Postcards from Japan

 

Keith Martin

 

 

Groenstraat 30/2, B-3001, Heverlee, Belgium. { keith.martin@esat.kuleuven.ac.be }

 

 

We spent just over a week in Japan at the end of August 1996. Japan is a country that I have always had a certain intangible fascination over, even to the point of putting myself through some elementary language courses. I have several good Japanese friends and had learned a great deal about life there before I finally succeeded in paying the country this first fleeting visit. Eight days is not enough time to gain anything other than the slightest hint of flavour of a nation, and in a land as culturally rich and intriguing as Japan, it is a length of time guaranteed to leave only a smattering of treasured, but confusing, images. Here are some of them. As a whole, they neither entirely describe our visit nor necessarily provide great insight into our brief encounter with Japan. Individually they represent postcards, snapped memories, souvenirs perhaps, lingering representations and poems of our visit that struck brief but powerful mental chords that resonate still.

 

 

Arrival

 

The Reflection Our Shinkansen hurtles through the southern suburbs of Tokyo. I briefly see the reflected image of a train flit swiftly across the narrow strip of mirror windows on a distant office block, tinted orange by the sinking evening sun. Is that me ?

 

 

The Japanese

 

Misconceptions We suffer from so many preconceived misconceptions about our world that it is a continual duty to avoid falling for them. And I know that the people of Japan do not all look alike and that this is a common Caucasian mistake, an error bred by unfamiliarity. These things I know. And yet I am amazed how different the Japanese people really are. There are fat people, skinny people, short people, long people. I keep seeing faces that remind of friends and acquaintances from other times and places and nationalities. This should not surprise me. But it does.

 

From Little Things Big Things Grow The Japanese are undoubtedly getting bigger. And getting bigger faster. This is a phenomenon that has been seen in Anglo-Saxon countries for some time, but in Japan it is striking. Most families seem to have children that tower over their parents, standing in gaudy chunky sports boots, some ducking as they enter the subway train. But does Japan have the headroom for this new generation? They may soon have to provide it.

 

The Great Urban Fatigue Roam the underground networks of any big and booming city, rise and fall on the moving escalators, and watch as the urban workforce is propelled up and down, ever onwards, another day beginning, ending, passing, people standing, staring, drifting by. And watch the faces. Watch them. In Tokyo they looked so very very tired, far more so than anywhere else I have been. One spot survey picked out one in two of escalator voyagers in mid yawn. Quite exhausting. Even just thinking about it.

 

Compact Sleeping And not just the greatest yawners in the world. In other countries I have spent time in I notice that people are extravagantly messy public sleepers. They sprawl, slouch, keel, snore and restlessly shift from one position to another. In Japan, on park benches, trains, buses, under street trees, people just calmly fold their hands tidily into their laps, slump slightly forward, tuck their chin into their chest, and are gone. Out like a light. Neat assemblies of slumbering humanity, stacked efficiently in ordered rows.

 

 

Some People

 

The Sweep In the old town of Kanazawa an old man is sweeping the street. The rain steadily drifts down and the cobbled road is dark and glistening with moisture. The street is clear of litter and the rain has washed the dust into the streetside drains. Yet the old man sweeps. There surely is nothing there to sweep save for the freshly fallen raindrops and the passing minutes of the day. Yet as long as broom has handle and as long as broom has straw, he sweeps. He sweeps. He sweeps.

 

The Recyclist She wears a wide brimmed straw hat and her job turns old to new. She makes the rounds of city bins and cleans up after you. She extracts cans and bottles with her delicate long prong. She drains the vessels carefully and packs them with her tongs. She is the recycle lady and her bag is lined with grit. But itís a job of honour and sheís surely doing it.

 

The Tour Guide How to become a Japanese tour guide. Step zero. Be young, be beautiful, be female. Step one. Put on a pair of high soled shoes and slip into a brightly coloured jacket. Yellow would be great, but orange, green or red will do. Step two. Get a flag. You must get a flag and it must match your jacket. If this is difficult then I am sorry, it is not an easy job. Step three. Plug a microphone into a portable amplifier. If the amplifier is too heavy then please get a lighter one. This is essential. This is the most technical of the steps but worth trying to overcome. Why? Because that is it. You can go now. You are a Japanese tour guide.

