June 6, 2007

During my time in Southeast Asia, three non-Southeast Asian countries always loomed large in the background, like the shadow of a passing cloud.

One was India. As the birthplace of Buddhism, the religion, architecture, and even food of the region often harks back to this cultural giant. Especially in Thailand and Cambodia, India constantly whispered its influence.

The second was China. Again, religion – Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucist – food, language, architecture. In every country we visited, but especially in Chinese “centers” like Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, we couldn’t escape the colossal influence that this giant has had over all of its neighbors.

But, if India and China are Southeast Asia’s past, it is Japan, the third shadow-country, that Southeast Asia looks to in the present. In Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, there was anime, manga, sushi, ramen, Hello Kitty, Japanese fashions, Japanese make-up, Japanese everything. Made in Japan signs proudly stood outside of trendy stores, and boutiques and nail salons featured Japanese magazines, even though most of clientele were locals who could only look at the pictures.

At the time, this was all very amusing. But, being back in Japan, I admit that I’m now looking at everything with a new appreciation, too.

When I left for Southeast Asia in January, I was burnt out on Japan. Everything about this country annoyed me. Everything was plastic, cheesy, and ugly. Everything was expensive. People were polite only on the surface. But, travel provides perspective. I remember walking on the humid, garbage-lined streets of Phnom Penh, longing for “ugly” Japan, where on a bad day, there may be a few cigarette butts strewn on the sidewalk. After one too many greasy, spicy, peppery meals, I craved the simplicity of udon or rice and miso soup. The Japanese food in Southeast Asia rarely satisfied. It was always missing something. A Japanese waitress or shop clerk would never laugh at the customer. If a guest was checking into a hotel, they wouldn’t wait until the commerical break of the soap opera they were watching to acknowledge your presence. I admit, I was getting tired of Southeast Asia manners.

Although I’ve only been back in Japan for a few days, I realize I’m a much happier person than when I left. For all of its faults, Japan is clean and well organized. Its politicians and government officials are somewhat efficient and, to a certain extent, honest. While the press may practice self-censorship, if I decided to criticize the prime minister or royal family, I could without fear of being throw in prison. I can fill up my water bottle at any faucet and eat food without regretting it the next morning. Most important, I can walk into a bank and open an account, ask about a letter I got regarding my payments to the National Pension, make an airline reservation, explain how I want my hair cut at the salon, request my salad dressing on the side, and, in general, live my life here normally because I speak the language and know the culture.

Travel is great, of course. But, there really is no place like Japan.


One Response to “Okaeri”

  1. Clarissa said

    It sounds like you have had a marvelous trip! I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed reading and living vicariously!! And I must say, most of all, I really am envious of your return to Japan. I miss it so! I’m glad you had safe and happy travels! And now, on to the next adventure… I hope to see you soon. xoxo

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