It’s still early. Too early to turn on the light since other people are still sleeping. I’m writing by the bits of light that come through the rice paper windows. I am assuredly in Japan, but why? Yesterday we went to a Buddhist Temple. The pagoda was lit up red like, and this is no exaggeration, a Buddhist temple in Japan at ten pm on a rainy day in Tokyo. We see cherry blossoms and men wearing surgical masks to prevent infection. Looking out the window, I established Japan doesn’t look like the way the rest of the non-North American world looks. Europe, Central America, the Middle East all share certain characteristics that can only be described as the way non-North American places look. Japan looks like Katamari Damashi without the possibility of being rolled up. Actually, I think that possibility exists. G has already been rolled up. They do have the non-North American white, flat faced, huge window screen trucks. Mitsubishis that look vaguely insect-like or like the faces of friendly aliens reaching out to take you away and roll you up into their lives.
I’ve never been so jet lagged in my life. It feels like I’ve slept all day and woken up in the evening, which is what I’ve done if we translate the twelve hours back to Halifax. I’m disoriented, dehydrated. I feel hung over but I can’t remember the last time I had alcohol.
I’ve moved next to the heater in my room, like a cat. Last night, I had a futon as far from the heater as possible and had to find hats and sweaters and still couldn’t get warm. A country with the fastest trains in the world, the most advanced robotic techniques, and an extensive computer and microchip network somehow managed to overlook the concept of insulation and central heating. I moved still closer to the heat. I am now as close to the heater as one can possibly be, messing around with my internal body temperature controls. I will never be as warm today as I am right now with the warm air scalding my legs and making it difficult for me to breathe. Sitting by extreme heat while dehydrated. Even in my state, this sounds like an awful idea.
There. I’ve moved back into the cold.
We left for the airport thirty-six hours ago, when it was, against all sense of logic, also ridiculously early in the morning. We were not meant to go so far so fast. This sentence is usually applied to the steady state of progress, but I think its true meaning can only be realised by those who have spent all day in an airplane, an airport, and an airplane again only to be thrown out into a world twelve hours ahead of our own. Oh, but what a twelve hours. What a difference (exactly half) a day makes. Am I dizzy with culture shock or my body’s breakdown of its Kreb cycle? I need to drink more water.
The credit card reader was broken in the taxi. G had to run into the airport to find a machine while I waited with the increasingly bitter taxi driver to ensure that we wouldn’t disappear into the airport, leaving him with two suitcases full of clothing and functional analysis notes.
G has left to wander the streets of Asakusa. I was woken by birds that sound the same here as in Canada. That seems like hours ago, but was only minutes. I wish I could sleep the way other people sleep, with reckless abandon. Without worry. My sleep is full of worry, starting and stopping between dreams of failure and dreams of potential failure.
The airports were steel and glass, dull and overpriced. We walked for days through the Toronto airport, from the far side of the terminal to the farther side of Terminal One, passing through security points at every corner. For reasons I may never understand, one agent greeted me in Chinese (nihau). I am neither going to China nor am I Chinese.
It smells sweet in the room, like the first day an apple starts to go bad while the fructose breaks up into whatever sugar is simpler than that. Not all of Japan smells like this. The airport had an airport smell. The okonomiyaki restaurant last night smells like okonomiyaki. But here smells like the sweetness of a slightly rotten fruit. Perhaps this can be explained by an apple in my bag turning to mush. The light through the rice paper window had changed from white to yellow. There’s now enough light to check for rotting apples. I can hear a rush of traffic. The sun must have come up.
Contrary to the Tokyo Tourism Board’s claims, homelessness and poverty abound in Tokyo. I saw a row of homeless people in the subway that looked like the homeless people in Halifax or Toronto or, really, anywhere. Browned skin. Layers of clothes. Carrier bags stuffed inside carrier bags. The only place that seems homeless free is Victoria/Pimlico in London, probably because they are rounded up and pushed out to the far edges of London so as not to scare tourists and the elite members of the club who possess the postal code district addresses of SW1. The way Giuiliani cleaned up Times Square through the forcible relocation of New York’s sex workers to the outer boroughs where they became someone else’s problem.
