My exhaustion with the almost 20 hours flight to Tokyo, Japan’s capital could be read all over my face and inflamed feet as I staggered my way to the bus station at Narita International Airport.
With the silence of the city, being past midnight already, I was helped to my final destination for the day, at Dai-Ichi Hotel Shimbashi, Tokyo where I managed to rest my already throbbing head for the next busy day.
The presence of the unpleasant heat and humidity, which by 9 am was already at 90%, could easily be felt as my African counterparts and I left the hotel to commence our research trip. Being in the building or car, where air conditioning is a must have is more comfortable than being on the street around this time in Japan.
Despite the uncomfortable weather, I realised that there is more to Japan beside the famous Mt. Fuji, sushi or the great Hanshin earthquake. Japan is a lot more than just that. Why we don’t know, I discovered that a common trait of the Japanese is that they may be too quiet which is a bit of reluctance on their part but will be willing to respond once they are asked.
To many, Japanese may seem a mystery at first glance, you will get to enjoy them more once you learn about them. Perhaps this is why their country’s beauty is not as publicised.
We were treated to sumptuous meals during our stay in high end restaurants, and even though many provided western style tables and chairs, we were ushered mostly to the low traditional tables, that required us to sit on pillows on the floor, a style known as the Zashiki. With the Zashiki style, everyone is required to take off their shoes before stepping onto the sitting area.
This experience to some of my colleagues was not a comfortable one as it required a high level of fitness to comfortably sit and get up the floor with ease.
Many restaurants also display wax replicas of their food, or sometimes real food in a window close to the restaurant to not only attract but also inform clients of their day’s menu.
Their love for green tea can however not go unnoticed. It is served at every meal and prepared forms. Green tea, green tea ice cream also known as Matcha ice, and green tea salt, Japanese will show you a lot that can be made from the mostly dreaded tea in Africa.
“For us, health is always the ultimate priority which is why green tea and drinking water are freely served at most restaurants,” I’m told by one of our guides.
Prior to my trip, I had made it clear that raw fish should be excluded from my menu, I had never tasted it and I did not know what to expect. I was wrong. Fish is mostly served with hot radish, which is believed to be a cleansing spice but has to be taken extra caution, given its pungent properties.
Japanese are said to be the most discriminating consumers around the globe, and because of that many global brands test their products in Japan. I actually spotted Rwandan coffee in some of the basement stores alongside major foodstuff from around the world. This shopping experience is surely a satisfying place for the shoppers who frequent these places.
We had a chance to visit the Takeshita Street located in the heart of Tokyo city known for its youthful commodities and colors. The 350 meter road is crammed with stores that are overwhelmingly popular with young girls and acts as a location for talent and pop idol scouts.
Despite Tokyo being crowded with buildings and sky scrapers, where GPS for every driver is a necessity, the Imperial palace, a former site of the Edo castle, located directly opposite the palace and is open to the public as a park. In the vicinity are the national theatre which presents a less busy life of the action-packed city.
Their ultimate hospitality is one characterised by the frequent bowing of heads, even by the elderly, coupled with the recurrent ‘arigatougozaimasu’ which means thank you so much.
The genuine concern for customers, humility and politeness the Japanese express even in their little English is noticeable. It could be seen from the way elevator doors were held for us, the respect we were accorded every time as they bowed their heads in greeting and gratitude.
The thrilling last three days were spent in the city of Kobe. The natural sea breeze and green scenery could be felt right from the Kobe-Shi station after our 30 minute journey by the bullet train from Tokyo.
Different from the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, Kobe presents a more natural experience. The ports are generously surrounded by mountains and forests.
We visited the Earthquake Memorial monument at the Higashi-Yuenchi Park to give respect to the 4,600 victims, who lost their lives. The silence at the park is distracted by the deafening noise made by the cicada insects.
The stories told at the Disaster Reduction Human Renovation Institution with the help of our English guide tell the resilience of the people rebuilding their city, a few years after the aftermath.
“We know that we cannot totally prevent the earthquake, but we can do our best to detect any forthcoming earthquake,” Okamoto, our guide told us.
Despite the mighty earthquake that destroyed its infrastructure and inhabitants, the people did not give up on their efforts to grow the city. Facing the sea, many artificial islands have been created to give space for the many infrastructural developments and airports, both domestic and international.
The Hyogo prefecture in the bay area takes you back to the numerous western houses built in the 19th century when trade flourished. In the bay area, sits the Kobe harbour land, home to the famous Meriken Park that showcases some of the city’s iconic contemporary architecture such as the red Kobe Port Tower, Kobe Maritime Museum and the mesmerising large Ferris wheel.
Kobe is also home to the Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridge, which links the city of Kobe on the Japanese mainland of Honshu to Iwaya on Awaji Island. Completed in 1998, the bridge boasts of having the longest central span of any suspension bridge in the world, at 1,991 metres (6,532 ft; 1.237 mi) and is the only bridge that was completed without a single life lost.
As we were accompanied to the Kansai airport to take our flights back home, the humble and polite gestures of our driver and that of our escort and interpreter Mr. Murata only made me love the Japanese character even more.