A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Kanto and Kansai

Hello for the 2nd time in Japan where this email contains some good and some bad about the country but definitely nothing ugly- aesthetics play such a key role in Japanese culture that seemingly nothing ever looks bad. From the buildings to the people to the environment even manhole covers, everything seems to look gorgeous in Japan. My, it’s weird too but with its cultural uniqueness I’ve found it utterly captivating, thought provoking and left me definitely quite enamored with the place.

In the aftermath of the previous week’s earthquake/tsunami the Rising Sun at the Imperial Palace was at a somber half-mast and with an aftershock a day the world’s largest city was very quiet during my time there, even the world’s busiest railway station (Shinjuku) and the famous Shibuya street crossing were fairly muted. The neon signs which form such an important part of the city’s iconography were turned off to save electricity although I was most disappointed at both the J-League and baseball games being cancelled L.

The city doesn’t have a center as such but half a dozen skyscraper clad neighborhoods which were mesmerizing to wander round and view the various elements that make Tokyo one of the most dynamic urban experiences in the world.

Whilst the bay, fashionable shopping streets and the imaginative red light district were all great I think the otaku (boy geeks) and otome (girl geeks)areas in Akihabara aka ‘electric town’ will live longest in the memory. Otaku roughly means something like ‘geekery’ and for this Tokyo is the world capital; it’s another great journey into the peculiarly Japanese brand of weird as you shop in 10 story department stores filled with nothing but comics, collectible figures and a bewildering array of gadgets.

I found the cosplay (costume play) actors more interesting to look at though; basically these are kids aged between say 13 and 25 who dress up in a variety of outfits like maids and nurses. Often this is just a way for them to show off, as with the posing ‘Goth Lolitas’ (really, that’s what they’re called) but mainly it’s used as a novel way of selling stuff and attracting attention to a store. Probably the most famous type are the maid/butler cafes where in taking the Japanese politeness/submissiveness fetish a bit far the boys/girls wander round paying you insincere compliments whilst they serve you tea and cake. As frequently happened in Japan I found the over attentiveness a bit unsettling (you get a “Hello and Welcome”! in convenience stores and even public toilets) but the settings were even worse. Whilst most of them understandably sport Alice in Wonderland style designs, on the ceiling of one of the cafes in the otome district they had a huge poster of a pair of half-naked male manga characters in a homoerotic pose. Welcome to Japan.

Global top level cuisine has apparently undergone something of a revolution when Michelin discovered Japan a few years ago, very quickly they realized that the whole rating system had to be rethought as Japanese food is so good, now remarkably both Tokyo and the Kansai conurbation have more starred restaurants than London, New York and Paris combined. All that was obviously way out of my price range but I did get to see plenty of strange ‘foods’ or perhaps ‘things being eaten’ would be a better description which has been a theme throughout Asia.

When it comes to meat Asians are much less wasteful than Westerners using every possible part of the the usual suspects as well as other Asian staples like snake and dog as you get used to seeing people tucking into things like pigs ears or a dogs hindquarters. However, they also don’t seem to have qualms eating well, virtually anything, put it this way there’s a Chinese joke that goes “What’s the only thing with 4 legs a Chinaman won’t eat? A table.”

In the Philippines the national delicacy is called balut which is a fertilized duck egg which according to the diners preference is eaten at different stages of embryonic development though the practice of sedating monkeys, slicing the top of their scalps off then eating their brains with a spoon (whilst the monkey’s still living) has to rank as one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of but that’s The Philippines. In SE Asia they’re really into their insects with the usual suspects like grasshoppers as well as things silkworm cocoons eaten not at all infrequently. In East Asia the food has got even stranger as despite Japan’s best efforts to empty them of life the food mainly comes from the sea, even if it’s dangerous. The Japanese love eating the poisonous fugu and as one particularly memorable scene in Oldboy showed Koreans love eating sannakji or baby octopus that’s still alive. Now and again people die as the still moving tentacles cause them to suffocate- they can’t really have too many complaints though eh? They also love their sea cucumbers and various other anemone type things, in their bright purple, orange and blue colors it definitely reminded me of the Jonathan Swift quote about the first man to eat an oyster must have been very brave. In Japan one of the most common ways to eat out are in izukayas where bars serve food in a tapas style. You see some amazing things in the most normal neighborhood bars, aside from the bee larvae and shirouo no odorigui (the tadpole like almost creepy ‘dancing ice fish’, again eaten live) probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen eaten is shiroko which appetizingly enough is the sperm sack of male fish.

