i am not japanese

3 01 2008

I’m writing this just after Zach and I have visited practically every major shrine in Kyoto and major neighborhood in Tokyo.

I had thought the cultural explosion of Kyoto would be the thing that would most affect me—probably from Lost in Translation, yet again. I almost regret watching the movie so recently before traveling; it’s done horrors for my usual policy of not having expectations. Anyway, the most poignant thing about Kyoto wasn’t the culture of this cultural hub of Japan (I forget more English every day), but the tourist-y-ness. It bothered me that the strongest emotion produced by going to all of these shrines and parks was irritation that there were four visitors for every resident (an actual statistic). Then again, when I lived in Philly how often did I see the Liberty Bell or Constitution Center?

My best attempt to explain my irritation is that I was used to living a somewhat hermitic life. By the time we were in Tokyo I had gotten used to it, except for a few notable times like our visit to Roppongi at 1 A.M. January 1st. In that situation, though, it’d be hard for just about anyone to not be overwhelmed.

Because of my discomfort, I was in a hypercritical state where I was once again reminded that Japanese stereotypes of foreigners exist for a reason. The majority of foreigners skiing and boarding in Niseko and those visiting in Kyoto were exactly what the Japanese stereotype predicts: loud, unruly and arrogant. I’m sure there were plenty that weren’t that way, but louder personalities stand out in a crowd. So for people like me who, as part of their job description, are supposed to act as cultural ambassadors, it’s frustrating to see our work of dispelling rumors undone. And it sucks to be grouped in with everyone else even though you’re not like them. (Though I’m sure I do things that fit into the stereotype too.) More than once on this trip, I felt the cold shoulder from Japanese shopkeepers either fed up with foreigners only looking, or expecting us not to know how to order/eat food correctly.

The most blatant disrespect from a foreigner came from Guyanese man selling hoodies and other “gangsta wear” in Harajuku, the fashion hub of Tokyo. The man openly admitted to Zach and I that he charges double price to Japanese people. When asked why he was offering us a discount, he just said, “’cause I gotta hook you up!” Then he answered his phone with a hearty moshi moshi that you would never have expected out of this man’s mouth.

On a completely different subject, this trip clearly revealed (to me) my preference to do active rather than passive tourism. While I like to look at buildings as much as the next person, it is 405983434 times cooler to, say, look at the buildings during a tea ceremony. I’m sure Zach would have enjoyed to see my town’s kindergarteners playing, but I bet he enjoyed playing with them 405983434 times more (and yes, that is an exact number—the tourism constant; it ranks up there with Planck’s constant and Avogadro’s number). Lucky for us we were invited to a homestay over New Year’s Eve through a friend of a friend, which resulted in first-hand experience of traditional shogatsu (New Year’s Season) activities. Even luckier for me the traditions mostly relate to food: eat soba the night before, drink and eat all night long, eat mochi the day after. Sufficiently full-ish (with the marathon training, I’m never full these days) and rested, we took a trip to Asakusa shrine.

It’s one thing when in America Christians go to church for Christmas, or Jews to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, but you will never (in America) see such an enormous, ostensibly religious gathering in such a narrow space. It took about 45 minutes to walk 300 meters because there were so many people all coming together to cast their good wishes (prayers?) for the new year. I still I prefer the diversity of America, but this was a sight to see.

Strike that. I’ve seen the same number of people in America at the Taste of Chicago. Maybe that reveals why America is such a fat country? Is our true religion foodism?

We celebrated the actual transition to the new year at Zojoji shrine in Tokyo; literally steps away from the Tokyo Tower: lots of constant juxtaposition of the new symbol of Tokyo and this hundreds-of-years-old temple (this is a very Japanese parsing). It was hard not to get caught up in the buzz. Everyone was just so damn excited about the New Year. On one side of the temple grounds, monks are burning offerings in a bonfire underscored by a traditional Japanese quintet. On the other, a woman talked incessantly about the announcement of the winner of a Japanese Idol competition. With one minute to go, all the lights were turned off. As a sort of cathartic verification of my acclimation to life here, the New Year was met with me only realizing that the countdown had been in Japanese about 10 seconds after it finished. At midnight, all the lights were illuminated on the Tokyo Tower as thousands of people released balloons with their wishes inscribed on them. The soundtrack to this was the unlikely mix of Ben Folds’ “Philosophy” and one of the largest bells in Tokyo is being rung 108 times (108 is a number for good luck in many Eastern religions). Hopefully between the six of us that attended, we can compile a decent video of the whole thing.

As we headed out to (no surprise here) eat, on one side of the street store clerks were yelling akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (“Happy New Year!”) to every individual person that passed by their stores. On the other, people were flocking to stores to get fukubukuro (bags filled with mystery merchandise you can buy from just about any store you want—an easy way for stores to dispose of out-of-season goods, and for customers to get a ton of great deals). We arrived at Roppongi to find streets full of (mostly foreign) people belligerently drunk screaming and trying to pick a club to dance the night away in. None of us wanted to drop ¥5,000 or more(!) to drink watered-down drinks and dance to bad techno, so we had a meat-eating festival in a basement restaurant and decided to go home early (as far as Tokyo nights go) at 3:00 A.M.

Tokyo subway stations are usually 1) immaculate 2) crowded but organized and 3) shut down between midnight and 6:00; people either party all night long or end early. New Year’s Eve, however, is the one night of the year that the subways are open all night, and because the trains were running infrequently, the scene at the station was surreal (and this is coming from my somewhat jaded point of view). There were cleaning crews patrolling, English men wrestling, men passed out in their own vomit and a handful of people continuing to drink as they waited for the train—NOT IN LINES. Madness I tell you!

PICTURES (click to enlarge):

tokyo tower by day

Tokyo Tower by day


an artsier view of the tower

the yamanote

the Yamanote line on New Years Day

the imperial palace

trying to say hi to the Emperor

walking to asakusa

the long walk to Asakusa

Kongourikishi at Asakusa

a statue of Kongourikishi at Asakusa shrine

festival atmosphere

fried foods and tasties galore. reminds me of summer

random scene at Tokyo station

an unexpected performance at Tokyo Station




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