Allow me to step out of chronological order as I jump into my current travels. It has been on my heart to write and reflect on my most recent travel experience in Northern Africa, specifically in Western Sahara (and a half day layover in Algiers, Algeria). The words are hard(er) to find than other blog posts because the trip was such a powerful and intense experience. I keep telling myself I need (more) time to process my thoughts, but in actuality I think I’m scared to write, in fear that I will misrepresent the situation in Western Sahara (the “last colony of Africa”), or my limited understanding of the conflict could paint a shallow reality of Saharawi people’s struggle. Yet, I am hopeful and confident that I will overcome this fear of writing, because I am, from the bottom of my heart, inspired to share the story of Western Sahara and present my experience, in hopes to bring awareness to the situation and reality of Western Sahara.
Please allow me to digress and share about my experience in Asia because in a very different way, this place is special and I’m very grateful to be here.
Japan has a special place in my heart. Naturally, being half Japanese I feel physically and emotionally connected to the country and my family, but more than that there is a deep connection to the beauty and uniqueness of the culture, people, and food. It’s been 2 years since I studied in Mitaka (at International Christian University) for summer language program and 4 years since I lived in Tokyo to work at a hotel.
Being in Japan is incredibly nostalgic, passing by certain metro stops in Tokyo or seeing certain buildings gives me a flashback of memories. When I’m in Japan I feel both in place and out of place. In place because I understand parts of the collective mentality of Japanese. In place because I can appreciate the way in which society is organized and functions in an efficient manner. In place because aspects of the culture resonate with how I live. In place because the food makes me feel at home. Out of place because of aspects of society I don’t understand and can’t comprehend.
I honestly feel like I’m living with some sort of identity crisis! Growing up as a Chinese-Japanese in Canada, now living in Europe has made me adopt aspects of each culture, yet not fully one. I don’t see it as one nationality before another, I’m somehow simultaneously all and none at the same time. It truly puzzles me (still) to give you an answer for where home is, and what “home” means to me. I don’t know if it will ever truly make sense to me as different people and places continually shape my understanding.
Someone described Japan culture and life as one defined by reverence, or a deep respect for someone or something. It’s really true, there are (almost) omnipresent signs of reverence and respect in different aspects of society. In food, there is a respect for the food itself. The preparation is as meticulous as the care demonstrated in the presentation of a meal.
There is a respect for rules, manners, and politeness. I think that following certain standards and ways to act in society really defines Japanese. Always stand on the right side of the elevator, always obey authority, always greet your coworkers when you enter and leave work. This is where I feel a little bit out of place, because I didn’t grow up with these understandings of how to fully “behave” in society, so I feel like a little bit of an outsider. But a foreigner would probably wouldn’t notice my behaviours, it’s only if I’m interacting with Japanese that these nuances in my behaviour (or lack of) that make the Japanese a little bit perplexed, “is she Japanese?”
It’s not that I have a yearning to conform, it’s actually the opposite (sort of), more so I want to understand the ways in which the written and unwritten rules dictate behaviour – in part because I think it’s fascinating, and in part because it’s part of the living culture.
We spent half a day in Mitaka/Kitchijoji celebrating my sister’s birthday at the magical Studio Ghibli and hanging in a hammock cafe.
We had a perfect home that was within walking distance from Dotonbori. The sheer volume of people walking around this area was slightly overwhelming – crowds of people walking in and out of stores, carrying street food, laughing, announcements, lights, cameras, flashes… the stimuli is incredible. It’s exciting but also tiring. Dotonbori at night is really like a firework of sounds and smells. My senses certaintly felt heighted.
Takoyaki is almost a synonym of Osaka. My friend was laughing and telling us that every home in Osaka must have a Takoyaki grill.
These little balls of batter, stuffed with a piece of octopus are one of the most famous things to eat in the city. It’s so interesting to watch how quickly and efficiently the vendor workers pour and flip the batter. The secret ingredient must be the “dashi” or Japanese soup stock that makes it taste very savory. They are served with special toppings like Japanese mayonnaise, teriyaki type sauce (but specially called takoyaki sauce), seaweed and fish flakes.
Another popular food synonymous with Osaka is okonomiyaki. It’s actually a very similar makeup as the takoyaki, for basic ingredients, but it’s much more filling with heaps of cabbage. It’s really just a giant Japanese pancake or “Osaka soul food”.
The joy is the social experience of okonomiyaki – sitting with a grill in the center of the table and being among friends as the chef prepares the dish in front of you.
Hozenji Temple was a tiny temple that occupied a space right amidst the chaos of Shinsaibashi. In one of the busiest streets the temple seems completely out of place but for passerbys but it’s a unique site to see. It’s known for its moss covered deity, where people who walk into the temple pour water on the statue.
Osaka Castle and Cherry Blossoms
A friend asked me, “why are cherry blossoms significant in Japan?” I realized that I missed an opportunity to explain their significance in the country and why they resonate on a personal level.
What I think is poetically and philosophically valuable is that the cherry blossom, sakura in Japanese, represents the fragility and beauty of life. Japanese cherry blossoms are a timeless metaphor for human existence. Blooming season is powerful and intense, but tragically short-lived. After two weeks the petals begin to fall from the trees like snow. The process is a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.
Hanami is a springtime tradition that accompanies the blossoming of sakura. As families and friends gather under the sakura trees over picnics, bento boxes, and tea, they are celebrating life and appreciating aesthetic and philosophical ideas that are embodied in the sakura. Being half Japanese, I felt the pull to see the beauty of bloom and see the way people come together to be in its presence.
Seeing one of Japan’s most famous landmarks was very special. The castle played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century. I learned more about the history through my friend.
Japan, for me, is a place of contrast, of old and new. Of calm and chaos. Of stillness in temples and rushing to catch the next train. This cities ebbs and flows a different energy than others in the world. It’s nice to feel it’s pulse again. (to be continued!)
(to be continued!)