Letter from Japan

Stranger than fiction in Japan - personal observations.
By John Ahern

Finally found a computer that would open my disk of addresses, so .... here's the letter I promised.

I've been here a few weeks now, Honshu and Shikoku Islands, and it's been wonderful. I've got a really good guide in Miyuki; a bit too good at times, she's running me ragged! It seems her Japanese side has taken over since her return home and everything has to be seen and now I'm beginning to long for a bit of freedom from all the `fantasy` stuff that the locals live for. @m釁@......铁@鏁@...'@ Please excuse any Japanese characters that sneak in; I am having real trouble with this keyboard and I have spent ages typing only to lose it all again when the ol 'puter decides to 'turn Japanese' and I can do nothing to change it back.

Please understand that what I am about to write should not be taken as a criticism of the Japanese or their culture; it's just an observation during a short stay and meant to be taken lightly and in humour. You may go to Japan yourself and have a totally different experience. I will go back again and, Im sure, see it in a different light as I intend to walk a lot and sleep outside under the stars on my next trip.

Since my first hitch-hiking trips away from Ireland many years ago I have travelled and walked the world over from Europe to North Africa and the Middle East, hiked the Americas North and South and roughed it thru Afghanistan, India, the Himalayas and the Far East. Avoiding the tourist traps and just travelling to 'look' (and delight) at the people/cultures. "Always a Traveller - Never a Tourist" - that's me, and I was one of the first through the Berlin Wall after a couple of days waiting for someone to make a crack big enough for me to squeeze through. I wanted to be among the first to see the 'time warp' that was Eastern Europe before it was changed forever by the 'invasion' of the west. I have written too about my personal experiences in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Anywayeverything here in Japan is perfect but it occurred to me that there is very little appreciation for anything natural; everything has to be fiddled with in some way or other to make it more 'acceptable' to humans which of course then means that any natural/wild essence is gone...NATURAL IS NOT GOOD. Try telling that to the Japanese and they just do not understand. However, the scenery is just incredible and if you appreciate mountains and forests there are more than enough of them. I expected big concrete cities but the mountains seem to have won the battle against the houses and suburbs in spite of the 130 million (?) population. The natural beauty is astounding. A trip to the Island of Miyajima in the Inland Sea is worth a full day in order to take it all in, it's regarded as one of the three main attractions in Japan. The shrines, temples and pagodas are just wonderful and the 'floating' Torii Gate is something you will never forget.

The children make up for what the adults lack in imagination and they are just beautiful! I've learned most of my words from them as their accents are easier to understand. Travelling with a guitar brings a lot of attention and the children are spellbound whenever I play. One little boy of about 5 came and sat next to me on a train and just said nothing while he snuggled in close pushing crisps and sweets at me and never smiling at all. His mother came and apologised and asked him "What are you doing?" and he told her "I'm trying to make friends with this American." Another kid kept running over and shouting into my face "I'm Sorry, I'm Sorry, I'm Sorry!" He must have repeated it a thousand times to the embarrassment of his parents who could not stop him and eventually just grabbed him and carried him to the next car still screaming his two words of English.

My host is almost paranoid that I might break the law - even failing what I call the 'shoe ceremony' is punishable by death. Some houses have more than five different sets of slip-ons for it's different rooms and on one occasion I rushed in (excitedly) with my (god forbid) OUTDOOR shoes on and the shrieks of protest and disgust were so deafening you'd have thought I'd strode in with a dead horse over my shoulder! One day I saw a really cool movie poster blowing along the street in the wind and when I was spotted trying to fold it up to keep I was castigated for my lack of respect and made to stick it back on the wall, not in case someone reported me but because it was "not the thing to do". But then there is the contradiction that EVERYONE breaks the law on the freeway, the speed limit is 80 klms but traffic travels at 120 or more. I was surprised too at their lack of concern for the children who jumped about all over the car while we hurtled through incredibly narrow tunnels and mountain roads just inches from the oncoming vehicles. "Don't you think it's dangerous not to use seatbelts on the kids in the back?" and the answer "Yes, but it is not compulsory to wear seatbelts in the back seat." I guess that explains their thinking; doing what you're TOLD is much more important than doing what is LOGICAL. It seems almost every young person had his/her hair dyed brown this summer and I'm sure most of them would agree that it does not look good but it is important to follow the fashion. Many young people spend their earnings on plastic surgery or eye colour change in order to look 'Western' because that's trendy today.

