The Japanese Don’t Wear Sunglasses
The Japanese don’t wear sunglasses. Apart from the occasional maverick, the Japanese prefer their view glary and untinted. Coming from Australia, where sunglasses are basically a second layer of skin, it was strange walking down the street and looking people directly in the eyes. Wearing my super sexy sunglasses to shield my eyes from the glare of the white sheet wash sky, I felt very conscious of my large bug-eyed spectacles. It seems my self-consciousness knows no bounds…
Another quirky ingredient in the Japanese culture pot is that some Japanese men carry handbags. While some could pass as briefcases, others are distinctly what at home we would class as feminine. The men were not gay, as some men like to insist, just practical. I wish all men would conquer the social stigma and carry handbags so that I don’t always end up carrying Jarrad’s wallet and keys around all day like a slave donkey. They can even call them manbags if that better maintains their masculinity. Japanese men are just doing it right. There were lots of little things like that about Japan that have made an impression on me. Below is a bit of a brain dump on some of them.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away the toilet was simply a place to do your business. I never used to equate the toilet with pleasure, and I’d probably judge anybody who did as either a bit of a weirdo. Or a teenage boy. This all changed when I finally worked up the courage to embrace the Japanese toilet. Heated seats, pressure adjustable water spray attachments and soft warm blow driers make for a hygienic and satisfying (dare I say pleasurable) bathroom experience guaranteed to have you coming back for more. Actually come to think of it just eating or drinking would guarantee this eventually…
Have you ever felt like your private parts are the gates from which floods that will wipe out the entire human race are about to burst through? I have. On a crowded overnight bus in Vietnam I needed to urinate so badly that when the bus eventually pulled over I clawed my way through the crowd of other desperate backpackers yelling “urine my way!” (Ok, you caught me… I didn’t say anything at all. I just wanted to fit in a pun in this paragraph somehow). Clenching my thighs tightly I waddled to the toilet, desperate to keep my precious liquid cargo inside. What I encountered changed me in a way I can’t even describe. “Indescribable” is something a lot of writers write as a bit of a cop out, but I’m saying it more to save anybody reading this from the horror of forming a mental image of what I had to endure. It can’t be un-imagined. Without saying too much the toilet was a squat toilet so detestable that I chose to urinate in front of everybody in an alleyway in order to avoid using it. Needless to say I truly madly deeply (like Savage Garden level) appreciated the clean, high tech toilets of Japan. The white ceramic toilets are so sparkling clean that the euphemism “doing your business” could almost be done literally and it wouldn’t even be disgusting. As a matter of fact I’m writing this right now on the toilet. Kidding. Or am I?
I love being naked. The freedom and comfort of bare skin is unachievable even with the softest silk pyjamas. The catch is that I love being naked when I’m alone and there are no mirrors in sight. Have you ever seen the horror movie Mirrors? The basic premise of the movie is that people look into the mirror and it will show your reflection self-mutilating yourself. It’s pretty gruesome. I relate seeing myself in a mirror as something akin to that movie. The only thing that gets turned on when I get naked is the shower. It follows then, that somebody else seeing me in that vulnerable state is mind bogglingly frightening. In Japan though, public baths, or onsen, are very common and socially accepted. Many Japanese and other travellers have sworn to me that they no longer even need religion because the onsen experience is basically like going to heaven. I just can’t get into it. Firstly, we travelled through Japan in the summer and the last thing I want when I’m sweating is to be engulfed in hot water. Secondly….the whole naked thing…
Walking past a Pachinko parlour is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing the phenomena often seen in cartoons where a character will be literally blown away by loud noise. Walk past one and the doors slide open, bombarding you with a storm of roaring bells, clinks and jangles that hit you like the sound equivalent of an elephant stampede. Glance inside and you’ll be overwhelmed by a kaleidoscope of colour and flashing lights coming from row upon row of glitzy machines that are similar to pinball or slot machines. The aim of the game is to guide small balls along particular paths with success earning you a “prize”. Believe it or not gambling is illegal in Japan. Gambling for money that is. Gambling for “prizes” is acceptable, even if they are later simply exchanged for money next door. Oh Japan! These places are everywhere. Judging by the concentrated faces of the countless men and women drawn to the flashing lights like desperate moths, I have started to become convinced it’s a giant government conspiracy to brainwash the people. Honestly, who truly enjoys these things? Only half of Japan.
