Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The other side of Japanese culture

Japan - land of contradictions. Refined and healthy, as the stereotype would have it. But look deeper - rough and indulgent emerges. The culture that captivates me with its attention to detail and eye for quiet beauty, my first visit to Japan allowed me to see past the obviousness of the Japanese subtlety, and into the other side.


Kaiseki dinners, bento box lunches, sushi & sashimi on one side. Beautiful, light, healthy. Meet okonomiyaki with yakisoba. Omelet covered with thick layer of salty brown sauce and mayonaise, fried on a greased teppan grill, served with noodle stir-fried with bacon in melted lard. I suppose enormous amount of pickled ginger inside the omelet is aimed at neutralizing the ill-effects of the fat. Apparently a local favorite in Kyoto.


Kimono? Forget it. Japanese ladies these days are screaming to stand out. And in doing so, they all seem to look the same. Long brown-dyed hair falling over doll-like whitened faces, above-knee boots, 4-inch heels, and mini-skirt revealing plenty of baby-pale skin, regardless of the frost outside. Striking not subtle. In a country that seems to run on conformity and imitation, the devil lurks beneath. Mini-skirt uniforms for school girls. With sex appeal. Boarding school wear for boys. Professional men all seem to put on the same suit and tie - an army ready to take on the business world, they escape during lunch hour to a local 7-Eleven to catch the latest edition of a favorite manga (Japanese print cartoons).


A slight nod, a quiet grunt; important is what is unsaid, not what is said. Profound etiquette and humbleness, non-drinking culture rooted in Zen Buddhism? Walk through downtown streets at night, and drunken Japanese suits are loud and stumbling. Ride a subway train during a busy hour, and a tidal wave of polite and very well dressed people will sweep you, pack you in the train like a sardine, people leaning on you more intimately than your kin, holding on to you not handrails. Doors open, another wave rolls in, you are packed even tighter, no arguments, no funny looks, no funny smells, thank goodness for that! At 5'7", I feel large and imposing. In our friends' car, they turn on live HDTV, perfect reception, at 5pm we watch Sumo tournament. For days, men-mountains collide to force the other out of the ring. Japan's ancient and favorite sport, fantasy and self-image of the inner giant in the psyche of the petite.


Traditional stark homes with clean lines and muted colors are relegated to museums and historic inns. Today, Japanese homes are modern and utilitarian, albeit space is at a huge premium, so rooms are compact. Awe-inspiring examples of modernity are seen everywhere throughout busy neighborhoods - colored glass facades of mega-malls, square mile cubes of "departos" (department malls), exquisite and anything but conformist business and shopping centers, Manhattan has met its match and then some!

Japanese are proud of their tradition, and it is perhaps that pride that gives them confidence to boldly go into the future. These contrasts and contradictions make Japan so fascinating. Repression needs expression. Conformity unites and focuses. Streets and air incredibly clean, people incredibly civil, technology incredibly advanced - Japan feels like the country already in the future, Tokyo the star age metropolis, Kyoto - its Zen counterpart.

One cannot draw generalizations from a single short trip. These are observations, not yet opinions. The culture anything but obvious, layers must be peeled off, time taken to understand and appreciate.


wine clubs said...

Looks like a fun trip. My wife has a peanut allergy so it may never be on our list. For someone that works in the wine industry, the Asian markets(Japan, China and Korea) in peculiar are incredibly interesting places and the most logical areas for growth.

Warren Bobrow said...

I am dyin' to go to Japan. I grew up surrounded by Blade Runner images, Speed Tribes and Sashimi served on every street a different way-NYC in the go go 80's, nightclubs and 24/7 scenes- in Japan, it's that all the time-the trends come from there, not from here. And if the guy next to you is missing his pinky? Don't offer to buy him a drink.

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