So far I've not heard one word spoken in anger in Japan and it seems there is no crime; it's normal to leave your car fully packed on the street, confident that it will be safe and secure. My hosts were astonished when I admitted that I occasionally cross the street at home to pinch a lemon from a neighbour's tree. They just did not understand that it was better if I just took it without asking, (it would only be left to rot anyway), instead of knocking on the door, which the neighbour might then regard as an invasion of his/her privacy.

I love the food but they could not understand my dislike of seafood and were always wanting to discuss that subject though they were disgusted when I told them of our once-a-week meal of a pig's head in Ireland when times were hard. The supermarkets are good and I was surprised to find that food is reasonably priced even though just about everything is imported. There is lots of cooked food available in the supermarkets and always a microwave nearby to heat it up it if necessary. You can really get the bargains if you go there for your take-away food just before the 9 pm closing. There are drink-vending machines everywhere selling everything from tea and coffee, (iced or hot), to beer. The beer is very good. I love the chopsticks...they enable you to eat slowly and really appreciate the many dishes that make up each meal. Slow and leisurely eating is good too for conversation round the table and the children (and adults) are very intrigued with the 'never ending story' that has everyone add their own bit as the tale goes round the table and lasts for days. What with everyone adding his or her own agenda/culture/imagination, these stories are very interesting and a real insight into people's different thinking.

The trip to the west coast, (Sea Of Japan), was just fantastic - the first day travelling on local trains and one long stretch on a switchback railway in open carriages with dragonflies and all sorts of exotic creatures flying in to land on us as we travelled thru the seemingly impenetrable mountains and forests. Then we travelled around the Matsue and Lake Shinji area, visiting ancient castles and temples. Climbed the tallest lighthouse in the Orient and west along the rugged Sea of Japan coast for a few hundred kilometres and then through the high mountain valleys on a steam locomotive that was in perfect condition in spite of it's age, with it's five carriages decorated in their five original themes - all in beuatiful polished wood, plush velvet and brass lamps. Then we descended to sea level again and back along the coast of the Inland Sea to Hiroshima.

I'm till not used to the humidity and it's the same everywhere we go and very hot too even on the west coast, temperatures are extreme all over this time of year and the mountain villages which are now suffering this heat and humidity will be covered with snow in a couple of months time.

In all those hundreds of miles I saw absolutely NO animals; no cow, horse, pig, sheep....not even a goat or a CHICKEN! Saw only one dog during the first week and one cat. One of the strange enigmas here.... no live pets but everyone has some kind of doll or cute creature hanging off of their trendy and rather pretentious bum-bags, back-packs and take-way (mobile/cell) phones. You will never see a Japanese walking about with just his/her hands hanging to him/her like me; even the smallest child will be laden with STUFF if only to show off some designer label.

As for the lack of LIVE pets, I can only guess that in this culture of extreme order and harmony a pet would be deemed too `chaotic`. I miss my pussy!! Haruka, 5 year old niece, asked her aunt `Why does John like animals? after she'd seen me follow that dog just to stroke it (craving.) A strange question for a 5 year old, you might think, but understandable when she and the 9 year old made such sounds of disgust when they saw me pick up a tiny white feather. I told her that I believed that animals and children were the 'real people' of this world and that adults were only put here to look after us. She thought long and hard for a while and then asked me "Are you an animal?" I looked in some pet shops and a dog or cat costs US$6,500, and that's on special!

