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Travel

Japonisme

Two weeks in Japan obviously gives me no right to comment on national character, psyche, traditions or anything of that sort.  So I won’t try.  But from my limited observations, the Japan that I’ve experienced has two sides, one an overdeveloped, mental, difficult country that, if a vision of our future, is a nightmarish one.  Sites of interest are filled with tourists who take photos indiscriminately in their enthusiatic quest to ‘do’ a place.  Bits of Japan’s past are fetished and reproduced millions of times in souvenirs, cartoons, the apparent endless drive to rebuild things that means that most historical sites are replicas of something old that has been destroyed.  These things are true of other counries too, but rarely has any country been as destroyed as Japan and as rebuilt.  The replica drive extends to other things too, traffic lights make a sound like bird song when it’s ok to cross, a sound so prevalent that when I heard an actual bird sing, I looked around for the road.  Plastic food advertises a restaurants’ wares outside every place.  Meals out take about 15 minutes.  The bullet train races around the country, stopping for seconds at stops which leaves travellers, both me and the Japanese, rushing to the exits in fear of being left on the train.   Cars drive around, employing several people to shout at the people on the street what are (presumably) advertising slogans.  I spent a whole afternoon in Kanazawa trying to get away from one in particular, but it kept going round and round this small town.   Everywhere there are people with megaphones til the sound nearly drives you insane, either guiding tourists or trying to sell them something.  It’s lively and bustling but absolutely mental.

The other side exists in small pockets, hard to find, and impossible to maintain.  In shrines and temples, in an empty teahouses and an onsen, there is a peacefulness that belies the rest of the countries desperate drive to move forward.  In an onsen, someone told me they sit there for hours, basking in the hot water, getting out, getting back in.  I could only manage about half an hour before I couldn’t take the heat (literally), went bright lobster red all over and had to get out and go and have a sit down.  Felt as if my muscles were dissolving, but in a good way.  Ancient Japanese tradition values being close to nature, simple ceremonies like the tea ceremony put a huge focus on sharing a short quiet moment with a guest.  Noh, the ancient form of drama, is completely indecierphrable even to Japanese people, but mainly consists of ornately dressed characters moving very slowly on the stage, groaning.  It’s all very mellow.  I went to a teahouse and drank frothy green tea to the music of a geisha playing a flute (er, on CD), watching the cherry blossom move in the wind and felt more relaxed than I ever have before, possibly in my entire life.

I have no conclusions to offer I’m afraid, only that I don’t really know what to make of it myself.  Moving on soon from earthquake-ville to Kuala Lumpur.

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