A cry from Japan

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Asia » Japan
July 1st 2006
Published: July 21st 2009
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With a license to shout

A cry from Japan . . .

This letter will be about contemporary Japan, rather than to retell the history, because truly - this is a country if contrasts and sometimes very weird organisation.
Leaving Vladivostok, was not easy. I had got used to watch the trains on the way to cross the whole transsiberian line from my window. I loved that place! But from Vladivostok I went by ferry to Fushiki. Of course the departure was delayed with 6 hours, and only thanks to my friend Dima, I did not collapse of boredom. The actually trip, was a very pleasant surprise. Food was abundant, and it was an interesting social experience as well. There were only a handful of Japanese, and most of the passengers were Russians going to trade cars. The crossing took one and a half day, and it was very comfortable to sleep and eat my way fro Russia to Japan. Highly recommendable.
Arriving in Fushiki was a warm, humid shock. With 35 kilos on my back, I felt like returning to Vladik immediately. But thanks to my Japanese co-students Yumi and Rjuku, who were going home, I had a very soft start on my stay. They gave me a lift to the nearest bigger town, and put me on a train to Takayama.
The landscape was a great surprise. Let me put it this way: I thought I had seen mountains until I came to Austria. I thought I knew forest until I travelled through Siberia. I thought I knew what green was until I came to Japan. Japanese alps, they are just stunning!

The monk and the shoe-game

Takayama. I found a temple to stay in. The cleanest place on planet earth, most probably. Even by Japanese standards! (Yes, Japan is very clean!) I spend a few days here, getting very amused with the group who stayed in the same place. They were actually quite a naughty lot.
One night we started to drink the Japanese sake. Because after all - it was Dereks (Canadian) birthday. Now the temple had lights-out at 22.00 policy. But that is no hinder for thirsty people. So the four other tourists staying in this temple, decided to sneak out a window. To do that, they first had to get their shoes form the front-door area. (In Japan you place the shoes by the door).
As I heard, they had an extraordinary, adventurous time in the Takayama bars and karaoke parlors. Around six, they came back, through the window, and went to bed. So far so good. The interesting part was checking out time at ten. I got up early and packed my stuff. Then the head-monk came around. He had discovered that the shoes had been moved during the night. And he was not particularly mild-spirited, or impressed by the nightly activities of his guests. So he woke up one after the other. Everyone still slightly drunk, were told to leave! And imagine the confusion when they discovered, as a revenge, the monk had hidden all their shoes, and he was not at all willing to hand them over again.

A disorderly humming

On the bus to Tokyo I met my first sign of one of many notorious “don’ts” and “no’s”. Being in a very good mood, I was humming a little tune to myself as we drove past the green fields and dramatic mountains. Then this little geeky student leans forward and tells me off: “Ssssssh! You are disturbing the whole bus!”
Coming from chaotic Russia, that sort of orderly behaviour is quite a shock. But of course, I had no wish to disturb the whole bus, so - end of humming.
Arriving in Tokyo I can understand why silence is a precious thing. Forget Cairo! Forget Teheran, Moscow and Berlin. They are not cities! Tokyo - such a mess, such a fascinating world of light and sounds, running people, glass, steel and extreme traffic. Getting down in the metro - still with 35 kilos - was like being thrown into a kettle in hell. Hysterical ants. A beehive! I heard Japan suffer from declining birthrate. You would not notice in Tokyo! (Because Japan also suffer from migration from the countryside to the cities).
I found my little hotel in Ueno. My cell - consisting of two tatami-mats (abt 3.5 square meters to roam in), was a medium-sized room. And so I learned another thing; together with silence, space is a really precious thing in Japan.
The best thing about the hotels, is that all of them seem to have the Japanese version of public baths; a rather large bathroom with a deep bathtub. The water is so hot, it feels like your skin is about to fall off, and you can enter only gradually.

When the trousers come off

The next day I was woken up by Tomomi and Satchiko with whom I used to study and share the flat with in Damascus. The program they had prepared is not to be described. They certainly had prepared themselves, turning up with a full supply of tickets and information. We went to the temples of Asakusa, and to the old capital of Japan, Kamakura, they generously fed me in the gems of restaurants, and I stayed with Satchikos family for one night as well. Their generosity seemed to have no limits at all. I especially appreciated that they took a whole weekend off to show me Japan.
Because they, like most people in Japan, work sick hours. People often get up at five, six, to commute into town, where they stay at the work until late in the evening. They would have just enough time to get back to their houses before sleeping time. And so it goes, day in and day out. And no sweet two, three weeks holiday like back in Europe.
In addition, often you may have to take your customer out for a dinner in the evening. And as I learned from Tomomi and Satchiko, this is not a particularly funny event: “Ah, you have to sit and smile stiffly all evening until it hurts in your cheeks. And these businessmen, they would come on to you. And when they get drunk, many of them just pull off their trousers. In the restaurant. It’s very unpleasant!”
I can well imagine.
“May I see your licence, Sir?”

