OK, I confess. I traveled to Japan carrying with me a number of preconceptions. For many years, my work in journalism and a lifelong passion to see the world have allowed me to explore scores of countries, but I had left Japan far from the top of my list. Big mistake.
I did not expect a particularly fascinating place: I had vague images of Tokyo, a giant megalopolis of concrete buildings, of exorbitant prices, with heavy traffic and streams of salarymen in identical outfits filing to work every day. I pictured modern. I pictured not terribly interesting.
I could not have been more wrong.
Japan, as it turns out, is a captivating country, a kaleidoscope of ancient traditions swirling alongside modern technology. It is a land of creativity, of hip funkiness and conservative beauty, of business efficiency and dizzying fantasy. It is a place that can pamper your senses, often in the most unexpected ways.
How did Japan surprise me? Let me count a few of the ways.
Stylish in ways you have never seen
Yes, sure, there are men in gray suits. But the eyes have no time to rest on the boring or mundane. The Japanese are fashion-conscious, and many are dazzlingly creative in their personal appearance. A ride in Tokyo's subway or a walk down any major street will bring you face to face with looks that reveal detailed attention to beauty and a person-as-canvas philosophy.
And it's not just in Tokyo. In Kyoto, for example, the ancient capital, one sees the super-hip youngsters but also the chic girls all done up, literally head to tabi-socked toe in traditional kimonos, walking through the old geisha district of Gion, as if trying to cut through the fog of time and sneak quietly into another era. These are the make-believe geisha, spending a few hours wrapped in the resplendent clothes of the past, meandering the streets alongside real geisha.
If all I could do is watch the people go by, that alone would be worth another trip to Japan.
Technology meets tradition -- and fantasy
There was a time long ago, before everything was made in China, when every piece of technology seemed to come from Japan. Consider that Japan had the superfast bullet train, the Shinkansen, almost half a century ago.
Japan is still a technology powerhouse. Brands like Sony, Panasonic, Nintendo and Toshiba sell their inventions around the world and in Japan, where technology and tradition sometimes create their own surreal world.
The best place to see this is in the Tokyo district of Akihabara, known also as "Electric Town."
Akihabara is, on the surface, a maze of electronics stores. You can buy robots, televisions, video games. But there's much more happening.
As you walk down the streets, you notice people wearing baffling costumes. Akihabara has become home to what the Japanese call "otaku," people with passionate interests in areas such as technology, role-playing video games and that singularly Japanese art form, manga comics.
The neighborhood is home to countless manga stores and is filled with "costume cafes." You see girls dressed as French maids and other other fantasy characters. This is the world of "cosplay" (costume play), in which people play act characters from the stories they love. It's a blend of future and past, of technology and fantasy. In other areas, you see the curious Japanese affinity for "cuteness" kawaii, worthy of a full separate treatise.
Not just big buildings and highways
Tokyo is big, so big it's hard to comprehend. The entire metropolitan area, a 35 million-person megalopolis, is the world's largest. But despite the oceans of humanity, Japanese architecture includes intimate, warm, exquisite buildings and parks that don't make you feel like an ant about to be crushed.
Still, the masses of people are something to behold. And the place to behold them is the world's busiest pedestrian crossing, outside Tokyo's Shibuya station, which has deservedly made its way into many films.
Besides the gasp-inducing view of thousands of people pouring in all directions when Shibuya's light changes, it's astonishing that traffic flows neatly when the light changes again. The Japanese generally follow the rules, and that keeps everything moving.
Look at Osaka, or any major city, for evidence that the Japanese have built spectacular high-rises, great highways and a rail network rivaled by few, but they have also created other awe-inspiring structures with a powerful spiritual dimension.
Beyond the urban jungle, there are exquisite gardens and temples.
About 30 miles from Tokyo, in the old Shogun capital, Kamakura, stands one of the most breathtaking Buddha statues I have seen. The giant Buddha of Kamakura moved a traveler of his day, Rudyard Kipling, to admonish, "O ye who tread the Narrow Way ... be gentle when the 'heathen' pray, To Buddha at Kamakura!"
Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples grace the landscape throughout Japan but nowhere in more moving, soothing and restoring fashion than in Kyoto.
Like the rest of the country, Kyoto, the capital of Japan for a thousand years, is a city of contrasts. With nearly 1.5 million inhabitants, it is a modern metropolis. But the world has not seen a city quite like this.