The scarcity of wild birds is remarkable too and when you point out the odd eagle or hawk the locals are not interested and look at you as though you were a weirdo. However, there are carp in every stream, pond and moat and I have seen fully mature adults trying their best to smash the beautiful dragonflies with their fans as they climb the (often hundreds) of steps to pay homage to the maker of all creatures great and small at a temple.

Then I finally saw a BIG dog.... you may not wish to read the next bit (as they say on the news.) The dog was in a tin box on the back of a small truck and it was out in the sun with the 35 degrees heat and 95% humidity and sounded very distressed.... I approached and was warned off by a policeman with a baton saying "Kiken" (danger.) Then I saw that there were more parked vehicles nearby with more dogs... all out in the sun and the sweat running out of the cages and down the street in rivulets. There were tourists all around who though this was just wonderful as their cameras whirred to the woeful sounds of the distressed dogs.

Nearby, outside a building, I saw a fat woman sitting astride a life-size replica of a dog covered in fake blood and gashes, (the dog, that is, unfortunately) and she was smiling for her husband and his camera. Behind her there was a line of people that included small children, waiting to buy tickets. Miyuki said "Don't look John...this is not for you". It was a dog fight and I could not hide my horror and disgust that not only would they tolerate such a thing in a so called civilized society but even take their small children to see that extreme barbarity. The cages out in the sun were all part of the game to make sure the dogs were driven to madness before the fight.

I met more than one person who seemed to want to legitimise the Japanese whaling which seems to be talked about a lot these days - "Why not?" they asked, though I never even wanted to discuss such politics - "You eat cows and goats!" And I remembered telling my friends there, who had never even seen a cow "How incredibly beautiful and satisfying it was to kiss and caress a cow and smell her warm, milky smell and touch the delicate softness of her mouth and feel her breath on your face." I never told them that, in my travels, some of the best friends I've had were pigs. Pigs that just wandered up to me in Central and South America and we sat there watching the sunset together as we scratched each other and grunted our pleasure.

Almost as surprising as the lack of animals is that in all the hundreds of miles travelled around lakes and along the coasts I've hardly seen a sail of any description even though the weather is perfect for sailing. I did see a handful of yachts tied up though. We just spent a few days around the Island of Shikoku, (Pacific coast), and still no sailing except for one tiny speck out on the horizon. Too busy working, I was told.

Japan has just had it's annual summer holiday of only one week and there were millions queuing for everything but luckily they're more interested in the `theme park` kind of stuff and leave the rest to crazy 'gaijins' (foreigners), like me...if I had more time to see it, that is, or the nerve to upset my hosts and do what I REALLY have a swim or just jump into a castle moat if only to cool down. After two weeks I have about 50 words of Japanese but feel it easier to pretend complete ignorance when "it is not permitted."

Saturday night in Hiroshima we went to the city centre along with over a million other people to see the fireworks to mark the beginning of the summer holiday week . Many people dressed in national costume, beautiful girls in kimono. There were hundreds of tiny food stalls all along the river and as we sat on the bank to eat the rain started; torrential rain that never stopped and lent a sort of lunatic atmosphere to the event and for the first time all order, peace and harmony went out the window! As we sat on the steep concrete embankment scores of people trying to make their way along soon slipped and fell onto the people below who then slipped even further down, crashing into more people in a terrible tangle of cameras, spilled drinks and kebabs and noodles, covering each other in sauce and mud. But there were no hard words and (as Ive said) I never heard any at all while I was in Japan, the never ending chant of polite phrases is like music everywhere.

Then the thunder and lightening started and it was better than any fireworks as we fought the million people and their umbrellas to get a train home. I was doing my Gene Kelly impersonation with my umbrella, 'Singing In The Rain' in all the clamour and I slipped and slid down some steps but never felt a thing with the deluge of water underneath my ass; it was like going down a waterslide. The thunder was deafening and the loudest bang of the fireworks just couldn't compete as it echoed round the valley and the surreal glimpse of the rain-swept mountains thru the mist and low, grey-white clouds was magical in the flashes of lightening. Nobody does it like god, or whoever she is!!

