Is it 1957 or 2017?

You’ve heard it before, “Japan is the most advanced country in the world! Their technology is beyond anything in the US!” Well, that may be right – in the middle of Tokyo, but if you go anywhere else in the country, you’re in for a big surprise.

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An old man riding his bike through Tsukiji, Tokyo’s traditional fish market.

Say you land in Tokyo after a long flight. You’re staying in another town just outside the main city, so you drag yourself and your luggage off of the plane and onto a comfortable, spacious seat on the Shinkansen (bullet train). It’s great! You’re comfortable, you’re speeding along at 200 MPH, and you don’t have a care in the world.

After thirty minutes or so, you hear your stop announced over the speakers. You put your tray table up, grab your luggage, and step off of the train and back into the year 1957. Wait, what? What just happened? Weren’t you just in one of the most advanced cities in the world?

The people in Japan are really serious about their gardens – even if they don’t have much room to work with. 

That’s where Japan gets tricky. You see, Japan is more than its complicated train system, advanced robotics, and 50+ hour work weeks. Japan is a country lost in time. Japan is a country with old houses sheltered under tin roofs. A country where nearly every house and apartment patio – even if it’s only a few feet wide – overflows with flowers and greenery. It’s a country where businessmen go out to drink with their co-workers night after night only to get a few hours of sleep before waking up early the next day to get back to work. It’s a country where the sex industry is legal – yet it’s looked down on to hold hands with your partner in public.

An old house in the countryside. Annaka, Gunma.

Sometimes you’ll see a one hundred thousand dollar car speeding down the highway while a fully-suited woman jogs down the sidewalk in her heels to get to work on time. The cost of living outside of major cities isn’t too expensive, but it is still common for young men and women to live with their parents into their 30s to save money.

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It really feels like you’ve gone back in time when you see something like this on the side of the road.

Staying active and healthy is paramount – there are even morning radio exercises that companies force their employees to participate in. Men and women who are even slightly overweight are looked down on and shamed. At one point, citizens with a few extra pounds were even taxed at a higher rate by the government. Because of these cultural faux pas, Japan has one of the highest rates of anorexia. At the same time, however, the supermarkets are filled with isles of fried potatoes, fried fish, and fried cheese balls. Gelato stores and bakeries line every major road – and every self-respecting worker gets a latte from the convenience store before, during, and after work.

Old, rusty street signs are a common sight in Japan.

Japan is a country of contradictions. Still, somehow, Japan’s society works together like a well-oiled machine, no gear out of place. I can’t imagine another place in the world being able to maintain such a high level of harmony amid so much chaos. Kudos to you, Japan!

Bonus picture time! Below is a photo of a radio exercise group I joined a few days before I left Takasaki. They met up at 6:30 am and exercised for an hour before stopping for tea and snacks. They were an amazing group of people. I hope I can meet them again someday.

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