There is something magical about a travel state of mind. There seems to be no past and no future: everything evolves around the present and what you see right now, where you will eat and what the plan for the day is. In the meantime, you only care about what is happening around you and how it differs from everything back home.

I came to travel to Japan this summer. The big difference with the regular ‘travel state of mind’ is that there actually is a lot of past in Japan for me – a country I once called my home. Past and present started to blend together upon my arrival in Osaka. The first thing I saw at the airport was one of Japan’s many bright green public phones. This type of phone once was the only way to speak to my Dutch friends and family, more than ten years ago. Seeing one at the airport reminded me of all those short and expensive phone calls that would fill me with happiness and homesickness. I could feel the same knot in my stomach, even after all those years.


It was already late at night when I arrived at my hotel, and I went out looking for some place to grab a beer. I came across an open wooden bar on the corner of a busy Osaka intersection. Old clocks decorated the walls, all pointing at different times. The bar perfectly matched my jet-lagged state and fuzzy head. I sat down for an Asahi. The bar owner was playing some vinyl jazz music as an elderly couple on the table next to me was discussing the changing scenery of Osaka: “… Tennoji, Namba, old neighbourhoods are all vanishing and these new skyscrapers are taking over the city,” they said. A big grey cat suddenly walked in meowing, warmly greeted by the old boss. “This one is called ‘Big One’”, he told me: “He’s the husky kind amongst cat breeds”. The cat seemed to like talking. He sat on top of an olden wooden staircase in the middle of the bar and kept meowing through the couple’s conversation. The whole place and its setting filled me with nostalgia. The bicycles on the pavement, the tiny restaurants beneath the subway station and the quietness of the evening. Everything about Japan seemed so familiar and yet so unknown. ‘I have become estranged from Japan’, I thought, and the cat watched me and meowed.

I fell in love with Japan when I was fifteen years old and traveled here with my parents. The magical mix of modern manga, Harajuku fashion, traditional temples and kimono’s fascinated me, and left me longing for more. My mind was made up, and by the age of sixteen I had packed my bags and set out for Japan once more. This time I was by myself. Not for travel, but for the ultimate Japan-experience: I lived with a Japanese host family in a rural area around Osaka, and did Japanese high school as the only foreigner in the school. While my friends back in Holland were going out for their first drinks, rebelled against their parents and went on dates, I followed a strict schedule of school and study through the age of sixteen and seventeen. Dressed in my daily school-uniform, I struggled to find my way in a culture that was utterly strange to me and tried hard to master its language in order to fit into a society where I, nevertheless, always remained to be the odd one out. Although I had many happy times, the experience also left me with a feeling of anguish. It was not just a different culture; Japan had seemed like an altogether different planet, where I could never truly be myself. Japan was my first true love, but after returning back to Holland, I found that my initial Japan crush faded in the background. I found a second love, China, and I invested all my time and interest in it. My time in Japan had resulted in an odd love/hate relationship with the entire culture, people and language. It had contributed to who I’d become, but I had to sacrifice an important part of my teenage life for it. I always had the feeling that somehow a part of me still remained in this country. I had gone back to Japan four or five times after I had lived there, but I was never alone and kept my distance from my old life there. I therefore had a clear goal in mind for this trip: to revisit old memories, experience the culture as an adult, and to discover if I could rekindle my love for Japan. My long-time Japanese friend K. had announced her wedding months before, and her invitation had given me a good reason to return.

Some days before K.’s wedding, I went back to a district I once adored, Osaka’s ‘American Village’ (Amerika Mura), which was one of the neighborhoods in Osaka that first sold American brands back in the 1970s. On every corner of the street I expected to see myself in a school-uniform shopping for vintage clothing and staring at the flashy fashion-girls. Today, it’s still a place where hip-hop clothing and American music are predominant. Despite the burning sun, Japanese boys walk around in heavy leather jackets while the girls wear long flowing skirts. I find that Japanese fashion has changed over the years. It’s not about flamboyant manga girls anymore, and super kawaii Lolita girls have almost completely vanished from the scene. Nevertheless, the Japanese sense of fashion remains impeccable: elegant watches, tasteful handbags and trendy t-shirts.