My host on the Island of Shikoku works for a rural supply company. He is a 'salaryman' and though his official working hours are 9 to 5, five days a week, he has been working 7 days per week now for months. As is the case most of his working life he leaves home before 7 each morning and gets home anytime between 7 and 10.30 pm. His two children aged 9 and 5 hardly see him.

He was on his annual summer holiday when I visited, he finished on Saturday, (as did the rest of Japan), but after two days his boss called him in to work two days, (no extra pay), and then it was time to get ready for the BIG camping trip...two nights away. We drove south to the pacific coast...mostly underground because of the tunnels through the mountains and spent the first night in a log cabin resort beside a small stream where you could bathe your feet (I got right in and lay down to relieve the heat.) Then we fought the mosquitoes all night...I slept outside on the hard floor of the veranda just to keep cool. There were no fly-screens on the windows anyway.

Next day I was looking forward to my dream finally coming true...I would get into the sea and cool my bones which were at boiling point since I left the Australian winter. Beach Camping...that's what they said; we clambered down a hundred steps and I soon realised the reality was different....the campers were there with their cameras but not silly enough to get into the water as I did to almost get dragged out to sea by the giant waves that pounded the incredibly jagged rocks. I really tried though, and after watching the movement of the waves I just sat on the waterline and held onto a rock while about one wave in every ten crashed over me and tried it's best to drag me away into the Pacific. The most common word I heard on that beach was "kicken". . danger, as the tourists and their cameras got drenched by the unpredictable waves! I just got me togs full of rocks and was finding them for days after!

After climbing back up to the campsite I was so hot I had to go and sit under a tap and then it was time to cook the BBQ at 4 pm - it was early because my hosts had to be sure that everything was cleaned and stowed away before dark. Scores of cars were arriving and all the latest camping gadgets were being unfolded and assembled, people who slept on the floor all year were now connecting up bits of aluminium to make beds. They spent hours setting up tables, chairs and some other complicated and expensive equipment that I'd never even know what to do with. I slept on the grass under a tree, it was nice and cool! I was really intrigued by the white camping gloves; everyone wore them and they must have thought I looked silly without mine!

The wife (of my hosts) never even got to go down and look at the beach but drove off to sit in the, crowded and commercial hot springs twice. Next morning, Saturday, we made tracks back home to the other side of the island a day before the end of the official holiday week and it seems everyone was of the same mind to get home one day early in order to avoid the traffic and clean up the gear and relax before going back to work on Monday. Being clean is the national obsession and still I was dismayed at the amount of garbage on the beaches; particularly the discarded fishing nets and such stuff that tangles and strangles dolphins and whales.

Cartoonist Michael Leunig could write volumes on this place! We went to a zoo and theme park and in spite of all the exotic birds and animals....even lions, tigers, zebras, monkeys etc., sweating away in their tiny cages, most of the visitors were only interested in rushing through to the other side where they could ride on plastic replicas of those animals!

The most renowned scenic place in all of Shikoku... a beach, near Kochi on the Pacific coast... and there I was, running forward from the car park until I suddenly realised I was the only one with a beach towel, (not to mention my snorkel, fins and water-wings), and like a torturer relishing his job my host told me "It is not allowed to swim....just take photo". EVERYONE was trekking down to the water-line, fully clothed and dripping perspiration, laden with cameras in order to stand there sweating in their trendy hats and back-packs and shoes and socks with their backs to the beautiful scenery and what was for me the most desirable and inaccessible thing in the whole world, COOL WATER, saying the Japanese equivalent of cheese. Nearby I saw an indoor beach with a fake wave produced by a hidden machine and people were happy to spend their money to sit on the fake sand in there and not get 'soiled' by the real thing.

