I paid my first ever visit to Japan last week; being there for a few days. Tokyo, to be precise. Land of (to my Western social and film media eyes) sumo wrestling, capsule hotels, Geisha, sushi and….probably a dozen other things. Sadly my earliest introduction to what Japan might be like was a combination of the Crichton book/Connery film “Rising Sun” and the otherwise excellent Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. It gave me a somewhat fictional view on what to expect.
When I landed back at Suvarnabhumi airport I was asked, “What was it like, eh?”
…I found I couldn’t answer it instantly. I found myself pausing and then asking myself: Truly, what was it like?
…and I eventually came up with the statement: “It was cultural marmite, with an exciting toilet system.”
When I first set off for Bangkok a year ago with my visions of Ferraro Rocher, “The Beach” and labouring under illusions of people who had a romanticized fifteen year old view of the city, it came as somewhat of a visual shock to find the street vendors selling food alongside stores with Waitrose products. I experienced auditory confusion hearing the whirr of ancient Singer sewing machines on the sidewalks buzzing in discordant harmonies with the air conditioning of Gucci and Prada, I sniffed at an olfactory miasma of both khlong and Jo Malone. Clearly the Western view was outdated, outmoded, out of…well…most things. Here was proof that cities around the world were rapidly becoming mega-clones. All of them led by the grinning face of the green queen herself – Starbucks. My trip to Hong Kong a couple of weeks back had proven exactly that to me…so it was with a jaunty air I flew on JAL out of Bangkok on my seven hour flight to Narita International Airport, making sure we banked around Taiwan (no idea why), with every expectation of finding the same sort of city.
In hindsight, my recent knowledge (via the History HD channel) that Japan was strongly insular, banning all foreigners from entering the country, until repealed in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, should have given me warning. Don’t get me wrong, I found the people extremely polite, courteous. I found the place clean, accessible, sanitised, curious. Yet, for all that, I was aware that order was very much part of the culture. Totally opposite to the heady swirl and chaos that Bangkok can give you. Bangkok is a city of smells, of noise, of jostling, of smiles, of meandering. Tokyo is all about clean lines, uniformity of expression and cloth, precision, accuracy. Everything has its place. All of which is fine. The only difference is that when you arrive in Tokyo you have to embrace Japanese culture and lifestyle. What’s wrong with that? you may ask.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
It was more a case of being caught off guard. I have come to realise that as much as I like Asia, I also like the fact I can retreat to my abode with a sandwich and coca cola from the nearby shop. I am privileged enough to indulge my cultural desires as much as possible, to saturate myself on day, dip my shivering toe on another. But…I can always have my Western comforts when my psyche needs them. If I want to go sit with my marmite sandwich and orange chocolate M&S biscuits and watch the farang world go by…then I can. But not in Tokyo. Whilst Starbucks was everywhere I realised quickly it seemed to be the only Western product with any grip on the market. Convenience stores were one of three: FamilyMart, 7-11, or Lawsons. Given they each herald (originally) from South Korea and the US respectively it was quickly apparent that their content had little to nothing to do with those countries. I struggled to find anything vaguely western food-wise. Maybe a snickers bar and two or three Sprites.
Of course, it’s easy to riposte Join the flow. Eat what they do. Experience it. But when you are tired, it’s 10pm and you just want something…then carrying out a experiential culinary voyage to locate a dish that suits your palate isn’t something you want to indulge in. Not that this is uncommon. I have always found new cuisine restaurants are best dealt with by getting the house special or going with someone who knows it far better than I. But you can’t exactly ask 7-11:
“Uh, what’s the house special?”, especially when they don’t speak a word of English. I’ve had that trouble in New York, believe me.
So, the reality is that the few western style sandwiches etc. in Starbucks are gone by 8am, mawed by ravenous foreigners who descend like furtive vultures attempting the quick step. An irony given Tokyo is full of restaurants. I’ve never seen such a high ratio of food stores to buildings. Anywhere. I spoke to several colleagues about this over lunch about this and they agreed. All of them hail either from the US or Europe, all of them are totally in love with Japan and its culture. And, they say, this is imperative. They all had Japanese partners, houses, even kids. They all said they understood what it felt like to leave Tokyo and crave to return to it. It is a place that gets under your skin, into your blood, becomes a habit you can never quite kick. In short, they love it. But…they had a common consensus which was that it was a “marmite country” in that you either like it or you don’t and you know that pretty instantly. There are no half measures, either embrace the culture wholly or realise it’s a holiday destination for you and no more. I understood that. It made sense. If I were to live here, then there would be no real chance to retreat to my pad and indulge in a bit of Western-style comforts. Mizo and sushi would replace chocolate digestive and cheddar. My colleagues had chosen the former; could I? I am not sure, to be honest. Give up cheese? I shudder to think of such a world.
Unfortunately, work meant I was unable to see much culture. I even arrived panting at the Imperial Palace Gardens to find they’d closed five minutes earlier. It looked imperious, imposing….inaccessible. So I contented myself with some sunset shots of the walls, moat and some of the manicured lawns. It looked fascinating and I hope to go back one day and get a proper look. That and a trip to Osaka which I am told is the real cultural capital of Japan.
Before I leave the land of marmite and honey, a word on the Japanese ablution system. It’s a technological marvel and (I’m told) a Right of every person. You gingerly divest yourself of your trousers, lower onto a warmed seat. Which is a nauseating feeling to a foreigner because it implies someone else has just vacated the place. At best it reminds you of Boazer’s toilet seat in the dead of winter (“Boy”, Roald Dahl).
Anyway, post urination or defecation (pick your fancy) you are given a multitude of options in order to “cleanse your buttocks with warm water”. The spray button results in a gurgling, gentlly soothing sense of comfort and warmth. The kind of thing that make you sigh and drift off into a world of blue skies and fluffly clouds (as my dearly departed grandmother would say). Of course, you can adjust the pressure from ‘butterfly caress’ to ‘”hang on, it’s Old Faithful!” bellows the bemused Floridian.’ Last, but by no means least in the pecking order, comes the “Powerful Deodorizer”. Just for extra deodorant. This isn’t something requiring you to contort yourself for armpit spraying; rather it fills the air with the unbearable lightness of jasmine, wafting your nostrils away into a delicate nirvana. Not bad, and, as you can see on the picture, only one typo. Luckily it doesn’t go as far as pictorial depiction, not quite like a Thai taxi which is refreshingly to the point…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?