Organized, neat, impeccable and cute. These words do not only describe Japanese sense of fashion, but society at large. Trains run on time to the second, there is a general no-smoking law for the central streets (some streets even have indoor smoking rooms!), you hardly come across beggars or homeless people and nobody seems to worry about being robbed. I found myself in one of the busiest area of Osaka staring at a brand-new Macbook Pro left outside on a Starbucks table together with a handbag. No one seemed to notice, and I reckon there are few places in the world where people would leave their valuables out in the streets like that without a care. I remember that I experienced a so-called ‘re-entry culture shock’ coming back to Holland after living in Japan. I would just leave my purse anywhere going to the toilet or meeting friends. It was not until my mother nearly slapped me in the face that I realized it only takes a second in Amsterdam before you lose your wallet or phone. In comparison to my home country, Japan almost felt like the Truman Show.

The peachy clean streets of Japan made me long for something raunchy. There must be places where people do cross the section before the lights turn green, where they smoke on the streets and where not everything is perfect and clean, I thought. This time around, I found that kind of neighborhood and eventually stayed there for a week. It is called ‘New World’, Shin Sekai. Once upon a time, Shin Sekai was a big promise of modern Japan. In 1912, the area was constructed after the example of New York and Paris with modern bars, neon lights and even a real ‘Eiffel tower’ – the 103-metre tall Tsutenkaku Tower reaching for the skies of Osaka. Back in the 1910s and 1920s one would come here to see the wonders of an avant-garde Japan; novel kinds of advertising, a new way to view the city from way up high and a place to admire young people wearing the latest fashion. Everything that Shin Sekai once was, is at odds with how it is today. Investments in the area declined in the post-war era, and from the 1950s the district turned into a safe haven for anyone rejected by ‘normal’ Japanese society – vagrants, alcoholics, gamblers and transsexuals. My Japanese friends told me the area was considered to be dangerous.


Leaving the occasional vomiting vagabonds aside, I actually found Shin Sekai to be a breath of fresh air. The place is full of open-style Japanese bars (izakaya) and informal places to eat good and cheap food. On my first night here I wandered around the streets peeking behind the ‘noren’ (Japanese curtains) of all these izakaya. They almost look like rooms in a dollhouse: mostly narrow bars where there is only room for a few people to sit, enjoy their beer and be entertained by the izakaya’s host. The word ‘izakaya’ originally derives from the word ‘sakaya’, a store for buying Japanese sake. The ‘i’ in front of ‘sakaya’ comes from the character ‘居’, meaning ‘to be’ or ‘to stay’. Before the 1860s, sake shops would often serve customers who would drop in for a drink. As the story goes, the sake barrels were later practically used as seats and the sakaya turned into places to actually stay for a while and enjoy some good drinks and small snacks, hence, ‘izakaya’. Although I hardly saw any women sitting at the bar, I decided to take the plunge and walk into a random izakaya by myself. I was no schoolgirl anymore, and I enjoyed this new kind of freedom I now had in Japan. The hostess and guests welcomed me, and before I knew it I was talking with them throughout the evening and even ended up singing some songs with them. One of the girls working there caught my eye, because she did not look Japanese. She told me her name was Ming Ming, and that she came from the south of China. At only 22 years old, she is one of Japan’s many Chinese migrants who decided to come here in hopes of getting a good education and making some money on the side. She now works at the izakaya almost every night, and learned to speak Japanese within just a few months. Ming Ming was thrilled that I spoke Mandarin, and soon the other guests were offering me beer, finding it funny to see me speaking a mix of English, Japanese and Mandarin. I was more than happy to speak Chinese with Ming Ming and hear everything about her Chinese background and daily life in Japan. She asked me to come to the bar more often, and I ended up spending a few evenings talking to her and the regular customers from the neighborhood.

