Exploring the weird and wonderful world of Japan
08.07.2011 - 08.08.2011
Since I was a young boy I have always wanted to visit Japan, and I have no idea why. For some reason the neon lights, abstract colours and kanji just called out to me. I remember discussing the many fascinating places in the world, and the subject always fixated on the mysterious chaos of Tokyo or the fascinating ways of the ancient samurai. Watching the amazing Kill Bill films, and the engrossing Lost In Translation (several times), only conjured up more curiosity over the years and eventually I needed to know; are samurai swords really that sharp?; if so, does Japanese blood leave the body in the extravagant, messy way that Tarantino suggests?; are karaoke and comic books really that popular?; and, most importantly, how many pokemon do actually exist?
First things first. Not all Japanese food is an unimaginably bright colour rolled up in rice and seaweed. Yes, there is sushi, but requesting an authentic Japanese meal is very much like asking for a curry in India, or for fast food in the States. The incredible range of fish, meats, breads and vegetables means Japan has some of the most varied and random – and consequently some of the best – food in the world. Yes, there are famously unfortunate delicacies such as the whale, but I think the equally prestigious massaged steaks from the coastal city of Kobe more than make up for that personally. In case you think you misread that sentence, yes the amazingly tender and tasty steaks of Kobe are largely due to the cows being carefully caressed, so don’t tell me that the Japanese have no time for animal rights. But trust me, this is not bizarre for Japan. Not when I tell you that a large percentage of the population spend Christmas Day in KFC, and that they will be greeted by a Colonel Sanders with facial hair resembling that of Mr Miyagi.
I tell you first about the intricacies of Japanese cuisine not only because I love food, but because it is truly symbolic of the cultural chaos that is Japan today. For every small, broken down wooden hut serving the most delicious rice dishes or stir fry, for example, I found a giant McDonalds, or Dennys, lurking around the corner. The many homemade Okanomiyaki stalls (delicious savoury pancakes) or fish stands were similarly equalled by KFC or other western-style chains such as Moss Burger. Moss Burger, by the way, have the second greatest burgers on Earth; the gold medal for the greatest going to Queenstown’s Fergburgers, which are far better than any moment of the life you had before taking your first bite. Seriously.
Religion follows suit, with the majority of Japan celebrating Christmas holidays yet following very different religious practices for New Years, Easter, and many other random National festivals and public holidays that have found their way into the equation. Entertainment is again a mixture of Western popular music and the most hilariously bad, and therefore amazing, Japanese and Korean girl and boy groups. If you have a spare 5 minutes to enjoy/waste then research AKB48 and you will know exactly what I mean; and your life will also change for ever. It turns out there are way more than 48 of them and many Japanese girls know each of their ages, names and hobbies; they even vote for their favourite girl, who will then win the right to brace the front cover of their next album. My first encounter came in a karaoke bar surrounded by ecstatic Japanese girls who we had taught the day before. The annoyingly catchy melody stayed with me for perhaps 3 months into my work placement that followed my departure of Japan, and I still give one of their songs an occasional listen every now and again.
Kendo and other martial arts are an integral part of sporting culture, as are baseball, basketball and golf. These are the 3 most popular ‘sports’ in Japan but of course they do them very much in their own way. The baseball game I watched, in particular, benefited largely from mass celebrations during the intervals, with penis-shaped balloons, strangely catchy songs, fireworks and confetti, for what seemed to be no reason at all. I also enjoyed the strangely militaristic ‘WE ARE VICTORIOUS!’ words appearing on the giant screens when the home team won. Very American that one, I thought.
It appears that every part of everyday life - be it film, hobbies or sports - is riddled with both very distinct (and I mean very distinct!) Japanese creations, and also the overwhelming influences from other cultures. So, Lady Gaga and AKB48, noodle soup and ice cream, Harry Potter and Hello Kitty, Kendo and baseball… you get the picture. It may have something to do with America’s writing of their constitution after the war, which is still in place today. And what is instantly noticeable from the moment you arrive is how truly aware and influenced they are by everything American in particular. But of course, we can’t blame the States for everything. They did use the second world war devastation to benefit themselves economically, they do like their oil, and they do have the second worst accent in the world (after Canada of course), but Japan goes way beyond the Western-Asian concoction that occurs almost anywhere in Asia these days.
Beyond AKB48 and pampered cattlery are (and I apologise for the obvious sexual theme running throughout – the things a 21 year old boy remembers I guess): condom shops selling all shapes, sizes and smells, from protective pikachus to everything else elastic and fantastic (how has durex still not discovered that slogan?...). There are 12-story fetish stores; underground dungeons for the neurotic nerds to watch, or read, or make love to, their favourite comic books and cartoons; cafes and bars with themes such as ‘erotic prison’, ‘maid café’ (young girls dressed as cute, anime-style maids) and ‘Jamaican’ (strange because I didn’t see any Jamaican people, reggae music or jerk chicken anywhere); ‘gadgets that I’m pretty certain have not been invented yet, and shouldn’t be here for at least a few hundred years; vending machines everywhere – and I mean everywhere!; and the most varied and distinct fashion trends you will ever have the pleasure of witnessing.
I say ‘pleasure’ because I am a self-confessed people watcher and spent the majority of my first day in Japan staring at Tokyo’s inhabitants down one of its prime shopping streets, absorbing the colours, make-up and clothing that the females in particular were bringing to the table - at least I think it was the fashion that I was observing (again, I’m sorry). Meanwhile, my travel companion at the time slept in the middle of the road, recovering from our 9 hour flight, just a mere few hours before we both spent the night under the stars in Tokyo’s largest park; instead with some of the not-so-‘fashionable’, but equally as numerous, citizens of Tokyo – the homeless. As the sharp grass dug into my spine, our unfortunate neighbours stirred to sleep, and the stars continued to hide themselves beneath the smog that is Tokyo’s city skyline, I thought just what a bizarre, unexpected first day I had just had and, strangely, hoped that the next month would continue in the same twisted, rainbow-coloured light. Thankfully, as my examples and observations so far suggest, it certainly did.
The other day, my friend asked me what my favourite thing about Japan is. After first replying that it would be impossible to say, I thought about it. I then said: ‘out of everywhere I have been so far, it is the most like a different planet’. And it really is a place like no other. The few (and they really are only a few) of my experiences in Japan that I have mentioned so far are just a taste of what is an immensely large, colourful and engrossing Japanese feast. And yes, I know, I haven’t answered any of the questions that I proposed at the start; one, because they were stupid; and two, because that is just what Japan is all about! You never do get the answers you are expecting, and you often get a million others that you didn’t think you would want to know but now weirdly want to experience further. This is why I love Japan, and why I am now a comic book-reading, anime-watching stalker who wears make up and maid’s outfits whilst designing and selling my own novelty condoms to the local park’s homeless people, using my new catchy condom slogan. But seriously, if you come to Japan with a blank canvas you never know what you will find. However, you can be sure it will be an experience to remember.