Onsen (hot spring) Attendant: “Sorry, no enter”
Me:” Errr.. why?”
OA (pointing at the liberal sprinkling on my torso): “No tattoos”
Me: “…. Do I really look like I’m Yakuza?”
At which point I just ignored him and entered anyway. I then spent the next hour being pointed at and whispered about behind hands by the onsens other patrons, which when you’re naked is quite disconcerting let me tell you. Hello to my first few weeks in probably the only place in the world where people say I look like a gangster- the Land of the Rising Sun, 5.5M vending machines and 48 member pop groups. Yes I’m in Japan. Of course the quake/tsunami off Sendai has dominated the news since the weekend but just to prewarn you the email subject is Kyushu and Western Honshu rather than Eastern Honshu where the earthquake was. Whilst I’d love to recount a stirring tale of survival delivered in a hardy Corinthian style I would have to make it up, though I have written a bit about it. Also this one doesn’t have a U rating so you may wanna miss out the section after the Shinto shrines…
I began my Japanese travels in Kyushu, the Southernmost of the 4 main islands, Whilst much of the country is still covered in snow the climate down South is much more forgiving and after spending most of the last few months struggling with chopsticks as my hands were too cold to grip em properly it was appreciated being in a sunny climate. My southernmost stop was the breathtakingly sited city of Kagoshima. When you’re walking around the streets you get grit in your eyes and a film on your teeth- that’s because of the stuff the huge volcano Sakurajima spits out. It sits just 4km away and has been in a state of constant eruption for the last 65 years. In Napoli’s twin city everyone wears face masks, the city is covered in a fine level of black ash and as I kept looking up towards the peak at the latest rumble and smoke ejection I realized I’ve not been to many cities with a more amazing natural setting, your eyes kept getting drawn up to it yet it was a strangely relaxing place to be for a few days.
Volcanoes are a key feature of the landscape as Japan ranks only behind Indonesia in number of active ones though I was really gutted not to be able to hike the Kirishima route where you get to summit 5 active volcanoes in one day. However, one of them started erupting a few weeks ago so a huge area was closed off though I could see it and took a few photos from the train.
But whilst taking photos of the clouds erupting out of the volcano was great, seeing photos of a different type of cloud in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima will maybe live longer in the memory.
With hindsight Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the US during WWII seems a strange one as they had terrible supply routes (Japan has very few natural resources) and had no expectation of actually defeating their much bigger foe; merely hoping to form a better negotiating position to gain territory elsewhere in Asia. This policy obviously slowly backfired but Japans isolated geographical position left the US with a dilemma of how to end the war with a strategic advantage over the USSR. Whilst they knew Japan was slowly being defeated due to the whole ‘shame/losing face issue’ the Japanese simply wouldn’t surrender and with the defeat of Germany the fear was that the now free Russian army could simply move back to Siberia and mount an invasion of a near defenceless Japan. This could in theory have created a Red empire of a size that the Allies thought might be unmanageable; therefore the decision was made to drop the recently developed A-bomb, bring a quick end to the war and be able to dictate Japans future.
Most of central Hiroshima was destroyed but now has a very interesting feel to it with plenty of striking ‘60’s and ‘70’s concrete modernist buildings; they might not be to everyone’s taste but seeing the harshness of the lines of the Peace museum or the Cathedral it felt a strangely appropriate way to commemorate the city’s destruction. It’s a tragic period of human history and some of the exhibits in the excellent museum were pretty shocking. Some of the photos of burn victims and their subsequent health problems were difficult to look at but the personal accounts of how people lost their loved ones especially parents recalling their children slowly dying unimaginably painful deaths from Black Rain will probably remain with me longer.
However, on a grey, rainy day I found much less visited Nagasaki sadder and I’d maybe rate the 2nd A bomb as one of the US’s lowest moments. Nagasaki is a small but interesting place as it was the only port allowed to trade with the rest of the world (restricted to China and Holland as the Japanese didn’t trust Catholics!) for several centuries and subsequently became the centre of Christianity in Japan. Even now it very strongly retains a small town feel, it’s spread out over a number of coastal hills punctuated by gorgeous Shinto shrines and for various reasons was an odd place to hit. It’s in an isolated spot and didn’t have all that much heavy industry; a long way from anywhere else it was bombed only by accident as the first target of Kokura was too cloudy on the bombing day. Inexplicably Truman gave the order to bomb the city even though it had a 250 man Allied POW camp and with Japan already having signaled it was going to have to surrender most scholars agree the decision to launch was done almost exclusively as a warning to the USSR for the years ahead. The 2 bombs had a similar death toll (initially 75,000 rising to 150,000 with the after effects) whilst the first bomb could be justified as a means to end the war, akin to Dresden the death and destruct ion caused by the Nagasaki attack just seemed a cruel and largely pointless punishment to inflict on the defeated population.
Japan cut itself off from the world for a long time and its isolated island position means that it developed as something of a cultural Galapagos, not having all that much in common with even China or Korea. It occupies an unusual perhaps unique position in that despite having one of the most distinctive cultures in the world and pretty much everyone having awareness and opinions on it, due to the cost/distance of getting here very few people actually make it. As a result it’s an extremely rewarding place to visit and as I’ve walked around Japanese cities I’ve found myself noting lots of things as being very different, for the most part in a good way.