However. The girls took me to the traditional theatre; kabuki. It is hard to describe, but they are traditional, historical dramas, played mainly by men only. The costumes and the stage-decoration is exquisite. The singing resembles the high-pitched miaowing of the Beijing-opera. It is a highly estetic experience, but also a slightly weird and sometimes funny; during the play (for which many people allegedly first and foremost come to enjoy a nap), one or two people would shout out their praises, and maybe clap. But only one or two. I asked my friends about this. And we learned from the lady in front of us, that these people have a license to shout and clap! The clue is that there are different times in the play, where you are allowed to do this, and it is very hard to know exactly when is the right moment. So you need experience!
But how to you get such a paper? And if I clapped in the wrong place, would someone come up to me and ask me to produce a license?!. . . My friends meant that it was not entirely unlikely. I was nearly more amused by this fact than the play itself.

“Attention, please!”

I also had the pleasure to meet yet another former roommate, this time from my stay in Sankt Peterburg, Russia. Yoshiko and me shared a little rotten room for some time, and indulged in wild eating orgies and I learned much about Russian ballet in this time, as Yoshiko is a fanatic about just that. She used to go to the Marinsky theatre nearly every day for a whole year.
So Yoshiko really has a heart for culture. And thus we spend the whole week going from one excellent museum to the other, watching century old ink-works and Japanese art. If we were not in a museum, we would most probably eat. With Yoshiko its easy to get fat and wobbly.
One night we went with her husband to a café. A big, fancy place. And I got to know how you can draw attention in one second. I was just explaining how to gain respect in a classroom as a teacher. And to illustrate this, I was banging my fist moderately hard in the table. As I said, the café was a huge room. There must have been a good 100 - 120 people there. In one second, they all went silent, and their heads turned towards us. An irregular noise? What was this? Yoshiko and me started to laught uncontrollably, and they just stared at us, as if we were trolls with two heads, having coffee and cake.
It was hilarious, but in the big picture, it also says something about the appreciation of order and not standing out in the mass.

Conformism vs. extremism

Which brings me to another story. In Takayama I met this photographer from New York (Akira Ruiz), so while in Tokyo, he took me to Shibuya, a district with a very young and energetic feel. Here you can see, I would claim without any fears of being wrong, the most bizarre looking girls in Asia.
These girls (and some boys too) rub their faces with a dark brown substance, it appears to be shoeshine or chocolate. On the top of this, they smear colours and make up on their faces to the degree, it is just grotesque. Of course peroxide-bleached hair and extremely plastic-looking clothes come with the image. They are sort of tribal and hang out in groups. I am uncertain of what hey actually are doing. They seem to just hang around certain cafes and venues, just like buffaloes gather around waterholes on a hot day on the savannah.
So maybe the extreme conformism in Japan, is also producing some extreme needs of breaking loose from prohibitions and rules, creating these kind of very special girls and boys.
The metro is a good place to observe the public behaviour-patterns. Although there are several eccentric individuals to spot, it is basically a place of silence and no eye-contact whatsoever. No excessive movements. No chit-chatting with the man next to you.
Yoshiko told me a general rule (of course a bit of an anecdote), of how to tell Japanese, Korean and Chinese apart. “If you smile to a person on the street, and he or she smiles back, it’s probably a Chinese. If the person looks at you, but do not really know how to react, it may be a Korean. If there is no reaction at all, it could be a Japanese”.
But as Akira told me, being half-Japanese himself: “You know, even Japanese, appearing to be so polite - deep, deep, deep down inside, also they say “Fuck you!”, you know.

No helmets!

