You know you're in Japan when...
...you pay 64000 JPY (3200 FIM) for a 6-month subway pass.
...a TV ad by a major company ends in the slogan "For The Very Future".
...stores sell "Perky Bits(tm)"-brand chicken nuggets.
Deconstruction? Yup, because destruction & construction are what made
Tokyo what it is today. Due to an neverending string of earthquakes,
bombings, floods and fires most Japanese buildings were (and are)
designed to last no longer than 30 years. You'd expect this to
mean that architecture would be pretty utilitarian and dull, and
for most part it is, although it leads to quite a few pyramid-shaped
buildings. But in Tokyo, due to the immense price of land,
buildings (which until recently were all mostly two stories high)
have started reaching for the sky. First in Shinjuku, which is
supposedly more stable during earthquakes, but now just about
everywhere. And some of the results of these pressures are
formidable: not only the gargantuan monoliths of Shinjuku,
but immense halls like the New Tokyo International Forum or
absolutely surreal spectacles like the Edo-Tokyo Museum in
Ryougoku, which is suspended in mid-air by four pillars and
looks more than slightly like a Walker in Star Wars. Internally
impressive as well, one of the many events documented in the museum
is the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 -- I, for one, have serious
doubts about the building's ability to withstand the next Big One.
But as the Lonely Planet states, the ultimate architectural
spectacle in Tokyo is the Shuto Expressway, winding its way
under and over the city in 4 layers on top of each other at best.
Japan is an automated society. For breakfast, I usually make some
toast in the combined toaster/microwave, where I press the "Toosuto"-
button for automated heating and toasting (calibrated by weight).
Unless I eat a Japanese breakfast, which always contains rice made
by the automated rice cooker. On my way to work, walking thru
Shiroganedai, I pass by at least a dozen vending machines, selling hot
and cold drinks, snacks, beer, phone cards, etc. In the subway
station, I buy my ticket from a machine, insert it into a machine
for checking, and consult the automated display for arriving trains.
In the train another electronic screen shows our progress,
announces upcoming stations, transfers and exit doors. If I'm
running low on cash, I'll stop at the ATM, into which you can also
deposit money (even coins!). And if I decide to perform Honorable
Hand-Washing when I get to the office, a press of a button on the
toilet seat spins out a fresh paper guard to protect my honorable
rear end from the terribly inhygienic barbarian toilet seat.
(Yes, I have tried the Japanese hole-in-the-floor squat toilet.
No, I did not like it.)
My Japanese is making progress. On Thursday, I managed an extended
(we're talking almost 10 complete sentences!) telephone conversation,
where I successfully managed to instruct the person at the other
end to take a message for a certain person, with my personal data,
telephone number and a request to call me back. No mean feat, this:
on the telephone body language is useless, so meaning is conveyed
entirely by speech. And making any complex request in Japanese
is quite tricky, due to the special verb constructs needed.
It'll be a while until I learn to instantly spin off sentences like
"chotto dengon wo kaite kurenai?" and "denwa shimatte moraitai n da
kedo..." on the fly.
Little by little, I'm grinding my way through the wheels of Japanese
society and getting myself established here. I now have the
aforementioned subway pass, I just got my Mitsubishi bank card
(decked with multi-colored sparkly Aladdin holograms), I've signed
my covenants to IAESTE (all 8[!] copies), my Alien Registration is
being processed but at least I have my Notification of Designated
Period for Delivery of Alien Registration Certificate (direct quote),
and -- above all -- I've purchased my very own bag of rice. Most
locals probably plow their way through a 5-kg bag in a week, but
this dietary staple still costs a uniform 500 JPY (25 FIM) per kilo.
Even potatoes (such an exotic vegetable here that I once had them
served to me as dessert, covered in chocolate sauce) cost less,
but oddly enough just the thought of Finnish food is revolting.
Potatoes, sausages, impenetrable sauces, bleargh... it will be a
(very) long time until I get bored of Japanese fare. My supermarket
shopping lists are interesting here: "buy seaweed, dried tuna flakes,
buckwheat noodles, sweetened sake, soybean paste..."
Time feels strange. I've only been here for a week and a half, but
Finland feels thousands of miles away... which I suppose it is.
6 months manages to both seem like an eternity and like only a snap
of the fingers, whenever I am out in Japan (that is, not at work or
at home) I get the unmistakable feeling of being a tourist and
that this is all just a dream that will end very soon -- but it won't!
But Japan is such an immense place that even 6 months will not
suffice for anything more than a cursory examination of Tokyo and
environs, what about all the rest? One interesting possibility has
come my way: in Sado-ga-Shima, up in northern Honshu, there will
be the "Earth Celebration '98" festival in mid-May. It's a three-day
event of taiko drumming, native music, without a doubt a goa party or
seventeen, and lots more. The only problem is the cost, since based
on my quick calculations it'd be around 50000 JPY minimum, at least if
I go by Shinkansen. But hey, you only live once!
On Saturday, on an extended stroll along the Aoyama-Harajuku-Shibuya
axis, in the Meiji-Jingu shrine I was distracted by a faint but
unmistakable bassdrum. Homing in on this beacon (which was along
my planned path anyway), I ended up in Yoyogi-koen park watching
maybe a dozen Japanese people grooving to a DJ blasting out
truly sugoi detroit on a funky PA system built into a concrete
arch over a stage. Just I was gathering up the courage (and
Japanese phrases) to go talk to them, two of them beat me to the
punch. In a mix of English and Japanese lines of communication
were established, and as soon as they discovered that I was mostly
harmless the whole crew gathered around to interrogate the gaijin.
The only girl in the group also had the best command of English,
so basically we talked and she interpreted everything back to the
others. It turned out that I was lucky, they only have these
sessions once every few months due to the prohibitive cost (10000+
JPY/hour). In the end, I was personally invited to a small party
of theirs next Thursday in Roppongi. I have work on both Thursday
and Friday, but first things first... =)
Spring has arrived (24 deg C since Friday) and the cherry trees are
starting to bloom! TV announcers are already going into hysterics
and by next weekend it'll be time for hanami.
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