Letter from Tomorrow

September 4th, 2010

I’m not sure one can really understand Japan without experiencing it.  I mean, I’d seen Lost in Translation, read a novel by Mishima in college and heard many friends’ anecdotes…  I remember the Hello Kitty days (not entirely over, by the way) and I have a handful of close Japanese friends I’ve met through macrobiotics…  But I wasn’t prepared for this.  

Japan is full, brimming over actually, with the weirdest stuff.  There are remote controls for the toilets  which will spray your butt, air dry your butt, and make a noise to cover up the noise your butt makes doing what your butt is designed to do.  There are ferris wheels on buildings, cat cafes , maid cafes, crazy arcades , Love Hotels, disposable underwear, individually-wrapped marshmallows  and plastic cases to keep your banana unbruised.  I could write five full pages about all the strange stuff before even mentioning the Ice Cream Museum, the English malapropisms on the T-shirts (I heart my coquetry) and the capsule hotel we stayed in that made me feel stuck in a Stanley Kubrick movie

Oh yeah, and the food is unbelievable.  Although it’s been a challenge (one I’m not winning) to find macro staples like brown rice, Japan is exploding with food; ramen, sushi, soba , tempura, yakitori, and take-away bento boxes are all available everywhere.  Every train station is full of places to eat, every department store also laden with good restaurants.  We haven’t even touched the high-end places because they’re not within our budgets, but there has not yet been one unforgettable meal.  Even convenience stores carry rice balls and side dishes like hijiki.  Yes, it’s white rice and the hijiki probably has sugar in it, but it’s all there.  And if you’re a dessert person, this is the country for you.  In the basement of many department stores are basically what we could call food courts but the similarity ends there–I’m talking ACRES devoted solely to sweets:  Jellies, dumplings, cookies, cakes, candies and other cavity-making delights, all presented like fine works of art .  There’s even green tea chocolate painted with gold.  Oh my. 

But none of that will give you a real sense of Japan.  I think it needs to be experienced, because it is Japan’s vibe which is truly lovely.  It is one of the most un-frenetic places I have ever been–massive throngs of people and high-pitched salespeople yelling “irashymasay” notwithstanding.  Every time Emily and I stood on a street corner staring cluelessly at our map, a stranger would arrive and ask if he or she could help us.  But more than that, the stranger would make sure we found our destination; there was a certain pride mixed with kindness in the gesture. 

At a traditional hotel in Kyoto, we were treated like princesses, served a fourteen-course dinner in our robes and footie socks by a lovely kimono-clad woman. I then went downstairs for a bath in a big cedar box, which spilled onto the cedar-slat floor exactly the amount of water my body displaced.  The sound of the warm water rushing over the side was both a sensory pleasure and a symbol of the abundance I was experiencing.  As if the bath itself was saying “your cup runneth over”.  It was a soul-expanding moment of luxury. 

Japan is full of those moments.  In fact, it’s all about them.  Every thing, every experience, every interaction, is designed to be beautiful.  Attention is paid to every detail.  Nothing is Japan is done without a refined consciousness that I imagine was cultivated originally in the exquisite temples of Kyoto… where the wind whistles over the tatami mats… surrounded by natural temples of bamboo… ahhh.

It is a country that still honors its craftspeople and their wares.  In a Kyoto department store, one whole floor was devoted to a recent celebration of local artisans; devoted laquer artists, leather workers, umbrella-makers, glass-blowers,  brush-makers, basket-weavers, print-makers, statuary sculptors… you name it, they were there, doing their thing.  And this not at some crafts fair, out in an abandoned parking lot.  It was taking place on the top floor of a high-end department store.  It seems the Japanese respect beauty and the work that goes into creating it.

Frankly, it makes the rest of us look like boors. 

But before I apply to emigrate, I must remember what George Ohsawa said: “Everything that has a front has a back”.  And of course, after only 14 days here, I am seeing Japan’s front; I am a visitor, who speaks no Japanese, so my impressions are relatively superficial. I don’t pretend to even think that I have touched upon anything but an initial layer; every culture has its complexities, its texture, and its contradictions. I am sure Japan has depths and quirks I will never get to know. But for right now I feel like a kid who has discovered a gem the size of my fist—no wait–my head,and I am truly dazzled by its sparkling facets.


P.S. It's taking too long to upload all the pictures… I will fill them in when I get back to the States.  Damn Japanese wi-fi!  I guess nothing is perfect. 

2 responses to “Letter from Tomorrow”

  1. Thanks for sharing all the good stuff with us, don’t mind the back door too much.

  2. Jane Caddick says:

    Wow, that is absolutely fascinating. I love hearing about the cat cafe, the fantastic food, the hotels where you get such good treatment and the helpfulness of the people. Makes me want to come to Japan too. Thanks for writing about this and please share more. Jane

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