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Ming Ming was not the only Chinese I met in Japan this time. I spend hours talking to different Chinese people who are living in Osaka or another Japanese city. It was interesting to hear how they all emphasized the difference between Japanese and Chinese culture; how ‘different’ they are in a negative way. In spite of this, they all had their reasons to stay in Japan. It seems like they share a mutual love/hate relationship with Japan.

Unavoidably, the war always comes up during conversations about this topic. A Chinese teacher whom I met in Kobe complained how little Japanese youth seem to know about the war. Not only do they lack any knowledge about violent acts of Japanese soldiers in foreign countries, they also seem to know little about what happened within Japan during the war. The history of the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima is well-known throughout the country, but when I, for example, asked about the modern buildings in Osaka and whether the city was bombed during the war, my Japanese friends did not know. Neither did one of my friends’ fathers, although he grew up around the area and is now 65 years old. To find out for myself I went to Osaka’s local war museum, Peace Osaka, to see what story of war is told in this museum. The exhibition was divided in three parts. The first was dedicated to the air raids Osaka suffered in 1945, which left the city in shambles and caused an estimated 10,000 people to lose their lives. The middle part told the story of Japan’s invasion of the Asian continent, the forced labour of Koreans in wartime Japan and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki “holocausts”. All of the texts in the museum were perfectly translated into English, making it easy for any non-Japanese to understand the exhibition’s narrative. The third part showed the ‘positive’ side of history; the reconciliation of Japan and China and the joining of the United Nations in 1956. I am still wondering why the entire museum only had one single sign that was not translated in English: it explained the reason why the US had used the atomic bombs on Japan and suggested that instead of the commonly accepted reason that it was to end Japanese overseas violence and to terminate the war, it was actually a first step towards the Cold War and a demonstration of America’s military power. I could guess why this sign was left without translation, but I’d rather assume it is the single last display where the English translation is still under construction- maybe it’s lost in translation.

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I have experienced countless ‘lost in translation’ moments in Japan, and the wedding day of my friend K. can definitely be counted amongst them. After spending some time in the izakaya, my Japanese had slowly crawled back in my brain, and on the morning of the ceremony I had somehow found my way back to a language I had not spoken in years. This made me quite happy, especially since my friend had let me know that I was expected to give a wedding speech in Japanese in front of her 100+ guests. This was my first time participating in a Japanese wedding and I had no clue on what to expect. My friend K. had arranged a luxurious room for me in the hotel where she was getting married, and the reception had called me in the morning to let me know I was supposed to hide in my room until someone would come to pick me up, since I was a ‘secret surprise guest’ to K.’s friends and family, whom I hadn’t seen in over ten years. The wedding day was perfectly planned from minute to minute, and like the Japanese trains, everything went exactly according to schedule. I met K. in a tatami room near to the hotel’s wedding chapel.

I have known K. for a long time, ever since my first month in Japan. At the time I did not speak one word of Japanese, nor did she speak English. But we were somehow drawn to each other and tried everything we could to overcome the language barrier. K. studied new English words every day and my Japanese quickly progressed. Within weeks we were joking and laughing and had countless sleepovers and trips to the local mall. People at school would know K. was my friend: her countryside accent was woven into my Japanese. Over the years we had grown apart. K. went on to study English and became an English teacher. When the news reached me (“Manya, I am finally getting married!”) I had no second thoughts. I wanted to see K. again.

When I saw her, she was dressed in an immaculate Western-style white wedding dress and was listening to the instructions of the ceremony master who explained her the traditions of the Christian ceremony. She suddenly looked so beautiful and so grown-up that it unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes. K. is actually not Christian at all, nor are her parents or her partner. Nevertheless, the ceremony included Christian songs and many references to God, Jesus and the Bible. The priest was an American who spoke Japanese with a thick English accent, but this did not seem to bother anyone. The man looked genuine in his purple cloak, and when he blessed the newly married couple in the name of Jesus Christ I almost felt like I was watching an episode of The Tudors. Later during my trip, I heard about these American priests in Japanese wedding ceremonies, and allegedly, the majority of them are fake priests. Over the last decades, the popularity of Western-style weddings have surpassed the traditional Shinto wedding and the inclusion of a ‘real’ European or American priest gives the ceremony a credible European atmosphere. There are, however, not enough real Western priests in Japan to meet demands, so some expats or students take on a second job during the weekend to play the priest. The priest, the kiss, the wedding bouquet toss, the cutting of the cake and a glass of champagne – they all belong in an ‘authentic’ Japanese Western-style wedding, but they are treated differently then they would in an American or European wedding. The champagne, for example, is only there to raise the glass and congratulate the bride and groom, but no one really seems to drink from it and there are no refills.

