Japan: Love at First Sight

The Japanese expression "一目惚れ" is often translated as "love at first sight", but its literal meaning delves deeper. “惚”, a Kanji borrowed from Chinese, conveys an instant enchantment that leaves one emotionally spellbound. That’s precisely how I felt when I first visited Japan in 1960.

I’ve been vocal about my love for emerging markets for decades, but what might be less known is my soft spot for Japan. At 24 years old, I won the ticket of a lifetime—a scholarship to study Japanese in the stunning, historic city of Kyoto. At the time, Japan was still picking up the pieces from the war, but the inherent virtues of its people still shone through. Their discipline, courtesy, strong sense of community, and refined appreciation for beauty were strikingly evident.

Just six months in the country completely transformed me—I was hooked. I knew I had to make my way back to this part of the world, and so I did, landing a market research job in Tokyo in 1965. The rest, as they say, is history.

Last month, I went on a whistle-stop tour across Japan, revisiting old haunts and discovering new wonders from Kyoto, Nara and Osaka to Kagoshima, Nagasaki and Kanazawa.

Back in 1960, the Golden Temple was freely accessible by unpaved paths.

Upon revisiting Kyoto, all those cherished memories came flooding back to me. The city has certainly evolved since my student days living near the now-commercialized Golden Temple, yet its enchanting beauty, anchored by the grand Imperial Palace, remains intact.

Strolling along the ancient streets of Kyoto, I'm instantly transported back to 1960

Nara served as the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 during the Nara period. It was the seat of the Emperor before the capital was moved to Kyoto. We visited numerous beautiful temples filled with exquisite statues and art dedicated to Buddha, many of which we were not allowed to photograph.

At the majestic Kofukuji Temple in Nara

Kagoshima, a 1.5-hour train ride from Fukuoka, offered a profound journey through Japan's history of sacrifice and peace, from samurai Saigo Takamori to World War II pilots, while a ferry to Sakurajima, Japan’s only active volcano, offered a hot springs retreat.

Kagoshima honored Saigo Takamori, the famed samurai pivotal to Japan's modernization and the inspiration behind the movie "The Last Samurai", with a dedicated museum and graveyard.
Relaxing with a free foot spa at the Sakurajima Yogan Nagisa Park

Back in Kagoshima, we explored the Shimadzu family shrine. I immediately recognized the Shimadzu cross logo from my research on medical instruments many years ago which Shimadzu Corporation now manufactures. This is a striking testament to the continuity of Japanese companies!

Tsurugane Shrine pays homage to the ancestors and descendants of the Shimazu Family.

Nagasaki moved us with its complex past—from its Dutch trading post to its poignant Peace Park. The city's transformation over the years symbolized Japan's own journey from isolation to technological leadership, a theme further explored in my visit to the restored island where Dutch traders were once confined to limit foreign contacts.

Before the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan, the Tokugawa shogun strictly controlled foreigners from entering the country particularly after Portuguese and Spanish priests started converting Japanese to Christianity. This led to execution of converts and the most famous case being the crucifixion of 26 Catholics in 1597 whose monument is in Nagasaki. Then in 1639 following a rebellion by mostly Catholic converts, all Portuguese were expelled with only Dutch confined to a specially built island Dejima. We visited a detailed restoration of that island. For the Japanese, the Dutch served as a vital conduit for knowledge about European technology science and medicine. Of course trade was key with the Japanese exporting crates of copper bars and other materials in exchange for foreign machinery and other goods.

Model of a Dutch ship from the 17th century

In Nagasaki, we also visited Thomas Glover's home: a pivotal British trader who founded Kirin beer in collaboration with Mitsubishi's founder, and was honored for aiding Japan's industrialization. His preserved residence showcases a rich history.

Thomas Glover’s well-preserved residence offers stunning harbor views

In Nikko and Kanazawa, we marveled at Japan's artistic heritage, from the grand mausoleums of the Tokugawa shoguns to the meticulous craft of gold leaf making. Atami provided a leisurely break, with its bustling beaches and rejuvenating hot springs.

We visited the Yasue Gold Leaf Museum and saw how gold leaf has been made since the Edo period in the late 16th century

As early as 713, Atami was celebrated for its hot springs, even frequented by Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Today its proximity to Tokyo makes it a popular beach resort.

The highlight was our journey to Mount Fuji, where despite initial cloud cover, the iconic mountain finally revealed itself, echoing the way Japan has revealed its multiple layers to me over the years.

The beautiful Mount Fuji

Today, with its booming technology sector and thriving tourism, Japan continues to be an exciting place to be. The Japanese stock market looks buoyant now and investors are increasingly drawn to the nation, captivated by its strides in chip technology and other innovations.

There is no doubt that Japan has undergone significant transformations over the past decades. Yet, for all its changes, my love for the country remains as steadfast as ever.

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