Truly vomit inducing –I’m fairly confident I will never eat meat.

Moving on there’s a theory that you can tell how civilized a country is by the size of its middle class, and by this measure Japan stands right up there alongside the Scandinavian countries as one of the most civilized in the world. Between the end of WWII and 1990 the Japanese economic model was rampantly successful and I’d personally rate it as the best system in the world at the time. There is a long held policy of big companies like Mitsubishi known as kereitsus having business interests in lots of different areas(banking, manufacturing etc). They’ve been implicitly backed by government in a variety of ways (loans, tax rates etc.) with the goal of creating full employment and being the mainstay of an economy based on export led growth.

Unlike in the UK for example, in Japan when companies made a profit, instead of adopting a ‘quick, give it to the shareholders’ approach Japanese companies consistently reinvested most of the profits back into the company. This allowed the famously creative R&D divisions in areas like electronics or automobiles to flourish and meant that despite the drubbing it received in WWII for the next 40 years or so it was probably the most successful country in the world. With the goal of doing things for ‘the greater good’ the government has also retained control of and (note to Margaret Thatcher) crucially, invested in the magnificent railways, post office and efficient welfare system . Altogether this has meant Japan developed into a country where financially at least next to no-one is left behind and virtually everyone is middle class. In a great change from other Asian countries you hardly ever see either needlessly flashy cars nor homelessness, crime or other poverty related problems. On a personal level I’d place it as Exhibit A on why fettered or managed capitalism is the best system to run a society. When you consider the size of the population and the variety of environments which make up the country it really is a phenomenal achievement.

By 1990 in terms of its economy or infrastructure Japan had achieved the goal of the worlds most developed or advanced country… but about this point the overheated economy led to the bubbles on the stock and housing markets to pop and the economy has struggled to grow ever since. The country has spent most of the last 20 years vainly trying to retake their preeminent place in the world economy but I think the time would have been better spent in trying to change the work/life balance of their lives.

Living in one of the most formal and pressurized cultures in the world may have brought them success financially but as the infamous suicide rate will attest it does cause other problems. There’s a Japanese saying that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and in a culture where conformity is nearly everything it appears people aren’t given enough freedom to develop emotionally in their own way and consequently the Japanese struck me as an uptight and generally unhappy people.

One thing I did find difficult about Japan and which nearly every foreign visitor to Japan remarks on is how little attention you get; not exactly an extroverted bunch in 5 weeks just one person tried to speak to me and I’ve certainly not been anywhere where I’ve fitted in less but to no interest whatsoever from the locals aside from when it’s their job e.g. shop assistants.

But then I realized that the Japanese are like this with everyone, whilst Londoners are rightly criticized for living in a bubble i.e. we only speak to people we know Tokyoites are about as unemotional as is possible. On the Metro they barely seem to breathe let alone talk and any eye contact they accidentally make with anyone will last either 0.1 or 0.2 seconds. Whilst the bows and smiles are an inherent part of the formalities they observe, natural laughter and easy jokes isn’t really the way here and it continues the theme in Asia of people in richer countries being less friendly/happy than in the poorer ones.

During this trip I’ve been forced to think quite a lot about what makes people happy; it’s been educating seeing people in very poor countries like India or Nepal being very happy but at the same time richer populations like the Taiwanese or Singaporeans are visibly much less content with their lot. The challenging and slightly uncomfortable conclusion I’m trending towards is that in Asia at least the more religious people are the happier they seem to be. In somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore far and away the people with the lowest quality of life are the Filipino women brought in as maids and nannies for wealthy local families as they work tedious backbreaking jobs 6 days a week only to send 80% of their wages back home to their families. However, on Sundays they have their day off and the public parks in those places become a party scene as they noisily chat, eat and sing with a sense of effervescence that the gimlet eyed locals looking on can only dream of.

Whether it’s Christianity in The Philippines, Hinduism in India or Buddhism in several countries despite having far fewer life opportunities and a low material quality of life the populations in those countries seem significantly happier and friendlier than in more secular places like China.

In this sense Japan is no different from their other wealthy neighbors and the last 20years maybe represent something of a missed opportunity to change the setup of the country somewhat.

