When someone asks me why I chose to live in Japan, I, in a painfully convoluted way, list numerous reasons to often leave the listener still clueless about why I am here. In my answer, there is no mention of delicious Japanese food, the love for anime culture or – even more surprisingly – the beauty of the country.
I love Japan and I love living in Japan even more. But I do not think that Japan is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. It does not compare to countries like Switzerland, New Zealand or Norway in terms of the majestic and picture perfect scenery. It is not a country where the surroundings are so flawless that you may often think of yourself as a character in a Tolkien novel or even in a Miyazaki anime. Japan is a country where the love for concrete is strong. You can be on a pristine and isolated beach on a small island in Okinawa but can confidently count on a 4-5 story, likely abandoned, concrete building to keep you company. You may, along the country’s hundreds of hiking trails, expect to encounter small wooden cottages or mountain huts similar to the ones occupying the Swiss Alps but it is more likely that you will come across some concrete buildings in addition to abandoned cable car stations better suited for the set of an apocalypse themed movie.
Over the years I developed a better visual understanding of Japan and shaped my expectations accordingly. I slowly trained myself and my eyes to not be discouraged by the concrete structures that greet the visitors (and that can be an absolute mood killer if you are not expecting it) even in some of the most beautiful and nature dominated places in Japan, like in Yakushima. I learned to focus on the scenery that awaits me beyond the gray Japanese style wave breakers – tetrapods – that dominate almost the entire Japanese coast or the perfectly decorated and lit rooms that are often tucked away on the third floor of an otherwise unappealing and almost eerie looking building. The fact that I am from Istanbul, Turkey – where some of the world’s most beautiful and unique heritage structures stand next to some of the most distasteful buildings that one can imagine – sure helped me. You have to walk through Istanbul as if you are composing a photo at all times to make up your own scenery. If you let the city impose its own imagery on you without you doing your own filtering and allow it to show you the impact of the poor urban planning policies going on for many decades, you may likely miss the joy of feeling entirely immersed in the city’s otherwise enigmatic beauty.
The allure of imperfect places
But for me, it is absolutely okay for Japan not to have that picture perfect scenery and I actually prefer it that way. The chaotic imbalance between a mountain top scenery encompassing an impossibly picturesque bed of rhododendron flowers and the giant, almost warehouse-like, souvenir shop where aesthetical concerns are absolutely not the priority that greets me at the trailhead makes me feel at home and in some strange way even at ease. Not only in the sense that my home country Turkey and more specifically Istanbul suffers from the same chaotic visual imbalance but also because it helps me to not feel overwhelmed. It allows me to have a sufficient dose of visual triggers that then makes me better appreciate the moment when I come across a nearly perfect scenery.
In praise of contrast
This need for the contrasting sceneries felt even more apparent during a spring visit to Northern Kyushu where I visited the famous onsen town of Yufuin for a rest day between hikes. Yufuin is likely the best answer that Japan has to offer in response to small, old and elegant looking European towns that countries like France, Spain or Italy are commonly home to. I sure enjoyed sitting by the lake, enjoying the Scandinavian style minimalistic decoration of the bright coffee house and sipping my coffee but I soon got an itch for those concrete buildings that Iikely hid in their basement or upper floors some surprisingly atmospheric eateries – the kind that feels worlds away from the building that guards it. I think I was quickly done with the idea of effortless scenery or beauty. I needed the visual challenge to feel like I am in Japan, and I often – oddly enough – would like to feel like in Japan when I am traveling in Japan.
Where I want to call home
This is definitely not a post in praise of poor urban planning and development policies. And do not get me wrong – I love visiting picture perfect nature destinations, that is actually what I love doing most in life. But when it comes to living, my choice will likely always be in favor of a place where you have to compose your own imagery for that picture perfect scenery, and a place where my own shortcomings as a human being will blend in perfectly with the imperfectness of my surroundings. So far, Japan and the Far East definitely fit the bill.