 

The Maiden and Her Voyage An older woman and a girl unsteadily proceed down the wide street, clinging tightly onto one another. It is a scene not without its sentimentality and its reassurances. The young supporting the old. The healthy propping up the frail. The human conscience recognising duty and offering help where needed. A scene of love. Or is it? Well it may be many of these things, but as we pass we see that it is not the old that needs support. It is wisdom and experience that is being given, not youth and strength being taken. We are witnessing a maiden voyage. The first public outing on platform shoes.

 

The Girls At the small village station ten young schoolgirls bubble onto the two car train. They are in a state of some hysteria over the purchase of their travel tickets from the automatic issuing machine that stands by the door. They laugh and fuss. They are absolutely as free as they can be on this little train as it trundles down the valley towards the town. But women are not always this free in Japan, or elsewhere for that matter. But certainly not always this free in Japan. I wonder if they will be the generation to retain its freedom in this country. If they will always have such fun performing such a simple and functional task. If they will always be able to ride to town together, smiling, fooling, playing. I hope so. Everyone deserves that choice.

 

 

Etiquette

 

Eyes Down Someone is approaching in the distance. You cannot see their face clearly, but you feel their eyes are on you, wondering what brings a stranger into town. As they draw closer you feel the urge to reduce the human distance. You try a smile, prepare a nod, and most of all you seek their eyes. But they stare ahead and down. They feel you there, but they have gone. Eyes down. Eye contact is not in fashion here.

 

Safety Lane I rather like the safety men in Japan. They are most likely to be found at building sites or any area of public works. Street reparations for example. Where a pedestrian route is disrupted stand two immaculately uniformed men. White gloves, smart hats, quiet authoritative nods, discrete directional guidance. They indicate the well marked safety lane that bypasses the temporary obstacle. The hazard is now no hazard. Iím not such a great fan of holes in the road, but this treatment seems slight overkill. Perhaps at its most charming.

 

Travellerís Fare A girl enters the carriage and bows deeply. She turns and collects her trolley. It rattles and clinks as she pushes it down the aisle, sometimes stopping to pour a hot tea here, dispatch some sandwiches there. Sheís through, the door swishes open and the trolley has completed another leg of its train length journey. But back she comes and bows once more. To the travellers. It never used to happen like that on British Rail.

 

Breakfast Time We are sitting at breakfast in the large empty hall of the university, staring out through huge glass windows at the tumbling morning rain. Itís coffee, rolls and bacon and egg. We are almost the only customers here and the waitress watches us keenly from afar, perched expectantly at the entrance to the small kitchen. My empty coffee cup finally clinks onto the saucer and without delay the click of her high heels are heard on the tiled marble floor as she sprints into service. Clickety clickety clickety clickety. Yes thank you it was delicious. Arigatoo gozaimasu, oishii desu. Clickety clickety clickety clickety. She resumes her vigil. Watching us. Waiting. Waiting for that bread roll plate.

 

Good Night Sleep Tight It is dark, cold and very wet. Itís pouring. We have just dined out at a small family restaurant and the taxi has arrived to take us back to our hotel. The owner of the restaurant has come out to say farewell. No spring chicken. She stands outside the doorway, beyond the shelter of the steeply sloping roof, in the rain. She bows, we wave, she bows, we wave, she bows, it rains. She is still bowing as the tail lights fade into the darkness of the evening.

 

 

Eating

 

Schizophrenic Cafe In the heart of Shinjuku stands a little Italian style coffee shop. You can buy thick treacly coffee, a cappuccino, or munch on light pastries temptingly placed in the window to entice the hungry shopper in. It could be Adelaide or Udini. We sat there on a busy Saturday afternoon enjoying the atmosphere and watching the street life drift by. But at 5 oíclock all changed. The assistants burst into action, rearranging tables, swapping menu cards and clearing the long bar of empty cups. Off went the cappuccino machine, out went the sugary buns, down came a set of spirit dispensers, and out came a couple of beer taps. We came into a coffee bar and left a pub.

 

Sweet and Spicy Curry donuts. Donuts. Filled with curry. They are more than a reality. And they are delicious. At a bakery near YOU.

 

Melonmania Iíve been eating melons. In a big way. Rock melons. Water melons. Honeydew melons. Unidentified melons. Melon ice-cream. Melon soda. Melon juice. Melon cakes. Melon candies. Melon jelly. Itís just as well that I like melons. In a big way. Iíve been eating melons.

