Unknown secrets of Japan – and leaving on a big boat!

 Day 2,017 since October 10th 2013: 178 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).   

Japan is pretty much what I was always told…and more.


For years I’ve been telling people that I was looking forward to reaching Japan. Now that I can’t say that anymore I guess the country I’m looking the most forward to reaching is the Maldives (last country). I really like Japan I will return some day. However as amazing as Japan is, it was not as unique as I hoped. You can single out Greenland, Cuba and Ethiopia as there isn’t much to compare them too. The same is only true for Japan to some degree I think.

Japan is a unique country. It has been closed in many ways and yet it has had close international ties for many years. People say it’s clean, friendly, interesting, efficient, the food is good, the country is beautiful, the architecture is exquisite, the level of innovation is high and I figure “those people” are right. As far as I’m concerned all of that is true. Then some people say there is no country like Japan and as far as that statement goes I’m not too sure. Generally that would depend on which parameter you wish to discuss. While Ethiopia, Greenland and Cuba feel 100% unique to me I would say Japan feels around 70% unique. Probably because I’ve been spending most of my time in a big city and modern cities have a lot of similarities. It is likely also because I just came from South Korea which was under Japanese influence for many years. Furthermore you could point towards that both the South Korean and Japanese nominal GDP’s are among the highest in the world. Finally the world has over the years been changing drastically with smartphones, better internet connections and cheap flights. We are beginning to look more like each other than ever before. We mostly have the same social media apps, same devices, watch the same movies, same series, listen to the same artists and who doesn’t talk about Donald Trump these days? Seriously? Is talking about the president of the USA really the one thing that transcends all culture, class and countries? Man I hear his name a lot wherever I go…


There is definitely something extra to the land of the rising sun than what initially meets the eye. I found that businessmen added a feeling of a closed and almost secretive society. Japanese people adhere to ancient rituals. They pay attention to small details. Do they whisper in the corners? Something is definitely going on behind closed doors across Japan. In fact I think all the secrets are out but we are too lazy to study and understand what really goes on in Japan. Much like the secrecy which surrounds freemasonry. With everything available today you are likely to learn whatever you want about freemasons by googling, youtubing, talking to people and visiting libraries. There are no more secrets. People just don’t research any of it and as a result they don’t understand. Japan is strong on tradition, honour, dignity, family, respect and loyalty. Systems have been in place for millennia in order to secure those virtues are a part of Japanese society. So you may be able to peal a few layers off Japanese society and think that you understand them…maybe even come to a conclusion that they are not too different from yourself. However if you do not put the effort into understanding that deeper level then you will be facing a locked door or a layer you cannot peal off the onion. And that is the 70% which makes Japan unique.


Standing with the lovely Kyoko in front of Kanda Myojin shrine.

I was fortunate to be introduced to Kyoko who has a firm interest in Japan’s cultural heritage and preserving it for future generations. I was recently approached by AwesomeMaps who asked if I could take over on their Instagram Stories for a day. I agreed and have further collaboration with AwesomeMaps in the future. For the Instagram takeover I teamed up with Kyoko and went out to see more of Tokyo’s hidden gems. Kyoko is active through mypal.jp which offers all sorts of insight on Japanese culture. We met up and walked through the old town of Yanaka which went unharmed from the carpet bombings of WWII. Most of Tokyo was actually destroyed during that war. We stopped to take a look at some traditional houses and we passed by a cemetery which was quite interesting to me. The traditional way of arranging a resting place for the deceased is to have a stone with the family name on it. The stone represents all the deceased while a long wooden stick behind the stone represents the individual people. The wooden sticks have names carved or painted on to them. The superstition related to death when someone sticks their chopsticks vertically into their food stems from the resemblance to these sticks behind the family gravestone.


Note the wooden stics with names behind the family grave stone.

Kyoko brought me to Gallery Okubo / Yakaan which is an antiques dealership in Nippori, which was a neighbourhood which we had reached. I was about to experience “Kodo” (way of incense). Japan has three old traditions relating to the culture: incense ceremonies, tea ceremonies and calligraphy. I went inside the antiques shop with Kyoko and into the back where a room was ready for the ceremony. Everything was prepared with outmost delicacy and care. It was a slow but beautiful process. Once the preparations were done we moved to another room in which the actual ceremony would take place. More preparation followed and it was clear that every move and every act was deliberate and well rehearsed.


Rituals, antiques, traditions...Kodo at Gallery Okubo / Yakaan.


