The Land of the Rising Sun remains my favorite country (so far) for many reasons. It possesses a strong magnetic pull that holds me fast and steady. It’s so strong that, since my trip to Hokkaido five years ago, I hadn’t even bothered to fantasize about Europe until this year. My love for Spanish couldn’t even compete with my obsession with Japanese.
Why we consider a place a favorite is a complex matter. There’s not one factor involved and, even if we claim that we have eight (as in the case of this article), we can’t be certain that they’re the only ones that play a role. Our cultural background, personalities, values and principles, and socio-economic status all contribute to how we perceive a place.
Below I shall briefly explain eight reasons why Japan has captured my heart, and why I consider it my second home.
1) I find the Japanese language deeply captivating.
Japanese is possibly the most beautiful language I have encountered so far, and I say this as a polyglot who’s had experience in learning multiple languages such as Spanish, French, Korean, Mandarin, German, and Vietnamese. It’s the only language (that I know) that has three writing systems (ひらがな, カタカナ, and 漢字). Its myriad characters quickly intimidate would-be learners, but the perceived difficulty of this language just made me even more eager to explore it.
Learning how to read and write Japanese characters made me feel ecstatic. It was the kind of ecstasy that felt almost sinful, because I couldn’t believe my mind was big enough to handle its complexity. Letters and characters are a treasure trove of history and culture. As a young Filipino, I was used to consuming Western media. I felt culturally disoriented because I did not know much about our neighboring countries. Japanese opened up a whole new world of understanding for me.
2) Japan is home to excellent green tea.
My relationship with tea started very early. My uncle, who still works in Saudi, often sent us packages of black tea in tea bags. It wasn’t my favorite. I favored coffee and iced tea back then, but it introduced me to another drinking culture I would eventually immerse myself in.
When I went to Tokyo as a short-term exchange student five years ago, it was the first time I tasted sencha (a variety of green tea). It didn’t taste like the Lipton green tea variety I used to drink back home. It exuded so much umami. What I didn’t know then was that it would forever change the direction of my drinking habits.
I began to crave Japanese green tea. Just when I thought there weren’t any more surprises left, matcha (green tea powder) came into the picture and that settled the deal. As matcha elicits in me a feeling of sweet nostalgia and serenity, I often drink it as a source of comfort when studying.
My passion for tea has become so big that I even attended two tea workshops conducted by Teavolution Manila.
3) Traditional Japanese music is a piece of heaven on earth.
My colleagues from my previous job are aware how much traditional Japanese music has struck a chord with me. I listen to a wide variety of music (pop, electronic, country, Celtic, rock, classical, Indian sufi, etc), but I find so much comfort in listening to shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and Japanese string instruments particularly koto and shamisen.
I like traditional Japanese music because it takes me to another world. It’s celestial, and it pushes the envelope of my imagination. When I went on a business trip to Tokyo last year, I combed the metropolis in search of musicians playing live traditional music. I wasn’t disappointed to hear music students eagerly promoting traditional music in parks and temple grounds.
4) Japanese food is the crossroad between flavor and nutrition.
The major difference between Japanese food and Western diet is that the former puts emphasis on vegetables, color, seasonality, and variety. A typical Japanese meal starts with miso soup with seaweeds – a flavor bomb that prepares the palate for the main course. The main meal consists of rice, beans sprouts, pickles, eggs, meat or fish, and seaweeds. I read somewhere that the Japanese eat an average of 30 types of food each day. Not only does such practice ensure diversity in flavor profile, it also provides a wider spectrum of nutrients that are largely absent in the typical fast-food-centered Western fare.
One can argue that Japanese food is widely available in most large cities, so why bother going to Japan for Japanese food? Well, because what they serve in Japan is an entirely different “species”. Most ingredients, which happen to be available only in Japan, are locally sourced – this alone can greatly alter the flavor of food. Furthermore, food aesthetics is a lifestyle there. The Japanese believe that eating begins not when you taste the food but when you see it. In other words, before you eat with your mouth, eat with your eyes first. In Japan, I never feel that I need to hurry to finish my meal. I can take my time.
5) Cherry blossoms are a spectacular sight.
I learned about cherry blossoms when I watched anime and Japanese films as a child. When I went to Japan under an exchange program, I was fortunate to be part of the group that was sent to Hokkaido. It was mid-May. The rest of the country was basking in the summer heat, but Hokkaido was the sole prefecture that was still under the spell of spring. Whereas raindrops fell in Tokyo, the streets of Hokkaido were dusted with petals of withered cherry blossoms.
The second time I had the chance to return to Japan, I carefully scheduled my flight to Kyoto and checked the cherry blossom forecast seven months before my actual flight. My first morning in Kyoto was a sign of blessing. The sidestreets merrily flaunt themselves with their blush-on of floral magic. Cherry blossoms pair well with rivers. The pink that deepens by the hour is highlighted by the bluish tinge of the water.
Cherry blossoms are not just a matter of personal opinion. The Japanese people have long esteemed these flowers since centuries ago. They always gather under the sakura trees to socialize, to celebrate spring, and to remind themselves that they deserve beauty.
6) Rivers are a writer’s best friend.
I find flowing bodies of water enchanting. They have this air of mystery that I don’t see in seas and oceans. I’ve never witnessed any chaos or hullabaloos near rivers. It’s as though they were a specially sacred place where spirits reside. I like that. I deeply like that.
Japan does not fall short of rivers. Where there are mountains, there are rivers. Oceans suit energetic souls more. Rivers require silence. Rivers are for people who are not afraid to be alone.
7) I learned to embrace my introversion because of Japan.
Traveling to Kyoto made me question my extroversion – a personality trait of mine that I used to celebrate. School taught me to be friendly and to interact with as many students as possible and, as I grew up, I carried that lesson with me. I entered university and I talked with everyone in class. I wasn’t particularly loud, but I forced myself to socialize so much. I was proud to have a huge social circle.
However, as I wandered through the quiet backstreets of Kyoto, I realized how uncomfortable I was with being in large groups. I noticed that I was pretending to be extroverted only because society glorified it. I wanted people to be proud of me. My version of extroversion was fake, because even genuine extroverts wouldn’t necessarily pollinate a room with conversations.
When I sat down for tea, it occurred to me how much I’d always enjoyed silence and the beauty of doing nothing, how I’d often withdraw from a crowd earlier than I had expected myself to, and how I’d honored long conversations with only a few people. But in a world that refuses to understand that solitude is a strength, coming around from a half-asleep existence was not easy at all.
8) It has always evoked a feeling of home that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
Different people respond differently to places, and I happen to be one of those who has found a second home in Japan. If past lives did exist, I would delightfully claim that my past self dwelled in one of Japan’s numerous cities. It’s a place I can honestly imagine myself waking up in.
Then the alarm clock rings. I boil a kettleful of water for the green tea I received as a gift. I open the window, and a whiff of savory dumplings invites itself into my riverside house. Under one of the cherry blossom trees sits a man serenading the birds with his flute. I sit down by the window and write a letter to my mom and dad in Japanese. A quiet smile forms at my lips.
It isn’t a dream. I’m home.
Is there a place, whether a city or a country, that you consider home? What qualities make it feel like home?