Brothers Abroad brand

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Land of the Rising Sun - Snapshots

I had never been too excited about visiting this fabled land. It was more, something on the to-do list; a bit like going to the supermarket – other trips you’d rather make, but you know you’ll be glad to have this one done and dusted. I had worked for a Japanese-owned company, Sony Music, for over twelve years and I like to think of myself as a modern, cosmopolitan kinda guy. Fifa’s World Cup 2002 seemed like the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone - as if you’d known that the supermarket’s aisles were going to double as a catwalk for a surreal lingerie and swimwear show during your visit. Better still(?), my companion at these global festivals of sport, Alex, only lives a jet-fuelled hop and a skip away - in Hong Kong.



The flight to Tokyo was probably my most comfortable long-haul flight ever: twelve hours non-stop and the time seemed to pass so easily. It helped that premium economy was only half-full. My seat looked so large with so much leg-room that I had to double-check that I wasn’t in the Upper Class cabin. We left at lunchtime (BST) and arrived at Narita Airport, Tokyo in the morning. Unusually and foolishly, I had barely managed a couple of hours’ sleep: lesson #1!





I had heard Tokyo described as ‘’Gadget City’’ – one good reason to have avoided it – but on arrival at its international airport, I was struck by the ordinariness of it all. I had imagined with faint apprehension that it would be like stepping onto the set of ‘’Bladerunner’’. Having travelled extensively from a young age, Japan is the only country I can recall, where officials actually check your baggage tags as you go through customs. This just makes so much sense – in fact, it’s amazing that more luggage doesn’t go walkies, given the ease with which you can accidentally pick the wrong Louis Vuitton trunk from the carousel. They even use the same system of checking your bags in and out on airport shuttle buses. Logical as all this is, it did later strike me that the practice is in some ways at odds with my sketchy understanding of Japanese culture. There seems to be very little petty crime and very little anticipation of it in the general order of things. However, as with the luggage, I was also asked - very politely – to show my room key when signing for a bill in a hotel. Maybe it was just me; maybe I’d previously been let down by the dishonest antics of my brethren from The (Dark) Continent. Not only were my tags checked at Customs, but I was properly stopped. Some consider this to be an affront to their dignity; they feel the pique of victimisation. But my view – and I can say this with the benefit of not being stopped very often, surprisingly – is that I’d have stopped me if I’d seen me arriving alone in Tokyo with a loads of luggage. The guy was extremely courteous but thorough in his search; he even managed to check for a false bottom to my holdall without unceremoniously turning my meticulous packing upside-down and inside-out. Fair play, I thought. It’s not as though I was pretending to be a late sub for Senegal and as if to say, ‘’no hard feelings, mate’’, his colleague came over to give me unnecessary help putting my bags back onto the trolley.





There are cigarette vending machines everywhere – many more than you’d see offering snacks and drinks in, say, London. For me, this gave off an incongruous whiff of the Third World , as that is where the tobacco giants usually find greatest freedom to flex their anabolic, marketing muscles. I guess, the situation in Japan can be explained by free market economics…or something. But thankfully, the freedom doesn’t extend to the smokers themselves. You hardly ever see anybody lounging around and taking a languid drag on a cigarette. Smokers stand in segregated huddles – well, ‘pens’ actually – puffing away with nervous urgency, then religiously snubbing out their butts in water-bearing ashtrays before dashing off. Maybe it was my own particular perspective as an anti-smoker, but the pens, which I first saw at the airport, always seemed to carry an element of public shaming. There was no pleasure evident to my eye; none of the indulgence often associated with smoking in the West. To me, it looked more like the degenerate compulsion of the low-rent opium den.





As a globe-trotting, sub-Saharan African, the fish-outta- water experience is neither new nor unpleasant to me. I’ve done the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter; I’ve had people falling off their bikes in provincial China; but in Japan, I was almost offended not to be noticed. Well, at least this was my first impression. After a few days, I did clock a few, geisha-style darts of the eyes, which is a completely different approach from, say, G8 counterparts like the French or Germans, who often almost seem to stare for sport. I guess that the Japanese like to do that less acceptable stuff under-cover – and I have no problem with that (see Courtesy below). Having transferred to Hamida airport for my flight to Osaka, I wandered around for half an hour and never saw another face darker than ‘’North Med. Tan’’, until I came across a sight which would have been unusual even at JFK: a giant of a black man – he must have been 6’8’’ at the very least (over 2.05m for followers of high-jump) – fantastically well-proportioned, despite his size and with the most harmonious of facial features. I just about caught my jaw before it dropped too far, but none of the five-foot orientals around me batted an eyelid. That said, I did also get my picture taken by a number of miscellaneous strangers in Osaka, despite my protests that I was not Senegalese (‘’Yes, Gambia; Gambia – next to Senegal’’, complete with unhelpful hand gestures). I should also record that, on two occasions, as I wandered around the ancient capital Kyoto, I received unsolicited approaches from couples asking if they could help me – with directions, I assumed, rather than (say) by organising some ‘traditional entertainment’. Speaking of which, I am sorry to report that the only place where I found my brethren to be assembled in any sort of concentration was in Tokyo’s night-district, Roppongei, where they seem to have a monopoly on the doors to fleshy bars.