After the ceremony, guests are directed to a reception table where they can leave their gift to the married couple (an envelope with money), and then receive a program of the banquet and their seat. This little booklet is actually very practical, since it shows where everyone is seated, what their name is and what their relation to the bride and groom is. The first thirty minutes of the banquet, people seemed to read the program and then would look around the room to see whom the father of the groom was, or what the relation of so-and-so was to K. or her husband T. The wedding lunch made my head spin. Dishes were rapidly served and there was constantly something happening in the room. The married couple would suddenly enter the hall in traditional Japanese clothing, people stood up for a speech, a video was shown about the couples’ youth, the couple came in with a third set of different clothes, and a proper MC would narrate how K. and her husband T. went on their first date and how they fell in love. My wedding speech went fairly well, although I did not really understand when K. grabbed my hand and walked around the room with me afterwards. Apparently, it was some sort of showcase to give the guests a photo opportunity. The most touching part of the day was when K.&T. formally thanked their parents for everything they did for them. In the case of the bride it was a sensitive topic, since K. is moving to a place far away in the north of Japan. Up to the wedding she had always lived with her parents. Getting married entailed moving away from her village, her parents, and starting a new life in a new city, taking care of her new in-laws. K’s thank-you-speech made her mom and dad cry- they also would have to adjust to a new life without their only daughter being around. Marriage is not all about new beginnings, it’s also about saying goodbye to everything you know and leaving a part of your life behind.


The banquet was supposed to end at 5 pm, and it did. At exactly five o’clock, the guests stood up, collected their ‘goodie bag’ (a present from the bride&groom to their guests), and walked out. For the youngsters in the wedding, there was the traditional second party from 6pm to 8pm. This is the part of the day where the parents are not invited. We had some beer, some snacks, and played some games. At 8pm sharp, the day came to an end.

I would see many more familiar faces in the following days. During the time I lived in Japan, I resided in a traditional house right next to the rice fields in a tiny village, together with a grandmother, mother and daughter. My grandmother is a sweet lady who used to work in the fields for hours every day, leaving her back completely hunched. I remember how she would always look for her glasses all through the house; her hunched back would not allow her to look anywhere above table-height and I would always pick them up from the kitchen-table or desk: “They’re right here, grandma!”, and she would look up and burst into giggles as if she was still a little girl. This time, I met my host-mother at the small station where I would always take the train to school. As she stood there, waiting for me underneath the stairs, I almost could not hold back my tears. I stepped into her car and we chatted as if I had never been away. “But I should warn you,” she said: “Grandma has gone a bit crazy. She does not remember too well, and can get angry fits out of nowhere.” As the car pulled up the driveway I already saw grandma standing next to the rice fields. I came up to her: “Baachan! Grandma! I’m back.” She looked at me, broadly grinned, and burst into giggles. 90 years old, a bit crazy perhaps, but she knew right away.
“You’ve grown up,” she said: “You even seem taller!”

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My old friends have all grown up, too. Most of them are married and have started their own families away from their parents. My dear friend M. has married a lovely gentleman with a fine job and travels all around the world with him. They invited me out for dinner and we ended up in a restaurant down a narrow street in the centre of Osaka. The sashimi here was served together with the head and tail of the fish. As I reached out my chopsticks to take a bite, the tail of the fish suddenly wiggled, causing me to yelp out in shock. My friend laughed at me: “Manya, this is how you know you’re eating the fish at its freshest!”


