What a truly fascinating (and confusing) country Japan is. Some say the Land of the Rising Sun, I say the Land of the Rising Dichotomy. There seems to be no middle ground in Japan – it is all or nothing, and often the concepts are in such violent contradiction of each other that you’re left scratching your head as to the way of life on these three small islands that have forged themselves as the third most powerful economy in the world.
To name but a few of these interesting and quirky little contradictions…
One, Japan is at the absolute forefront of technology yet daily transactions rely on an almost entirely cash-based system. The Shinkansen bullet train hovers on bloody magnets at a top speed of over 600kmph, yet you still purchase a ticket with cash. The reason the population has so little overall leisure time isn’t the 80 hour work week, it’s that they spend the majority of their day fumbling around in their pockets trying to pick out the correct change for bread and milk (noodle soup).
Two, Japan is one of the least sexually active countries in the world yet sexuality is everywhere. Everywhere. Japan is home to the Love Hotel – a hotel room rented by the hour – and sexuality sells everything in Japan. While it is considered rude to talk about sex, it is very common practice to spend your nights (and most of your Yen) at one of the thousands of “Host” and “Hostess” bars (strip clubs) that aren’t just merely dotted around the cities – they comprise the vast majority of the drinking establishments in the night spots. People pray not to phallic symbols or to the concept of fertility – they literally have shrines of 6 foot wooden penises. Then there’s the Burusera which comes from the Japanese word “burumā” meaning ‘bloomers’. A Burusera sells the used underwear and dresses of young girls for sexual satisfaction. For me, the Japanese approach to sexuality perfectly illustrates the effects of repression on society. It is confused and convoluted – this is not an opinion on taste or fetishes (each to their own) it is a comment on the notion that one can’t talk about sex and so it manifests its ways in a multitude of other forms (often socially concerning) including very thinly veiled “massage” shops and “local information centres” where the helpful young ladies will sell you their…information.
Three, the population “spread” or lack thereof. When you conventionally think of Japan, most people probably picture the densely populated town centre of Tokyo. A famous image is that of the Shibuya crosswalk where almost 1 million people cross the neon-clad intersection a day. There are 39 million people living in the Greater Tokyo Area. People live in apartments where 22square metres is considered generous. “Capsule” hotels are real things – your room might be 5square metres. However, Japan (relatively speaking) is not that densely populated – it is 39th in the world. Outside the city there are vast open spaces, pristine rivers and unpopulated mountain ranges without a single house, farm or person for as far as the eye can see. Japan became a heavily centralised country throughout the Edo period. Edo (modern day Tokyo) became the hub of Japan and because the Shogun instilled such an isolationist foreign policy, all trade (domestic and foreign) came through Tokyo. The bullet trains, in fact, follow the same paths now through the mountains as the old ‘horse and cart’ trade routes of yesteryear. The outpost towns remain and provide a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle (a monstrous understatement) of the city. Quaint, quiet and rural. Chalk and cheese to Tokyo and both absolutely fascinating in their own right. No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to the mountain villages and “onsen” (naked single-sex public bath) towns.
The view on foreigners was another interesting experience in polar opposites. On the one hand we experienced the most warm and welcoming hospitality I have had outside the Deep South in the US. On the other hand there seemed to be a real and genuine xenophobia held by some. It’s probably the same in most countries and depends on the person, however the racism extended to literal signs on shop doors saying “No Foreigners”, “Foreigners Not Welcome” or “Japanese People Only”. We did have one run in with some locals of this persuasion. Then, some might forgive this view among the older generation…
The 15 kiloton elephant in the room is of course the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the first time that atomic weaponry had been used against people in known history. 150,000 people wiped out in an instant and another 100,000 would follow by the end of the year. The blast radius tore down wooden structures more than 4km either side of ground zero. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, the single lowest event of mankind, maybe only edging out Japan’s own war crimes under Hideki Tojo and the Rape of Nanking. In terms of numbers, Mao was responsible for an argued 45 million deaths and Stalin said to be responsible for 20 million, however in terms of a single event, there can be no greater atrocity than the use of atomic weapons on 6 August 1945. Visiting Hiroshima moved me more than visiting Auschwitz and the Cambodian killing fields. It is an indescribable feeling and I have been forever changed. It would be worth a trip to Japan if only to visit Hiroshima for a day.
