AN ALIEN IN JA­PAN

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

War mu­se­ums ded­i­cated to peace, holo­graphic pop stars, vag­ina washes and po­lite racism – Ja­pan has it all, dis­cov­ers Jesse Archer.

At a club called Dragon in Shin­juku NiChome, Tokyo’s gay strip, a drag queen dances with her G-string yanked high above her cut-off den­ims. She wears mul­ti­ple bras and keeps hoist­ing them up to look in­side, check­ing to see if maybe she’s grown breasts. As the mu­sic ac­cel­er­ates, a bar­tender joins her on the dance floor and, when the beats cli­max, smashes a glass on the ground in joy­ous punc­tu­a­tion. On the floor be­hind us, a man is passed out cold, quite pos­si­bly dead. Out­side, the sun is al­ready up.

On the first night of my two-week Ja­panese ad­ven­ture, this is not the re­served, mild­man­nered Ja­pan I’d imag­ined. Then again, the chaos at Dragon is very dif­fer­ent to the ex­pe­ri­ence we’d had ar­riv­ing that af­ter­noon. The Narita Ex­press into Tokyo works like clock­work. Hostesses en­ter and exit the car­riage with a bow, serv­ing ev­ery­thing from candy to sake, but no­body is get­ting drunk. Out of re­spect, no­body even talks on their cell phones.

The first thing you no­tice about Ja­pan is just how civilised it is. Tokyo is the kind of place you could leave your wal­let full of cash on a crowded sub­way and still get it back. Clean, or­derly and so quiet that even the am­bu­lance siren is more of a lulling chime. The Ja­panese cover their mouths when they laugh or ex­press ex­cite­ment. I’m still cu­ri­ous to know if they also do this at or­gasm.

In a pop cul­ture move­ment known as kawaii, car­toon mas­cots grace Ja­panese fire sta­tions, the front of buses and even po­lice ve­hi­cles. If that’s not cute enough, ev­ery­thing is minia­ture – door frames, beds, even the uri­nals are adorable. And they’ve thought of ev­ery­thing: be­side those uri­nals are con­ve­nient hooks on which to hang um­brel­las. At the el­e­va­tor there’s a pad you can touch to avoid static elec­tric­ity. Toi­let seats are post-mod­ern bidets with heat, mu­sic, plus an ass wash and blow dry. I even tried the vag­ina splash to see where my vag­ina might be (and was mor­ti­fied to learn it is not nearly as tiny as I’d like).

Many tourists have a lost-in-trans­la­tion dis­con­nected ex­pe­ri­ence in Ja­pan. The Ja­panese don’t speak much English and I’d heard that be­hind their gra­cious­ness is a veiled dis­taste for for­eign­ers. In Shin­juku Ni-Chome, whites are wel­come at bars like Dragon, Arty Farty or An­nex – but other wa­ter­ing holes were “full” or “closed”, when they were quite ob­vi­ously nei­ther. On mo­bile dat­ing apps, pro­files were writ­ten in Ja­panese but two words in English jumped out: “Ja­panese Only”. Hav­ing seen so many “no Asians” on pro­files back home, it al­most felt fair to dis­cover this un­nec­es­sary rude­ness works both ways.

In Hiroshima, one host­ess po­litely said her restau­rant was “full” when we tried to en­ter. Af­ter we pointed out that this wasn’t true, she smiled and said it was “pri­vate”. When the Ja­panese are racist, they’re ab­so­lutely lovely about it. It’s un­der­stand­able they might not want Western­ers for din­ner in Hiroshima but then, di­rectly af­ter­ward, the chef at another restau­rant asked where we were from and gave us free food right off his grill.

Con­tra­dic­tions make life in­ter­est­ing. This small is­land is a for­mi­da­ble world power yet they are mod­est. Their car­toons are child­ish but of­ten deeply sex­u­alised. Pop star Hat­sune Miku is only a holo­gram but sells out her con­certs to the same fan base that made Alyssa Mi­lano’s mu­sic ca­reer big in Ja­pan. Toi­lets, trains and tech­nol­ogy are fu­tur­is­tic, but they still have Tower Records, smoke in restau­rants and drink the ’90s-era malt liquor, Zima. They are de­mure but what the hell are they do­ing to dol­phins in The Cove?

Ja­pan had never been at the top of my travel to-do list. Poké­mon, karaoke and cheesy peace signs in ev­ery mil­lionth photo hadn’t tempted me to visit. Two-hun­dred years of “splen­did iso­la­tion” didn’t warm Ja­pan to the idea of taint­ing or di­lut­ing its cul­ture. The Ja­panese word for for­eigner, gai­jin, means “alien”. Hav­ing vis­ited, per­haps this is to their credit. So much of the world is in­un­dated with global brands, re­cy­cled ideas and junk, that too of­ten what we term for­eign is only a wa­tered-down im­i­ta­tion of some­place else. Not Ja­pan. That iso­la­tion­ism evolved a cul­ture that is fan­tas­ti­cally, im­pen­e­tra­bly rich in its food, cus­tom and tra­di­tion. Ja­pan is cer­tainly a for­eign, new ex­pe­ri­ence and their out­ward cour­te­ous­ness, if over the top, is con­ta­gious. Af­ter hold­ing the door of a con­ve­nience store open for one old woman, she bowed so many times you’d have thought I gave her a kid­ney.

Ja­pan leads the world in el­derly cit­i­zens (23 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion is over 65), but it is also num­ber one in the world for life ex­pectancy. It’s easy to see why. Re­turn­ing home to a city full of peo­ple cut­ting the queue and squawk­ing on their phones in the sub­way, I re­called how in Ja­pan I hadn’t felt any stress at all. For two weeks I’d hardly spo­ken above a whis­per.

Ubiq­ui­tous vend­ing ma­chines sell drinks in ev­ery colour of the rain­bow. Pop Star Hat­sune Miku is the “new sound of the fu­ture”.

Hang­ing out with the lo­cals at Miya­jima

Down­town Tokyo.

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