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    Old Japan

    I probably would have missed this had Susanna not shot me an e-mail about it: Roger Simon is in Japan and is posting photos and impressions of his stay in Nikko. Worth reading. One thing he said is heartbreakingly true:

    English is only sparingly spoken here [at the inn where he’s staying] and all of the other patrons are Japanese. They seem to be more in search of Old Japan than even this gaijin.

    Yes. There are Japanophile Westerners who get all woozy over “traditional Japanese culture” in a way that makes it seem they care for nothing beyond having somewhere quaint and exotic and Zen and Oriental to go in order to fill in their own spiritual void. But you don’t have to adopt that condescending perspective to see that the Japanese people’s relationship with modernization is complex and not as resolutely amicable as it’s often made to seem.

    Tokyo is a striking city–I’ve lived here for almost a decade and love it to pieces, but let’s face it: no place on Earth brings the fug like Tokyo. A lot of it really does look like Bladerunner. What Tokyo has going for it, however, is that it’s the largest and most kinetic megalopolis in the developed world. Its expansive affluence and churning, insane vitality mean you don’t mind the drabness so much.

    Where the ugliness of modern Japan really makes you want to weep is in places such as Kyoto. Nothing quite prepares you for when you alight at the new Kyoto Station, prepared to immerse yourself in one of the most legendarily beautiful cities in the world…and realize that you’re inside a big modernist glass box of monumental, almost unimaginable hideousness. Across the street from the glass box is the unfortunate Kyoto Tower Hotel, which looks like a giant toilet brush in its stand. The downtown is full of the unprepossessing stucco-ish and tiled building facades you can see anywhere in Japan. Of course, the temples and a few select old neighborhoods really are as gorgeous as you expect. Atsushi and I were there in the fall of 2001 when the leaves were just reaching their peak. It was magical–until you came back down the mountain into the city. Then you may as well have been in Nagoya.

    Japanese people realize that the way they’ve modernized, impressive as it is, has not produced a happy medium. Unfortunately, building codes and public works projects don’t show much sign of changing, and the architects who have found imaginative ways to integrate old-fashioned Japanese ideas of structure with modern technology and materials are way outnumbered by those who are content to design big, characterless boxes. Or who go headlong in the other direction and generate designs for buildings that are so trippy and “experimental” as to be user-unfriendly.

    A lot of the “traditional” Japanese inns have the same visible air conditioning units and formica furniture and artificial fibers that you see elsewhere here. What they have going for them are the water and rock- and cedar-lined baths. And they’re not as crowded as the commuter trains. I’m not sure Tanizaki would have approved, but that’s about as close to nature as life gets for most people these days.

    5 Responses to “Old Japan”

    1. Joel says:

      I largely agree with your points, but I think your big-city Tokyo perspective leads you to overstate the lack of nature a bit. Japanese nature is under pretty tight control, just like Japanese society, but it’s there, and usually only a train ride or two away.

      Solitude, though–that’s another matter.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Oh, yeah, I guess I should have mentioned that I assume Simon and his family are at the sort of expensive onsen that mostly has guests looking to escape Tokyo. But I think there’s a higher percentage of people like that than elsewhere. Not everyone in Japan lives in Tokyo (though sometimes I feel as if everyone in Japan were with me on the same train car), but the countryside really emptied out over the last century, and something like 80% of the population is non-rural.

    3. John says:

      Sean, I mostly agree with you, but to my Western eyes, what I loved most about Tokyo was that you can be in a gritty urban area like Shinagawa, turn the corner and be somewhere like this.

      The Japanophile Westerners really crawl up my nose, too. The best retort to that attitude I ever saw was in and “Ask the Sensei” column at Let’s Japan:

      “… like those postcards you see of a guy in a rice field with an ox and bamboo hat that some mint tea drinking liberal will tell you is the REAL Japan. Let me tell you, the real Japan is a 30-something guy with a deck of Mild Sevens and a One Cup spending a few hours in a pachinko parlor. ”

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      John, to me the problem with that stuff in Tokyo is, you just have to look up 30 degrees to see electrical cables, telephone polls, and corrugated-tin buildings in the middle distance. You have to shrink into yourself to feel as if you were seriously surrounded by nature. I mean, the little shrines and parks are very pretty–I go to the inner pond at the Meiji Shrine pretty frequently–but it’s hard to lose yourself in them (the way you can in certain places in Central Park).

    5. John says:

      True, true. You’ve been in Tokyo much longer than I was, so the intrusion of civilzation into the green space probably wears on you. I found it slightly charming.

      You can lose yourself in the South end of Shinjuku Gyoen (or in the butterfly hothouse), though. My wife and I used to eat lunch at the pavillion by the pond in the summer because it weas a short hop from work for me, and an easy jump from our house. That and Umegaoka were my favorite escapes in the city.

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