We’re not in a seedy enough area, or far enough from a main road, to have seen the brothels and comfort houses of Tokyo. We are next to a Love Hotel, with some nauseatingly suggestive name like Satisfaction! or Lure and a sign done up in purple and green lotus flowers.
G has come back. He says he saw the future – a man dressed in a silvery suit who glared at him until G scurried away. Then he saw some cats.
The airplane to Tokyo was full of screaming toddlers and ineffective parents. I received a vegetarian meal, curried cauliflower and rice, bean salad and fruit. But then with second meals, I got the same with G was treated to a new non-vegetarian dish.
The cars here are parked like displays in a showroom. Diagonal on a raised concrete block outside their ultra modern modular apartments stacked like an uninspired erotic dream in an Ikea catalogue.
We walked through Narita with other drunk and slightly belligerent Canadians, waltzing by bored customers officers and easily claimed luggage. For a country whose image is chrome and robots, their flagship airport is nothing by grime ground into sagging grey tiles and windows caked with airplane exhaust.
The train from Narita was long and slow and crowed and heated from beneath the seats, burning the backs of my legs and making me feel sick. Somewhere in the outskirts of Tokyo, passing between crumbling concrete outposts of Pachinko parlours lit up by laundered Yakuza money and unrealistic rural pastures of daikon radishes and bamboo shoots, I passed the twenty-four hour awake mark. I glared at the cartoon fruits smiling at me from the train advertisements and pretended I understood what they were telling me.
Long life, good health, outstanding noodle.
Hours ago I gave up trying to understand what time it is. Like in Canada, I woke up with the sun and fell asleep when the clouds take it away. At three, the clouds rolled in mixing with the orange smog to turn the sky into a pale yellow puddle, intermittently lit up by lightening as we scrambled through Ueno station trying to find the subway. The ticket prices are spread out by distance. The highest price is 260 yen. Where would that take me? The automatic ticket vendors with their orange and black screens, like a two-tone monitor from 1987, and the automatic ticket suckers, strong enough to grab your ticket as you’re reaching to put it in, are the subway’s only concessions to modernity. The cars are old. The stations are crowded and dirty. Everywhere I look, I see masked men sweeping, yet the city oozes filth and the rain following from the insipid yellow sky must surely be acidic. You can almost feel the sizzle as it hits your skin. Maybe that’s where the burning red bruise one third of the way up my right arm comes from, not from the weight of my backpack as I rest it on my arm as I search for things inside that I probably forgot in Canada, but from a splash of water hitting my arm or resting my arm against the ubiquitous clear vinyl umbrellas lying on every street corner and next to every businessman’s pant leg. I look for cars as I cross the road, but few appear. This is a city which moves by train and bicycle.
At Ueno, we get lost. I use the present tense since we have never not been lost at Ueno. Once, coming from the airport when the signs pointing to the subway led us out of the station, to the road, round the corner, and again back into the station and the sign at which we began. Twice when searching for Ueno park when the houses squeezed under the overpass provided a lacquered white barrier blocking our view and our path. Third on our desperate escapade to escape the potential downpour of rain. Oh the camera! I cried. What if it gets wet? And I clung to my backpack as if my arms could block the sheets of water I could see in the distance; my arms being the only thing which could stop the rain from exchanging my camera for a piece of $1500 electronics which would not even turn on.
A ramp in front of the overpass above the houses led us on top, then we followed the cherry blossoms to the park. How can cherry blossoms be as magical as the paintings portray? One answer – they can’t. Although pretty, the description stops there. Not amazing. Not breathtaking. We’re already too late. Past their prime, they are falling in batches to the ground. Everyone says like snow, but snow falls differently. It meanders differently than cherry blossoms, who just fall without poetic descriptors.