And so he pointed out the fact that peoples emotions are really just all the same no matter where you are. It just comes out (or not) differently. But even though people are the same, systems are not. Time has come to say something about the Japanese love for inventing systems.
Typically you can be in the middle of nowhere in Japan. Mountain. Forest. Beach. Wherever. But you will never be alone. Together with you, there will be at least one vending-machine. You can always have an ice-cold drink. Or a steaming hot one. Or batteries. Or beer (although the age-limit is supposed to be 20 ys.). Or used - dirty panties. No. I won’t elaborate on that one. If you are such a wacko, you can go there and figure out the details yourself.
Furthermore, you will often find yourself carrying these empty bottles for the rest of the day, as there are no dustbins anywhere - due to fear of terrorism, and secondly, because the government wants you to think about your consumption and waste.
Unlike many other places, you can smoke inside of restaurants and bars. But not outside! In the streets you can see specially designated areas for smokers. No butts in the streets. Goes without saying.
For operating the toilets, you would need a certificate. There are so many buttons and functions, you could spend long hours to figure out the joy of all of them. Japanese have also raincoats for their dogs, rotating garages (due to lack of space) - which quite literally lifts your car up in the air until you come to take it down again, they have a practical one-hand-umbrella-parking-operating system, and sausage-like bags for the umbrellas you would bring into a shop.
The buses are luxurious and you can make a bed out of your seat. But they are all empty, because the extraordinarily expensive trains go faster.
Even though Japanese are obsessed by hygiene and cleanliness, it is the first country I have been to where hotels have no sheets. Bring your own. Or sleep without any.
It is also impossible not to mention all the “No!” and “Don’t” signs. They are in your face all the time. “Don’t run!”, “Don’t smoke!”, “Don’t shout!”, “No dogs”, “No talking” and so on. My favorite “No”, was to be found on the door of a convenience store: “No helmets”


The counter- reaction to all these regulations, can best be observed in Kyoto. Kyoto is a relatively flat city, Chinese lay-out (perpendicular streets. With names! In Tokyo the streets mainly have no names. Only numbers. And thus the maps are very precise, but without names. Leaving the foreigner in total confusion). All these factors make Kyoto a perfect biking-ground.
If you ever dare getting on a bicycle there, make sure you have a helmet (but for God’s sake - do not forget to take it off if you should go to the convenience store!), and other devices to save your life. The bikers go in all directions, in all files. Always withy the umbrella is one hand (against sun. or against rain). Nevermind the child who sits in the back, or all the vegetables piling up in plastic bags in the front basket. Light? Excessive luxury. The most important; bike as if Satan were right behind you, ignore the streetlights, ride in a most surprising and unpredictable pattern; left, right, middle, sudden u-turn. Still not amused?? Try a bike-slalom using the little grandmothers and death-drunken businessmen as turning-points.

“Is this a brothel. Or…?”

So being in the former capital (another one) - Kyoto, I had the chance to live with another former co-student from Russia, namely mister Iwao - the most famous Japanese of all times in Sankt Petersburg. No matter who you ran into in Piter, they had always met Iwao.
Staying in his apartment, made a perfect base to see Nara - a former capital (yet another one!!!), Osaka and also the inside of some pretty funny clubs.
One night, we ventured out in nocturnal Kyoto with he and Janosz from Warszawa. It was memorable. The karaoke was unforgettable. You rent a little room for as long as you need, and hey bring you drinks. It is very similar to brothel. And yes - the place was pink from the floor to the ceiling. Because we were in the ladies floor. Whatever that means.
Iwao was working really hard while I was there, and I am very grateful that he let me stay. One day his vacuum-cleaner exploded. Others would be stressed out of their wits. But he told me he did some exercises of staying calm. Impressing.

Businessmen - and their biceps

They say that if you cant drink a lot, you will be a poor business man in Japan - because of the need to take customers out in bars all the time.
Before I came, I looked forward to see the bathing monkeys hopping in the onsens. Never got there. My second expectation: to observe business men.
Drunk out of their wits, looking a bit like monkeys when they travel home (or not), half dead because of their insane schedules at work and the drinking (obligation/ to take of stress), they are a bit of a phenomenon to watch, as they hang from one arm in the metro, rotating like little human helicopters, ties pointing sadly down towards the ground.
One night I went to Osaka with a colleague, with whom I worked with in the EMAAR-symposium in Dubai a few years ago. Masahiro Hasegawa. On the way to Argentina, he first had a vernissage in Osaka, and I came along. The opening was a great happening, and afterwards, we went to a bar. And I met some real businessmen.
Now businessmen are very exotic creatures to me. I never understood what is a real businessman. And why would anyone wish to become one. And what do they actually do? How do they live their lives?
In this pub I had the chance to discuss Meaning of Life with some very representative businessmen. And later on - also to armwrestle with a few of them (my favorite-moment of the trip).
I was surprised how unhappy they seemed with everything. They hated their schedule. They dreamed of a quieter life. How unhappy a society is when people still seemed forced into crazy working-hours, just to make a survival. To me it is more an existence than a life.

