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Dozo yoroshiku, Japan

by pastytraveller 

Posted: 12 January 2005
Word Count: 1266
Summary: Some initial observations on Japan following a recent trip. As always, thanks in advance for taking the time to read and comment. ("Dozo yoroshiku" simply means "Pleased to meet you")

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"Sweet Jesus" were the first words I uttered on disembarking the Narita Express. My blasphemy stemmed not from finally escaping a carriage full of prolific Japanese smokers. After a nine-hour flight I was sucking Marlboros with the best of them. The reason was Tokyo station.

My sense of disorientation was shared by other newly arrived tourists. We stood on the platform looking like we'd been injected with concrete while diminutive men in grey business suits coursed around us towards the escalators. This wasn't so much culture shock as culture stupefaction. I felt as if my head had been slammed in a heavy car door. Chatter, clatter and human matter. Tokyo isn't even the busiest station in the metropolis. Nine stops around the Yamanote line, two million people pass through Shinjuku every day. That surely merits a "Sweet Jesus".

I get self conscious at times like these. I harbour an intense dislike for the gormless tourist. My vanity demands that I stride confidently into a new country. Occasionally I stride confidently in the wrong direction but that's not important - it's the striding that counts. This time I was standing paralysed next to a map of the station that looked like a complex circuit board and I was getting annoyed. It took me forty minutes to find an exit. That just made me angry. I was trying to find Platform 17.

Tokyo is a machine that can never be turned off. It's a terrifying vision of concrete, neon and glass driving onwards and outwards under its own terrible momentum, unashamedly consuming what's left of the countryside. It never really ends. The 350km urban corridor simply changes names as it stretches down the coast: Tokyo, Yokohama, Shizuoko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka. The reason there's so much urbanisation is geographical. Japan is a mountainous country, which means there's not much suitable land for 126 million people to live on. The reason there's so much concrete is historical. With the exception of Kyoto, the major cities were literally reduced to ashes by firebombing during 1944. The traditional paper and wood houses burned well. More died in the firestorms than were vapourised at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Post-war reconstruction meant concrete and lots of it.

The prefectures, districts, streets and alleys of Tokyo throb with the combined heartbeats of over thirteen million people but a complex web of social conventions, protocols and hierarchies ensures that order prevails. Here is proof that utilitarianism and individualism can work in harmony. In Harajuku, teenagers express their individuality by hanging about the bridge above the station wearing latex ballgowns and heavy makeup. In Kabuki-cho, fetishists can buy used panties from vending machines in the street. If you have a lust for gambling, you can contribute to the six trillion yen frittered away each year on pachinko machines. Social drinking (tsukiai) is not just acceptable but actively encouraged. But there is recognition that with rights come responsibilities. There is almost no crime, no litter and an astonishing work ethic. We might laugh at the regimentation of Japan Inc, but we could walk the streets of any district all night without fear of anything other than sore feet.

The Japanese have embraced other cultures with delight yet they have done so without sacrificing their own. The sight of a kimono clad woman patiently queuing at McDonalds in Shinjuku exemplified this nicely. The backbone of the national psyche is a deeply ingrained ethnocentricity that has safeguarded their ancient traditions and religions from the seemingly inexorable march of western culture. The Japanese call it ittaikan - unity. Perversely, what protects their culture also distances it from visitors. It is very difficult for a foreigner to break down the barriers and find the “real” Japan. Gaijin tend to be kept (very politely, of course) at arm’s length regardless of how long they’ve lived in the country. That’s not to say that the courtesy shown is superficial. On the contrary, it is genuine and overwhelming.

English is not widely understood but neither is there an expectation that tourists should speak Japanese. A little though, goes a long way. Some basic Japanese is not difficult to learn. There is no distinction between the singular and plural and unlike many other Asian languages it is not tonal. This makes it relatively easy to learn phonetically although many years are needed to master reading and writing kanji ideographs. Those Japanese who understand English are likely to be shy about using it for fear of causing offence. The reverse is not true and it is almost impossible to upset anyone by trying a few words. A simple “Ohayo gozaimasu” (Good morning!) brings smiles and bowing. “O-genki desu ka” (How are you?) brings cries of delight. Anything more brings the house down. I said “Arigato gozaimasu. Goshiso-sama deshita” (“Thank you. That was a real feast.”) as I paid a bill at a restaurant. Chaos ensued. The maitre-d’ threw his hands into the air in delight, waitresses bowed so low I thought they were searching for a particularly valuable lost contact lens and chefs were summoned from the kitchen to thank me for thanking them. The memory of the doorway crowded with staff members waving me off will stay with me for a long time.

From the bright lights of Tokyo I took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, cultural capital of "old" Japan and home of the environmental treaty that has finally been ratified, with one conspicuous and inexcusable exception. It still retains many of the traditional wood and paper houses, inns and carp filled ponds, particularly around the Higashiyama and Gion areas. There is a serenity about these old houses, temples and castles that contrasts starkly with the bustle of people in the streets. Their lightweight minimalism is practical in the stifling summer heat and in an area prone to earthquakes but it is the pervading tranquility that is most striking. Even the most humble dwelling is in harmony with Buddhist themes of silent nobility and meditation. The splendid castle of Nijo-jo was built for Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, and is generally regarded as ostentatious by Japanese standards. By European standards it would barely rate as modest. Yet its lack of pretension gives it quiet, self-assured dignity that compares favourably with the ubiquitous decadence of palaces closer to home.

