Episode 01: Posmicity
Where to start!? A week of total immersion in a culture
that I've read so much about but am now experiencing for the
first time. Tied down by work and jet lag, I've only had
the time to explore the polar opposites of Asakusa (featuring
the Sensooji Temple) and Shinjuku (featuring, well, Shinjuku),
but here are a few notes from along the way.
Tokyo is not just a city, it's the citiest of them all.
The expression "concrete jungle" must have originally
referred to Tokyo, with its suspended expressways floating
in air, endless houses tied up in vines of electric and
phone cables, growths of neon and TV antennas sprouting
everywhere, and worker ants scurrying about. The constrast
between new and old is omnipresent: the west side of
Shinjuku is straight out of the next century (an overused
phrase, but here it's true), but hidden between the monolithic
skyscrapers you can find tiny lush shrines whose design has gone
unchanged for millenia and even noodle stands which probably
looked exactly the same a few hundred years ago.
The sheer size of Tokyo & surroundings is hard to comprehend,
even though I've lived in another metropolis of almost equal
size (New York). But while New York was divided into islands,
Tokyo is in the middle of a plain with houses extending in
all directions as far as the eye can see, even from the top
of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gov't Office skyscrapers in Shinjuku.
While Tokyo is actually less crowded than I imagined (and this
includes rush hour in the subways), there is a constant stream
of people everywhere all the time.
Over 20 million of them, so even though most are short,
dark-haired and dressed in conservative suits, the few who
are not truly stand out. The occasional woman in an exquisite
kimono, the rebellious youth with dyed hair, even the countless
subway workers in their bizarre green velvet jackets.
To the Western eye so many jobs seem pointless: the people
who wave flags in front of road construction sites,
the elevator operators, the concierges whose sole function is
to bow to people coming and going... but even the
floor sweepers and janitors, lowest of the low in most of the
world, seem to take pride in their work.
Outside person? That's what it means and that's what I am
here, a lumbering giant. I'm used to getting stared at
whenever I travel outside Scandinavia, but what surprised
me here is the way people react: people are not scared or
suspicious, they're curious and -- most of all -- amused.
Amused? Yup: although, polite as they are, no Japanese will
ever stare at me if I can see them, behind my back people
will smile and giggle. And I can see why. How would you
react if your new next door neighbor was 3 meters tall and
had a shock of hair in a totally unnatural color like green?
Food is incredible. As long as you've got a few yen jangling
in your pocket you will not starve here: every single street
in the vicinity of a larger road or train station has rows
and rows of ramen, soba, yakitori, gyudon, tempura, sushi,
you-name-it stands, delicious aromas wafting in the air.
Even the instant noodles here are of a totally different caliber
than the pathetic Thai YumYum packages sold elsewhere.
There is, of course, a (very literal) price to pay for this.
Tokyo is immensely expensive. 100 yen is 5 FIM, but you have
to quickly stop thinking about everything in marks, or you
will regularly find yourself outraged by the 300 yen liter
of orange juice (15 FIM!), the 150 yen for 6 slices of toast
(8 FIM!), and so on. A bargain in Tokyo is something that
costs less than twice the Finnish price, like the subway
(160-320 JPY) or eating out (400-1000 JPY for lunch).
Japanese is difficult. For the first few days, I wandered about
in daze, but now I've started to notice that my reading ability
is steadily increasing and I've even had a few multi-line
conversations. Surprisingly, people always understand what
I say, but I only manage to comprehend about 50% of what they say
to me; however, this 50% (plus non-verbal language) is usually
sufficient for, say, discussing the price of umbrellas.
But one thing is absolutely true: the polite desu/masu-forms
we've learned are useless here. Sure, if I was a businessman
they might be of use, but as a lowly student I talk only
to friends as equal -- using the plain forms -- or to clerks
etc. as superior -- in which case I use plain and they use
incomprehensibly honorific language. (Or they should: most
younger folks don't.)
And what is Posmic? Another wonderful product in the country
that brought you Krunky, Creap, Calpis, Apple Doo-Doo, Pocari
Sweat and even Tiny Flower toilet slippers ("in a state of
naturally"). As a roommate astutely pointed out, the use
of words of English in advertising is most probably inversely
correlated to the amount of English they actually speak...
I think I've rambled enough for this week. Stay tuned!
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