AN ALIEN IN JAPAN
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