Friday, April 09, 2010

These streets will make you feel brand new

If anywhere there is an antipode, the exact opposite to the West, it's here in Japan. Pound for pound, there is probably no place on earth more foreign than here, if you adjust for development. Nowhere else do you find such an insular, complicated culture where cashiers talk like auctioneers while they sell you orange juice, girls walk down the street with hairdos becoming an 18th-century monarch and the language has three distinct writing systems. The culture is vibrant, bizarre and highly complicated, like ours and yet absurdly different at the same time.

Everything in Japan is slightly off, but not in a way that suggests being behind or even being ahead. Rather, Japan seems to exist in a different universe, a glimpse of how life could have been on our planet had a few things been different. The cars drive on the left, the cuisine consists of an intriguing number of raw dishes, the lights are painfully bright, and thin people in tight suits ride bicycles in armies on the street.

What stuns me every time I come here is that from the outside, all the news about Japan is bad. The economy is in a never-ending recession that began 20 years ago, jobs are impossible to get and the country is slowly dying not just due to its stagnant economy but also literally: it's full of old people, with no kids.

On the inside, it seems that none of it can possibly be true. There is no shortage of high-end restaurants and stores. The streets are spotless. Everyone is either well-dressed or has the most outlandish combination of clothes ever seen. Everything is absurdly expensive.

Japan's economy is literally stuck in time. It's economy is slightly smaller than it was 15 years ago. Prices, I'm told, are literally the same as they were 15 years ago. Twenty years ago, Tokyo's real estate bubble meant that the Imperial Palace was worth more than all of California.

When you're in Japan, however, all that fades away. All you can see are the bright lights, the indecipherable signs and advertising. There are pachinko salons everywhere, each with the most garish signage the 22nd century could have produced. As crowds walk by, they trigger the automatic doors so often that it seems the doors are set to automatically close and open. Deafening techno music blares from the pachinko salons, the electronics, clothing and cosmetics stores, as well as the billboards.

You can go and wander the streets for hours, roaming labyrinthine stores selling indecipherable products at prices that would make sense if you had any idea what was being sold. The dance music alternates with pre-recorded, high-pitched enthusiastic exhortations. Sometimes the mystery product is beef jerky, other times it's not cheese but cosmetics. Sometimes what you thought was rice on the diner's vending machine is actually a fried egg. Sometimes you just have no idea.


Jennifer said...

I love this post. You really captured the essence of being there.

And I even understand the song reference in the title. But I am not as in tune as you are with the negative publicity Japan seems to get from the outside. My image of Japan fits what you describe. Perhaps that's because I have a friend who lived there and others who have been there more recently.

Alex said...

What is a pachinko salon?

Adeel said...

What isn't a pachinko salon?

Actually, I didn't know myself. I put the question to my friend, and I was informed that basically it's like a slot machine.