We ate squid and chicken for lunch after the zoo filled with animals and children, some cute, some loud, some crying and fighting for reasons available only to themselves. Conveyor belt sushi for dinner, getting dizzy from watching the dishes spin round and round. There was fruit (pineapple). I ate. Flan. Custard. Cucumber rolls. The temperature drops by the hour. By the minute. The second. You can feel the frost starting to form as we walked back down the streets. I remember the dreams from that afternoon. Belinda, blonde and belligerent asking me questions. When I woke up, I’d been asleep on my arm on the floor, and it had lost most of its blood. Still jet-lagged, I couldn’t remember where my things were, but awake for the first time in days, we went out for dinner and as we walked down the street the cherry blossoms flowed everywhere like water.
Lost in Translation
Food here is fried in fat, heavy and impossible to feel anything but empty inside after consumption, full of green onions and brushed with sticky brown sauces of fermented something. I can still taste the egg pancake, the custard doughnut, the cucumber rolls days later. I feel sick after every meal while everyone else rejoices in the waitresses in impossibly short skirts yelling Welcome to Sushi in high pitched Japanese voices as we walk in the door.
The city, even with wide spaces and less crowded than expected, closes in on me, constricting my thoughts. I feel claustrophobic. Maybe jetlag makes you paranoid. I don’t know how to make this city beautiful. The cinematographers and photographers who come here must have different lenses and filters that I don’t own. All my pictures are grey, red, cracked, and crooked. It rains at night, blurring the neon lights together, inconceivable I’d take my camera out of its water proof bag. No pictures like Bladerunner, Lost in Translation. A few of a red temple lit up at night, empty. No one goes to a temple at night.
I feel watched upon. Like the Asiatic crocodile at the zoo watched my movements. Everywhere I go I can feel the anticipation of the city, waiting for me to do something, waiting for her chance to bounce. Tokyo feels female, sticky, ephemeral. Its the sort of city that would benefit from being abandoned for years, grown over by moss, reclaimed by crows which cry all morning long, from before sunrise to noon, and then rediscovered, rebuilt, torn down, and abandoned again. It is a place not meant to be static any longer.
I wonder where are the people? The rushing crowds were indoctrinated into our heads as children when the news whispered about the dominance of Japanese manufacturing and management techniques, before the yen crashed, when Japan was still the Asian tiger of choice, before China, Viet-Nam, Laos, Thailand, and their cheap Communist labour and lax sexual tourism laws. We took the subway at rush hour. There are more people at the Yonge-Bloor interchange at 8.30 am Monday morning than crowd onto a Japanese subway platform at rush hour. How many other things they tell us about Japan are lies? No poverty, no crime, good prospects, politeness?
The masks are everywhere. The tell you you’ll see them, but not everywhere. You think, maybe a hold-over from earlier, a handfull of people, elderly, but not everyone. Not everywhere. It seems like this should be stressed more in guidebooks. Today I feel sick and know I am not fulfilling my civic duty by not purchasing one. Some masks are pink. Some blue. Some white.
I think this is the wrong time for me to be here. Like watching Seinfeld or reading John Irving novels before your twenties. Your mind cannot comprehend the humour, the tragedy, the quiet, the busyness until you suddenly hit a point where it all makes sense. In Tokyo it is hard not to confuse contradiction and contrapositive.
The city is warmer today.
Everything about me hurts. Back, neck, shoulders, head, bladder, feet, legs, eyes. The floor has no tatami mats so the futons are not comfortable. I wake up at three and lie awake until six, until I can write down all the thoughts I have here. I would claw out my eyes if it meant I could sleep. The blood would get everywhere. There’s no mask to wear when that happens.