One of the things I’ve really loved so far about Japan are the aesthetics of the place and the sense of visual stimulation you feel just from wandering around and looking at things. From more obvious imaginative areas like the manga comics/cartoons and the tranquil gardens to more mundane things like apartment buildings the Japanese have an uncanny ability to make nearly everything look interesting. On a human level the Japanese are super trendy too and when not in their regulation work suits everyone seems to have their own personal sense of style which they don’t mind flaunting. Whilst it’s not something I normally pay too much attention to I’ve really noticed and loved the clothes people wear here. The schools uniforms are fantastic, boys start off wearing Donald Duck style tops and shorts even in Winter before graduating to handsome tunics with brass buttons all the way up that the likes of Dr. Sun Yat Sen would have looked good in. In contrast the girls start with full length skirts then just seem to grow without changing them so by the time they’re 16 you can see why camera phones have to make that ‘click’ noise, but more on that later.
Perhaps the most distinctive item of Japanese clothing is the Kimono and they really are gorgeous to look at, they tend to be in soft rather than bright colours and will normally have the beautiful nature designs on the obi (sash) on their back. Whilst younger women only tend to wear them on special occasions unfortunately its quite a common sight to see older women wearing them on the street and it’s certainly the most flattering way I’ve seen to grow old gracefully.
I’ve also really appreciated the more low key style of the Shinto shrines here. After having seen my fair share of temples on this trip I was ‘templed out’ as they say but rather than the stunning images of Buddhist or Hindu temples, Shinto shrines are much more understated and I’ve grown to love seeing em again. They tend to be made of wood and use white and black more frequently than bright colours ,also as they’re usually built to Japans geography ie on forested hillsides or on prominent coastal locations they’re both very photogenic and fit in much better with the natural landscape than religious buildings normally do.
But whilst some things are of a good difference some are better filed under the weird and definitely the area where this has been most noticeable these first few weeks is in the representation of sex and the sex industry generally….
Different countries in Asia occupy extremes in this area; despite being home to the Karma Sutra India as a country would have to have the most hypocritical attitude towards sex I’ve seen. Everyone from the government to the media to ordinary people there seem to believe Indians somehow have higher moral standards about it than Westerners and that everyone’s a virgin til they’re married etc. Yeah right.
In reality though, even ‘quality’ newspapers like ‘The Times of India’ for example will show photos of Bollywood starlets looking very beautiful and elegantly dressed on page 3 but on page 13 will, every day have a gratuitous photo of someone like Kelly Brook or Paris Hilton in a bikini. Similarly the IPL (Indian Premier League) has scantily clad cheerleaders but one of the conditions is that they have to be brought in from overseas. In other words it’s fine to use sex to sell… as long as it’s white not Indian women.
The genders don’t mix at all and there’s definitely no sex education so Indian men are the most immature you couldn’t hope to meet. As a white bloke they seemed to view me as some sort of oracle and way, way too often I found myself in a decent convo with blokes as old as 30something about cricket or similar when they would start asking the most inappropriate and often disgusting questions about sex. I realized my shoulders hunched in and my body involuntarily started forming into a defensive ‘ball shape’ as 200 decibel klaxons went off in my head whenever this happened telling me to ‘abort’ and leave immediately. Ultimately though I’m a bloke so could ignore it but just about every female traveler to the subcontinent has a canon of truly foul stories of things the men said or tried to do to them. Definitely one of the most negative aspects of traveling in India.
Much better was in the stricter Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Tibet or Bhutan where, preoccupied with getting off the wheel the people gave off a pleasing aura of being above it all. A ‘Yes we’re aware of it. And….so what?’ kind of attitude... There’s no media obsession with it and people definitely don’t talk about it but in a much more relaxed way than you’d find in Muslim countries for example.
Whilst Thailand and The Philippines are rightly famous for the prostitution and ‘sex pats’ etc culture and you’re confronted with it in lots of places and situations in Asia they’ve been the exceptions. Until I got to Japan and now I just don’t know what to think.
This place is weird, weird, weird. Various international studies show that Japanese couples have less sex than all other major nationalities but some of the stuff you see here is way beyond the pale of what passes for mainstream elsewhere.
Japan has the worlds biggest porn industry, which is fine but maybe as much as 1/3 of it isn’t actually human based (I thought that was the point) but sukebe or manga porn. Even convenience stores will have a wide selection of manga porn that goes off into all these strange subgenres and it’s seemingly un-taboo to display it in public. It’s a testament to just how weird Japan is that the strongest memory of my first few weeks here isn’t seeing the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima, aftermath of the quake or erupting volcanoes but seeing the middle aged suited salaryman bloke in front of me on a train reading a sukebe magazine where most of the content seemed to be bestiality set in space. You’ve probably heard of used schoolgirls panties sold in vending machines- well that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what else is on sale (used shoes, water bottles etc). There’s a TV show where girls lose their virginity live on air and they have quite incredible establishments called ‘no pan kissa’ bars which have floors made of mirrors and the waitresses don’t wear underwear. And if you pay extra you can lie down on the floor.
