Hardly a day passes by that one doesn't hear something about Japan, whether the subject is trade, travel, scandal, natural disaster, cuisine, the arts, or the nation's worst economic recession since World War II. Yet Japan remains something of an enigma to people in both the Eastern and the Western world.

What best describes this Asian nation?

Is she the giant producer of cars, computers, and a whole array of sleek electronic goods that compete favorably with the best in the West?

Or is she still the land of the geisha and bonsai, the tea ceremony and the delicate art of flower arrangement (ikebana)?

Has she become, in her outlook and popular culture, a country more Western than Asian? Or has she retained her unique ancient traditions while forging a central place in the modern industrialized world?

In fact, Japan is an intricate blend of East and West. Her cities may look Westernized (often disappointingly so) but beyond first impressions there's very little about this Asian nation that could lull you into thinking you are in the West. Yet Japan also differs greatly from its Asian neighbors. Although she borrowed much from China in her early development, including Buddhism and its writing system, she has remained steadfastly isolated from the rest of the world throughout much of her history, usually deliberately so.

Until World War II, she had never been successfully invaded; and for more than 200 years, while the West was gripping with the awakenings of democracy and industrialism, Japan completely closed its doors to the outside world and remained a tightly structured feudalistic society with almost no outside influence.

It has been more than just 140 years since the Japanese opened their doors, embracing Western products wholeheartedly, yet at the same time altering them and making them unquestionably their own. Thus, that modern high-rise may look Western, but it may contain a rustic-looking restaurant with open charcoal grills, corporate offices, a pachinko parlor, a high-tech bar with views of Mount Fuji, a McDonald's, an acupuncture clinic, a computer showroom, and a rooftop shrine. Your pizza may come with octopus, beer gardens are likely to be fitted with Astroturf, and "parsley" refers to unmarried women older than 25 (because parsley is usually what's left on a plate!), city police patrol on bicycles, garbage collectors attack their job with the vigor of a well-trained army, and white-gloved elevator operators, working in some of the world's swankiest department stores, greet, bow and thank you as you enter and exit.

Because of this unique synthesis of East and West into a culture that is distinctly Japanese, Japan is not easy for most foreigners to comprehend. Discovering her is like peeling an onion -- you uncover one layer only to discover more layers underneath. Thus, no matter how long one have had stayed in Japan, one never stop learning something new about it and to me even after having spend more than a decade (my entire youth in fact!) in Japan, that constant discovery is one of the most fascinating aspects that Japan has on me personally.