By C. James Dale
My eyes are supposed to be shut, but I can't keep them from fluttering open. The simplicity of the sight creates an indelible memory. It's dawn and the sun is spilling across the worn wooden floor of the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, one of the oldest Zen Buddhist temples in Japan. My wife and I are sitting on cushions, legs crossed, trying to meditate. An old monk is crouched nearby, chanting sutras and banging on instruments made of metal and wood.
Outside, the morning light illuminates the garden. Trees and tightly pruned shrubs and perfectly placed rocks take on an ethereal glow. August's heat stirs like a beast awakening from a short but restful slumber. I close my eyes again.
We knew little about Japan or the amazing experiences it offered nearly two years ago when we packed up our house in Montreal and prepared to move to this collection of islands on the other side of the planet. During our time here, we've seen this country at its best and its worst. We've debated leaving for good and staying for life. Japan has charmed us, challenged us, and changed us. We couldn't ask for a better second home and, I've discovered, we're not the only ones who feel this way.
"I love the incredible contrast Japan offers," says Liezel Strauss, a South African art and design consultant based in Tokyo. "The deep-seated traditions found in an über-modern landscape."
I'm scanning the photos on the Facebook page Strauss set up to promote her charity venture, My Japan. The images reveal a country where the past co-exists seamlessly with the present: portraits of Elvis impersonators and women in traditional clothing; shots of light snow falling on a crowd of pedestrians in the capital, Tokyo, and a narrow road winding through a bamboo forest in the ancient capital, Kyoto; stills of spring's soft pink cherry blossoms and fall's fiery red maple leaves.
Strauss launched My Japan after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami because she wanted to give back. She put out a call for submissions – what does Japan mean to you, she asked – and hundreds of photos poured in from more than 20 countries. Then she organized two exhibits and published a coffee table book. The proceeds support people in the devastated northeast. The publicity, though, could help the country as a whole.
"I want to spread the good news about Japan. I want people to come back here and see the beauty," she says. "Japan needs visitors now more than ever."
Poring over the My Japan photos encouraged me to scan through my own digital gallery, hundreds of pictures my wife and I took of the places we've been fortunate enough to see in this country. I click to enlarge one of Gentetsu Maeshiro, who's proudly holding up a line of fish he caught in the East China Sea off Ishigaki Island in Okinawa. We met the 31-year-old on Sunset Beach just before he packed up his colourful catch and spear fishing gear to head home to his wife and three-year-old daughter. I remember asking him what he liked about living in Japan's tropical paradise, where residents have the longest life expectancy in the world.
"Weather good, food good, air good, everything good," he told me with a broad grin.
It doesn't hurt that it's also a stunningly pretty place. I click through photos of Ishigaki's Kabira Bay, one of the most alluring spots in Okinawa. The shallow, turquoise water is surrounded by lush, green hills. In one shot, a young girl is captured hopping from one foot to another on honey-coloured sand.
"This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to," my wife said to me at the time.
Another folder of photos triggers more memories. We're floating on the Oigawa, a sleepy river that winds through Kyoto's Arashiyama district. One thousand years ago, this mountainous area was a summer retreat for the nobility, a tranquil place to escape the heat. Now it's home to one of Japan's best hotels, Hoshinoya Kyoto.
Guests are ferried to the modern-meets-traditional ryokan by boat. As they round a bend in the river, the hotel makes a dramatic appearance, perched on a craggy hill surrounded by trees. Exquisite gardens snake through the property, connecting the 25 suites, which are filled with the sweet smell of tatami mats and outfitted with the very best in Japanese design: walls and sliding doors adorned with woodblock-printed paper, artisan furniture, and inviting hinoki wood bathtubs.
"I've never had such a sense of peace while traveling or felt better looked after," American academic Sarah Hrdy told me after her visit. "I loved looking out my window at the forested hillsides and [the river]."
Most people who visit Japan have at least one moment when they marvel at what it has to offer. I've lost count of the times this country has wowed me: the vibrant fall colours of Karuizawa; the inviting beaches of Shimoda; and the limitless possibilities of Tokyo, a city of 13 million that can roar at one moment and whisper at the next.
"Japan is a surprisingly diverse country," says Brad Towle, a Canadian who works for the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. "From mega-cities to mountains to isolated hot springs, there's always something new to experience."
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