The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Notes on Japan

I should probably put up some photos from this trip, but I would have to re-size them, and as such, I will have to do some work before I can post them. Nonetheless, three weeks later, I figure that I should write something about the trip to Japan – which was, it must be said, pretty damn cool. For the sake of brevity (and because it makes it easier for me to make cheap cracks about things that I should probably not be making cheap cracks about), I will divide this post into themed sections.

I had been warned that food in Tokyo would be prohibitively expensive – stories of $20 (or approximately $2000 Yen) bowls of soup and cups of coffee abounded. I was prepared to have to take out a line to buy ramen – even had the paperwork ready. So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that these prices were rare and limited to very high-end places, and that in general, food cost about the same as it does in a large city in the U.S., say San Francisco or Los Angeles.

The food was also generally of very high quality. Well, actually, what the hell do I know, really? It tasted good, and didn’t cause anyone to get sick. For all I know, I could have been eating in the Tokyo equivalent of Arbys. But, regardless, I was very pleased and very much enjoyed my meals.

What did seem remarkable to me was how very few surprises there were. The food was very familiar to me from Japanese food that I have had or seen in the U.S. There was nothing really new or odd to me – and I was on the lookout. Much of it was better – the noodles, for example, seemed to be better prepared and were never soggy as they often are in the U.S., but it was nonetheless very familiar. Interestingly, the only times that we had or saw something that was truly alien, it was invariably when the Tokyo chefs were attempting to make European or American foods – and we ended up with very strange stuffed omelets, watery orange scrambled eggs, and crepes that had either gone very, very wrong or were amazingly good (really, the Japanese seem to have taken a weird fascination with the crepe, and have developed it to a deliciously high level – though there have been some casualties along the way). Come to think of it, the number of mangled western foods that involved egg is really rather interesting.

One of the strangest moments for me came when Kay and I went to an allegedly “Tex Mex” restaurant (because, when you’re in Asia and see a “Tex Mex” place, you HAVE TO go in). In the course of the next hour, I had a curry prepared by a Japanese cook and served by a Nigerian man in a “Tex Mex” place that had an Indiana Jones movie playing in the monitor at the front. Very strange.

The Tokyo subway system is both a marvel and a mess, though a well-articulated and highly efficient mess. There are numerous different companies running numerous different trains along numerous different lines. It is tempting to get day passes for one of the lines, but this often leaves you having to shell out more money when you decide to use another line. There were day passes available for most of the lines, but even these would occasionally not work.

And yet, somehow, the system manages to get by fairly well. Once we had learned the basic rules, we managed to get around Tokyo, and even outside of Tokyo, quite efficiently, and at less than the fuel and parking costs to travel equivalent distances in California. Nonetheless, especially in the first day or so, confusion about which train to get on, which entrance to use, and where to exit the train created a lot of trouble.

And then there is the subway stations themselves. Some of these spanned several city blocks, and contained numerous shops, restaurants, and resting places. I suspect some of them may even have had apartment buildings built over them, though I was not clear on that. Regardless, there was a virtual second city built underneath Tokyo consisting of the tunnels and hallways that made up the subway stations. This, naturally, made it easy to get lost. There were numerous occasions when we would walk around in circles looking for the correct exit or train, only to end up at the wrong place and spend another half hour trying to get our bearings.

Luckily, being the only tall and white people nearby, the locals often took pity on us and would help to direct us. And we did eventually get the hang of things. By the end of the trip, we were perfectly comfortable navigating the system.

Cultural Mish-Mash
People from the U.S. love to make fun of “Engrish” – the linguistic part of the perceived tendency for the Japanese to take elements from U.S. and European culture and mash them together into nonsensical or horribly garbled new forms. This tendency includes the seemingly random use of English words or phrases in everything from pop songs to shop names (indeed, it was truly bizarre to see shops with names like “Snobbery” or “Nudy Boy” or a bar named “Ooze Charm”), not to mention the hilarious and common mistranslation (even on government documents, where you think they’d at least spring for a native English Speaker to help out – there’s three continents that contain us, we’re not hard to find). However, it extends beyond language and into many other aspects of culture. As mentioned above, Japanese attempts at producing western foods ranging from pizza to omelets often resulted in strange creations that were foreign and either exotic or disgusting both to the Japanese and to the culture from which the food was allegedly borrowed.

At first, we would see these sorts of things, chuckle, and think to ourselves “wow, the Japanese are just not getting it.” And then I came across something that put the whole thing into context. In one of the guide books I read about a theme restaurant that is designed to look like the interior of a Catholic church (we didn’t go, not due to lack of interest, but rather due to lack of time), and we thought that this was simply beyond bizarre. And then we visited a Shinto shrine, and realized that many U.S.-run Japanese restaurants are designed to resemble these shrines, which, when you get down to it, is not at all different than the restaurant being designed to look like a Catholic church.

Since I returned, I have not been able to help noticing the number of places in the U.S. that either make nonsensical use of words from other languages (“Del Taco” anyone? And how many people have tattoos of Japanese writing elements without any real way of knowing what their tattoo says?) or else are themselves a rather silly mish-mash of different elements from the culture allegedly being paid tribute*. Regardless, this is one place where the outsider (in this case, us) tends to laugh without realizing that, really, they do the exact same thing**.

Regardless, when you are from the culture from which elements are being borrowed, it leads to a surreal experience.

Before I left, I had been told that the Japanese people were very formal, and that breaking with formality, even unintentionally, was likely to cause offense. I was delighted to find that this was not true. I suspect that we benefited from being in Tokyo – where folks are accustomed to visitors – and from being obviously white and non-native, thus signaling by our very appearance that we weren’t from ‘round them thar parts. Regardless, we found the people we dealt with were very friendly, willing to lend a hand, and would try to instruct us in the social niceties in as polite and friendly a manner as possible. In other words, they were pretty damn cool.

