A Travellerspoint blog

October 2006

Saying Sayanora to Japan

Also known as the longest blog ever.

We've just finished the first chapter of our journey. It's amazing sometimes how quickly three weeks can seem to pass and yet how far away their start can seem. We are now aboard the magnificent Yin Jang, making our way through the high seas to Tianjin, China (okay, if one insists on reality, magnificent may have been a stretch and by high seas I mean the calm waters of the sea of Japan. Life at sea has pushed us to exaggeration as we continually refer to ourselves as women of the sea and begin sentences with "In truth, it's a lonely life...". Clearly, the rocking of the boat made us a bit delusional and now I am not putting this entry online three days later in an internet cafe in Beijing, but you get the idea).
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Here are my parting impressions of Japan. Certainly, we've not stayed long enough to make any educated statements on the country, but I will give my thoughts all the same. In leaving Japan, the three things that come to mind are: Conflicted, Confined, and yet still uniquely and wonderfully Charming.

Japan, in my mind, is a nation in conflict. In a way that was both baffling and intriguing, Japan brought paradox to nearly every situation. At once traditional and modern, advanced and yet terribly behind. Japan has gadgets and gizmos aplenty, but they've not figured out how to hide their telephone wires or make reasonable dryers. The Buddhist and Shinto religions which dominate the culture bring with them an appreciation for a focus on harmony with nature while at the very same time, the Japanese government is destroying Japan's beautiful natural landscape at alarming rates in the name of unnecessary and expansive public works projects.
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As for the people, we found them to be warm and kind and helpful in ways unimaginable in the U.S. (even in the south) and yet at times, shockingly cold and untouched. Despite being one of the most homogenous nations in the world, the people of Japan are as varied and diverse in their outward appearances as one would find in any international city. The culture in many ways is typified by order and politeness but yet it can seem at times to be the absolute picture of chaos. Despite very specific codes of conduct that place a high premium on dignity and seriousness, once finds that after dark each night the salary men can be found,in their perfectly manicured suits, roaming the streets holding each other up by the necktie, vomiting on the sidewalk, and swaying in the subways drunkenly.
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Thus, it seems to me, that in many regards, Japan is a nation in conflict. Japan seems to be held in a forward and backward movement that is keeping it stable and also stagnant. It was descibed by Alex Kerr in his book Of Dogs and Demons (which inevitabley skewed the way I viewed Japan) as a post industrial nation, with pre-industrial goals. It will be incredibly interesting to see what they do with the next ten years - it could go either way.

My second leaving impression was that in many ways I felt the culture to be defined, and in a way confined by what is normal, what is traditional, mostly by what it means to be "Japanese." Despite the outward diversity expressed in fashion choices and hairstyles, there is an incredible emphasis on being part of the group. As children, they are schooled in an almost military fashion, taught time and again that the highest value is placed on belonging to something, on fitting in. From this develops serious problems with bullying and high numbers of student burnouts (I've read that Japanese students miss on average 1.5 months of school per year attributed to this). At the larger scale it creates and support xenophobia (though I personally did not confront outward signs of xenophobia, and on the contrast was repeatedly met with helpfulness and warmth, I have heard differently from those who have been here longer). There are very serious unspoken rules of engagement around here which regulate most aspects of Japanese society and which inevitably exclude those who do not, or can not, play by the rules.
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Despite everything that has been surprising and sometimes disappointing however, I am still quite enamored with the place. My final parting impression is that in spite of it all, Japan is charming to a fault. I will miss the lights of Tokyo and the calm of Kyoto. The hidden shrines and the sushi trains. I will miss the men whose job it is to push you into the subway car and the girls teetering knock-kneed on their stilettos. I will miss chocolate covered puffed rice and everything being on time. Bicycle parking garages and old ladies with sun umbrellas. I will miss the giggles on the street, and the sound of bike bells. I will even miss, if only a little, the utter depressing loneliness of Tokyo in the rain (after having been lost for 3 hours only to be turned away at the door of the Chinese embassy and forced to take refuge in an overpriced starbucks).
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In the end, I was able to remove (if only for a bit) my rose colored glasses and scratch at the top layer of Japanese culture. I found that, as is always the case, Japan was not the Utopia I first thought it to be, but it is still an awfully wonderful place. On the sleepless overnight bus ride to Kobe, I was kept awake by the tune of a song from childhood, around 4am the words finally came to me and they seemed all too fitting as I moved on to the second chapter of our trip: "Don't know how we'll grow up, but what a way to begin..."
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Posted by Ivory 18:31 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Arrividerci, Japan

As we still can't say goodbye in Japanese

It is with no small amount of sadness that we bid goodbye to Japan tomorrow. Yes my friends. Tonight we board an all night bus only to disembark and board a ship that will cart us off to China in a mere 54 hours. (We repat: of course we can do this on a shoestring budget. No, it will not be pretty.)

