Why I love Japan (and why it took me so long to realise it)
Looking back on my life, it turns out I was a pretty nerdy kid growing up.
My childhood was filled with cartoons and anime, and even to this day, they’re still my drug of choice. When I was growing up, I was that nerdy little kid who would pretend like they were Goku and run around play-fighting everyone.
I remember my childhood best friend and me, we loved Pokemon so much. We created pokemon cards from scratch before they were even a proper invention, and then sold them at school before the real pokemon cards came out sometime later.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a huuuuuge gamer. I’d throw sleepovers at my house and my friends and I would play Tekken and a bunch of other video games until the wee hours of the morning.
I was a pretty nerdy kid growing up, and not much changed as the years went on.
In high school, I continued to watch anime. I started reading manga. I played those stupid Bishojo games, owned a Tamagotchi, and I had every games console you could buy.
Later on, I’d get addicted to motorsport and JDM and drift culture. I rode motorbikes and got obsessed with the idea of riding the Motegi Circuit one day.
And then when I finished high school, and the idea of becoming an adult was staring at me straight in the face, I watched all my friends take gap years, and go on wild Contiki tours, or backpack across Europe.
You know, cool shit. Like seeing the world and getting out there.
And me? I went in the complete opposite direction.
I didn’t care about travel at all back then. I think I’d only been to 3 different countries at that time in my life.
I also hated classroom learning. I’ve always been a self-learner, a self-starter.
So as my friends were out exploring the world or starting their uni lives, I got into the workforce and started building my career.
In hindsight, getting a 4-year head start on most people my age was a good move for me, but I never got to see the world. I was just a nerdy dude who would go to work and then come home and play video games all night.
When I was 20, I started my design career.
It was at this time that I was looking for design-related stuff to get inspired by.
And throughout my early design career, I stumbled across a bunch of stuff. Still, I distinctly remember the first time I saw things like minimalistic Japanese graphic design, and how different Japanese typesetting was.
I remember when I first came across Ukiyo-e and woodblock printing, and the philosophies of Wabi-Sabi and Japanese ceramics, man, compared to all the other influences I had in my life at that time, for some reason, those things just stuck to me.
And then as I became more of an adult and started to try and figure this whole “life” thing out, I realised that there were so many parallels between traditional Japanese concepts and philosophies, and the way I was going about my work.
Things like simplicity, and an obsession with stripping things down to the absolute essentials. Things like a positive focus on aesthetic beauty, rather than shaming form over function. Things like contrast and the idea of balance and healthy opposition. These are all ideas that I’ve used heavily in my visual language over the last decade, and I still use to this day.
But these were my roots. These were some of the most significant parts of my nerdy life when I was growing up and trying to figure out just who the hell I was.
And then, I started photography.
I made a bunch of new friends in this space, and they’re still people I hang out with today.
But it was back then that I started to think about travel and really started to become addicted to it.
I remember the first time I went to Japan.
I wanted to go so badly, but I didn’t want to go alone. Solo travel for me wasn’t a thing in my realm of possibility yet, like it is today.
And it was only after a year or so of bringing it up with my friends that the opportunity arose to go.
We had decided to go to Hong Kong, but we also decided to add a few days in Japan before it.
And so in 2017, I went to Japan for the first time.
And I didn’t fall head over heels for it the first time I stepped foot in the country. I didn’t instantly fall in love with it, or solve a lifetime’s worth of existential problems in a single day—it wasn’t that romantic, as much as I’d love for that to be real because it would make for a cool story.
Instead, I’d return a couple of times that year, and it’s only then that I started to fall in love with it. It was slow, steady.
There was something about it: The first time you step foot in a combini, your first Ichiran experience, the first time your brain explodes when you see Mount Fuji. It was all so different, yet somehow still familiar.
As the visits went by, I started to fall in love with the people, the culture, the coexistence of traditional and modern, the language, the snacks—all of it.
And then, I kinda began to question my sanity.
I began to ask myself “why do I love this place so much?”, “what is it about this country over any other country that makes me so attached?”, was I just some lovesick puppy dreaming up some twisted, romanticised version of Japan? Was I crazy? Was I alone?
Regardless, over the years and the many subsequent visits, I really got to know Japan deeply, and since 2017, I’ve spent about a year of my life in Japan across these many, many trips.
I’ve explored it from top to bottom, east to west.
And I’ve seen so many weird and wonderful things along the way: torii gates in the most random, but most wonderful places. An art gallery literally inside a mountain. Landscapes that look like they came straight out of an anime.
And the memories, omg the memories. I remember the time we unintentionally took the hard hiking trail when we decided to climb Mount Fuji; it almost killed us. And the time we got smacked in the face by a raging snowstorm in Hokkaido and just how fun that was. And that time we were smashing down Strong Zero’s while doing panning shots in the middle of Shibuya Crossing. There are so many good times, way too many to fully recount everything.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though.
Towards the end of my last year living there I became a bit bitter and a little bit hateful about some of the sad realities of what it’s like as an ex-pat actually living in Japan versus just being a tourist.
However, in taking the time to reflect back on all of my experiences as a whole, I can’t help but feel this deep-seated contentment and joy, both towards the many people I spent these experiences with, but also towards the country that I had them in.
Right now I’m back in Sydney. I had to come back because of the pandemic, but having been in Japan a mere 4 months ago, the slowdown has caused me to think again about why I love Japan so much and why I want to go back so desperately.
Again, why am I so drawn to this place? Why is it always Japan and not any other country?
And I think about my childhood and growing up, and I think about ‘identity’.
Where does someone get their identity from? Is it from their nationality? Is it from their interests? Is it from their friends? Is it from their environment? From society?
And I realise that identity is shaped by our past experiences, and it’s those experiences that influence our world-views and the way we think about ourselves.
And then the dots started to connect for me.
The little floating dots of everything I was interested in or inspired by when I was growing up: the anime, the games, the motorsport, the design, art, the principles, the culture—all of it. At the time, I never really cared that much about the fact that so many of these things came from or had a big influence from Japan. It just happened without me noticing. I kinda just, naturally gravitated towards them.
But in connecting the dots, I realise that throughout my entire life, I’ve had a steady influx of Japanese influence, of Japanese presence. This is my identity. This is a part of who I am.
This is why I feel so comfortable and calm when I’m there. It’s why I feel such a sense of place. It’s why I feel such a sense of connection. It’s because in a way, when I’m connecting to Japan, I’m connecting with parts of myself that I’ve been cultivating for my entire life.
It all makes sense now.
You know, this year has been insane for all of us. My friends and I are all itching to travel, as I’m sure you are. And the question that comes up so often is “What’s the first country you want to visit when this is all over?”
And even though I’ve been to many countries, and my bucket list is long, when I’m real with myself and ask myself what I really yearn for, it’s Japan.
And I’ve come to realise that it’s always been Japan. And it probably always will be.