After the incense ceremony.

Then we went on to play an old game which would have been entertainment for nobility and others of the sort in the past. Some incense was placed on top of the creation which was made to contain the source of heat, which would warm up the incense. The heat would in turn release the smell. Some of the incense which was used was more valuable than gold. The game we played was to smell and try to remember the scent of three separate types of incense. Then we would later on be exposed to them again. One by one. In a slow and proper ritual. And then we would write down our answers, guessing in which order we were now being exposed to various scents. Every time we received a scent we would hold it in the cup-like container, turn it 180 degrees in two moves, place one hand over the container, smell, turn our head away, turn back and smell again, then turn away, then rotate the container 180 degrees in the opposite direction (in two moves) and hand it to the next person. So much care, so many rules, so much ritual…


This 88 year old woman makes me look 200 (tea ceremony).

Afterwards I was invited to experience a tea ceremony which took place on the second floor. An 88 year old woman who masters the art of tea ceremonies began the ritual. It was as slow and delicate as the incense ceremony and the woman paid great detail to every movement. She moved about as if she was only twenty years old. Amazing as I’m just forty and now make sounds when I get up. Everyone present was instructed to pick a bowl to drink out of. For the most part the bowls were antique and the most expensive one of them was valued above the price of a Lexus! The Japanese are fairly silent people in most regards. They do not grunt nor slurp when they eat or drink. However ritual demanded that the bowl would be lifted with one hand, rotated three times with the other, led to the mouth and the tea should be consumed in three sips. The third and final sip should be accompanied by a slurping sound as sign of appreciation. Then the bowl would be rotated back into position in another three moves and put on the floor. So much ritual. So much care. So much detail.


Green tea. I get the name now. What would you rather have: this bowl or a Lexus?

Kyoko and I continued to Gokokuin Buddhist temple which houses one of seven lucky gods. We continued down the road and through a very active park with a lake in which many people were busy pedalling their pedal boats. Kyoko had a meeting with a man in which she would discuss Sake and the potential of an export to Australia. Sake is Japanese rice wine which is made by fermenting polished rice. Kyoko knows A LOT about sake and even has her own product called Reiwashu new sparkling sake. Apparently there are almost unlimited varieties of sake and it can in some ways be compared to the varieties of whiskeys, absinth or various types of rum. Kyoko offers sake brewery tours through mypal.jp as well as a variety of cultural experiences.


Kyoko was such a lovely host / guide. And she is a phenominal advocate for so many things! :)

After the meeting ended the three of us headed up to Kanda Myojin temple before making our way to a sake place called Meishu Center. There we each received three types of sake in order to taste the differences. With so many varieties of sake I’m sure there’s one for me somewhere. However I’m not interested in going through hundreds or thousands of bottles to find it. I already know I like Laphroaig whisky. I don’t think sake is for me. It is not bad though. Having been through the carefully executed incense ceremony and afterwards the green tea ceremony in which every little movement or gesture had meaning, I was now curious to know about the sake? How to drink it? In which order? Should I rinse my mouth in between? Should I finish a glass before tasting the next? I asked Kyoko to ensure that I was doing it right. Kyoko replied: there are no rules: do whatever you’d like with sake :)


Kyoto, Japan.

The following day I hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto and returned to Tokyo in the afternoon for a meeting I had. My JR pass expired the following day and I wanted to make the most of my money before it did. I nearly spent more time on the train than in Kyoto, which in the past was Japans capital for more than 1,000 years! Kyoto is also special as it was largely spared from conventional bombing during WWII so MANY remarkable architectural wonders are still to be found today...In fact, in 1994, 17 historic sites were inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List under the group designation Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Fourteen of the listed sites are in Kyoto itself, two are in the neighbouring city of Uji and one is in Ōtsu.


Kyoto is definately worth a revisit and a lot more time!


Soooo...apparently wasabi is not for everything and you don't drown every piece in soya ;)


I observed hundreds of people, row upon row, gaming away...

To some degree Japanese society is completely bonkers! I’ve seen a number of commercials that were so crazy that they did not make sense. The Japanese are crazy for manga comics / graphic novels although some Japanese have told me that not all Japanese like comics ;) Neon lights are plentiful in certain parts of Tokyo and I walked by a gambling hall which was another thing the Japanese have managed to take to the extreme. Extremes are plentiful in Japan and so is the bizarre. Especially ice-cream and Kit Kats come in a variety of bizarre flavours such as: Miso, Seaweed, Soy Sauce, Purple Sweet Potato, Wasabi, Buckwheat Tea, Bitter Melon and a lot more!! There is a large ageing generation which is out of proportion to the younger generation which is ridiculously small. Today Japan has around 123 million people and in one estimate they will have less than 100 million by 2049 due to a very low birth rate.


