My husband and I took a long trip this fall, to Japan for three weeks. It was fantastic! We are culinary travelers, and Japan was a treat.

A tempura restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.

We often chose to sit where we could watch the cooks at work.

Dragon melon.

We discovered many new foods. This is dragon melon.

I had spent two summers in Japan as a teen, staying with my aunt and uncle (who flew for Japan Airlines) and my two cousins. My cousins and I traveled the country from top-to-bottom, traveling on trains and staying at youth hostels, which were wonderful. The following summer, my mother, my two younger siblings and I returned, again staying at hostels. I never wanted to leave.

My family forged strong bonds with Japan over the years. My father, an airline pilot for PanAm, flew to Tokyo regularly, bringing back intriguing treasures. My brother and his wife became importers of Japanese antiques, and their son Robert is carrying on the family business. After my father retired, my mother and father went to Japan many times with my brother and his wife in search of antiques, becoming passionate restorers of Japanese antiques and enthusiastic flea-marketers.

I wondered, returning, how much Japan would have changed in over fifty years. It turned out: not that much. It was more built up, certainly, and more modern (in delightful ways), but it still had that sense of aesthetic beauty and gracious charm I remembered so well.

I remembered being surprised as a teen at how clean, tidy and lovely the houses were that backed onto the train tracks. Were there no slums in Japan? It turned out that same is true today.

We saw few trash bins, yet not a speck of litter — or graffiti, for that matter. Japan has near to full employment and no homeless (that we could see). All this was also true fifty years ago.

Japan was remarkably safe in years past. My mother left her purse on a train — it was returned within a day. It had been handed back person to person through two trains and taken to where we were staying in a rural youth hostel. Imagine that! In our three weeks in Japan, we saw very few police, yet the country is orderly and safe.

(In fact, Japan has the lowest rate of gun violence in the developed world. Annual gun deaths are often in the single digits, compared to 33,000 annually in the US. I posted an info-video on how they manage this to Facebook here.)

But most of all, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic all over again. As a teen, I read Japanese writers in translation and I’m looking forward to revisiting those books once again. There is something about their spare, understated prose that I continue to aspire to. This was a trip that will stay with me for many years to come.SaveSave