Now, perhaps they went home and complained about the crazy German guy they dealt with today, and I certainly would not blame them if they had, but at least to my face, they were never less than cordial.

That being said, as happens when one travels, we did have to get used to many customs that were easy to forget (especially when it comes to handling cash – there is a simple but important custom involving trays on which cash is placed).

However, I have heard that while the Japanese people tend to be very friendly to visitors, they are far less friendly towards foreigners who wish to become residents (and you can find some descriptions of this at the Tokyo Damage Report). This is made more difficult by the fact that Japan’s native population is shrinking due to low birth rates, and as such foreign workers are becoming increasingly important to the Japanese economy. Indeed, a similar trend is happening over much of the industrialized world, and will likely result in some major demographic shifts in the next couple of centuries***.

The architecture was generally faimiliar – while there was the occasional pagoda or more traditional house, most of the buildings would not have looked out of place in San Francisco –except for one thing. Because real-estate is at such a premium, most buildings had the smallest footprint that they could, resulting in very tall AND skinny buildings everywhere. Otherwise, we saw the range of buildings from bland and utilitarian to amazingly ugly to rather beautiful. Other than the more traditional structures, even the beautiful buildings themselves did not appear to have any particularly “Japanese” quality to them, but rather were what one would expect in any major city. Nonetheless, some of them were amazing.

I would write more here, but really, it’s probably better to just show pictures. So, once I get the photos resized, I’ll post some.

One interesting quirk to Japanese architecture – the concept of privacy in the restroom is a bit different in Japan than in the U.S. As a result, men’s rooms were often either open for all to see, or at least had a large window so that passers-by could see the urinals. In fact, our hotel room had a great view of the men’s room in the office building opposite us. Brings a whole new perspective to the desire to have a room with a view.

However, the stalls were more enclosed than they are in the U.S. Each of the walls and the door proceeded all the way to the ground, rather than have the large gap between the wall and ground that we are familiar with. However, given that the toilets were typically porcelain basins in the ground with a flushing mechanism attached, rather than the seat toilets with which we are familiar, the full walls are not surprising.

Home-Grown Weird
Like everywhere else, Japan has its own home-grown weird. By weird, I don’t mean a patronizing “oh, look at those cute little non-Americans and their quaint customs” kinda’ of stuff, I mean that many of the Japanese seem to see much of this stuff as pretty damn weird. A lot of it is the general generation gap stuff that you see everywhere, but it is nonetheless of a particularly Japanese flavor and therefore noteworthy.

So, as I say, this home-grown weirdness was primarily found within youth culture (which, let’s face it, is where it’s found in many different societies). There is, for example, the tendency to see “cosplay” (or costume play) among teenagers – in one area of town, we ran across numerous teenagers dressed in all manner of clothing that would have done Liberace proud. It was rather fun to watch, and I expect that, provided that you have the time and patience necessary, fun to do. I didn’t get any particularly great photos, but I would again direct you to the Tokyo Damage Report for some wonderful examples.

There is one form off oddity that was not found primarily within youth culture (though it may have started there), and that was “cuteness.” This includes the cartoons, toys, and pop-culture stuff that is ubiquitous even outside of Japan (such as the Pokemon craze that hit the U.S., leaving millions of casualties in its wake), but is spread much, much farther than that. For example, warning signs pertaining to not sticking your fingers into automatic doors all had a rather cute “crying face” sign, which seemed to be universal, appearing in both public places and private businesses. Airplanes were painted with cute images. Cell phone charms (which are ubiquitous in Asia, but rather unusual in the U.S.) often sported cute animals or humanoid figures, and so on. Even the music played to indicate when the subway was about to depart was often “cute” in nature.

In Total
Anyway, on the whole it was a wonderful trip, and I hope to return someday – though I think that next time I’ll go to Kyoto to see more of the historical/cultural side of Japan (Tokyo is considered the economic/political capital, and Kyoto the cultural capitol), and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to travel about the country more next time. Regardless, I’m glad I went, and I fully recommend such a trip to anyone who has the means.

*Much of the Japan-o-phile anime sub-culture does this with Japanese culture. The same is true of the culturally pornographic fetishization of India and Tibet by many young white people, which often seems to owe more to an atavistic resurgence of the imperial/colonial-era obsession with the “Mystic Orient” than with a fair assessment of the regions, cultures, and people in questions. All the funnier, or more offensive if you’re the sort who takes offense, when you consider that these are the same people who tend to protest against “imperialism.”

**I’ve been laughing at us as well ever since I returned, so I figure I’m just going equal opportunity in making fun of shops with names like “Nudy Boy.” Or I’m being a honky imperialist. Either way, the shop name is funny.

***Many right-wing people and organizations see this as being absolutely disastrous. While there are things that I would prefer not to see spread – any form of militant religion, for example – this sort of demographic change really is just part of the life of humans as a species and always has been, though it can be painful for those living through some of the major phases of it and current population dynamics give it a bit of a twist. It’s nothing new, and really, is going to happen even if everyone on the planet wanted to stop it. It’s just happening on a larger scale because of the concurrent growth of population and technological development. However, it’s how all of our current ethnic groups came to be, and no doubt will simply create new ethnic groups down the line, which will in turn face the same things themselves eventually – unless a comet hits the planet first.

1 comment:

Library Poet said...

Thanks for writing about your trip. I was wondering what you would make of Japan. I can't wait to see the pictures. I do find interesting the westernization of the world, which is very apparent in Japan, but with their own twist. The signs you talked about sound funny. In England, all the warning sign are very long and descriptively written. I often felt smarter after reading signs about how and where to park your car. I hope you have time to post the pictures soon.