Japanese people are everything imaginable depending on who you meet. Some are shy while others are not. They are generally not good at speaking English but some are. They have three alphabets and several thousand kanji characters are in regular use so I’m sure the populations have their heads full of that. Kindness, order and hospitality has been prevalent wherever I’ve been. The country is super safe and unbelievably well organized.


Near Shibuya station with the statue of Hachiko the loyal dog. Do you know the story?

I have been taken very good care of by my host family which consists of the Reunert’s! They are a Danish family of five who adopted me for a week and made me feel at home. Anna is a nurse and has worked for many years in Denmark but is in Japan as an expat mother to Anton, Olivia and Ella. Three amazing children with bright heads and a good sense of humour. Today is actually Anton’s birthday as he turns twelve years old! Congratulations Anton! Last year before turning teen. Thomas is the family father and works within IT. Everyone has been super easy going and they will no doubt be hard to leave. But leave I must because the Saga must continue and my ride is ready.


I find my heart shattered across the world. So many great people!! This family was brilliant!

SeaLand, a division of the Maersk Group, is an intra-regional container shipping company who have arranged for me to travel onboard the good ship “ALS Vesta”. She is 208.79 meters long (685 ft) and is nominated to carry 2,546 twenty foot containers (TEU). It is a great pleasure to be invited onboard as it is an experience which few will ever be offered unless they are seamen and working. The good ship will carry me to Taiwan which will become country number 179 in about a week as “ALS Vesta” is due to call a few ports in Japan before heading across to Taiwan.  


I had the chance to meet Adam who's known about the Saga for years. We went out for dinner and he asked if I would mind speaking to his students at Shibuya Senior & Junior High School. No problem! My pleasure! It became my public speaking engagement number number 91. 

It has been a busy week. A lot has been going on behind the curtains as usual. Getting onboard a ship like the “ALS Vesta” does not just happen but has been in the works for some time. I have also been working towards a few things which I can hopefully reveal to you soon. Thomas said that he was surprised to see the reality of the Saga. He even commented on that he was insure if I enjoyed it at all. I do enjoy elements of the Saga but there is overall way too much obligation and I wish that the workload was less. I could carve out some of the time consuming elements. I could stop blogging. I could close down social media or update it less frequently. I could stop as Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. I could stop giving interviews. I could stop doing public speaking. I could meet with less people. I could lower the bar and demand less from myself. Sometimes it feels like I should. The Saga would be vastly different though and I would eventually reach home with far less. As it is now the Saga is incredibly rich on material and content. Not so much financially though…however I have noticed that a lot of people have thrown a dollar or two at the Sagas Patreon account. Thank you for your generosity!!! It is much appreciated :)


This wall is one of many like it at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I have seen something quite similar in Peru at Machu Picchu.


Before and after!! Thomas invited me to join him for a run: TWICE! Both times 10k (6.2mi). I didn't know I still could!! But I was no match for Thomas though! ;)

The Reunert’s. What a loving family. Caring parents and charming children. An inclusive family. I was given my own room and I was told to feel at home and eat whatever I wanted from the fridge. It is a beautiful yet terrible part of the Saga getting to know so many people so well. Beginning to care about them and having to say farewell. We always say that we will meet again. Sometimes it is true, however I have met tens of thousands of people across the world. I have made new friends while I notice that some back home write me less and less. Ella, Olivia, Anton, Anna and Thomas will be dearly missed. A week ago we managed a day of skiing together at Kagura on Mt. Naeba. It was the last call for this winter season. The snow was still good enough to provide a fun day on the slopes. Blue skies and no wind. It was pretty hot and I had put too many layers on. However we had fun and it turned out that the family was more than competent. Thomas and Anton were snowboarding while the rest of us were on skis.


In front: Anna and Anton :)

While so much within the Saga sucks and has me wondering why the heck I even put myself through this then there’s also the bright side of it all. Meeting kind people, unexpectedly going skiing in Japan, having Japanese sushi with Japanese people in Japan, walking across Shibuya Crossing alongside thousands of others, learning new things, getting closer to home and pealing another layer off the secretive onion which is Japan.


Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - So much untold. Such a full project.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"


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