Tuesday, September 20, 2011
'Why are the lights out?' I asked, as he lowered his nose to within three centimeters of the print, trying vainly to decipher it.
'It is rest time' he said.
I looked around. Some staff members were, indeed, brewing coffee, or dipping chopsticks into bento boxes, but by far the majority were labouring, like my superviser, to continue their work by the dim light filtering in from the corridor.
'Do you want me to come back later?' I asked.
'No, no no'.
'Well, then, should I turn on the lights, just for a minute?'
'It is rest time'.
... and it was kind of awesome.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Japan is no stranger to tourists, but nonetheless there is never anything stranger than me on the subway. I have seen dogs in baby carriages. I have stepped around a leather-clad host boy passed out face first on the floor of a women-only carriage. I have watched an entire row of identical schoolgirls fall simultaneously asleep on the shoulders to their left.
I live in Sapporo, a city of two million on the island of Hokkaido, far from the glamour and international charm of Tokyo. It’s hardly the sticks – it’s a big city with big buildings, internationalized in all the most recognizable American ways. You can’t make a left turn without ending up in a Starbucks. The presence of other cultures is undeniable. On my daily commute I see women perfectly turned out in kimono rubbing elbows with girls sporting Lady Gaga t-shirts.
And yet: most days I will not see another foreign face (other than the few souls I work with). It’s not a tourist hub, Sapporo, though in winter the epic snow brings myriad noisy Australians dressed in neon, and the Snow Festival in February usually encourages a few Russians to make the ferry trip. Most days, I will in the subway, during rush hour on a Monday morning. I will sit quietly, plugged into Kimbra, demure, with elbows tucked in and knees together. Most days, I will keep my eyes closed for the majority of the commute, or I will stare at my knees, or I will peruse my Twitter feed for amusing #inappropriatefuneralsongs (“No Air” is my current favourite). My shirts are buttoned to the chin and, given that it’s 7am, I usually don't smell yet.
Despite all this, the seats on either side of me will almost invariably remain unoccupied. Little old ladies will stand, swaying gently, rather than risk any accidental physical contact with the dangerous red-haired foreigner.
I’ve never been stared at like I’m stared at in Japan. Some days, it beggars belief. The Japanese are a savvy people. They read. Their broadband speed is insane, so I know they’re kept abreast of the internet. The only logical conclusion from this is that they’ve seen at least ONE other foreign face in their lifetime. George Bush, perhaps. Oprah. And I know I’m at least four sixths more typical looking than either of the above. Perhaps it is something about being physically exposed to something so totally unfamiliar that does it. I mean they could – god forbid – touch me, if so moved. I did, in fact, have one elderly gentleman approach me once as I queued for the subway. I saw him coming from a long way off, so unflinching was his gaze. He moved querulously, as if his body were fighting his mind, but his stare held steady as he got within my phone-box of personal space, lifted one hand to my bangs and intoned solemnly ‘Akai’ (red), as if it were a mantra or a curse or a blessing.
I was strangely moved as he walked away. I’m pretty sure at least one of us had just had some sort of a religious experience. If he’d asked, I would have happily told him that the specific color is Red Passion, Shade #42, and that I thought that with his skin tone, he could just about pull it off.
Why Living In Japan Isn’t As Healthy As You Might Think
The Japanese are a fascinating people. Almost inhumanly beautiful, they are unlike any other nation. When they’re not busy ousting a prime minister every year, or inspiring the fashion choices of blonde pop-stars, they’re pushing their way through all kinds of barriers, technological, cultural, geographical. When faced with disaster, they assume an automatic fight face, ready to rebuild. And then they bow.
When I moved to Japan, I had pretty shiny visions of my Japanese self. I’d be demure, technologically savvy, adept at sushi-rolling and so so thin. I’d wear short sassy skirts with long socks and clunky heels; my hair would be thick and to my waist, and I’d eat raw eel and raw eggs with aplomb. I’d read manga on the subway, standing, without holding on to the handles. I’d wear false eyelashes every day. I’d never sweat. Don’t stereotypes exist for a reason? Shouldn’t they be true? Doesn’t living in a foreign country allow for automatic assimilation?
One year later, and the vision has changed. The thing is, Japan is designed for Japanese people. I guess that’s why so many of them live here. It’s their optimum environment, the locale for which they’re genetically pre-dispositioned. I, however, am best designed for an antipodean environment, where I can shear things at will.
I like it here. I plan to stay. But, for any foreigner planning forays into the rice paddies of Japan, here are some things to avoid, or at least be wary of.
1. Rice: healthy on paper, dangerous when consumed routinely for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Face it, anything you can eat a thousand of and not feel full is not a safe food-stuff. Also, once the digestive process takes hold, it’s pretty much glue. Go ahead, eat as much as you like, it’ll be in there forever.
2. Beer: it’s watery, non-descript and it flows like… water. The concept of drinking in moderation is not something that made it past the Sea of Japan. In fact, typical methods of drinking involve party plans, where a set (small) amount of money buys you all-you-can-drink for a set period of time not less than three hours. We’re talking pitchers and pitchers of beer lined up along the tables, being poured by angular Japanese men, until suddenly it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and the sun is rising and the crows are attacking the garbage and you’re careening down the streets of the red light district on someone else’s bicycle.
3. Crows: oh my god, the crows. Daphne du Maurier was clearly Japanese (you can tell by her last name). This is what inspired the novella. They’re huge, like vicious, black, flying, dive-bombing beagles. And they like hair, particularly red hair, wrapped around their claws and borne aloft to line their nests.
4. Host Boys: it’s the hair that gives them away, bleached and spiked, gravity-defying, less coiffure, more elegant weaponry. They loiter on street corners, slouchy and smug and alluring. They take you by the elbow and into a tiny lift that smells of smoke, and then they seat you at a table and smile and bring you champagne; and then two hours later they turf you back onto the street, less $300, dignity and several years of your life.
5. Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear power plants: not nearly as tourist-friendly as you might imagine.