Oh what’s that? You’re thirsty? You will NEVER be unable to quench your thirst in a city in Japan. Vending machines are everywhere and offer fairly reasonably priced drinks at the push of a button. Everything is available, including beer, sake shots and sometimes even whole bottles of wine (although I wouldn’t vouch for it’s quality). There’s plenty that’s not available though. It’s perversely a common thing in Australia to ridicule Japan for having vending machines stocked full of used underwear. I never stumbled across one of these, but right now I’ve done almost no washing and could probably supply one all by myself. Not that I would… but I guess that depends what the going rate per pair of underwear was. Japan is a bit expensive and you have to fund your travel somehow. Get off my case.
Beers ain’t beers.
Speaking of vending machines, it was at one that we had our first encounter with happoshu. Literally meaning bubbly alcohol, happoshu, to the untrained eye, looks an awful lot like beer. It comes in a can like beer, is always placed next to the beer, and is often made by beer producing brands. It will not however, have the word “beer” written anywhere on the can. Happoshu is a “beer like” drink that is made with less malt than beer. They make up for the malt by using rice, potato, corn, sugar, fairy dust or leprechaun kisses…who really knows? (I can’t read the Japanese writing on the cans). In another of Japan’s wonderful loopholes happoshu is taxed at a lower rate than beer, which makes it a bargain! Be careful though. While you’ll be saving your yen you may also be forced to taste what it is like to have a whale urinate in your mouth. I’m really not sure why I instinctively typed whale urine instead of any other animal’s urine. I guess they’ve got to do something with all the leftovers from the “scientific research”. Your guess is as good as mine, but the point is that the drink tastes bad.
Free for all slippers
Working in a shoe shop supported me through my poor student days. One particularly frustrating day at work a ruffled looking gentleman requested to try on a pair of the latest Nike trainers…despite having what he assured me was only a “small” amount of tinea between his toes. Obviously I refused his request and have had a bit of a foot phobia ever since. This caused me untold mental anguish in Japan, particularly regarding the use of communal slippers…in the toilets… I am happy to be polite and take off my shoes in houses and temples, but I’m less happy to stick my precious feet into anonymous slippers in the toilet. The shoes are always five sizes too small and seriously, how much walking around do you do inside a less than one meter squared toilet cubical anyway?
Like the intricate network of veins inside a human body, trains in Japan criss cross the entire country. Glance at the map of trains in Tokyo and you could be forgiven for asking if there’s actually anything other than ugly urban train stations and railway lines in the city at all. Trying to get into some of the Tokyo train stations is almost self-sabotage, like a sardine purposely squishing itself into a greasy tin can. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the busiest scramble crosswalk in the world, right outside of Shibuya train station. Or outside Harajuku station on a Sunday when there’s a large storm…
Sleek, shiny, comfortable and on time to the second, it is the bullet train (Shinkansen) that really epitomises train travel in Japan. Travelling on it can take you across the country in the blink of an eye. Beware however, that travelling at speeds up to 320 km/hr through dark tunnels can induce the feeling that there is an evil eel doing summersaults in your stomach.
Starting the morning with a bowl of rice with various pickled vegetables started to feel like routine during our month in Japan. Rice is a staple food, so we were very surprised by how expensive it is to purchase from the supermarket. With such little available farmland and with a ban on rice imports to protect Japanese rice farmers, rice prices are significantly higher than at home, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese loving it. Japan loves rice so much that they even make alcohol out of it! Commonly referred to as rice wine, sake is really more akin to beer, produced by a brewing process. It’s also horrible. I can’t even write about the taste because the mere memory of our 11.30am sake tasting in Takayama (and subsequent three hour hike) is giving my mouth that weird feeling where you have to keep swallowing. The memory is so fresh I can still feel my stomach curdling as if I’m stuck in a washing machine. One little tip: if you do go sake tasting, for Gods sake, stay away from the opaque gluggy ones. Don’t be fooled into the completely stupid belief that it might taste refreshing, like yoghurt. It doesn’t. It really really doesn’t.
Japan is a country of contrast. The moment it dawned on us that we were hopelessly lost in Kyoto an old man stopped us, showed us where to go and generously gave us his map. We were left feeling almost suspicious that anybody would be that nice. Was he trying to rob us or find out where we were staying to kidnap us? On the other hand when we were walking down the street in Tokyo another old man casually strolled up to me and poked me in the breast. I was so stunned (and revolted) by his two centimetre long finger nail that it took me a little while to comprehend just what had happened; quite a contrast to the charming helpful Kyoto man. Age old treasures amongst modern architectural wonders, concrete jungles with small zones of green tranquillity, and creepy perverts amongst friendly decent people. Japan is a world away from home, but at the same time, because of (and despite of) all the little things above, it started to feel like home.