Sunday, June 25, 2006

At Home in the Kingdom of Small Things

Got into Tokyo late Tuesday evening and have spent the week settling into the new place and battling against jet lag. The first thing that struck me during my first hour in Tokyo is the scent of the train. Given that it was still before dinner time and the trains hadn't been polluted by alcohol smell, the scent was quite nice. Sweet, soapy, warm, and it reminded me of traditional bath houses in Japan. I used to think Americans are obsessed with personal hygiene - just look at how many times some Americans take showers in a day and how big drug stores like CVS's are. Though being here I realized that Japan is a country that tops the U.S. for the amount of toiletries sold. Today I even came across a drug store that sold some of my favorite fruity alcoholic coolers. Mmm ... サワーは夏の思い出なのだ!

I can't remember how many times I've visited Japan. Still, everytime I'm here, I continue to discover new things that amaze me and old mysteries that I've never come to solve. To start with some of the new discoveries:

- Japanese cafe owners/coffee drinkers perhaps like to keep their privacy intact and their presence *unseen* when they sit in cafe's and sip their expresso's or ice milk tea (the best in the world I have to say). Whereas big glass windows often mark the greatest attraction point for most cafe's in the U.S., in Japan, the fewer windows the better it seems like, esp. for the old-style kissaten (tea room) or neighborhood coffee shop visited nowadays by people above the 60's. Why is that that cafe windows are rather kept small and foggy here in Japan? The past few days I even walked by cafe's that purposely plant miniature trees right by the windows in order to block people-watching from the inside and pedestrians' curiosity from the outside. Foggy/colored glass windows also seem to be favored.

- Somehow despite Japan's super modern urban development, a certain traditional ways of living never get to change. The area of interior space is measured not by square meters but by the number of tatami mats. My current studio is said to be only 6 tatami-mat big, a standard, comfortable size for one person's living as some Japanese told me. Comfortable?!? Are you kidding me? I don't even have space to put my rice cooker and whenever any cooking attempts are made, all pots and pens and utensils have to find their temporary shelter on the floor. Although I am falling in love with my futon here. Mind you that this isn't the futon usually seen or used in the U.S. My futon set literary consists of a) no frame b) no mattress and c) just a light, spongy futon bottom + a soft mat + a regular blanket. The first night I had problems trying to figure out what layer goes where and which mat goes on top of the other. Though now I totally love it and thank it for saving so much space during the day. I only wish I have a real closet so that I could imagine what Nobita-kun and Doraemon talk about late in the evening separated by a thin sliding closet door.

And yes, when I sit on my toilet, my knees are still 3 cm away from the bathroom door. That part of the interior design remains the same, like last year's weekly mansion.

- The sense of community ... Alright, I know that this is a beat topic discussed by academics or foreigners ALL THE TIME who study/visit Japan. But the idea of a tight community consciousness still continues to amaze me. Just two days ago a 16-year-old high schooler set fire on his own house, killing his step mother and half sister. Not that this isn't a tragic event worth reporting, but to report it literarily non-stop for a day straight with every possible detail about the incident and the young boy covered just baffled me. Aren't incidents as such happen all the time? Why does the media community as well as the public seem so shocked by the event? I used to think only in a tiny island like Taiwan, which has 6 or 7 24-hour cable news TV stations, would a *local* news as such takes center stage. Japan isn't necessarily that different, except that it remains selective to the local news reported nation-wide. When I was munching down my breakfast while flipping through the channels where every single news program was giving a detailed coverage of the incident, I was thinking - now someone is going to jump out and make some far-fetched claims like "morality is lost among the Japanese adolescents" or "what has happened to our younger generation?!?". A min. later, one of the program hosts that was having a round-table discussion with 4 other academics/commentaries indeed made that claim as his final remark for the hour.

- Cats vs. grave yard. Now, what's the connection? The first day when I arrived, I immediately realized that there are a ton of cats in the neighborhood. At first I thought my neighbors just have the interesting habits of letting their cats out for some sun-bathing time till dinner. The same night when I walked back from the 100-yen shop I realized that, no no, these are actually wild cats. Then I started noticing the 4 or 5 temples in the area and thought, wow, I actually am living right next door to a grave yard here ... Could it be that these wild cats fill their stomachs by snatching the food offerings left in the grave yard? Now back in childhood people used to scare me by saying that cats can sense the diseased spirit (if not see them), and seeing a black cat, for example, passing by is considered extremely bad luck ... Hm, fortunately I haven't spotted any black cats in the area, otherwise I perhaps would really consider going home earlier than usual from this point on ...