“Hiroshima, mon amour”

Hiroshima - meaning broad island next. I had very high expectations. And I was not disappointed. Except from the A-bomb, I met and stayed with David Hurley and his family - one of the nutter Paul Bradbudys friends (I met his other friend, Tom Bidwell up in Tokyo where we had more than enough beers. On beforehand, I read that there are more than 4000 bars in Hiroshima. More than one for every hundred citizen. And I had heard rumours of Hurleys endurance. Which proved right.
I remember one book, I think by Margerite Duras, called “Hiroshima, mon amour”. Although I never finished it (because my patience with French language ran short), I remember one sentence: “You know nothing!” referring to the fact that if one was not in Hiroshima at the actual time of the bombing, there is no way to imagine what it was like.
But the museums and memorial-halls are doing a darn good attempt to convey the real experience. The stories, the images and the models were so shocking, I walked around with tears in my eyes for several hours. Some of the stories were so gruesome, I did not manage to read them till the end. The halls were full of people, but there were no sound, no talking, everyone had this strange, paralysed look on their faces. Outside was hot, steamy, humid, the lively town surrounded by green mountains and divided by waters and rivers seemed so relaxed and untouched - could it be the same place?
Truly, I have never been so impressed and maybe depressed by any museums in my whole life. This place alone, made my trip to Japan worthwhile. Every politician in the world should be forced to spend some days here! It was also great to talk to the people, everyone seemed to be extremely conscious about the importance of peace and peacekeeping work.

Oh dear! Naughty, naughty deer!

My favorite nature-spot in Japan, must be Miyajima. It is an island with a huge Shinto-complex. However, the island is also famous for its tame deers who are just wandering about, pestering tourists. In Nara they are present too, and it’s all because they are regarded as holy animals. But these holy animals have no respect for human beings.
In Nara it’s said that they are polite deers. Japanese deers. So they bow. Still I saw one hungry deer eating the map of a Dutch tourist. Now well, as the maps have no streetnames, it’s hardly a disaster to loose it. But the guidebook warns you to take care of your valuable JR-trainpasses (which can only be purchased outside of Japan - another weird system!), as these very expensive tickets can not be replaced. And yes - it has happened that naughty deers ate them! I also saw a deer going into a shop, helping himself with wooden toycars. The seller turned choleric, and watching her hunting down this respectless Rudoplh, was a hysterical sight.
One of the funniest women I met on this trip, was a Japanese who insisted we travel together to Miyajima. She could only speak Japanese, but her stream of words was unstoppable. As we got to the island, she saw one deer chewing on a handkerchief. Very decisive, she fought with the animal to take the cloth away. Finally the animal gave up, and she raised the wet, little slimy cloth in the air, like a proof of victory. Now as you remember from a few chapters up, there are no dustbins outside. So she had to carry it for a while. But then she got sick of it. And headed towards a mailbox. She stuck one of her hands inside to inspect the space. Then she threw the slimy cloth inside as she giggled wildly. She must have been around 55. She was great!
But these deers? Holy or not - someone has got to stop these wild beasts!

The fishy drink and sea-urchin icecream

Finally I got to Shimonoseiki. This town reminds me a lot about Istanbul. And it actually has a friendship-town-agreement with just Istanbul. The Kanmon-strait (which you can walk under to the other side in a tunnel), is busy with huge ships and oil-tankers and one little UFO-shaped boat for sightseeing. A lot of the people I met here, were so welcoming and friendly, that I felt a bit sad that my Japan-trip had come to an end.
In the nearby town, Chofu, I saw some Samurai-temples. The Heike/ Minamoto and Heiri clans clashed into a major battle here centuries ago.
The town is also famous for the fugu-fish. This fish contains tetrodotoxin “a poison that makes cyanid look like chicken feed”, according to the Australian Bible (Lonely Planet - who has made the planet overcrowded with enthusiastic backpackers who needs to meet indigenous tribes and starving Africans in remote villages). The poison is in the liver and other organs. Chefs must have a certificate to prepare it, and a number of people actually die from it every year. Irresistible!
There are not many challenges left in this world. The north pole has been conquered along with the south pole. Man has walked on the moon. But a fugu-meal!? That was definitely going to be my major goal in Shimonoseiki!
But as it turned out to be a sickly expensive treat. And the hotelkeeper told me it is not worth the spending, because the fish has no taste at all. So I did well with the sake - set on fire as it was brought to the table, and inside; a fugu-fin. Very unusual combination. It smelled of fish. It tasted fish. Not bad. But an aquired taste indeed.
Still - it can not beat the soft ice cream, flavoured “Sea Urchin”.

Floating all the way to Korea

The ferry over to Korea was a positive surprise. It had a huge onsen (Japanese bath) inside. It is a quite interesting experience to sit inside the water and watch how the waves of the sea outside are transferred to the pool-water inside of the boat.
. Altogether, I learnt a lot in Japan. But the highlights were to see my friends. Japan as a place to live, is way too orderly and organised for me. When I was not with my friends, I also felt quite lonely. I found it is quite hard to connect to people.
Unfortunately, Japan is far too big to cover in just three weeks, but I was lucky to see some amazing places anyway. I think that I am mostly struck and fascinated by the contrasts within the society and people.


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