All of it’s real, anywhere you go

This post focuses on something I often thought of in Korea, but touring Japan for the third time made me think about it more deeply. That is, the real [insert place/city/country here]. But first, consider the three quotes below:

  1. The next few days in Kyoto were pleasant enough, but despite my best efforts to see what Kyoto had to offer, I couldn’t understand why everyone was so in love with the place. To me, it looked like most other modern cities. Assuming that its magic would be found in its historic sights, I dutifully visited as many different temples, shrines, and palaces as I could. They were nice, but I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. In an attempt to explore the city further, I rented a bicycle and spent the next two days riding around the residential districts in a search of the “real” Japan. But it was hard to find––at least on the surface. From the outside looking in, Kyoto was a modern city that had been built up around its old temples and shrines. It was an attractive city, magnificently maintained and with a tradition and reverence for the past. But all the same, it was modern on the outside. To me, the real Kyoto was different from what I had imagined I would find.
    — Eric Raff, No Sense of Direction
  2. “A grizzled sergeant once said to me, ‘Son, I’ve been searching for the “real Army” for 25 years, and it doesn’t exist.'” This was something Dave said to me when we talked about whether living in rural Gangwon constituted the “real” Korea or not.
  3. …the purest way to see a culture is simply to accept and experience it as it is now–even if you have to put up with satellite dishes in Kazakhstan, cyber cafes in Malawi, and fast food restaurants in Belize. After all, as Thomas Merton retorted when asked if he’d seen the “real Asia” during his trip to India, “It’s all real as far as I can see.” —Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

People have their own reasons for visiting places. I find Japan a curious case, because for all those who want the temples and the history, just as many want the ultra-modern cities and the manga. I’m among the latter, but I don’t know much about anime beyond the film Akira. My earliest recollections of Japan all relate to technology: computers, stereos, and televisions from Sony and Hitachi. The compact disc that Sony invented in the 1980s and changed music history with. Or the video games my brother and I played throughout the 1990s on Super Nintendo and N64.

And later, when I got into my teens and started buying seriously buying and collecting music, the phrase “Japanese import.” Oh, how do I describe this? How can I express the magic of the phrase that mentions stuff not available in America, of rare tracks, of esoteric knowledge? Japan seemed to get all the extra tracks and the rare stuff that couldn’t be had in America. I don’t want to go too far off on this tangent, but I’ve always been a completist with many favorite artists. If they did a non-album track, I had to hear it. Take a Green Day, who released two or three EPs in Japan only. They contained live takes of some of their best material and I had to have them. Yet they weren’t easily available in America. This case and many others had me thinking that Japan was a hallowed ground for music lovers. And techies.

So Japan loomed for years as a high tech wonderland. Like Marty McFly’s line in Back to the Future, I figured, “All the best stuff’s made in Japan.”

These thoughts informed all three of my visits to the country and any casual observer of Japan will find it a paradise for all things technological. I mention all of the tech stuff because that’s part of what modern Japan is. The real Japan is as much the neon lights of Shibuya, the jet-noisy pachinko parlors, and Akira as it is the kimonos, the white powdered Geishas, and the old farm houses I saw in Osaka. All of it’s real. All of it goes together. None of it cancels anything out.

Hiroshima Castle
Hiroshima Castle Tower
Outside Shibuya Station in Tokyu on a Tuesday night.

–Drafted in the air over Russia, revised in a hotel northeast of London, England. I flew out of Tokyo at noon on Wednesay. I’ve now left Asia, where I’ve spent nearly four years. It’s been good, but it’s not over yet. With any luck I’ll make some return visits in the future. Now it’s on to Western Europe.


  1. I quoted Potts and Raff above because they both wrote of grappling with the realities of what they saw. I cannot comment on Kyoto because I only saw the city through the window of the Shinkansen bullet train. They’re likely right. Those who love Kyoto for its temples are right as well. [Both books are well worth reading for anyone interested in traveling the world.]
  2. The first trip was to Tokyo during Korea’s Chuseok holiday and focused more on sightseeing because I with a then-significant other and we wanted to check out all the neighborhoods of Tokyo.
  3. I actually dedicated my 2nd to Japan to rounding up some of those elusive Japanese editions of albums in the shops of Osaka’s Den-Den Town last year. And round up I did: Those Green Day EPs and Shonen Knife albums were such a thrill to find.
  4. The “real Japan” of the past does live on in literature. I picked up Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories in Osaka and have been getting through the stories one by one. His stories “Rashomon” and “In A Bamboo Grove” were later adapted into the famous film Rashomon. I find Akutagawa’s stories well crafted and full of dark reflections on human nature.
  5. Writing about Kyoto brings another city to mind: Gyeongju in South Korea. I bet the two are similar because they’re often described as being full of temples. I read somewhere once that Gyeongju’s a “Living museum.” I never did visit Gyeongju though, but it wasn’t because I didn’t want to go. It’s a like when a colleague exclaimed at me, “How could you live in Korea for years and not go to Mt. Seorak?” I shrugged and said, “It didn’t come up.” There were a lot of things I didn’t do in Korea…but then, I like the idea of leaving something for next time. Mt Seorak, Gyeongju, and Kyoto will be there and I’ll see them eventually.
  6. Strangely, I rarely hear ANYONE talk about wanting to experience “traditional” Korea or China.
  7. This post dedicated to Dave, for the “real Army” bit that provided the inspiration for writing the above. I also dedicate it to John Sellers, whose excellent book Perfect From Now On included many edifying footnotes. He’s also a dedicated record collector and a taker of musical pilgrimages. His taking a trip to Manchester to visit the city that produced many seminal rock groups similarly informed my visiting London. Anyone who likes recording collecting should get that book.