Today I spend the whole day trying not to vomit and searching for soy milk. For a country in which soy beans are everywhere, baked into doughnuts and eaten with beer like peanuts, I cannot find soy milk. Just caffeine, cigarettes, and grease.
As Tokyo fades, all that can be said is that the Japanese have succeeded in turning a pretty countryside into a marvel of functionally ugly buildings with rust and paint stains rolling down the sides like old clawfoot bathtubs. A staggering work of breathtaking ugliness, an ugliness which could easily be erased with the application of a high pressure water hose. The newer houses look cheap and prone to destruction. The older houses look like samurais ready to commit ritual suicide. Outside of Tokyo life can only be dull and depressing and overwhelmingly pedestrian. Except for the red arches announcing the Shinto shrines hidden high up in the hills, the monotony of this existence must drive the rural villagers crazy.
For a city so full of movement, the water in Tokyo is stale like the water left in a Nalgene bottle left in a car on a hot summer day. The oxygen has all been sucked out. The sky is the same, a listless shade of haze stretching for miles. On the boat down the river, the Ferris wheel, an ideal probably stolen from Vienna by a busload of Japanese tourists, shimmers faintly though the mucus coloured ozone. Later in the day, standing next to the Ferris wheel, Tokyo was obscured instead. The reclaimed land is quiet. No one picnics on a work day. We bought plastic containers of mechanically reclaimed chicken from the AM/PM and sat on the grass watching the enclosed flat of ocean. Will I miss that? Like the Compré Bien in Palmares, how quickly will I become accustomed to stores, expecting all national chains to make the leap to global domination. I miss the Compré Bien bags, pink and clear, flimsy, always ripping. Costa Rica has ruined voyeuristic travel.
The aquarium was full of fish, moving, alive, a contrast from yesterday’s ill-advised excursion to the fish market, a concrete warehouse with floors stained pink and red by flood and a variety of fishy insides. At both though, children yelling So Delicious! I want to eat it! No hiding behind Styrofoam vacuum sealed packages of pink, slightly suggestively labelled meat. Breast. Rack. Thigh. A strange country. Equally likely to see, as I have, an overweight, underbrained police officer waddling off towards a harmless old woman, billy stick waving while screaming to get out of the way of the Laotian ambassador’s carriage as it processed by the Imperial Palace, as a Buddhist monk in full Buddhist monk regalia, sandals, split socks, robes, shaved head, old, slightly bent, texting madly on his cellphone as he gracefully navigated his suitcase on wheels around the train’s passengers, alighting with ease. I feel sorry for the woman harassed by the police, hands over head as she scurried back to the side of the road, clearly ashamed of her digression. I feel even sorrier to the salarymen. Same suit. Same shoes. Some haircut, salary, life expectancy, fate. Lydia tells me that conformity does not bother the Japanese. It isn’t as if we aren’t all conformists back home for all the fake individuality thrown at us – car, cellphone, ring tone, flavoured condoms. I still feel sorry for them as they sit with their work friends underneath the sakura, drinking with people they will later try to screw over on their climb to the top. They were like the penguins at the zoo – groupthink. I started calling them penguinmen, even the women. One passed by today on the way to the train, his arm in a clearly makeshift, handmade sling. What do you think happened to him? G asked us. I replied Clearly he fell off the corporate ladder. G laughed by Lydia did not seem amused.
The Mori Art Museum was full of installations. Mainly videos. One video a dot on a series of screens, each screen rolling up to reveal the same dot. On the first screen the dot was small relative to the screen. On the last, the dot huge, but the film was shot so that the size of the dot never changed in relation to us. Like Japan. Perspective does not work here. In a later room videos of performance art. Brooklyn. Russia. Then we stared at Tokyo and Roppongi for awhile. No city looks pleasant from above. They look like what they are. Dirt and pathways going round in circles.
G says he wants to move here. I am not convinced of this idea.
Our carriage fills with smoke. What is the point of having smoking cars? Eventually with people going in and out, smoke drifts everywhere. Should just make the whole train smoking. It would be more efficient.
