Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sakasai and Stereotypes

I’m half-way through my contract already. It ends in December so i’m on yet another job hunt. But this one is a little bit more fun – it’s in Japan.

This country seems to be a place that confirms and denies your pre-conceived ideas of it with equal measure. Before i came here i had an idea that Japan was way ahead of the rest of world, somewhere in the future, in terms of technology. The truth appears to be slightly different. Japan is home to an array of electronic gadgets from robotic vacuum cleaners to toilet seats that wash your arse to mobile phones that do almost everything. However, there’s also the nagging fact that i have to use a blackboard and chalk at work and that a lot of buildings don’t seem to have central heating and most cash machines close at night. I think some of the technology needs sharing around a bit more. I’d rather push a vacuum cleaner around than teach by scrawling a white rock onto a board of black.

Then there’s the whole safety aspect. Japan is known for being one of the safest countries in the world with ridiculously low crime rates and politeness everywhere. This is undoubtedly true until you realise that the trains have women only carriages during the packed rush hours so dirty old men can’t grope girls on the sly. And while the rest of the population is friendly and polite the country itself has an earthquake of varying magnitude every single day, sees typhoons every autumn, floods every summer, smog every spring, snow drifts every winter and is home to approximately 10% of the world’s active volcanoes. So, yeah, safe-ish, in a way.

I realised that Japan has this give and take of its stereotypes last week when i visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It’s a bit of a controversial place as it’s a memorial to Japan’s war dead which doesn’t go down too well in Korea and China. I went to see the flea market which is held there every Sunday and i was a bit surprised to see a small group of right-wing idiots at the shrine’s main entrance dressed in blue fatigues with baseball caps standing next to cars and vans which were decorated in imperial flags and pro-Japanese slogans whilst blaring out music that, although i couldn’t fully understand, probably wasn’t a Japanese remake of What A Wonderful World. All of this was outside a shrine that other countries, especially Asian ones, see as extremely provocative as a result of the wars of the past. I walked one block from there to a part of Tokyo called Jimbocho which is home to dozens of bookshops. There was a second hand book festival in full swing with shops and shelves spilling out onto the packed pavements. There were lots of food stalls outside local restaurants in the back streets (including Thai, Indian and Chinese) and you could listen to live music courtesy of a Latin jazz band. All very international and civilised. And all just down the road from the Japanese ultra-nationalists. It was a bit like the BNP in England having small get-together a block away from Soho in London.

Tokyo continues to amaze. Today i went to Shinjuku which is Tokyo in a nutshell. A nutshell that contains a red light district, street food, bars, chic designer shops, huge department stores, skyscrapers, cheap market stalls, upscale restaurants and a train station that, apparently, sees more than 3.5M people pass through it every single day. Quite a nutshell.

Over on the eastern side of the city there’s Ueno which is famous for a huge park with temples, lakes, lots of homeless men and handful of museums and art galleries all right next to a market that crams itself under train lines and between buildings selling everything from dried squid to fake designer handbags. I found a great little restaurant that serves delicious bowls of steamed rice with grilled fish that almost melts off the chopsticks for a few quid. If i lived near Ueno i’d eat there every day.

But i live near Kashiwa which is a practical functional place with enough to keep you occupied for a few hours on a Friday night (especially if it involves something called atsukan which is essentially hot sake) and enough shops to waste a few hours in on a Saturday. It also has a British themed bar which doesn’t look anything like a pub in Britain (it’s friendly and clean for a start, the portions of food aren’t supersized and there’s a severe lack of fat ugly people) but it does contain beer, big screen sports and lots of drunks. And so that’s where i was last night watching the Japan baseball finals with one of my co-workers as fans of one of the teams shouted and cheered whenever anything went half-way towards decent and an old Japanese man joined us amongst the din of chants and whoops seemingly oblivious to the live sport and alcohol around him and pursued a mainly one way conversation that lasted about thirty minutes and managed to include such topics as Britain’s nuclear deterrent, cricket, China, ice hockey, Scarborough, “a famous Canadian lake”, political corruption, hot springs and an amazing story about his son who was working in the World Trade Centre in New York on that day and lived to tell the tale. He was eccentric and friendly, loud yet quiet, in a British themed-pub in the middle of Japan talking to an English man watching baseball. Everything here is familiar yet different, new but old, obvious but subtle and confirming yet disproving. I love it. Fingers crossed for the job hunt.

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