A few years ago, in the middle of the night, with the efficiency of a fine thief or surgeon or spy, an entire platform at Tokyo’s Shibuya railway station was moved several levels underground. This wasn’t an easy feat: Think of shutting down a major terminal at LaGuardia and, overnight, opening a new one 800 feet away. Hundreds of trains every day. Millions of commuters. And then—zip—in 2013, the old Shibuya platform (a perfectly good structure, by the way) closed and the new one crackled flawlessly into instant life.
The Shibuya neighborhood sits in a valley in Tokyo. First along rivers and now along rail and subway lines, it has been central to metropolitan life for almost 200 years. And over and over again, the station there has been upgraded, nudged a bit, perfected. Just as, every 20 years along the eastern bank of the Isuzu River in central Japan, priests and townspeople gather to tear down the all-wooden Ise Jingu shrine only to reconstruct it, what happened at Shibuya Station was something more than an act of urban destruction and rebirth. It was a statement that is quintessentially Japanese: We will grasp something very good. Then demolish it. And replace it with something better. In the process we will not merely keep the essence of what has always been. We will refine it.
Why is it so important to go?
Well, in part because the country remains a thriving bastion of the unique in an age of steamrollering globalization. You’re a fool to kill time in the megabrand luxury boutiques of Tokyo, for instance, when you could be squeezing into a pair of jeans made by the obsessive-compulsive Japanese denim heads at 45rpm. There’s nothing to fear in travel to Japan, which makes the exotic so approachable. You and your kids should all go because the nation’s elegance of thought and aesthetics—the soft chime of the elevators, the near-silent sluicing of 200-mile-an-hour shinkansen trains—must be experienced by anyone who claims to know the modern world.
But why now? Because: Look at what is going on everywhere in our world. Don’t you have the sense that history is eyeing all our sacred shrines—globalization, the E.U., our sense of peace—with the eyes of those Ise Jingu priests? Much around us now seems at risk of collapse, even things that seem honestly fine. Our health, our finances, our ideas or politics. And don’t you wonder: Is it going to be okay? Japan, despite its own economic struggles, offers an answer. To know that you can demolish and improve, that the essence of what you love might even be refined by change—this is the pleasant shock embedded in the country’s finest moments. It makes travel to Japan now more than a trip. It makes it a journey.
Japan is everywhere a land of preserved, refined essences, all easily grasped by travelers attuned to nuance: Sadao Watanabe working a saxophone at midnight in a Nishi-Azabu club. The beauty of the reflected sky atop Tadao Ando’s Water Temple on Awaji Island. Those surgically clean Shibuya train platforms. These all express a deeper message about how perfecting details can reveal something profound. Japanese culture prizes this idea of a kind of instant, slippery access to something so deep that it is unchanging. Call it truth or enlightenment or nature. The Japanese call it satori: sudden comprehension. Touch the country in just the right spot and your senses will lead you somewhere your rational mind can never go. Japan, you will discover, is less a place than a vehicle.
I have been going regularly to Japan for nearly two decades, spent happy years stewarding a crumbling machiya house on the Kyoto canals, have slept under the stars in every season, and I can tell you confidently: The country is an inexhaustible well of such experiences. It’s not merely that you don’t run out of things to see; it’s that there are so many ways to feel the depth of Japanese tradition. Your first trip? Well, I’d say that the faster you can plunge into daily life, the more you’ll get from the country. Wander into office buildings. Take in a concert. Drink and eat your way through the snack section at the 7-Eleven. A return visit? Slow down. Kill hours in the garden of a temple like Kyoto’s Shorenin, a place that the Japanese say can be understood only after a dozen visits. Disappear into nature in the Kiso Valley in spring or the snow-packed streets of Akita Prefecture in winter so you can hear the cricket sounds or the snow-muffled silence that informs much of Japanese art. But mostly remember that the itinerary you are making shouldn’t be a checklist of must-see spots. Rather, it is a map that leads toward a new kind of inner confidence.
The German scholar Eugen Herrigel came to Japan as a university lecturer in the 1920s. Shortly after his arrival, he found himself in a Tokyo hotel as an earthquake struck. The building swayed like bamboo in a high wind, and all around him people were running in a panic. But one man, a Japanese colleague, sat absolutely stock-still, totally calm in the midst of the creaking and chaos. He was, Herrigel later discovered, an adept of Zen—a man lit by the sense that while some things may move, even violently, certain truths underlie our lives and remain forever the same. Such an awareness is the longest-lasting gift you’ll take home from a trip to Japan (along with the incredible candies and perfect teas). The country is a charming and unforgettable reminder: The things we cherish most—love, beauty, hope—will remain unchanged in our changing world. They might even be enhanced.