At Hiroshima, there is a mass gaijin exodus from the train. From the window, Hiroshima looks like every other mid-size Japanese town we’ve thundered through. You’d think that you could tell history from the window of a train, but you can’t. Life goes on.
Everything in this country screams mechanisation and the elimination of human-to-human interaction. Vending machines. Meal ticket machines. Subway ticket machines. Becoming more efficient through the removal of interpersonal interplay. The longer I remain here, the more mechanised I become. Wake. Eat. Sightsee. I can feel all decisions coming down to cogs and gears. I can hear the whirring in my joints as I wobble towards the squatting toilets on the train. The penguinmen stare at me as I go past. Another ignores me as I almost trip and fall onto him. My body goes limp as the train wiggles past terra cotta tile roofed houses and miles and miles of thick rubber power lines.
In Moments This Country Redeems Itself
The old man who told us about the Laotian ambassador tells us that Japanese men have an inferiority complex when it comes to Western women. They are scared to look you in the eye he says. Him, he is too old, he tells us. Laughing, furtively, he manages to say that unlike his fellow countrymen, he has a superiority complex.
Walking around is like being trapped inside a perpetual Final Fantasy Battle Complete screen. Short bursts of jingly music everywhere. Each train line, subway, shop, restaurant, cellphone has its own electronic jangle, a triumphant tune of minute daily choice. We have arrived in Suizenji! Our food is ichiban tasty! Please our product to make you smile! The lyrics to these songs are the fragmented bits of English affixed to every available surface. Lydia says that a product with Japanese writing is for us – gaijin. The Japanese only buy shirts, books, movies, CDs plastered in English.
We quickly become used to being the minority. The tourists we do see are often large groups of Chinese seniors chatting loudly in tonal languages and taking pictures of advertisement posters or following the raised tourist group flag that I associate more with Japan. A group surrounded the gates to the Nagasaki Train Station today, huddled frightened together and scanning the station, desperately searching for their tour guide and their group’s flag (Brazil), becoming more and more frantic as they fail to locate it amongst the neon signs of the Trandor Bakery and the AM/PM Convenience store. Then in the same way a murder of crows senses danger and take flight or a school of fish in one fluid movement switch direction, the flag is spotted and the group trails off behind their guide. In their determination and confident lack of confidence, they look like the tiny kindergarten children here, minus the yellow hats and oversized backpacks. We squeezed through them to wait for our train to Tosu.
Nagasaki is different again. Everything is different. People are friendly like the guidebook, a wealth of confusing bits of misinformation, informed us they would be. After such long exposure to the Dutch, British, Scottish, and finally American servicemen, wandering confused gaijin hardly seem strange, although we are still few. I thought this city would be crowded with tourists. The Peace and Hypercenter parks are deserted. We furtively eat our sandwiches on benches directly underneath the spot where the bomb exploded. The Memorial for the Twenty-Six Christian Martyrs, a must-see according to the guidebook, is entirely populated by unwanted stray cats with pus dripping from their eyes and a lonely Japanese ice cream vendor, an ancient woman who after what could only have been a long day of expectation with no real reward, doesn’t even bother trying to entice us to buy anything. The heat of Nagasaki must have melted it all hours ago anyway. We feed the stray cats bits of food bought in the food courts of the shopping centers and leave.
It is impossible to walk uninterrupted in Nagasaki. Every thirty meters there is a sign pointing towards some mildly gruesome memorial of something: bombs, wars, crucifixions, persecutions, concentration camps. And then, once accustomed to the signs and the constant backtracking to reach every little thing so as to stand around dutifully disinterested and taking pictures to prove to other travelers that indeed I have been to Fujuki-ji and seen the massive aluminum Bodhisattva as glassy and as shiny as a pop-can tab, we are constantly accosted by people. Misunderstanding an old woman’s gestures and pointing, G has his aura cleansed. A salaryman walks us to the rope bridge so he can practice his English. A drunken ship’s engineer talks to us about all the places he has seen in China before getting bored and wandering over to the ticket desk to ask where to buy beer. The where is the alcohol question is universal in all languages.
