As a solo backpacker, I’m typically never caught without headphones in. However, the lone exception is the first hour after landing in any new city. I like to take in my new surroundings uninterrupted, from the sights to the smells to the sounds to the people.
For this post, while I’m mostly comparing everything to impressions of Thailand, the best way I can describe Japan is that it’s like my senses packed up and went on holiday.
From the moment you step off the plane in Thailand, your senses are under assault. It starts with a brief flash of heat that hits you as you step onto the jet bridge and before the airport air-conditioning lulls you into a false comfortability. That mirage gives way again the second you walk out of the airport and are fully embraced by the humidity. A backpack-shaped sweat stain and possible chafing are in your near future (picture two wet tires rubbing together). What was it like arriving in Kyoto? A comfortable 18°C/65°F outside and I felt nothing but cool, crisp, and refreshed after the 15 minute walk to my hostel.
Thailand is beautiful, but there’s also a fair amount of eye-sores. It’s dirty, there are no trashcans anywhere, and frequently next to extravagent mansions are empty lots that double as garbage pits and vagrant compounds. Nothing of the sort here in Japan. In that first walk that gave me all of the material for this post, I saw nothing but clean streets and people waiting at crosswalks in an orderly fashion. For anybody who’s lived in Thailand, they know that that sort of cleanliness and respect for the law is unheard of.
You wanna know the main thing I smelled on that walk? Nothing. Sweet, glorious nothing. In Thailand, people have to be able to quickly switch between mouth and nose breathing because the smells of the street can change within a matter of steps. Some are great (street food), some are terrible (garbage/sewage orgy), and some are just mildly bothersome (spicy wind). 2 days in Japan and my nose has gone fully Zen.
This one probably stood out the most. Walking down a Thai street, you’re typically overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound. Whether it be high-pitched whines from unserviced scooters, trucks with advertisements blaring from the back, or men in short-sleeved, blue button-ups shouting “Bangkok! Bangkok!” from the front of mini-van stations. The point being, silence is a rare commodity in Thailand. You know the main thing I heard as I left the Kyoto station/main travel hub of the region? A quiet hiss of emissions coming from the fuel-efficient vehicles filling the streets.
“But that’s only 4 out of 5 senses, Austin!” …Like the poor guy working the front desk during the company Christmas party, my taste buds are still on duty. Which is actually a good thing because food takes a while to get to my mouth due to my shitty chopstick skills.
Between the lack of sensory overload and the outrageously high-tech nature of Japan, it’s been easy to enjoy everything without wanting to lock myself in a cold room. It hasn’t been long, but the first impressions have been great and I’m stoked to keep exploring. And despite much of what I’ve said here, I’m hoping that the cherry blossoms bloom this week and kick my senses into high gear. If they do, it’s gonna be like mainlining Instagram likes. I can’t wait.