Japan – Just a bit too easy!

19 02 2011

Sorry for the incredibly long delay on this post – its been over a month since I’ve left Japan and am now back here in the Philippines with my girlfriend, whose presence back in my life explains the delay! 😉

Anyways, yeah, so I spent a over a month in Japan, the longest duration of any of the countries I visited, and, as you’d expect, I could write another monster post about it all, but instead I’ll keep the words short and just overwhelm you with photos instead, since I think Japan is better summed up visually than verbally. Not to mention the fact that everyone and his dog has written a book / made a movie / etc. etc. about Japanese culture to the point that our North American culture is saturated with it, so I don’t think most of you need any further introduction to this place!

My journey of Japan was divided into two sections – a whirlwind Shinkansen-powered trek across the four main islands for the first 21 days (the length of my Japan Rail Pass, which, for about 700 bucks, affords you unlimited access to all ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ speed Shinkansens for 21 days {no ‘high’ speed ones, though, really, the speeds on all aren’t any different, just the number of stations they stop at}, which is an INCREDIBLE value if you do it like me and take a train or two every other day {buying individual tickets probably would’ve cost me thousands of dollars, in comparison}), which was then followed by 13 days of slow-style exploration of the Tokyo environs, being based in Yokohama.

Sailing into Osaka Port on the 2 night ferry from Shanghai was a great way to enter the country. I then visited Kobe, Himeji Castle, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya, Sapporo, Asahikawa, Otaru, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Aso Volcano (my favourite place, due to its raw natural quality), Beppu (my second favourite place, where I spent the whole day in various forms of spa baths), Matsuyama, Takamatsu, Okayama, and finished it off with Yokohama and Tokyo, including a visit to Nikko, before heading back to Osaka for a flight to Taiwan (my next blog post). In short, trekking across Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, in that order, primarily via Shinkansen (and via a ferry between Beppu, on Kyushu, and Matsuyama, on Shikoku). It was a lot to see in a short time, but that’s the way I like to travel, so I have no regrets!

Japan is no doubt a stunningly beautiful country, with lots of gorgeous scenery, temples, and towns to soak up, though its prohibitive prices, introverted people, and general lack of risk meant that my time there was always comfortable, always on time, always broke, never bothered, never irritated, and therefore never challenged or excited!! That’s why I’ve titled this post as I have. To me, travelling is about stepping outside your comfort zone, immersing yourself in difference, and not knowing what awaits you around the next corner. With Japan though, you could always count on getting an excellent map of the town as soon as you stepped off the train, being immediately directed to an affordable hotel, finding convenience stores with a steady supply of cheap food, and never, ever feeling unsafe/suspicious of one’s motives/hassled/or anything else. This sounds nice at first, but, for me at least, it just meant that there wasn’t any challenge or anything new to discover at each place except its actual tourist sites. If you could map my emotional state through the Japan, it would basically be a flat line hovering around the “comfortable/’that’s nice'” area. After having been places where the opposite of this is true though (i.e. big highs followed by big lows), I’d go so far as to venture that a life in comfortable emotional neutrality, rather than being ideal, is instead self-destructive. It was a similar life that I lived before in North America, and one I don’t want to live again.

To put it bluntly, let me recite a note to myself that I wrote in my journal, as it sums this up well: “Maladjusted culture, as I think all introverted cultures are – they kill themselves and seek solace in fucked up shit because of lack of human contact, even if they wouldn’t diagnose that as the problem, same as me before in North America”

If you’ve known no other life than this, as I did before in North America, you think this is the only way societies function. I always had a yearning / unsettled feeling during my time in NA, though I didn’t know for what exactly -something like: all was not as it should be / is this really how its supposed to be? But, since I had no experience in extroverted cultures like in SE Asia, I didn’t realize that this difference alone could be responsible for so much of that unsettlement, and is, I believe, a main reason behind why there’s so many “fucked up” things going on in Japan (but also in North America, you just see it less because North America also includes a healthy mix of extrovert cultures that cover up the weird stuff being undertaken by the introvert cultures underneath the surface). To clarify, when I say “human contact” above, I don’t just mean the number of minutes per day you spend socializing, but instead what’s going on around you in the society. Think of it this way: When did you feel better about yourself – When you were on the streets of Vancouver during the Olympic parties, or when you sitting alone on a silent bus on a rainy, average day? – Unpredictable human activities going on around you is an energizing thing, and the more of it there is (even if you’re not participating in it), the more you focus on the happenings around you and the less you focus inward on the dark recesses of your own mind. Example: Walking down a street in Manila vs. Walking down a street in Osaka. – Manila: Bikes are flying by you, Jeepneys are spewing smoke in your direction, beggars are asking you for money, street vendors are selling mangoes/etc., the ambient smells change with every block, there are piles of dog (hopefully?) shit that you have to avoid, people are yelling hello to you, etc. etc. ; Osaka: There are very quiet vehicles passing by you slowly, there are well-dressed people walking silently past you and stopping to look both ways at all crosswalks, there are no street vendors, no piles of shit, no beggars, no changing smells, and certainly no people saying hello to you (ok, there are all of these things, but waaaay less). Now tell me which street you’d rather walk down – the safe, predictable one, or the exciting, unpredictable one? Maybe you can be a happy and healthy human being taking the safe one, but I think there’s a much higher probability of you becoming slightly insane and requiring similarly removed-from-basic-human-nature activities to make you happy, like going to a “grope bar”, where you can stand in a fake traincar and grope waitresses as if they were train riders… Normal? You decide.