The further from Tokyo the better. If this country consisted only of Tokyo, then it could fall into the sea with no loss to us at all.
This country is scarily inefficiently efficient. The trains run on time, but for a car of us, a few bored housewives, and three businessmen fast asleep, is it really that necessary? The operator of the rope car counts down the seconds on his big round smiley face clock on the wall before, at exactly 7.15, he pushes the button to start the cable car, as leaving one second too early might cause Japanese societal collapse. He seems oblivious to the fact that as he is also the ticket vendor and has spent the last five minutes chatting up the Mary Tyler Moore styled teenager who opens and closes the gondola door rather than sitting in his booth, the minute he leaves his plexiglass enclosure, we might as well go. At the post office where we go to exchange traveller’s cheques, one of the employees, calling me Rose-sama, identical in shirt, shoes, pants, tie, haircut, salary, pension, goals, expectations, dreams, and demeanour to any of the other interchangeable post office employees, takes thirty-two minutes, two telephone calls, consultation with someone in a supervisory position, a computer search, and five minutes of gesturing, mimes, only one needs to sign said over and over again in Japanese by Lydia, lengthy brow-furrowing, and much consternation to exchange my travellers cheques to Yen. I watch as he counts the cheques again and again, trying to decide what to do. Nothing takes this long back home.
After Nagasaki, Kumamoto’s forced history seems shallow. We joyfully traipsed through Kumamoto Castle, marvelling at the curvature of the outer walls and the architecture, pretending not to care that what we’re looking at is a replica built in the 1960s. It’s like getting history from Disneyland. Kumamoto feels new all over. Not post-new like Tokyo, but far younger than Nagasaki.
Suddenly it become summer. The sun, smog, and humidity of Nagasaki burned my skin and made my mind sleepy. After Tokyo, a place in which I never could shake off the damp, the quick advance of heat came as a shock. I am unprepared for this.
It seems like I have been here forever, with the rolling waves of jet-lag and exhaustion. I can barely remember not being in Japan, not being illiterate, not being able to not communicate. We mix in so quickly, yet without being able to have any effective interaction with Japan, we just wander around aimlessly while the masses of uniformed Japanese (each job comes with a uniform) push their way past us in the opposite direction. We are swimming upstream on each sidewalk.
Summimasen! G yells out in the line to make reservations for the train. He says it loudly, not because he wants to express what it means – I’m sorry; Excuse Me; Please let me through – but because it is the first Japanese word he learnt, a magical word that parted the penguinmen to let us off the crowded Ginza line train. This time, the penguinmen in front of us quickly turn around, glaring at us, wondering what to do, asking themselves if they should be doing something for us. I stare at the floor and pretend, against all odds, that although there are only three gaijin floating in a sea of Japanese, that I am not with him.
This whole country is built on paper cards and bobby pins. Everything is placed exactly right. Everything works precisely correct. The trains run on time. The mail is always delivered. Gender and class roles are painstakingly mapped out. It seems like in the old cartoons, when the table legs start to buckle, bending out and wobbling, action lines drawn by animators so we know what to expect. When Japan collapses, which, like all things, it will, it will collapse thoroughly and because of the tiniest thing. A late train. A misplaced letter. An upstart young woman from the poor part of town. The stress here is palpable. You can feel it everywhere. On trains. In the 100 Yen sushi restaurant. On elevators. In temples. Something so highly regimented, lives so highly regimented, is never healthy. How can people live like this? What part of you does one give up to succeed? What compromises does very Japanese man make with himself? Two more hours at work today? No lunch break? Beers at the desk? So much here is so run down yet things cost so much.
