Updated: Oct 29, 2018
Student traveller Marta Kocemba recounts her week in Japan, highlighting three of her favourite discoveries while unearthing the history and culture of the beautiful nation amongst the locals.
In October 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Japan, a country that was both fascinating and completely foreign to me. While the trip only lasted one week and was in the middle of the final term of my undergraduate degree, I was determined to make the most of it. This included an agreement with myself (and my fellow travellers) that we would leave no food untasted, no new phrase un-attempted, and definitely no time wasted. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by someone who was familiar with Japan and were able to spend plenty of one-on-one time with the Japanese; this allowed us to delve further into the country's culture and beauty, more so than we could have done on our own.
The trip began in Tokyo, but quickly moved to the Fukui Prefecture, where I spent most of my week. Since this week was so full of experiences, sights, and fascination, I'll focus on three aspects of the trip that have left a resounding impact on me, and that I still catch myself thinking about, even many months later.
The Mouth-Watering Food
I will be the first to admit that the ongoing highlight of my trip was the food. I am very familiar with the Western idea of ‘Japanese food’, but I was well aware that genuine Japanese food would probably be very different from what I had come to know back home in Canada. I figured though, that this was a good thing, and that my expectations were likely to be exceeded – I was absolutely right!
Let me begin by recounting my first meal in Japan: a cheap, basic, bare-bones udon soup from a shop in Tokyo's Haneda Airport, where I had a few hours to spare before the connecting flight across the mountains to Komatsu. This soup contained little more than broth, udon noodles, and whitebait (a tiny, whole fish that was generously sprinkled over the soup). I was smitten from the start.
If cheap, probably subpar airport food was this delicious, I was sure that I wouldn’t dislike a single meal during this trip. As it happens, Japanese noodle soups turned out to be some of my favourite foods from my time there! The complexity of tastes in such a simple dish was probably the winning factor here.
Another memorable favourite food was dango: balls of slightly sweet mochi on a stick covered with various toppings (pictured). Since it was my first time trying dango, we ordered several different kinds – some were even Hallowe’en themed. The dough is very lightly sweetened, meaning that dango lends itself to both sweet and savoury toppings. The traditional soy-glazed dango were definitely my favourite; they are very simple, but as soon as you taste them, you understand how they stood the grueling test of time that is required in order to be considered ‘traditional’.
Before arriving, I was a little uncertain whether I would be okay with having seafood with almost every one of my meals, since I definitely don’t eat like that at home in Canada. However, it turned out to be absolutely fine. Seafood is an integral part of Japanese cuisine (Japan is an island, after all) and they are so skilled at preparing their food, that I thoroughly enjoyed every bite – even though I had set myself up with a bit of uncertainty beforehand.
Exploring the Fukui Dinosaur Museum
I will admit that I knew less about Japan’s history than I ought to have known before visiting such a culturally rich country. That being said, my relatively blank slate allowed me to revel in all the new knowledge I was coming across.
Did you know that Japan has one of World's Three Great Dinosaur Museums? And did you know that this museum is actually the sister museum of the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in Canada? I certainly didn’t, but I was still able to appreciate the beauty and magnitude of what was one of the best museums I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring.
The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum was phenomenal. The building is in the shape of a giant egg, a play on the reptilian nature of the prehistoric creatures. Once inside, the exhibits are around the inside perimeter of the egg, with balconies and stairways through the center.
The exhibits are extremely well organized, and it is clear that there was a lot of thought put into how to best convey the interesting information that can be found there. The English audio tour was excellent, leading you through the museum with enticing bits of knowledge. There is also the aspect of experiencing the familiar (everyone knows about dinosaurs) in an unfamiliar place; this kind of thing has a way of giving you a sense of connection to those around you, even though you are separated by vast differences in language and culture. And yet here you are, being drawn to the same marvels of our natural world, being hit with a sudden realization of just how big (or small?) the Earth really is.
Reflection in the Eihei-ji Temple
Revelling in this newfound sense of connection with those around me, it is only fitting that the next experience that has stuck with me was visiting the Eihei-ji Zen Temple. Founded in the 13th century, the air is simultaneously filled with the weight of centuries of activity and the peace after which the temple is named (‘Eihei-ji’ translates as ‘Temple of Eternal Peace’). Currently in use as a training temple for Zen Buddhist monks, Eihei-ji has a profound sense of serenity, which fits perfectly within the ancient forest in which it is located.
While I was slowly and quietly moving through the various areas of the temple, I was incredibly impressed with the architecture, especially taking into account how long ago the temple was built. The attention to detail was astounding, and I often caught myself imagining what life might have been like for the people who walked these same halls so many centuries ago.
When I left Eihei-ji, I felt like I had taken with me a few wisps of that eternal peace. Now, amid the chaos of everyday life, I find myself seeking out some not-so-ancient nature and recalling some of that zen.
Overall, visiting Japan was an incredible experience that I’m sure I will never forget. Even a single week allowed me to absorb enough of the culture, cuisine, and general atmosphere that I think back on the trip very fondly. I can certainly see myself planning another trip to Japan in the future!