 

Monja Yoko took us to a monja restaurant. It wasnít that easy to get to. Well, we kind of hopped on a few trains and sat for a while, so it wasnít that hard. And then we popped up in this kind of sterile and quiet concrete part of Tokyo with nice decorated lanterns and street cafes. And apparently there was lots of monja happening there. But there was this one place that is the place to go. So we queued up. You have to. But it wasnít that long. Then we got this little table, the three of us, crammed around a hot plate in a tiny steamy room. And we sat obediently while she ordered God knows what. And when it came it looked like bowls of eggy stuff with vegetables. But thatís because it was. We poured it onto the hot plate and it cooked away in front of us. But we had put the heat up too much so the waitress came and turned it down. But it seemed to cook ok. It was great. Sizzle sizzle chomp chomp. And just when we thought it was all over, came dessert. DIY pancakes topped with sweet bean sauce. You canít complain, can you...

 

Shiny Happy Apples Being an item of fruit is surely not such a bad existence in Japan. All the ones we saw in the shops in Tokyo were very large, perfectly formed, and carefully wrapped in supporting plastic cups, often lined with paper padding. They are obviously loved and treasured during the growing process, gently and comfortably taken to the markets and then prized and treasured by the shoppers. So life is good until someone sticks their teeth into you. However our experience of at least the apples was that all this care and attention might make them big, beautiful and crunchy, but it doesnít always make them nice to eat.

 

 

Shopping

 

Invasion of the Vendors It cannot fail to strike a visitor to urban Japan that this is truly the land of vending machines. There is nothing that cannot be bought in a machine, seemingly except the one product that the rest of the word flogs from them.. snacks. It is really amazing. Shop assistants should be nervous. Among many products available around Shinjuku at the corners of suburban streets were, ice-cream machines, beer machines, whisky machines, battery machines, cigarette machines, pantyhose machines. And apparently you can buy even more interesting things than that if you know where to look. It is also surprising that vending machines are often no more expensive than the shops. You know it makes sense.

 

Two Shops An interesting shop. The little box shop. The little box shop sells little boxes. And little things to put in little boxes. And little things with which to wrap little boxes. And little things to wrap around little boxes. Another interesting shop. The plastic food shop. The plastic food shop sells plastic food. Plastic sushi. Plastic noodles. Plastic prawns. Plastic ice-cream. And plastic bowls from which to eat the plastic food. You can buy anything in Japan.

 

Free Things Avoiding free things. As you leave the Shinjuku subway station on a Saturday afternoon you are bombarded with free sample merchandise. It is almost impossible to avoid. Even active attempts to avoid the aggressive promotions will result in a harvest of packets of handkerchiefs, shampoo samples and pot noodles. Not avoiding free things. In the basement of the larger stores you often find huge food departments. Here you can probably acquire a decent meal just be roaming the stalls and pacing the aisles. Free pastries, free sushi, free dried fish, free hot chicken soup.

 

We are the Robots The shop. Two girls. One at each door. The potential customer. Approaching. The first girl. A monologue. Quiet but continuous. The special merchandise. The reasons to come in. The bargains. The lack of interest. The fading lines. The second girl. The refrain is resumed. The enticement. The welcome. Our shop. What we offer you. Why you need us. Why we need you. The failure. The silence. The silence. Another potential customer. Approaching. The first girl. A monologue. We are the robots. We are the robots.

 

 

Television

 

Sincerity How to make a popular television program in Japan. Step zero. Find a spacious studio and decorate it with modern furniture and glass tables. Step one. Round up eight sincere looking presenters (sorry - those forty or over need not apply). Step two. Paint and polish the presenters until they shine and glow and look the same. Then dress them in expensive clothes. Step three. Send the presenters on an intensive training course and do not let them come back until they know how to scream, shout, slap backs, animatedly agree and laugh uncontrollably at each otherís jokes. Step four. Compile a library of short film clips with which to introduce topics of conversation. Now go - youíre on air. So desu neh! Ooohhhh...

 

Somethingís Cooking A national obsession. Cooking. Almost every program on Japanese television seems to feature at least one cooking segment. At one time I counted five of the eight Shinjuku channels on the job. One morning we found the exception. It was a bird watching program. The presenters bobbed up and down off the shore of a precipitous rocky island and studied the huge breeding colonies of guillemots. And then they landed for a closer look. Out came the telescopes and the notebooks ... and the wok. It was unbelievable. They emptied their bags and cooked a whole bloody meal underneath the ledges of squawking sea birds. I didnít dare to look at what they fried.

