Posted on 25 May 2017 in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Welcome to Japan, welcome to Asia's Germany! It was almost spooky how much the two countries seemed alike. The people were quiet and polite, they kept their distance and they didn't seem to go out of their shells too much. And they were obsessed with working out even the smallest details to perfection. Because of this everything was nice and clean and organized and things simply worked out. After almost seven months of being surrounded by the chaotic mess, the noise and the struggle and the dust that is most of South East Asia, coming to Japan felt like coming home.

Which was weird though. We didn't speak the language and couldn't read the script, and since nobody in Japan spoke any English, we were hardly able to talk to the locals. Plus the Japanese customs and traditions seemed so different from everything we had seen before. Still it felt like we didn't have to arrange ourselves with unfamiliarities as much as in most other countries. Somehow the Japanese way of life appeared to be based on the same values and ideas as the German way of life. I wonder if the conservatives are including Japanese culture in whatever the mean when they talk of "German Leitkultur" ...

Cultural shock

When the plane spat us out in Tokyo, our world had been turned upside down and we experienced a severe cultural shock. The streets in the Philippines had been full of young families and children. In Japan three quarters of the people were old. And I mean really old. 70 plus, with hunched backs and walking aides. In Southeast Asia everyday life had been a constant blur of quirky interactions between people, families and friends and strangers alike. In Japan, people seemed to avoid human interactions altogether. People of all ages stood or walked or ate staring at their phones. And the interactions that did occur were quiet, subtle, almost unnoticeable. Nobody was laughing or screaming out loud. And no one was playing excruciatingly loud music from a broken speaker attached to their crappy bike. What a weird and impersonal world.

During those seven months in Southeast Asia we hadn't heard the silence once. All those people buzzing about during the day, all those animals making noises during the night and, oh my God, so much traffic! Now we were in Tokyo, one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in the world, and obviously we expected to enter some sort of ant hill. Turns out we couldn't have been more wrong. Picture a subway station in the heart of the city. You leave the platform, climb a bunch of stairs and find yourself surrounded by thousands of people hurrying to catch their trains. And now imagine that all those people are walking in orderly lines and being so quiet that you could hear a needle fall to the ground.

Most of the differences between the two worlds were pleasant and after such a long time in Southeast Asia they constituted a change of pace that we embraced with open arms. But at the same time we were appalled by the rigid meritocracy where people wore suits, played by the rules, looked worried all the time and hardly ever noticed what lay to the left or right along their way. Apparently the amenities of a first world country are incompatible with the relaxing easiness and the over boiling closeness of the developing world.

In Japan, nobody was sitting on a chair or lying in a hammock. In fact, being as busy as possible seemed to be the country's most valued virtue. Old people who could barely stand up straight kneeled on their paddies to sow rice. This one guy literally mopped the pavement in front of Osaka station as if it were a hardwood floor. And everywhere we went people in uniforms and white gloves stopped traffic and waved at pedestrians to cross the street even though they were doing so next to a fully functioning traffic light. In the same vein our couchsurfing host Mido's children went to a private tutor every day after finishing eight hours of classes in school. And our friend Shun, whom we had met in Morocco five years ago and whom we now met again in Tokyo, worked up to 70 hours a week next to becoming increasingly popular with his music project Yahyel. He told us that he got as little as 15 days off work last year, all of which he used to tour the country with his band.

The cities

Due to his busy schedule Shun couldn't make time to show us his version of Tokyo. Which was unfortunate as we left the city after a few days being not at all impressed. For example, take the famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, supposedly the busiest in the world. Yes it was big. But was it as outrageously spectacular as advertised in the guide books and on Trip Advisor? Far from it. Just like looking at the city from the viewpoint on Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, visiting the hipsteresque shopping district of Harajuku, taking pictures of people being dressed up as Manga characters and getting our daily Ramen noodle soup at those little shops with the plastic dishes in the windows, it was, well, fine.

For our last night, however, Shun and his friend Sharar took us out for what was probably the best dinner we had in Japan. During this undisputed highlight of our stay in Tokyo we tried all sorts of weird raw fishy things, including marinated baby octopus, dried ray, giant oysters and various kinds of Sashimi. The only thing on the menu we refused to try was the fish sperm. Although the discussion on what would be the best way to extract the sperm from the fishes was just epic.

Still we found Tokyo a lot less interesting than any of the other cities we visited. Kochi was tiny and pleasant with a pretty castle and one of Japan's best beaches just a 45-minute bike ride away. And Osaka was a lot more real than Tokyo. It's people were younger, more outgoing and a lot less stiff and it was quite easy to find the alternative and artsy places. Even the viewpoint was more exciting: it was a giant red ferris wheel put on top of an eight-floor building. And with its neon lights, its countless bars and restaurants and its overall rough exterior the city's Shinsekai district looked a lot like Hamburg's St. Pauli.

Despite the fact that it was by far the most touristic place on our route through Japan, in retrospective we have to admit that our favorite city was Kyoto. The city had a dazzling amount of well-kept temples and shrines and even its touristic districts were full of exciting places and well-designed items. The city had been spared in World War II and the cultural heritage from its time as the nation's capital was being carefully preserved and constantly renewed. Thus it is little surprising that out of all the cities we visited in Japan, Kyoto looked the most like what any Westerner would imagine a Japanese city to look like.

The nature

After a few nights in Tokyo we went to see Mount Fuji. You know, to take that one photo any tourist in Japan is longing for. Luckily we did that right after checking into our hostel, for on the following days the mountain's peak disappeared behind a wall of clouds. Then we hopped on a bus and headed to Takayama, a sleepy town surrounded by the snow-covered peaks of the Japanese Alps. The scenery was gorgeous, especially since we hadn't seen anything like it since hiking in the mountains of Georgia eleven months ago.

