Michael Antman ruminates on Japan’s unique-ness, as well as the potential effects its modernization has had on said unique-ness:
...even for those who stick to the choked streets themselves instead of searching out the temples and gardens, there is a quality of constant surprise in Japan’s cities and small towns, if one peers just a little bit past the cables and concrete, that is far more prevalent than in the more tourist-friendly, and perhaps “obvious” destinations of Europe. With its narrow streets and dark and hidden infoldings, there’s a distinctly feminine, mysterious, and inexplicably magnetic aspect to the country that exists in few other places I have seen.
Part of Japan’s quirkiness is attributable to the fact that [it] is the world capital, I think, of hole-in-the-wall joints, mom-and-pop shops selling oddments and obscurities, and disreputable drinking establishments. A lot of offbeat encounters in Japan can be explained by the broad acceptance of drinking and public drunkenness—in America, it would be very unusual to see a group of businessmen (not frat boys, businessmen) staggering drunkenly down the street at midnight, but in Japan it’s not only common, it’s expected.
Also, in a rather subtle way, the strangeness and surprise of Japan is enhanced by the small size of the country. In any given city, there’s an awful lot packed into a few small miles, and it’s easy to encounter, as Leithauser describes, an astonishing range of interesting and bizarre objects and behaviors in an hour’s walk or within the range of a bike ride.
Lastly, whether they are drunk or sober, Japan’s people are at once welcoming and friendly, and yet incredibly prone to either cause foreigners to act in foolish ways, or to act, themselves, in foolish ways in front of foreigners.
This was definitely our experience when we travelled through Japan. Every nook, every corner hinted at some wonderful surprise, be it a little shop or restaurant or some manner of shrine. And we found the Japanese people to be extremely friendly. Of course, it might’ve helped that we had a really cute kid with us; that’s probably some sort of international language in and of itself.