I have a soft spot for ‘hidden’ or ‘secret bars’. Japan has tons of them. Although there are some open-style izakaya with outside seats, Japanese pubs generally have a private and somewhat closed character. The sliding doors at the entrance are normally shut, even on hot days, and often the bars do not have any windows on the inside. Some of the most popular pubs are hidden away inside buildings, and can only hold a dozen or so people. With no windows and closed doors, they sometimes make me want to run out in the open street for some fresh air. To me, the whole idea of going out for a beer is to get away from the four walls of my apartment and sit and watch the world go by for a bit. The other day, my Japanese mother took me out for a dinner in a Nara izakaya on a beautiful starry night. We went up to the fifth floor of a building and were seated in a tiny back room, comparable in size to a shower cabin. When the waiter then walked away and closed the door, no window whatsoever, I really had to draw the line and asked to be seated at the main bar. I will probably never understand why it is that so many Japanese enjoy these small, secluded and crammed places, when they could also sit outside on a warm and starry night.


During my stay in Kyoto, I decided to investigate another secret bar I had heard about, although this one was unique in its sort. I simply followed the instructions scribbled on a piece of paper: out of the subway station to the right, first street to the right, and keep walking until the second temple. I was going to a ‘hidden bar’ on the premises of an ancient Japanese temple. It was a hot and humid night, and sweat was already trickling down my back when I found a beautifully lit temple in the darkness of the alley. I did not see anyone, and the small ticket counter for visitors of the temple was already closed. I carefully stepped passed the gate and waited to be noticed, but besides the soft wind rustling through the bamboo leafs, there was no sound whatsoever. Passing dozens of old statues, I walked down a cobbled path filled with candles and found a small wooden door at the back of the temple. I carefully opened it and stepped into a bar. Bottles of whiskey, expensive looking sake, a brown wooden counter, Ella Fitzgerald softly singing through the speakers. The place was empty. I stood there, a bit lost in the strangeness of it all, when a monk-like man suddenly entered and walked behind the bar. “No menu,” he said: “All drinks 1000 yen.” I ordered a glass of wine and sat there for a while, enjoying the view over a breathtaking temple garden. I stayed for a bit to see if anyone else would come in, but it was just the monk, Ella and I. So this is what truly secret bars are all about, I thought to myself: they’re so secret that nobody ever comes there. As I rode the train back, I imagined going back to the temple and finding that there was no bar at all; that this dreamlike place I had just visited was actually nothing but Japanese mystique playing games with my imagination.


It is my last night in Japan. I walk by the Osaka river and stop at a small restaurant where I’ve been a couple of times during my stay. “Manya!” the owner shouts out from the open kitchen. “Come in, have a beer. You’re leaving Japan tomorrow, isn’t it?” He remembered the schedule I told him on one of my first days here. As we say goodbye later on, he takes a picture of me and asks me to come to Japan again in the near future. “Don’t wait so long to come back this time,” he says. I say goodbye to Ming Ming in Shin Sekai and go back to the clock-and-cat bar on the intersection for one last Asahi. The cat is still there, so is the jazz music. I may have not really experienced the ‘travel state of mind’ here, but I sure had the ‘Japan state of mind’, where past and present came together and suddenly made sense. I came back to Japan to see what part of me it had ‘stolen’, only to discover it never took anything away from me. The seeds I planted here over ten years ago are still there and grew into something beautiful: lasting family ties, strong friendships and a deeply rooted appreciation of the Japanese language, culture and people. My love for Japan is rekindled. Perhaps it never really went away. ‘It just needed some water to keep it growing,’ I think to myself. The cat watches me and meows again. I’ll say sayonara to Japan once again, but this time around, I’ll be back soon.

Love Always,


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Curious to know more?
Check out some of these articles/blogs:

On izakaya culture:

On Shin Sekai:

On Japan’s fake priests:

On Kyoto’s ‘secret bar’:

And keep an eye on this upcoming film by Lim Kah Wai about a Chinese girl moving to Shin Sekai:

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