Like everything and every place in Japan; 'doing' is not the important thing: buying the t-shirt to SAY you'd done it and taking the photo/video to PROVE you'd done it is more important even though the t-shirt is usually printed in nonsensical English words or phrases such as on the favourite shirt of a woman I know who, after years of English lessons at school thought it very cool that her t-shirt read "Poor Spitted Muck"!!!

I was surprised at the lack of foreigners too and that explains why there is so little available in English at those incredible castles and temples so I guess I'm very lucky to have my own interpreter! Maybe it's the plumbing that has kept people away; the last thing I would have need for is a computerised toilet. Unlike other visitors I was not curious enough to explore that beast but for how long can you go on being lucky enough to avoid hitting at least one of those dozen buttons as you carefully sit down? Touch one and you are liable to awaken the caressing hand of the sleeping toilet 'akuma' (devil) or invoke his hot breath or a stream of warm spit on yer bum!!

I doubt there are any leisure activities to attract tourists from other parts of the world and the Japanese idea of leisure is another 'theme park' or McDonalds or their own version of Disneyland or there is the 'Fan Factory' or the 'Noodle Factory' where you can pay your Yens to put on an apron and a funny hat and sit on the floor in a room full of Japanese, (usually adults, believe it or not), lovingly mixing flour and water to the unrelenting instructions of the owner/teacher while your friends film every heart-tugging, emotional moment on video for you to take away and treasure for the rest of your life. You also receive a scroll to hand down to your grandchildren to prove you'd DONE IT you PERSONALLY had made the noodles!!

It would seem that news of the outside world is unimportant, I could find little or no news on TV and when I asked my hosts they could not understand why I should want to know what's going on somewhere else. Strange and contradictory, I thought, particularly in Hiroshima where the locals are constantly reminding themselves and everyone else that "It must never happen again" (the war, the bomb.) "We must be vigilant and aware of evil." I arrived in Hiroshima the day before the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb and went to the commemoration service next day, a sobering affair, particularly hearing the hundreds of names read out to the tolling of the bell the names of people now added to the roll of victims who have died in the past year people whose injuries finally killed them.

I could find no foreign radio stations or newspapers even in the hotels and the local papers have very little world news. Perhaps Tokyo would have been different. Japanese televisions are full of seemingly endless, silly trivia programs, day and night, These shows are almost always to do with food...maybe it's a sort of Japanese pornography as they really get off on watching other people eat all sorts of creatures and things, with the cameras zooming in close to get the juice rolling down the chin as they slobber over the braised remains of somepoor unfortunate little creature. The audience goes wild as the eater makes faces and loud sucking noises on his/her noodles while words in large Chinese characters flash across the screen in pink and lime green.

The contradictions just seem too incredible but maybe that's why I still love it, so when I return home I'll read this again just to see if it makes sense from the comfort of my own environment - after I've sampled the freedom of walking barefoot on the beach or on the grass outside my backdoor.

I imagine these people would be just as astonished if they were to visit me in South Australia where I now live; would they understand my decadent, though financially poor, lifestyle; work a few short hours and then laze away the afternoons sailing or playing music. What would they say if they saw me during my childhood in Ireland, carting bag after bag of potatoes up the steep hills to feed our family of seven or understand that I had to make the cold and dark trek to the church every night, winter and summer, to recite meaningless Latin prayers to a mysterious and cruel Catholic god and His/Her saints. What would THEY write if they saw me sleepless at night because I was unable to deal with the horrors of crucifixion, the fires of hell or the heartbreak I felt for the poverty of my family, seeing my father and mother trying to do the best they could from day to day.

It's a crazy old world and the more I see the less I understand but I guess that's just as well because the biggest sin would be to think you'd found the answer and tell others what is right or wrong and I have no intention of doing that.

(C)opyright 2007 John Ahern All Rights Reserved

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