A Farewell to Japan
Surrounded by shining glass walls. Metal and flashing screens, colour and sound. Crowding in so close and so high you forget the size of the sky. Pasted up the sides are bright kanji – symbols pronouncing fun, food, fashion, all can be found on different floors.
Inside the beautiful structures is a small lift, buttons browned with use. It belongs in a dingy block of flats, not here. You can’t imagine anything of interest can exist with such a mode of transport. It stops, and you arrive. A bustling restaurant with people waiting to greet you. A vibrant gaming centre with beeps and flashes. A forest of owls with vending machine coffee. This is replicated, in every building. Inside each one are tiny lifts and tiny people, embarking on whatever pleasure they chose today. It spools out impossibly – all those floors, all those people, all those places.
Everywhere is an assault on the senses. Music, lights, symbols, movement, sound. On top of everything, there is always lettering. Watching the Winter Olympics, the screen was fringed with coloured kanji and exclamation marks. Posters plastering the walls of stations, trains. Always something to say.
In between, peaceful spaces of green, exactly ordered. The placement of a stone, a tree, a flower, a plant. The curve of water next to the fuzziness of grass. Stone lanterns placed in ordered rows, furred with moss. A precise peace.
Technology so prevalent you can read the temperature of your bathwater, heat your toilet seat, play a waterfall sound while you wee. Developed so early, some of the automation seems dated. The sign used to tell you when the bus is arriving is a flicking circle of plastic. The large bulky buttons on the cooker, the oversized ATM machines.
Extra touches here and there. The seat to put your child in while you go to the toilet, the umbrella racks and shoehorns outside each temple, the place to hang your cane while you withdraw money, the basket to stow your possessions while you eat.
The stillness and order of the people. Trains and buses are silent – no drinking, snacking, chatting, applying make-up. No swigging from bottles or biting on apples while walking down the street. The juxtaposition of such restraint with purple, red, green hair, cartoon-bright clothes and high platforms.
Everything so clean. Streets immaculate, fire engines gleaming as if they’ve never been used. They exist to shine. How can it be so clean when there are no bins to be seen anywhere?
Each place has its function. Streets for walking, trains for travelling, restaurants for eating. And at such a rate. At the standing noodle bar a man next to us ate his noodles in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Dipping them in a pot and inhaling them, the function of the moment to fill up the stomach, nothing more. In the time we sat, chatted and ate, four people came, finished and left.
Impossible to know what you’re eating from the menu, but outside, meticulously made bowls of plastic food beckon. Each detail rendered, even a fake splash of sauce on top of a fake sprinkling of spring onion. Where do they make this stuff?
The sacred mixing with the mundane. Curved temple grooves jutting between office blocks, people in business suits making offerings – coins, three claps, ring the bell, a twist of paper tied on a rope to please whichever deity inhabits this sacred space. Fortunes for sale. Love, success, traffic safety, beauty – all can be bought and written onto tablets or charms.
In smaller towns, wires are stung like webs over the rooftops. The ancient nudges aside the modern. Teaming markets jostle, unidentifiable vegetables (or is it a fruit?) heaped in piles. Steaming snack foods, green ice cream, baskets of dried things, pickled things, sweet things. Some are impossible to identify even after you’ve tried them.
In wooded spaces temples sit stoically, demanding silence. Wandering feet take you past carvings – cranes, lions, blossoms, dragons, buddhas, twelve generals and four gods, symbolism in each wave of the sword, grimace of the face.
When thirsty, there are racks of cold beer. Lemon, grapefruit, cherry, plasticine (well that’s what it tasted like) flavour. Your food will be overly wrapped – a packet inside another, inside another. Two carrier bags to take each item home. No visible recycling.
And our strangeness. Starkly white faces, two of only a few in the crowd. Of all the restaurants we ate in there was only ever once another baby. A foreigner, like us. How we searched for bins that weren’t there, ate bananas on the street when no-one else did, how slowly we ate our food and how quickly we wanted to cross the road.
Vibrant, overwhelming, delicious, tumultuous, energetic, calm, stylish and strange.
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