And so without further ado or fanfare, I give you facts and figures, bests and worst, a complete salute to the Empire of the Rising Sun:

Number of visits to your best friend and mine, the Sushi Train: 2

Number of tasty Starbucks beverages consumed while feeling massively guilty for our expensive Western addictions: 3
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Number of temples/shrines viewed in the last 21 days: 945,067 (aprox)

Number of Japanese women seen walking in heels over 3 inches, thus inducing some serious knock-knee: Really can't count that high.

Worst meal in Japan: As featured below, hot dog buns, cheese, canned corn and tea
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Best meal in Japan: I don't recall, did I mention Sushi Train?

Song most played on shared IPOD: On the Road Again (we heart Willie Nelson!)

Number of photos Sarah took of postcards as she was too cheap to buy a real one: 5

Times that Dont Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead immortal mantra "justice is served" has been repeated: 28

Number of unattractive and social akward Western men spotted PDAing with hot Japanese women: 472

Lost in translation:
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Number of nights we attempted to stay out until 5am to appreciate the Tokyo night life: 1
Number of nights I fell asleep at the bar while attempting to stay out to appreciate the Tokyo nightlife: 1
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High: Fushi Inamari. Go there one day. You'll fall in love with it.
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Low: Coming dangerously close to being kicked out of the dirtiest hostel in Japan, as we were blamed for bringing cockroaches from America with our dirty ways. (Please note: my mother stuffed my bag with rubber cockroaches...)

Japan, Pay the Bribe salutes you for three lovely weeks. You'll always be the first one.

Don't worry..we'll always have Tokyo.
Hmmm...somehow not quite the same ring Boggie had, but oh well.

Posted by lbassi 03:41 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Personal Growth

A new approach to sanitation...

A brief word on Japanese toilets...

Not gonna lie...I have been panicked about the bathrooms I would encounter during Pay the Bribe. Much as I try to deny it, pretty much a spoiled westerner at heart. I enjoy frivolous things.

Like toilet paper. And hand soap.

A decision had to be made. Stay home and enjoy my Starbucks lifestyle or venture forward into the great unknown.

I ventured. And encountered this:
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I know. You don't know what to do either, do you? (Okay gentleman...maybe you scoff. But try to imagine the sweat I broke into upon viewing this contraption.) I thought maybe if I just ignored the problem, eventually my body would adjust. I could become a medical wonder, the girl who no longer peed.

That didn't work out. After days of struggles, close encounters, cursing the gods, I stumbled upon the squat. Now do not confuse this with a bend. Its practically on the ground, as low as you can possibly go. Its not an exercise for the knees so much as an encounter with the earth.

Panic goodbye...squat hello. I embrace you and your sanitary approach to natures call.

Posted by lbassi 05:06 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Buddhist Awakenings in Shirahama

The mourning of a fallen i-pod

So perhaps it wasn't exactly a religious experience per se, but the loss and subsequent mourning of my i-pod (killed in a tragic water bottle leaking in my backpack incident I'd rather not discuss)did force me to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. Having spent the past 10 days traipsing about central Japan exploring countless awe-inspiring (and admittedly a few less than inspiring)thousands of years old temples, shrines, gardens, and castles, it is difficult not to have a little perspective.

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Before the bigger picture came however, I first tearfully slid to the wet tatami floor of our overpriced hotel room and woefully claimed to have lost the soundtrack of my life (everyone has a melodramatic moment or two). I couldn't imagine how I'd get through the endless monotonous train journeys and nauseated bus rides that lay ahead without those 1000 songs that tiny wonder contained. How could I appreciate the passing landscape without the soothing sounds of Clark Terry or the familiar words of Van Morrison taking me into the mystic? It seemed hopeless.

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Having travelled long and far to see the white sands of Shirahama and without much daylight left however, there was little time to pout. We grabbed our suits and headed to the beach to wade in the warm waters of the bay and watch the sun set over the pacific from the other side of the world. While sitting on the rocks watching the waves crash below, I tried to think about our trip -- and how ridiculous it was that I could get so upset about the loss of my i-pod. Being in a largely Buddhist nation, it seemed only apropos to associate the premature loss of my beloved i-pod with some larger sign from the heavens. That Eastern Religions class I took was quite a few years ago, but if I remember correctly, one of the main stages in the Buddhist enlightenment process is breaking human attachment to material objects. I thought about how ungrateful I had been (just days before lamenting that my newest playlists had not uploaded correctly before departure rendering my music selection unsatisfactory) and how little this would mean in the grand scheme of my trip. I have been given (or have taken, I suppose) this incredible opportunity to do exactly what I've always wanted to do - to travel the world with my best friend, taking in the culture, the landscape, and the experiences at our leisure. It seemed suddenly incredibly insulting to my beautiful surroundings to spend even a moment of my energy thinking about a silly electronic gadget. Who needs Sinatra when you've got so many new sounds, sights, and incredibly bad smells to absorb?

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And besides, as Lauren so optimistically pointed out, I've not lost the soundtrack to my life -- I've gained the soundtrack to hers. One ear phone attached to each of us, we spent today soaked to the bone watching the rainy countryside pass as we made our way back to Osaka for a rest before the next step.

Posted by Ivory 03:22 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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