A few things that remain mysterious for years and still I haven't figured out the reason for:

- Japanese in general smoke A LOT. Gender equality has achieved its true milestone in this particular area in life as men and women both smoke a lot, and the latter do not seem to be judged upon a double standard. The question is - given how much Japanese smoke, how are they able to live such long lives? Is it about the diet, the tea, the bike riding, or some other unknown reasons?

- Ladies here wear the most uncomfortable-looking high-heels in my opinion. Now, how do they manage to walk such long distance each day with a lot of climbing up and down the subway stairs?

- Kingdom of small things ... That's right. Now it makes more sense to me why my room this past year was filled with tiny, useless decorative items that really cost me so much time to pack up at the end. I went to LOFT yesterday, a giant household supplies department store that literally has everything and anything one could ever think of to use or put in the house. The amount of commodities in there was amazing, and the amount of *useless* commodities was beyond imagination. Purely for the aesthetics? Maybe ... The "kingdom of small things" - I think that's how I'm going to call Japan from now on. And already, I bought two completely useless stuff yesterday on the street - one strawberry-parfait-looking magnet and another lemon-kakikori magnet. Completely useless, but I couldn't help myself. This afternoon I even walked by "food models" shops, those that make all the plastic food models for restaurants. Why in the world do food models cost twice as much as real food?

- Kingdom of beer houses. Yes, and it's amazing how many beer houses per square meter are out here in EVERY Tokyo neighborhood. And the most amazing thing is - they always have customers sitting there sipping osake till closing hours. How do people find their favorite beer houses that they keep going back to? How do these beer houses compete with one another given the explosive amount of beer houses out there? Someone took me to the "Golden-gai" in Shinjuku and literally there are 20 bars lined up in each tiny alley, each with such distinctive character and diverse menu's. How do people choose? How do the venues stay profitable?

- Last but not least - why in the world is Tokyo city gov't STILL building new subway lines and express train lines? And they even bother to keep the bus system running even though subway stations are fully accessible from all corners of the city. Most of all - how do buses get to always be on time here? My professor told me that given the high suicide rate at train stations in Japan, people have somehow managed to take suicide accidents into consideration when they create the time table in order to make sure that with a few suicide incidents happening in the day the trains could still run on time. Am I supposed to offer my round of applause for that or to shake my head and sigh?

梅ちゃん at 12:02:00 AM



at 6/25/06, 7:53 AM Blogger ferdinandhui said...

Wow... It's been a long time since you've posted!
:) Enjoy Nippon!

at 6/25/06, 4:30 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't you translate this entry into Chinese and send it to Mr. Cnen Yi-chih, the editor for the literary page of the United Daily News. These days only Prof. Lin Wen-yui occasionally contributes articles about things of Japan to that page. Given a lot of people in Taiwan are interested in things of Japan, I think you are duty-bound to write a few pieces to the readers. The reason that you can probably do a good job is that you have the comparative perspective:Chinese,American and Japanese. When you do write, I think the comparative approach will be very interesting to readers who do not have such a backgound. The trick for becoming a writer is to just write. No body can swim by reading books about swiming only. If you don't jump into water, you can never swim. In your case, you have already written: bloggings, but not sending them to the newspapers or magazines. Why don't do it this summer? I can suggest a few topics for you to write about:courtesy (li-mao)issue, drinking habit, festivals, gender equality, cleanness (personal and enviromental), life style of the younger generation, etc.I think the so-called Japaneseness of today is different from that as we understood from reading books by Ruth Benedict, Reishauer, or the guy who wrote Japan as NO.1. I think because of your comparative living experiences, you can shed light on Japanese people and life style of today better than other observers of Japan can.

When do you plan to come home? What are you doing in Japan these days?

at 6/28/06, 12:14 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the statement about the "kingdom of small things", which i do admit is in some ways cultural, but is also pervasive to certain personality types all over the world. perhaps some cultures readily accept and cater to certain types of people more than others.



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