Basically, in short, Japan made me question my desires for law school or development work. Why the fuck should I help turn Laos or the Philippines into the next Japan or next North America? Obviously there’s a lot of shades of gray to a question like that, but it is nevertheless something I’m wrestling with these days.

A few more, less explosive, observations on Japan: 1) There basically isn’t a single trash can on a street anywhere in the country, which makes throwing garbage away that you may have accumulated a serious effort – Often forcing you into stores or malls to try and find a trash can. The reason for this is that Japanese people never eat and walk, don’t chew gum, and basically don’t do anything else that might produce garbage while walking, so why bother having trash cans for that silly foreigner who wanted to eat his bento box on the park bench, instead of in the convenience store itself??  ;  2) The culture of introversion is so prevalent that all ‘reserved’ train tickets are booked by the computer so that each window seat in a car fills up first, so as to only ‘force’ 2 people to sit beside each other if the car gets busier than that!!  ;  3) Japanese vending machines, and indeed Japanese culture itself, was lower tech than I had figured. No, there really aren’t any streetside vending machines that make a bowl of udon soup for you, or sell you convenience store essentials or anything like that. Occasionally hotels have ones that sell instant noodles or frozen food that it then proceeds to microwave, but don’t get your hopes up! , Same for technology elsewhere – Their cell phones are pretty low-tech (I know – I bought one), their automated toilets are cool but aren’t that hard to figure out, and their internet cafes are overpriced, overprivate, and overly strict places that don’t allow LAN gaming or Skype usage (aren’t those the only reason to go to net cafe in the first place!?).  ;  4) Japanese women probably wear the shortest skirts known to man, even starting at childhood ages! While its great eye-candy, its similarly pretty unsettling to see a 5 year old girl wearing one too – perhaps another catalyst for the abundant culture of perversion?  ;  5) There were a surprising number of jazz cafes and jazz music on offer throughout the country, which was nice to experience! Jazz isn’t even on the radar in NA for the most part  ;  6) A prime irritant for me, here and worldwide, is the “restoration” of old ruins / heritage places. Ok, if it gets a crack that threatens its collapse or something, sure you can put a new concrete beam in to hold it up, but come on, when you rebuild something from scratch and call it a tourist attraction, whats the value of it? So many of the Japanese castles were completely rebuilt in the middle 1900s, it makes you question what exactly you’re doing looking at it. You might as well just go look at an office building from the same era, other than that it looks a bit prettier! I, personally at least, would much prefer to see a pile of old rocks than a shining new castle complete with elevator!  ;  7) Here’s a gruesome example of Japanese adherence to rules even in the face of overwhelming logic or money: I wanted to get the lens of my Samsung (i.e. a Japanese camera) camera fixed (a minor issue with it not retracting into the camera properly – probably easy to fix) while I was in Tokyo. So I went to its world-famous electronics district, Akihabara, went into a huge electronics store with a really big repair section, and handed them my camera. They took it away for a minute, then came back and said “Sorry sir, this is a North American model, we don’t have the books on fixing them”. Seriously?? I’m sure the lens retracting mechanism works the same on most cameras – you could at least try! How is it possible that a tiny, shitty looking camera shop in Vietnam could take my camera apart, clean some dust off the lens, and put it back together in less than 10 minutes, whereas the world famous electronic gurus the Japanese won’t even touch it?

I’ll end here now and leave you to enjoy the photos (which are very nice). I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked my time in Japan, because it was indeed enjoyable, but its similarity to my time in North America just left me troubled throughout the experience and gave me the observations and conclusions that I left with you above. But, by all means, you should still visit! The ultra-structured world of a Japanese garden, even if a manifestation of the introverted cultural aspects I dislike, will still make you marvel at its peacefulness. I will say, though, that I think its a shame that the North American world has become SO enamored by all things Japanese, at the expense of all the other Asian cultures. In my view, every Asian culture (or world culture, for that matter) deserves equal exploration and interest. I’d love to see equal numbers of each country’s restaurants in Vancouver, for example, rather than just a million Japanese places and one or two lonely Vietnamese places. And how about some Philippine T.V. to go alongside the pervasive Japanese anime and movies? … Wait.. nevermind, that’s a terrible idea.. Philippine t.v. is brutally awful. haha! 😀

Enjoy the pics!




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