 

Togetherness The Weather. Sport. Documentary. Film. News. Not one but two presenters. The first presenter. Tall. Nice teeth. Experienced. Trustworthy. Knowledgeable. Oh so very knowledgeable. Witty. Very. Charming. Very very. He is the man. The second presenter. Young. Attractive. Gorgeous in fact. Chic. Mirthful. Respectful. Concurring. Admiring. Adoring. She is the woman. He is correct. She agrees. He is amusing. She laughs. He is unpredictable. She is surprised. His eyes are creased. Her eyes open wide. She is his mirror. She is the verbal masseuse.

 

Dancing Tree Another morning we woke up and watched a program for children. It featured a dancing palm tree who savagely attacked every other character with an enormous hammer. Compulsive viewing.

 

The Hunted Run run run run. Where to go? Where to hide? Oh itís so early and it seemed just another normal start. The street is quite empty. The world is still yawning at the thought of the new day. Towards the well. No, nowhere there to hide. Oops - a cyclist. Look where you are going! Run run run. But still they come. An old lady opens the shutters of her house. Let me in. Let me in. Sheís gone! She saw the danger. No charity at this hour. Theyíre closer now. Run run. To the tea house. A refuge. But it is closed. Not open yet. The door is locked. Ah - next door! Run. Hello hello! The corner store is open early, as usual. Of course. Breathless. But close the door! No - too late!!! Theyíre here! Nowhere to run for the hunted. Here is the microphone. We want to hear your views! Youíre live on breakfast TV...

 

 

Travel

 

Time Flies The Shinkansen, the Bullet Train, leaves Tokyo for the south. We glide through the outskirts of the city, hugging the coast. It is a smooth ride and I relax and stare out of the window. Sea and city, city and sea, sea and city, city and sea, tunnel, tunnel, sea and city, city and sea. Our stop is called. Weíre there already. I look at my watch. Weíve travelled 396.3 kilometres in just over two and a half hours. We are five seconds late.

 

Feed the Taxi It is late. Too late to search for buses. The town square is quiet, save for a couple of taxis at the rank and another traveller being welcomed by a friend. Taxi. It is just another taxi ride. We settle back into the lined seats and spell out our destination. No problem. Twenty minutes only. He talks a little and in rudimentary Japanese I trot out my few linguistic party pieces. He has agreed, so either he is nice, or they meant something, or maybe both. The meter rolls. I calculate. Its clicking up in dollars. One dollar two dollars three dollars four dollars. Gulp! This is a very hungry taxi.

 

Timetable Literacy So you want to know how to book a train ticket in Japan? Itís no problem. Just go up to the travel desk, tell them the date you want to go and the number of the train. Yes, you must first know the number of the train. So how do you do that? Well, see all these people over there? Yes - to the left of the rack of brochures. See all these people, pushing on their glasses and hunched over these books? These books tell you the train number. Each book contains pages and pages of days, times, stations, connections, rules, exceptions, destinations, exemptions. And among these pages, in small print somewhere, is the number of your train. Itís not so hard. But I sure hope you can read a timetable.

 

Bicycling I am pleased to report that the bicycle is alive and well in central Tokyo. It seems to be the way to make that short suburban trip. No parking problems, no tricky manoeuvring down that narrow street and letís face it, no worries. Long live the bike.

 

 

 

 

Landscape

 

The Ubiquitous Urban Space You know these spaces we tend to have in towns, especially rural ones. The kind of space that nothing could ever really fill. We tend to just leave that space alone. We let it just be a space. Or sometimes we do use it in a less than fully occupying way. We might park a skip in the middle of it, and strew the rest with yellowed newspapers, garden rubbish and planks of paint-stripped wood. Or we might erect a childrenís swing, leave a pile of rubber tyres and sprinkle broken glass around the margins. Or maybe we would let the weeds move in, tall patchy grass and wild flowers that surprise us as we walk our dogs. But in Japan that space is always filled. There are no spaces. There is rice.

 

Missing Middle Tokyo from the air. Well, Tokyo from the 45th floor of the Shinjuku Government Building. Itís the same thing. Tokyo from the air is unlike any other city. Like many other cities it seems vast. Like many other cities the old and new mix, wall to wall, district to district. Like many other cities it has its green spaces, not many. But one thing is quite different and unlike other cities. There is no middle. The tallest buildings are scattered across the landscape, rarely in large clusters. They look like pegs in a massive urban pinball game.