How can people live in this country. It seems impossible that Japan has people who do the same things as back home, completely plebeian, dull, routine things, like deliver the mail and direct traffic and work as crossing guards by the school. In the West, all we see are the salarymen and Yakuza and the men who stand on railway platforms pushing them into overfull railcars. Somehow, somewhere over the Pacific, the idea that people just do what we do is lost. I suppose we all think that everything simple becomes automated, controlled by machines and executed by robots. I’ve seen no robots here, a few cases of automation, like ticket machines, but even these are archaic with clunky push buttons, sticky from overuse, which light up when jammed in. The sum total of Japanese advancement that I’ve seen while here is a machine at the Mister Donut which writes in your Mister Donut points on a card, erasing the number that was there before and a vending machine full of cans of hot and cold drinks in which the cold drinks stay cold while the warm drinks stay hot. This is the Asian economic and technological powerhouse over which we have been wringing our hands since the 1980s? We watched a show in which a marathon runner from Kenya chased Japanese sometime celebrities around a football pitch in a televised game of tag. This is what our CEOs were told to emulate? In Nagasaki, the Atomic Bomb Museum told me that China has nuclear weapons. It has already shot rockets into space and has a massive population. Shouldn’t we have been more focused on them than a pacifistic archipelago with a negative birthrate and a preoccupation with ourselves?
I am covered in sunburns, lines marking where the clothes I wore today ended. They grate on my insomnia and jet-lag and lack of vitamins, making me sleepy and irritable. I’m so thirsty, but Kumamoto is cold after the warmth of Nagasaki. I sat at the conveyor belt sushi and watched the plates of raw fish and overcooked rice cycle round and round, nauseated and starving simultaneously. On the train, I felt sick, the track shaking and jiggling beneath us. We rode by the ocean. I opened my eyes and looked out. It was shiny like oil, translucent and slick. I wished for a shinkansen with the scenery flashing by in quick glimpses between tunnels rather than the churning of the old train over the rusted round-a-bout tracks. The sun shone in the train and burned the backs of my hands and my forearms. Tomorrow it will peel. I will drop papery layers of skin behind me where ever I go, a trail to find my way home.
Today I look Japanese from behind. A man on a train platform in Hakata grabbed my shoulder and started babbling at me. I turned around. Shock! The man muttered Summimasen and stumbled off. G says it must be the haircut.
We passed Fujisan today. Suddenly it was there, streaming past on the left side of the train. No one but G and I took any interest. Everyone else in our car, Japanese, have probably seen it before. After a few box malls and a pale yellow sound barrier, it was gone. Maybe, up close, it’s more interesting.
We solved the mystery of the missing tourists of Japan. They are all in Kyoto, being herded about like cattle between one historic temple and the next historic temple. After the random passers-by in Nagasaki and Kagoshima who wanted nothing more than to help us out for the benefit of helping their English, the frostiness of the people in Kyoto is like a slap. We walked around, clearly lost, past the same construction workers and police box again and again, always invisible. After many missteps and dead ends, we finally arrived where we wanted to be, two hours after we arrived in Kyoto, and then left to explore. We wandered into temples twenty minuets to closing time and joined the cattle procession, advancing one step at a time, crowded into tiny Zen hallways, surrounded by uniformed volunteers ready to pounce if we strayed past the Do Not Enter signs or walked on the tatami mats with our shoes still on. The tour groups moved like Swiss clockwork, bells dinging at each precisely calculated interval; exactly enough time for a brisk wander around the grounds, a few idyllic picture opportunities, five minutes at the tacky gift shop to purchase some mass produced souvenirs made in China, souvenirs that are virtually identical to the souvenirs purchased at the tour’s previous three temple stops of the day, then back on the bus, a short drive to the next precisely timed interval, and repeat. At five past five, five minutes past closing time of all the temples in Kyoto, the streets are overloaded with monstrously huge two level tour buses. At ten past, the roads are empty. The buses have driven their cargo downtown, back to the almost luxurious hotels above the train station, and the passengers are now preparing for what their package tour claims is authentic Kyoto nightlife. Our authentic Kyoto nightlife: we walked around the suburbs, down narrow streets with narrow houses, crawling over yellow tape strung up across trees to eat mocha ice cream cones from the FamilyMart after losing 100 yen in their freezers. We walked through a closed temple with a public footpath through the middle, listening to the monks chanting from somewhere inside one of the identically red buildings. We had people stare at us and murmur quietly to each other. We got lost again. We walked up a hill. Then we went home to our ryokan by the highway.