Like most of their fellow Asians the Japanese work unbelievably hard but whilst I understand this work ethic in developing countries in Japan it now seems unnecessary as they enjoy (and have done so for some time) one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world. One morning bleary eyed I got on a train at 6am on a Sunday to see kids on their way to cramming school as even they’re expected to do 15+hr days at least 6 days a week. One student I met said she did 35hrs waitressing in a restaurant as a part time job whilst she went to college by day! And they receive just 5 days holiday a year- it’s insane! The situation seems to be that people have plenty of money to spend on an unnecessary level of comfort with the expensively wrapped food, designer clothes and toilet seat heaters yet don’t have enough time to spend with their families and friends. As a result they’re emotionally very cold and seemingly not too enamored with the situation, I think if they had a more European i.e. relaxed style approach to work and the personal development of the individual the economy would still be OK but their quality of life would be much, much better than it currently is and consequently they’d maybe be happier.

And as Richard Littlejohn agrees (so it must be true) there is a darker side to the Japanese too; due to their treatment of POWs during WWII Japan did terrible damage to their reputation in countries like the UK or Australia. However, amongst their fellow Asians the Japanese are truly detested. Many Western countries have superiority complexes and Asia’s no different, Thais, Chinese and certainly Koreans are guilty of it but worldwide even Israelis might come second to the Japanese. Throughout the early 20th century when they built their empire in Manchuria and Korea through WWII in SE Asia their barbaric treatment of the local populations will simply not be forgotten or forgiven. The Indian freedom fighter Chandra Bose enlisted Japanese help to train his men to fight against the British but after a couple of months had to abandon the plan as the Japanese treated the Indians ‘like animals’ and were far worse than anything they suffered under the British. They destroyed virtually all of Koreas cultural heritage but most famously in 1937 China suffered the so called Rape of Nanking where high command instructed Japanese troops to massacre between 200,000-300,000 the local population and rape around 50,000 of the city’s women for essentially no military gain. Even now hotels in China have signs up saying ‘No Japanese allowed’ and whilst to be fair Japanese Prime Ministers have made various apologies over the years and give very generous financial aid, their annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Jinja shrine to honor Japans war dead- among them 14 Class A war criminals means relations with their neighbors are perennially frosty.

At 127million people Japan is the 10th biggest country in the world yet only around 1% of the country isn’t pure Japanese and the rest are Chinese or Korean so ethnic diversity there ain’t. But this is starting to cause problems; most developed countries have an ageing population problem but Japans is the worst in the world. With a fertility rate of 1.3 only Italian women have less children but Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world (a whopping 86 for women) meaning that under current predictions by around 2040 just 40% of the population will be paying for everyone. One of the easiest ways to improve this position is by bringing in lots of immigrants (eg the UK) as they have more children but in Japan it’s difficult to see that ever being adopted. About 8yrs ago the unusually flamboyant prime minister Junichiro Koizumi tentatively floated the idea of introducing an immigration policy for the first time in the countrys’ history but despite the logic of this plan it was absolutely shot down by both the opposition and the general public. Whilst they’ll grant 2 year visas to English teachers or Pinoy cleaners/prostitutes the idea of them settling down, having families and becoming a long term part of the ‘Japanese’ population seems unacceptable for the country at this stage, despite the damaging implications this has for both their economy and ability to evolve as a society.

Whilst just about every other developed country have accepted their position and responsibilities in the global village to take in asylum seekers etc. Japan seems unwilling to do so, content in their own world. In its desire to remain firmly ‘Japanese’ a strong vein of xenophobia surfaces and foreigners can never fit in; however this in itself creates a truly unique feel to the place and makes it a fascinating, alien culture and society to observe.

Japan is often described as a ‘2 paced country’ and if Tokyo represents the side running into the future then the old capital Kyoto and the nearby even older capital of Nara represent much of the Japan which remains rooted in tradition. It is a quite amazing place, with over 2,000 temples and dozens of World Heritage Sites there are more ‘sights to see’ than any other city in Asia and like Rome it’s one of those wonderful spots where people live around 1,000yr+ old buildings as an integral irreplaceable part of the city. In the national rebuilding of the country after WWII most urban planners had an affair with the wrecking ball so most Japanese cities including Tokyo possess few buildings which were built earlier than about 1960. However, for several centuries Kyoto was the nations’ capital and whilst it eventually lost political and economic status to Tokyo it stands as the country’s historical and religious heartland.