 

The Vanishing I was looking forward to seeing Mount Fuji. That ultimate conical obtrusion. That icon of Japan. Fuji san. Twice we passed tantalisingly close, each time by train. On each occasion Mount Fuji was nowhere to be seen, just dirty yellow summer haze. How could something that big just disappear?

 

Forests Green forests. Pine trees standing row on row as the rain falls down. Wet forests. The mist is thick and where mist stops and clouds begin is far too hard to tell. Grey forests. The mountains strike up from the coastal plane and no farmerís plough can touch them here. Deep forests. The rain may never stop but yet they wait. Patient forests. Soon it will be winter and the rain will become snow. White forests. It seems a million miles from Tokyo, no cars, no crowds, no rush. Slow forests. Growing, reaching, greening. Green forests.

 

 

Contrasts

 

Commuter Itís late and the railway platform is congested with tired bodies waiting for the evening train home. A young grey suited businessman finds his space among the crowds and clicks open his dark briefcase. He takes out a magazine and stands the briefcase between his feet. Like all of us he has to pass the time. I glance across at him, my eye distracted by something. The magazine is highly pornographic. I am quite shocked. But I am the only one.

 

Steel The small talk of life is smiles and nods and bows. Politeness is the rule. The rules demand politeness. But just you try and break a rule, not necessarily with intent. The doors are slammed. The shutters fall. And steel. Looks of steel. The bows and nods and smiles of life seem small.

 

Body Contact You donít. Basically. Just donít. Excuse me. Sumimasen. Oops. Bodies do not contact. Except at rush hour. Shove push heave squeeze barge crush.

 

Prawn Crackers Recycling is really taking off in Japan. The railway platforms often have separate bins for cans, bottles and paper. Progress? But this is attending symptoms, not providing cure. Everything in Japan is incredibly over-wrapped. Take a packet of prawn crackers. They often come individually wrapped, placed on a plastic foam tray, enveloped in a heat-sealed bag, and then placed in yet another plastic bag at the check-out. And no doubt people eat them with disposable chopsticks. And another thing that annoys me... (etc)

 

Brevity A small piece of information should be quick to communicate. Not in Japan. Even the shortest conversation seems to take five minutes to conclude. It does not seem possible to be brief. The message is always protracted and dragged out. Perhaps it is repeated endlessly in different forms. If you only have something simple to say then it would seem best to make your point concisely and clearly. It does not seem necessary to ramble on and on. Just get it over with. Whatever you do, donít procrastinate. Save energy, save time. But I noticed that Japanese like to make a song and dance about these small things. I wonder how they do it? How is it possible? You would think you would run out of words before too long. What do you think about this?

 

Odds and Sodds

 

Nice Day I saw an advert for a Nice Day Card. I really wanted one.

 

Leading the Blind Japan seems to be well prepared for the blind. Most public facilities sing out - crossings, lifts, machines. And many pavements have a set of ridged tiles that make it easier for blind people to navigate the streets. I am impressed.

 

No Hands For men at least, going to public toilets in Japan is very close to being a "no hands" experience. Well almost! Donít put on the light, donít flush the toilet, donít turn the tap, donít press the drier. I emerged from the space age toilet at the STA travel agency just pleased to still be on planet Earth.

 

Umbrellas Umbrellas are abundant in Japan. Clearly the climate is just right. They must breed prolifically. I mean they are really everywhere. Even cyclists carry umbrellas. We had raincoats. Now, these guys are rare. We stood out like beacons in the rain.

 

The Charts Everything in Japan comes in charts. This weekís Top Three Charts: And still at number three, for the third week running, is the Top 100 National Spas! Down one place at number two, last weekís number one, is the Top 3 Aesthetic Japanese Gardens! And now, the moment youíve been waiting all week for, up an amazing seventeen big Top Chart places, to this weekís number one is... the Top 10 Big Trees in Shinjuku Park ! Whooo.. alright.. tantantarra..

 

Departure

 

Max Asahi Weíre upstairs onboard the Max Asahi Super Express - brand new, green seat covers, flying along. It has been a long day but the lights of Tokyo have begun. Weíve been in Japan for just a week but let me tell you the strangest thing about it all. I am looking forward to getting back to Shinjuku because it already feels just a bit like coming home.

 

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