Many people knock the Japanese for being (inter alia) inscrutable, for hiding their true feelings etc. Frankly, I don’t really care if they are, provided that they are also courteous. Maybe this is my martial arts training coming out, but arguably, so-called civilisation is largely based on human beings suppressing their more primal instincts. These people have rules about the way things should and should not be done and seem broadly to stick to them, even in the 21st century. I like this – order. Walking up a hotel corridor and seeing two people apparently engaged in an interminable bowing competition is a bit odd, but hey, if it works for them…I didn’t actually spot the following for myself, but on my return to the uncivilised West, a friend of mine asked me whether I had noticed that the Japanese always press the ‘’close doors’’ button as they leave a lift, so that the remaining occupants suffer no more inconvenience than is absolutely necessary. Marvellous! I had not read a guidebook before going to Japan and was therefore holding my hand out with tips only to be received with embarrassed head-shaking. Even the camp and unusually bilingual bellboy at Tokyo’s New Otani refused my pecuniary advances in the privacy of my room, away from the gaze of his superiors. When I asked whether my Western crassness caused offence, his disarming reply was at once humble and proud: ‘’No sir; it is just not our culture’’.





The women seemed almost cartoon-like to me – vocally and otherwise. They did fulfil the super-feminine ideal: petite, delicate, demure and with those absurd (to the untuned ear) sing-song voices. I could see the appeal of modern, Japanese womanhood to the Western male, but the geisha’s of Kyoto, frankly, put the willies up me. These spooky apparitions come out at dusk – the same time as bats, as a friend observed – and their dark eyes are soulless holes in their powdered masks. It was difficult for me to contemplate these objectified females as being the embodiment of ultimate pleasure for the male, but then again…’don’t knock it, if you haven’t tried it!’, as the saying goes. I rarely saw women and men socialising together in a group, even in Tokyo, although one is so used to seeing large groups of mixed, hat-wearing, camera ’n umbrella-wielding Japanese tourists around the world. I guess such genre segregation is not uncommon away from the West, but it somehow seems remarkable in one of the most developed economies. I would go as far as to say that I felt positively alien from the older generation (the over 55’s?) – especially the women - with the possible exception of the cab-drivers (male, of course). I had always noticed that the older ladies of the Orient are keen to keep the sun of their skin at all costs, presumably for fear of becoming darker and therefore less attractive, less geisha-like. But when I got to Japan, where it was the rainy season admittedly, it seemed that everyone carried an umbrella pretty much all of the time and put it up at the drop of… well, the hint of pretty much anything: rain, sun or heavy cloud (in anticipation of rain, one assumed).






As previously observed, it was not the ‘’Gadget City’’ I had imagined, although I know there are places to buy any invented gadget on the planet, if you go looking for them, which was not my personal inclination. However, the Japanese seem to think of the little things – those small but significant irritations which cause you to say, ‘’why doesn’t someone make something that does this….?’’ It seemed to me, for example, that a sizeable rectangle on my bathroom mirror never steamed up, but maybe that was just my jet-lagged vision. The hotel WC’s were a bit frightening with far too many buttons and instructions and cartoon-like illustrations, indicating ‘front’, ‘back’ and fountain-sprays of water, complete with a far from comforting warning about the dangers of electrocution. I worked out that these were WC’s with integrated bidets, but decided to play it safe and was happy to settle for the novelty of a heated seat. By bizarre if hygienically sound contrast, I observed from some distance that the WC’s in public conveniences were in the more latin mould, requiring what my bro’ and his weight-training mates used to call the ‘’RPP’’ – rice paddy position. Speaking of conveniences, I also noticed that there were relatively few escalators on the Tokyo subway system, which seemed to require passengers to scale long, steep series of steps – definitely not an environment for carrying heavy bags. They must have thought about this – they’re Japanese, for goodness sake – but I couldn’t make any sense of this apparent anomaly, other than as a deterrent against over-crowding or less physically capable passengers.






There is no real conclusion, except that I came back to the West with even greater admiration for the Japanese. I could, for happily different reasons, relate to the awe often expressed by the peasant farmer whose homestead is nextdoor to some land owned by my mother in The Gambia and who fought for the Allies in Burma against the Japanese. They seem to set themselves a set of principles or tasks and go for it without compromise – the legacy of the samurai and the kamikaze. And yet they manage to be so courteous, modest and humble – at least on the surface. You always get the feeling that when things go wrong, the surface may become rather less placid; a lot more choppy. I had a few, slightly ruffling instances when I made an issue of something and people would start to explain to me that which I already knew and all of a sudden, the language-barrier seemed to go up a good few notches. I think the lesson is probably to remember that things are not always as they seem in Japan, but as long as everyone is behaving in a seemly manner, life can be very civilised indeed.



© MMII Ayodeji C. R. Mahoney


Posted by Dej on 03 Aug around 2pm

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