Unsurprisingly whilst all that’s bemusing/amusing there’s a much darker side to it too. As the high profile Lucy Blackman and even creepier Lindsay Hawker cases showed to the West, ritualistic sexual murders happen a bit too frequently here and the country has a very high domestic violence rate. Another strange Japanese practice are the ‘mizuage’ collectors, these are basically men who collect girls virginities as a character explicitly explains in Memoirs of A Geisha if you’ve read it. They normally go to South East Asia and bribe the parents of peasants to sell their daughters as they believe it gives them powers of reinvigoration and longevity. Of course.
In parts of Japan the age of consent is as low as 13 and it’s quite staggering how institutionalized paedophilia is here, you can buy magazines of kids (and I mean 7 or 8yrs) in their underwear and you may have heard of the long established practice of compensated dating. This is where men will pay schoolgirls to go on dates with them and there have been various scandals where teachers have made some extra money on the side pimping out their students. As with many Asians the Japanese don’t talk about social problems and ignore them rather than accepting they exist but it really is quite shocking to most foreigners what goes on here and is something the country has to tackle.
After leaving Hiroshima I headed onto the lovely city of Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan (or East Sea for the Koreans amongst you) which is where nuclear problems of another type began. As my Mum noted afterwards via the No of ‘Are you OK? Emails she’s had to send me I’ve travelled a seemingly disaster proof route on this trip. I’ve managed to narrowly avoid: flooding and a typhoon in Taiwan, more floods, a typhoon and a volcanic eruption in the Philippines, 4 earthquakes and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia and even the long running political protests in Thailand. And once again I got lucky in Japan-whilst coming from a country that effectively doesn’t have natural disasters I should feel lucky but I guess that’s simply life on the Ring of Fire.
I did feel the quake and several subsequent aftershocks (or at least I think I did) but at the time even though the house I was in was shaking and my feet started going from under me I thought it was just an abnormally loud thunder clap- frankly it may well have been. Whilst Col. Gaddafi and even the Japanese PM (he was on the point of being forced to resign over taking a big ‘donation’) were probably pleased the quake has dominated the news so much this one definitely wasn’t ‘the Big One’ or daijishin as it’s called here. A major fault runs SW of Tokyo (the March 11 quake struck in the sea NE of Tokyo) and historically there’s been a quake every 60 yrs on average on that fault, the last major one was in 1923 so it’s now 20yrs overdue. When that hits then in a city of 36M you probably would be counting the dead in 6 figures rather than the 4 or low 5s that have been predicted from this incident which struck a relatively unpopulated 4% of the countrys land mass.
It’s been oft remarked in the news coverage that the Japanese are better prepared for a disaster than probably any other country and I think that’s true on several levels. They’re sufficiently rich that they can build quake proof structures and coping systems which poorer countries can only dream of eg compare the death/damage count from the ’10 quake in Haiti with this one. More than that though the Japanese are phlegmatic if nothing else; in the deeply held Japanese desire of doing things for the common rather than individual good people won’t panic, there’s barely a trace of self pity and it’s difficult to see how the hysteria that took off after Hurricane Katrina (which was a much smaller disaster) for example would happen here. Much of the reason for that and one thing that really has been apparent is how differently the local media reports things versus international sources; I watched some of the local coverage with a half Japanese half American girl who translated the reports and the difference in language used is remarkable. As one of the ills of modern rolling news coverage/internet blogging etc. international sources have been guilty of over-sensationalising reports by exaggerating danger levels and using gratuitously emotive language, in contrast the Japanese reports urge people not to panic buy resources, to follow local government advice and focuses mainly on giving out information on what’s happening rather than focusing on more eyecatching stories. Western crisis reports tend to show a fast and noisy montage of images of the disaster which just hasn’t been the case here, it’s all done using much more measured language and just generally gives the impression of the situation being brought slowly under control. For example one of the reports from the BBC showed people running in Tokyo station and the commentary described it as “… people frantically dashing for trains South to escape the possibility of a nuclear fallout”. Well, I was there about the same time and yes some people were running for trains but in a giant commuter station at rush hour that will happen. If anything people seemed remarkably unbothered, indulging in the Japanese metro pastimes of dozing and playing with their mobiles. Rather than contemplating the incoming apocalypse.
Far and away the biggest downside of the quake for me was not getting to meet my friend George, he’d been living in Tokyo for the last few months but was 100km NE of the city ie nearer the quake epicenter when it hit. He really did have an adventure and unfortunately found himself sufficiently traumatized that he preferred to fly home rather than stay in Japan any longer. This was really gutting as aside from not being able to see my first familiar face in a year it left me with fairly unclear plans for the next few days. However I’ve got across Honshu with no problems and tomorrow I’m gonna do the opposite of FCO advice and go see “how they live in Tokyo”. There have been powercuts in the last couple of days and daily aftershocks but I don’t think I’m gonna start glowing.
So after that rather disparate set of issues I’ll try and be a bit more normal next time,