To continue with my run of contradictions – and this one is strained, I know, but interesting nonetheless – now, 70 years after Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan is home to the most McDonalds chains of any country outside of the United States of America – maybe the single most iconic symbol of US consumerism. I wonder whether we will soon be upsizing our Big Mac and fries in Pyongyang? But I digress.
And with that, we venture into the only section of this blog that anyone really cares to read about – the section about food in Japan. Wow. Different. So very different. And so very delicious. It would be hard for a person to grow fat on Japanese food – all so fresh and so clean. They place absolute pride in the use of the best ingredients available. Take the most famous Japanese cuisine, for example – sushi and sashimi. It’s so simple – rice and raw fish. At it’s traditional best there are no seasonings and only the simplest of condiments – soy sauce and some ground wasabi (which is the root of a plant, and doesn’t come as a fluorescent green paste from a packet). The magic is in the preparation of the rice (a sushi chef in Japan will spend the first two years of their apprenticeship doing nothing but cleaning and cooking rice), the selection of the fish and the delicate knife skills involved in ensuring that the cleanest cuts are made to the right muscles in the right spots, lest you end up with a horribly chewy, tasteless, totally unpleasant experience. The same goes for dashi stock which is the building block of many Japanese dishes – it is made from only two ingredients, kombu (seaweed) and dried bonito (fish) flakes. As such it is important to source the best, and that is the fundamental basis of Japanese cuisine. They work on simplicity and use minimal ingredients, bringing out all that is possible in each. French and European cooking in comparison tends to battle it out for the trophy of “Most Ingredients Used in a Dish”- think of all those stews, braises and sauces with ingredient lists as long as your arm.
Everything Japan does, they do properly and they do with care. Take Kobe beef – a farmer in the Hyōgo Prefecture who is rearing Kobe beef will generally only ever own 2 – 4 animals at one time. They care for them 24/7 and yes, it is true, the owner will even massage the animals! It is in absolute contrast to the station country of Australia where farmers don’t even know their head count until muster time. I also had the opportunity to sneak into the Tsukiji Fish markets in Tokyo – the largest fish market in the world. Certainly no tourist destination however the care taken with handling and butchering the sides of tuna was something to watch. Deft strokes of the blade, delicately wiping down the deep red slabs of flesh. We even managed to find a few sides of whale up for purchase (but that’s a whole topic in itself).
Without going too far into the whale debate (personally, I think it’s part of their culture and who are we to say what’s right or wrong, so long as the whaling is sustainable?) the final competing element of Japanese culture that deserves attention is the question of the environment – the fishing, the rivers and oceans, the overcrowding, the pollution, the industry, the…Kyoto Protocol. How was such an energy and resource hungry country that was built on industry and manufacturing the home to the International UN Convention on climate change and renewable energy targets? The town of Kyoto is an absolute gem. It is traditional and filled with shrines and temples. It’s green – in more ways than one. The maples and cherry blossoms line the streets and the predominant mode of transport is by bicycle. Recycling is taken as seriously as religion and the whole place is magical. This, in spite of Japan being the largest importer of consumable resources and one of the largest users of fossil fuels in the world. This, in spite of industrial cadmium poisoning in Toyama and mercury poisoning in Kumamoto. This, in spite of housing 70% of the world’s waste incinerators. In spite of…(fill in your own blanks).
The breadth of culture is nothing short of astounding. Japan really does have everything. The land of formality and manners however also the land where it is no social faux pas to be absolutely rip-roaringly, fall-over-your-bar-stool drunk in one of the most expensive restaurants in town. Where chicken is raw and vegetables are deep fried. Where everything is super robot-waitress modern or super horse-and-cart rural. Where everything is…you get the picture. Anyway, after a few short weeks in Japan, the land of the dichotomy the real question is: would I go back again? Yes. Right now, I’ll pack my bags, let’s go! While some aspects of Japanese culture seem poles apart, the view was unanimous from us – Japan receives a big fat, sumo-sized tick.