Some places are so overwhelming, such an assault on the senses, that you can't get your head around them – I'd say India is probably one of those places.
But perhaps what made it so difficult to get my head around Japan is it's complete calmness, lack of imposition, of sensory bombardment. From Starbucks on every corner in Kyoto and Tokyo, to minuscule vegetarian restaurants up spiral stairwells; from the Shinkansen that zooms past like a sinister snake, to the giant watercolour mountains looming over the rice fields.. there's so much to say about our trip, but that would go on for pages and pages, so I've had to reluctantly do what I'm worst at: editing.
We spent the first day in Narita, a small town outside of Tokyo, that was simply overflowing with charm. Tiny bakeries, rows of traditional shops selling everything from crackers to meat to household supplies. The little streets wind around each other, schoolchildren bustle about, and there's not a sound from the cars or the pedestrians.
Although this sign outside a cafe amusingly says 'bleakfast', our breakfast on the first day was far from bleak. We were staying at an old guesthouse that was about as traditional as you could get. The elderly couple who ran it were extremely warm and had Samurai ancestry. The house was filled with ancient artefacts, beautiful sliding doors, and priceless tatami mats. Countless celebrities and dignitaries have visited their guesthouse, but they remained incredibly as down to earth and prepared a traditional Japanese breakfast for us. The flavours and textures take a lot of getting used to, and I can't say I managed to have all the pickled peas, the fish cakes or the sashimi. But the presentation and nutritional balance put people's grab-and-go breakfasts to shame, and the tofu miso soup was heavenly.
The town of Hakone was by a hot spring and was in itself a sleepy little place. We had some enormous, soul-warming bowls of vegetable and noodle soup, and delicious dumplings (after much sign language and attempts at communication) at a small Japanese diner/restaurant on a drizzly day. With a living room filled with instruments, games and books in different languages left by various travellers, and the steaming hot spring baths, Hakone was rather relaxing. Ironically, we went on an exhausting trek up Mount Kintoki the day we were leaving. We didn't anticipate its length or difficulty, and we trudged up while seasoned trekkers (even little kids and bonding dogs) zipped past us in their trekking gear. But when we reached the top, with Mount Fuji peeking out from the clouds in the distance and the hills rolling out around us, we knew it was worth it. We were perhaps the only non-Japanese people up there, and the owners of the small shack struggled a bit to figure out what we were ordering. The woman came running out with a book, asking us to write where we were from, and the man made us a hot pot of green tea, which was just perfectly refreshing and soothing. Other trekkers were so curious to find out how we liked Japan and apparently we were really lucky to see Mount Fuji that day too. Even atop a mountain, you can be surrounded by warmth.
K's House in the seaside town of Ito – again by a hot spring – is an absolute treasure. The convivial atmosphere, the sprawling living rooms, the sunshine streaming in, the view of the river, not to mention the ancient classic architecture and woodwork by some of Japan's master carvers. Everyone there made you feel like part of the family, from helping in the kitchen, to sitting at 5 am with tea and cereal and watching Holland play in the Fifa World Cup. We had the most relaxing, beautiful mornings with all kinds of breakfast foods from the local supermarkets and fresh breads and cakes from a lovely bakery we found.
Interestingly, in Japan I had some of the best Italian food I have ever had. The pizzas had light, fluffy dough, the cheese was rich and real (not gooey and processed), and the pastas were always laden with fresh vegetables – not just the usual ones, but crunchy beans, sautéed aubergine, cabbage, yellow zucchini – and the sauce was just pure fresh tomatoes.
The Japanese are, of course, known for the importance they give to tea, and this tea set at a mother-daughter-run restaurant simply had to be photographed.
Kyoto blew us away with its old streets and buildings mingled with its glitzy main roads, and we all feel we simply have to go back, because there's just too much to explore. Tucked away in one of the backstreets is a typical Japanese restaurant called Kura Kura. Our guesthouse manager said it's a true local restaurant, not usually frequented by tourists, but one of his all-time favourites. We spent one of the loveliest evenings there, laughing and talking to the chef about his life, Japan, travelling, and the local culture. From couples to business meetings, people sat around on the tatami mats (rather surprised when we walked in) in the dimly lit room. The chef prepared a special menu for us, thrilled to be taking on my sister, the tough customer, and it was divine. A richly complex yet light salad dressing had my sister eating bowlfuls of lettuce; the tempura was hot and addictive; the noodles were handmade, slippery and wholesome; the tofu soup was delicate and nourishing; it was a delight to watch dishes like the rolled omelette being made as we talked, ate and my parents sipped hot sake.
An evening of being completely pulled into a city, of having a local chef and restaurant open up to you and show their pride in showcasing their culture simply can't be beaten. The warmth and happiness we felt on our last night seemed to sum up everything we had felt in Japan. It's such a distant place, both literally and figuratively, and the language and cultural barriers – so much is completely new, unknown, surprising – can make you feel a little lost at times. But somehow the ebb and flow of the cities, the sleepy strolling in the small towns, the peacefully grand temples, the buzzing restaurants, even the traffic guards on the street, all made us feel wrapped up and absorbed into the country for those fleeting two weeks. I haven't even come close to doing it justice – you'll just have to go there yourself ;)