound that no description can convey. Even though many behaviors are the product of strict rules of propriety and rigid traditions, the Japanese have managed to willingly interweave them into their individual souls. Therefore, the expression of such strict and elaborate manners and traditions is, paradoxically, uncontrived and spontaneous.

This brings us to the famous Japanese work ethic that is so far ahead of the rest of the world that, I dare claim, has reached the supreme ideal of karma yoga: the concept that someone is totally dedicated to his work and its perfection without regard for the reward. But so many things have been written about the Japanese work ethic that I need not say anything more here.

Of course, all this does not mean that Japan has no negative aspects. No society has ever reached absolute perfection. Some things had to be compromised for Japan to achieve such advancement. There is a tendency toward conformity and imitation; considerable rigidity that occasionally borders on the absurd; over-exertion in work and workaholism (evidenced by subway cars full of sleeping people); there are many societal and financial pressures to succeed, perform, and advance. However, when all aspects of this society are taken into account, the net result is one of a great living civilization that all nations on earth ought to study and learn from.

I would actually dare claim that Japan is the only country currently living in the twenty-second century! So, if one wants to see a positive version of the future of humanity, a glimpse of the planet after all of us will have passed away, Japan is the place to visit. This country represents today’s equivalent of Greece in the fifth century BC, Rome in the second century CE, Florence in the fifteenth century CE, or Britain in the nineteenth century CE. Although Japan failed to forcefully exert its influence around the world as other great civilizations did—albeit trying hard!—and although it is confined to a relatively small area, still, its position and influence in the modern world far outweigh its size and population. Japan leads the world (or is among the top leaders) in science, technology, manufacturing, business, contemporary art, fashion and design, the culinary arts, classical music, architecture, social policies, customer services. Even in the field of religion, where countries with a much longer history and development have had the “lead” for centuries, Japan, through Zen Buddhism, has given a most potent new approach for the modern individual.

What a pity that so few people actually travel to Japan, and that from those who do travel, so few leave the triangle of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. People ought to come and study this country and learn from it, as the Japanese studied and imitated the West 150 years ago. It is time for all of us to imitate the imitators who ended up surpassing those they imitated.

Overall, I think Japan is, at this moment in time, the most advanced civilization on earth.

Nicos Hadjicostis is an award-winning author and world-traveler. As part of his 6.5-year continuous around the world journey, he explored Japan for two months. His first book, Destination Earth – A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler, published in 2016, was inspired by this journey.

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