Kyoto is Paris. Expensive, rude, full of tourists evenly distributed across mildly interesting bits of history. After awhile, each temple looks the same as each other temple. Each picturesque spot starts to blur together in memory. Wherever you want to look, there are tourists standing in the way, and wherever you stand you are blocking the view of someone else. We walked to a temple just after it opened and already the parking lot was crowded with tour buses and slightly confused tourists milling about unsure whether to use the group or individual entrance. We saw a hallway of golden Bodhisattvas, each one slightly different, rushing through quickly to get back to the station. We walked by bored junior monks selling charms and ribbons.
Japan is expensive because Kyoto is expensive and that is that only place tourists seem to go. Everything has an entrance fee. Inexpensive, unbooked accommodation does not exist. Bentos in Kyoto station are 300 yen more than those in Tokyo and 500 more than the ones we bought in Kumamoto for our trips here and to Nagasaki. And yet, money can’t buy interest. Yesterday was more interesting, spending 150 yen for a ferry from Kagoshima to Sakurajima and a free afternoon winding ourselves around the base of an active volcano, hiding from a storm in a small wooden shelter on the side of the path, watching the sea churn green, and spying rainbows forming on the side of the mountain. There was a Costa Rican moment – a stucco lookout house, abandoned, in the middle of the field, grass and jungle all ready to reclaim what was once theirs. I started to cry.
Today I look Japanese from the front. The woman checking us in looked straight at me, began in Japanese, and then, after spotting G, switched into broken English. I guess this is common here – Japanese woman, Western man. Every miscegenetic pairing here has that precise gender breakdown, perhaps caused by the fetishisation of Japan by the West and the fetishisation of the West by Japan. But everything the West has told me about Japan has turned out to be false. I wonder if we are also such a disappointment to the Japanese. How many of the Japanese-Gaijin marriages collapse after a few years when neither partner is able to live up to the ideal the other hemisphere projects.
We sit on our plane on the tarmac. As we begin to pull away, the air traffic controllers wave uncontrollably, like toddlers waving at Santa. I wave back. As the plane turns to ferry onto the runway, they bow, perfectly perpendicularly to the ground, a precise ninety degrees, for five seconds, I count, before snapping abruptly upright and walking away.
At the Kagoshima aquarium, a child runs up and with a force unexpected in a five year old, pushes me out of the way. His laissez-faire father figure mumbles Summimasen in my direction before moving to stand behind his demon spawn. Perhaps this is the same child on the children’s show we watched at Lydia’s house, a show with the ill-advised idea of having a mass of three year olds in an enclosed area, supposedly in an attempt to have them perform the actions of a variety of upbeat, psychologist approved, educational songs. Instead, most of the show consists of the children crying, wandering off to stand by themselves, and, in one memorable moment, a small boy forcibly pushing his comrades out of the way, using both his arms, making his way closer to the big, furry, animal whose purpose on the program I never did discern. This was in stark contrast to the only other toddlers we saw in Japan, two androgynous waifs by the rail station at the reclaimed land outside of Tokyo, strapped to their mother’s wrist by some sort of harness and leash, each one trying desperately to escape, running until their leashes were taught, and then falling over backwards, because of the force. The future of Japan laid out before our very eyes.