But it wasn't until we left the mountains that we realized that Japan actually was an endless array of hills covered in lavish forest, with tiny villages crouching in the valleys and crawling up the hills, and of scenic views of wooded cliffs cutting into the ocean. We spent two weeks volunteering in the remote mountain village of Nakatosa on Shikoku Island, staying in a wooden cabin right next to beautiful Shimanto River, and it was perfect. We had seen some amazing places on our route, some of which even deserved the label 'paradise', and yet the area around the Genryu no Sato Resort might have been one of the most beautiful pieces of land I had ever seen. The river wound through the mountains covered in the thickest forests and in the early morning, when the midst rouse from the trees, everything seemed alright with the world.

Volunteering at Genryu no Sato

Next to enjoying the gorgeous surroundings of the resort, working at Genryu no Sato came with serious perks. We worked four hours a day, mostly cleaning and fixing up the outdoor areas and doing house keeping for the very few guests, and in return got to enjoy free accommodation, three meals per day and the resort's very own Onsen (hot spring), Sauna and massage chair. Plus this one day the owner Kasu invited a chef from a nearby restaurant who came with three huge tunas pulled out of the ocean earlier that day and sliced them up into Sashimi right in front of our eyes. That traditional dining experience alone would have set us back about a hundred bucks each (meaning we wouldn't have done it).

But even with these perks the best thing about this Workaway were the people. We played our instruments and we played games, we cooked for each other and hitchhiked to the beach on our day off. At no point was it awkward or weird. After all there was none of that distrust and resentment we had found to be bubbling under the surface at Kactus on Koh Ta Kiev in Cambodia.

We were nine volunteers with four people leaving and four new people coming in halfway through our time at the resort. And while it was sad to see the two French couples leave, this is how we met Tut and Omer from Israel. They stayed in our bungalow and we clicked instantly. Tut shared Lea's passion for cooking and especially baking, and Omer was without a doubt one of the funniest guys we had ever met. Being with them was nothing but easy and fun. Luckily the feeling was mutual and so we made sure that we met again in Osaka before we said our goodbyes and promised to visit each other next year.

Hitchhiking and couchsurfing

After two weeks of enjoying nature, perks and the company of friends at Genryu no Sato we left thinking that it couldn't get better than this. Then we hitched a ride in 68-year-old business man and hobby golfer Samu's car and from that moment on, things got even better. He was almost as excited as we were and took a detour so that we could see the magnificent southern coast line of Shikoku Island. When dropping us off in Kochi he invited us to stay with him and his family in a suburb of Osaka. We got his number and headed to our couchsurfing host Midori's place.

The following two days we lived as part of her family: we had fixed times for breakfast (07:30 am) and dinner (9:30 pm), we helped with preparing the meals, we sat with them until late in the evenings to look at vacation pictures. They had traveled extensively and especially the pictures of Cambodia in the 1980s and of Syria seven years ago were mesmerizing. Other than that the place was a zoo. They had a dog and three cats, two of which were seriously overweight, and even a goat in their backyard. And every inch of their house was filled with stuff. Cloths and toys and Pokémon figurines and countless magazines and DVDs. No, this was really not the typical orderly Japanese household.

Then we hitchhiked to Osaka with a Denim-Hipster who was on his way to becoming a shaman and wanted to attend a Buddhist seminar there. Some things you cannot make up… We stayed with Samu and his family and spent one of the most memorable and pleasant evenings having dinner with them. His wife was very sweet and behaved like a real mom: she prepared a comfortable bed in the Tatami-room (a traditional Japanese room with a Judo-mat kind of floor and sliding doors), she spent hours in the kitchen preparing a feast and she gave us an old kimono and two handmade scarfs as presents. Meanwhile Samu changed into his traditional Japanese Pajamas and brought Japanese fake beer (a drink that is essentially beer brewed with only half the amount of barley and thus tastes a little watery), Sake (brewed rice wine) and Shotshu (a distilled rice spirit). Then Kumi, Samu's 38-year-old daughter, came home from work and we immediately hit it off. We got along so well that on the next day she drove us to Kyoto so that we could spend the day together. And on our last day in Japan we met again in Osaka where Kumi took us out to cross the last two remaining activities off of our list: eating Sushi in a restaurant with a belt and singing Karaoke in a place with many tiny rooms. Done and done.

The first photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The second photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The third photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The fourth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The fifth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The sixth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The seventh photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The eighth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The nineth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The tenth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The eleventh photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The twelveth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The fourteenth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The fourteenth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The fifteenth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.
The sixteenth photo for the blog post on Japan posted on May 25, 2017.


01 Cherry blossoms / 02 Girls in Kimonos doing a photo shooting at a temple / 03 Waving cats in a window in Yanaka, Tokio / 04 Garden gnomes / 05 Majestic Mount Fuji / 06 The Japanese Alps / 07 A crooked tree line / 08 The coastline of Shikoku Island / 09 Our couchsurfing hostess Midori's living room / 10 Plastic sushi / 11 A bamboo forest / 12 The orange gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine / 13 Kinkaku-ji Temple / 14 Higashiyama Jisho-ji Temple / 15 Wishes written on rice paper dissolving in water at Higashiyama Jisho-ji Temple / 16 A waving cat in an aquarium / For more photos please visit our photo blog on VSCO


This is the route we took during the 37 days we spent in Japan. Starting in Tokio on 16 April we made our way to Shikoku island via the Japanese Alps and the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kochi.
World map showing the route of my travels through Japan.
Days on the road
Home stays
Kilometers traveled
Cities and sights visited