I hope this has come over as not so much of a critique on Japan, rather than advice to stay mindful about what you see. Readers know me from my blog entries, which may give the impression I'm a bit of a Japanophile (as opposed to a Japan-basher), but I’ve tried to open my eyes a little wider since I stepped on that international ferry in Osaka, effectively ending my Japanese experience; nothing will make you realize how you feel about Japan better than getting outside of it for a brief stay.
I miss the hot springs on chilly evenings. I miss nibbling yakitori as I stroll through outdoor markets. I remember all the discussions I had with locals as my Japanese improved and I felt I could move past the "where are you from/do you like sushi" conversations.
Having spent so much time in Japan, I do still think about it on a daily basis, wondering if I made the right decision, trying to take myself back to the same state of mind I had while living in Hiroshima and Kagoshima. I can recall shuttling myself to distant islands far from the lights of Tokyo… but did you know when I was on Nakanoshima, there were two major construction projects going on? One, to extend the harbor; two, paving a new road on the southern side of the island (one hundred people live there, few with cars!)
Unlike Kerr, I haven't known what it's like to walk in the streets of the real Kyoto. But the dream keeps me going, makes me search (most of the time, in vain), to find that "real Japan" image wherever I can. Being situated in Kagoshima put me in a unique position; I could see islands where few have walked; my studies concerning Buddhism made me aware of the 88-temple walk in Shikoku; even running in Japan allowed me to see the country in a new light.
Japan is a massive concrete jungle filled with people you won't understand at first, or even after years of residency.
Japan is a very comfortable, very pleasant place to live, filled with every amenity you can imagine, and some you can’t.
Thinking about your role in Japanese society is depressing; fit in as best you can, and take the rest in stride. There’s nothing else that can be done.
As contrite as it sounds, we foreigners need to educate Japan. Not on matters of English, but of world views, and even Japanese culture itself; whenever I returned from a trip to Sapporo, or Matsuyama, or Shimonoseki, my students were practically in shock: they had never found the time to travel to these places themselves, nor were they aware of just how much someone could appreciate them. Now imagine I’m describing a foreign country to them; to give them that yearning to know what is beyond Japan's borders is the best gift of all. But please know what you're talking about beforehand.
Eat sashimi and drink ocha. It’s good for you.