The rectangle shaped city is bordered on 3 sides by forested mountains and in building nearly all of the biggest wooden structures in the world the architects had the usual Japanese knack of gloriously incorporating the natural environment into the designs. It very much represents the Japan of the imagination as I spent days exploring the city’s shrines built onto the cyrptomeria lined hillsides with my favorite one being the torii covered Fushimi Inari. Based on a set of mountain shrines are several KMs worth of walking paths, not unusual in itself but virtually every step of the way is done underneath a bright vermilion tori (entrance gate to a Shinto shrine) to leave literally thousands all over the mountain. Dotted around are statues of foxes (symbol of good luck) which would be fine but they’re open mouthed with their fangs bared and designed to look scary, you’re allowed to walk the paths at night and catching sight of one in the lamplights is a pretty scary almost supernatural sight. A much more pleasant nocturnal memory is the infamous geisha distract of Gion, it’s simultaneously a very old fashioned yet very lively neighbourhood. In early evening you can still see the glamorous ones shuffling round in their mesmeric kimonos en route to their evening engagements and in the twilight along the river it’s a pretty enchanting sight in a magical place.

I got my timing very right and very wrong in Japan, the Winter lasts quite late so I decided not to visit Northern Honshu and Hokkaido as all the national parks, including most guttingly Mount Fuji were still closed. Having said that visiting in the school holiday month of March meant I could get a rail pass which single handedly made the country affordable. Since the beginning of the economic crisis the Yen has been stronger than Mariusz Pudzianowski as all the banks abandoned the Dollar, Euro and Pound. After the quake/tsunami its value went even higher to its record level so trying not to empty my account has been ‘challenging’ to say the least. Before I came here everybody I spoke to about Japan said the same thing, in the same tone that “I don’t mean to be racist but…” (then immediately contradicts themselves) has become a commonly used phrase: “Japan’s great but jeez it’s expensive”. I simply haven’t been able to afford to do some of the classic Japanese experiences like the bullet train ($30 for 15mins) or an evening with a geisha (around $2000) and the first things I’ll do when I return to China is gorge on fruit (about $1.50 an apple) and get my hair cut ($40) as it now looks worse than Andy Murrays. Well, maybe not that bad.

With all that in mind being able to travel 5 whole days (and I even got a free 1.5 days extra when no-one stamped it!) for just $130 was an absolute Godsend in a country where even by English standards nothing is cheap, very much a stroke of luck.

Being here at this time of year was also great because it’s the time of the legendary sakura, Japan is absolutely covered in cherry blossom trees and at the beginning of April they all come into bloom. In the absence of a big Christmas style festival the entire country goes crazy over it, aside from everyone taking hundreds of photos of the spectacle they host hanami parties where every spare foot of ground in the parks are taken up by picnics as people get drunk and generally celebrate the beginning of Summer. When the wind blows the petals come down like a pink snow and aside from being a beautiful sight it’s a lot of fun to be around.

I ended my time in enjoyable city of Osaka which was a perfect place to get a last dose of the Japanese urban experience. Something else the Japanese are very good at is putting on big scale entertainment options and it was great fun going up on the worlds largest ferry wheel and possible best aquarium- they’ve even got a whale shark! I couldn’t explore the Blade Runner like landscapes in Tokyo but Kansai hasn’t been affected by the quake so I got to enjoy the pulsating neon of the amazing Dotombori district. At night the streets and all the scrapers are covered in a blaze of electricity in the form of moving ads on billboards and even sides of buildings, like Time Square or Picadilly Circus but over a much larger area. Just fantastic, yet again I found myself struck by just how unique Japan is- there’s just nowhere almost anywhere like it.

I’m not sure what it says about me but as I’ve got older I’ve definitely realized my happiest (and most mischievous) moods are when I’ve been drinking the night before. As in Korea alcohol is very much the social glue which holds Japan together and feel like I’ve been living the dream a little bit recently. Thanks mainly to my friends the 3 Ss: soju, shochu and sake (and some very friendly expats) I seem to have been in a blissful semi- permanent drunken haze for the last effortless couple of months. Japan is an amazing place to be on so many levels, whilst for financial reasons I couldn’t stay any longer I was still there for over a month and I do feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit. I certainly intend to return in the future.

Now it’s time to return to the Big Red One as I take the slowboat to Shanghai.

From Osaka,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Kyushu and Western Honshu

Onsen (hot spring) Attendant: “Sorry, no enter”

Me:” Errr.. why?”

OA (pointing at the liberal sprinkling on my torso): “No tattoos”

Me: “Why?”

OA: ”Yakuza”

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,

From Nikko,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:27 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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