Wandering the crowded Kyoto streets at night, we were fortunate enough to glimpse several demure geisha on their way to entertain at the private tea houses, their painted faces reflecting the diffuse light of the moon and the paper lanterns hanging in doorways. They are versed in the dramatic arts and are expensive company even for the Japanese salarymen and politicians who employ them. Unfortunately, their dresses, though elegant, are generally unsuitable for outrunning tourists so each poor girl was subjected to the kind of intrusive flash photography normally reserved for the Beckhams. For a moment, it looked at though they might be overwhelmed by the heaving mass. Nevertheless, there was something delightfully ironic about the Japanese being pursued by camera wielding tourists. I felt, as Will Self has a habit of saying, "a sense of delicious schadenfreude". The geisha escaped by ducking into a private inn. Even the heavy face paint couldn't disguise the bewilderment. As suddenly as it had congregated the scrum dispersed, excitably comparing tiny digital images, and I found myself standing alone on the shining cobbles.

In Japan, it is rare to find such solitude in public. It felt strange but not unwelcome. I stood for a moment and savoured it, before confidently striding onward to explore the rest of this wonderful country.

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Comments by other Members

crazylady at 20:44 on 12 January 2005  Report this post
Oh PT,
I loved it - loved it!
Your style is brilliant. Brought it all to life for me.
My daughter has worked off and on for 3 years in Tokyo, yet nothing she has described brought it to life like your piece.
She's now in Seoul before returning to Tokyo. May I(only with your permission of course)copy and email to her?
I understand that one of the few Western films that have shown the frenetic atmosphere of Tokyo is 'Lost in Translation.' Would you agree?
I still haven't been to Japan, though I love the few Asian countries I have visited. It's so very refreshing to find that there are ancient belief systems so different from ours.
Somehow, it seems that everyone has their personal space inside themselves, so no problems are caused by being squashed into trains etc. Here those same crowded situations would cause violence, or at the very least tension.
Also there seems to be more acceptance of what is, as opposed to the continual whingeing that seems to be an unattractive, very Western trait.
Thanks for a good read

pastytraveller at 21:10 on 12 January 2005  Report this post
By all means send it to your daughter! I'd love to hear what a long term resident thinks and how it compares with the blur of impressions I came away with after only a couple of weeks.

I'm afraid I've not seen Lost in Translation so I can't really say anything about it!

Japan was incredibly different to every other country I've visited. Some people don't like it but others love it. I fall firmly into the latter category! So much so, I'm planning to go back again later in the year and (hopefully) do some teaching there.

Thanks for your comments.



sue n at 18:08 on 16 January 2005  Report this post
I enjoyed this - it brought back memories of my own bewildering trip to Japan ( posted on the site about a year ago). You write very vividly and engagingly and give a good feel of the contrasts of Japan.
My son went there to teach for a year. Beware, as it appears to grow on young men - he's been there 4 years now. He said he wasn't coming back until he learnt Japanese, so heaven knows if he will ever return.
Sue n

Richard Brown at 15:37 on 17 January 2005  Report this post


A superb piece of travel writing in my estimation; informative, funny, evocative. Japan is one of the countries I have avoided (probably for fear of kind of scene you so vividly describe at the opening of the piece) but somehow you conveyed an overall atmosphere which lures. Maybe...
Incidentally, I'm one of the (apparent) few who didn't like 'Lost in Translation'. If you do get round to seeing it it would be interesting to read your views.


freddie at 16:49 on 17 January 2005  Report this post
I was particularly pleased to read your excellent travel piece as my own long-awaited visit to Japan had to be cancelled last year. You really brought it to life for me.

I enjoyed your restaurant review - see my comments - and hoped you would work on the travel writing you mentioned in your profile. As I expected, it suits your style very well indeed.

The piece, as well as being highly entertaining and enjoyable, is packed with detailed and useful information. If you are actively looking for publication, it is worth saying that being prepared to supply all the mundane, travel nuts and bolts info in addition to the piece itself (not to mention pictures) makes it immediately more appealing to an editor.


pastytraveller at 21:01 on 17 January 2005  Report this post
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and comment.


PS Incidentally, I've just noticed that the wee "author request" box says "No too harsh...". How clever this site is to recognise regional dialects. Pure dead brilliant, so it is.

Bianca at 14:17 on 30 January 2005  Report this post
I super piece of writing.

I was hooked as soon as you arrived at the station. I imagined a speeded up piece of film of two million Japanese rushing around you.

Your insights into the protocol are enlightening and mystifying.A really good read with a good mix of the geography, history and modern times.

I lived in hong Kong for three years in the early 80's. At that time it was still a case of East meets West and a fascinating place to work in. Language was never a problem there of course with a large population of ex pats and a people who took a pride in speaking some English.

Perhaps some of the charm of Japan is the fact that it still stands somewhat alone.


lang-lad at 11:02 on 29 May 2005  Report this post
I think the piece starts at "Tokyo is a machine that can never be turned off. It's a terrifying vision of concrete, neon and glass driving onwards and outwards under ...etc." Prior to that I wasn't getting into it then suddenly it woke up and we were off. You could recycle the opening observations,if necessary, later on but as the piece is about Tokyo, start it with Tokyo and introduce yourself later. No too harsh no too soft - that wasnae too harsh was it?

jen52 at 13:05 on 27 February 2007  Report this post
Actually I live in Japan at the moment, and spent a 2 year period here from 97-99 when I came for my first teaching job. Kind of fitting my teaching career should end here too (time to move on!)

I just wanted to recommend a book I've read recently, Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr. While I found it a depressing read, it certainly explains the concrete everywhere policy, and why when you visit a place like Kyoto which survived the war, you find yourself priviledged to glimpse the very history and culture that the prefectural government has been systematically destroying since the 1960s.

About your writing: it was lovely to see Japan through the eyes of a newcomer. I can't remember how I felt the first time I went through Tokyo station, but your evocative passage brought at least some of that awe back again. It's an incredible city.

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