Another country

Lisa is our mutual acquaintance. After deciding we quite wanted to go to Japan, we sent her a facebook message, the first communication since leaving the same school four years ago, and about as much as we exchanged in our six years there. Did she have any friends who might want to come and stay with us in England and in return could host us in Tokyo? A “life swap”, we called it. A cheaper alternative to regular travelling, with the additional, integral bonus of providing a genuine insight into the others’ culture and family life, the food, the manners and mores, the idiosyncrasies. Mayu was her answer.

Mayu Kanai (her name really is a lesson in English grammar) and her mother picked us up from Kichijoji station after a twelve hour flight, a two hour bus journey and some incidents of miscommunication in Tokyo Narita airport. This was clearly going to be a three-week long game of charades, although maybe more exciting than the obligatory Boxing Day version. Polite, awkward conversation ensued, as might be expected when preparing to spend several days in the house of a person who one has only met (indirectly) on the internet.
 “The flight was fine thanks, thanks so much for picking us up. Mmmm, wow, aren’t there a lot of cars in Tokyo? Ummm, no, we’re not sure how long we’re staying. No, we haven’t spoken to Lisa in a while.”

Twenty minutes after our first physical meeting at the bus stop, we pulled up to a small brown house with the name “Kanai” on a gold plaque at the gate. Shortly afterwards we found ourselves perched on a raised bamboo mat in Mayu’s tiny, cluttered bedroom, surrounded by a moat of Harrods teddies, glittery trinkets and fluffy toys crammed together beneath a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stickers and hanging charms. Tears of joy trickled down our faces, hands in mouths stifled laughter, our faces went red with embarrassment as our staying meant Mayu would be sleeping on the sofa for the entirety of our stay. We were in Japan, and so far it was just as we’d hoped.

We should mention that we were fully aware of the geeky-seedy undertones associated with the internet label attached to a holiday such as ours. We were aware of the scepticism of our contemporaries, the potential audacity of our initial emails, the possibility of a dire hostess, a scary mother, inedible food. But we were adamant to discover even a diminutive fraction of Japan and a lack of funds, language and contacts rendered a “facebook exchange” the only solution.

As it does for many Westerners, Tokyo has always held a vague attraction as a futuristic megacity, shaped by an array of Japanese images that have surfaced in Europe: the cityscape depicted in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, in which a Western audience are made to feel illiterate, dumb, unable to fathom an alien urbanity; the astonishing photographs featured in Shoichi Aoki’s Fruits, a book which captures the bizarre fashion of Tokyo youth. Odd images had collected to form a strange, cartoon land where Hello Kitty ate sushi and where the great concrete cities ejected bullet trains into the surreal landscapes of the countryside.

Why is Japan so utterly singular in the modern world? Is it their history? Their glorious isolation as an island state? What created such a schizophrenic contemporary psyche – fully desirous of becoming “Americanised” yet keen to stay a world apart? Maybe it is the technological progression unrivalled elsewhere, the weird all-singing, all-performing loos, the magnificent architecture, the sushi, the beautiful botanical gardens, the maintained tradition of the temples.

But whatever intrigue held, and any expectation made, every single one was vastly exceeded. In Tokyo there are brighter flashing lights and bigger neon signs, glaring over taller buildings which line wider crossings for larger swarms of people en route to faster trains than we had ever dared conceive. There is only one public park and it is illegal to sit down in it. Most people work at least twelve hours a day, usually more. A beer is more expensive than in Dublin; we saw oranges selling for a crisp five euro each. Manga is a way of life. Mayu has a 10 pm curfew despite having spent a year at university in America, being 21 and just about to finish college. At 16 she was sent to a boarding school in England without speaking one word of the language. Apparently it is normal for couples to pay 3,000 Yen for a night in a “pink hotel”, the room complete with a Nintendo Wii, X-box and vast double bed, so as to deceive their respective parents of the intricacies of their relationship. It seems strange that Mario is a popular addition to a surreptitious night of passion. Mayu doesn’t know if she’ll have children – she “wants to work”. They are mutually exclusive it seems. Her mother wants her to stay at home to help with the housework. Her mother has also wanted a divorce for many years but social and financial restrictions have prevented this. Monks from most types of Buddhism can marry, have children, gamble, drink, divorce and get rich.

As expected, the country is awash with shrines and people breathing incense, reading fortunes, splashing water on their lips in a hope to relieve themselves of every sin. But they don’t seem particularly religious in an orthodox, ancient sense. They have slowly filtered out the best bits and as a result they still believe, not necessarily in Gods, but in spirits, in luck, in fate. When did we stop believing?

After a few drinks one night, (one is enough for Mayu’s friend Sakiko), tongues loose and questions flowing, we are told that the Japanese never kiss in clubs. It is typical, should you meet an attractive partner, to swap email addresses, perhaps hold hands, possibly then go on a few dates, and then, if all goes well and you become an item, to kiss. (Followed by a night every few weeks in a pink hotel?) They say that homosexuality is not yet fully socially acceptable, that large tattoos invariably illustrate membership of a gang, drugs are absolutely reserved for addicts and nutjobs and everyone only wants to work for big brands and major institutions. Though this is exactly what we were hoping to discover: exorbitant differences between them and us, outrageous opinions, wild contrasts etc., it does not take long to realise that Sakiko and Mayu are perhaps the tiniest bit naive. But they are not alone, we meet several other young people offering similar assertions, against, admittedly, many others with more comprehendible beliefs. A wander around Shinjuku clarifies that open homosexuality is in fact far more commonplace in Japan than in many of its Asian counterparts and a plethora of fashionable tattoos on trendy young things renders their information fairly obsolete. But it’s sufficiently interesting because it’s what they genuinely think.
This contrast is also abundant in its architecture, its appearance and articulation. Most of us have heard of the cities’ famous juxtapositions; ancient shrines gallantly posing in the shadows of 55-storey sky scrapers; huge flashing electric billboards scaling buildings with brown, unexciting interiors; old mixed with new, bright with bland, fast with slow. But it is a greater contrast than can be depicted in photographs or illustrated by words. The subtleties are in fact heightened by the blatant expressions of everything modern. Every airport, restaurant or house that we entered was decorated with the same characterless brown and beige. This penchant for everything brown is just the Japanese taste – left over from the days of gold lacquered walls and candle light. So while we considered the sandy curtains and dull chocolate-coloured floor as reminiscent of crap motorside diners, the Japanese appreciate the beauty of the shadows, the subtlety of the shades and the intensity of the darkness. Strange for a country so obsessed with change, modernity and all things bright on the outside.
In typical contradictory fashion, Kyoto is much lower rise than Tokyo – older, less aggressive, less crowded, slower-paced. Petite wooden houses balance on the banks of the centrally flowing river and canal, the buildings are generally much lower, the shops more old-fashioned, the clothes less outrageous. But Kyoto station, built in 1997, was an initial warning to all things ancient. It is an immense, hugely controversial but strangely magnificent, steel-structured masterpiece, stuck in the middle of a traditional, quiet and very beautiful city. It boasts a Louvre, perhaps an unflattering comparison to its Parisian equivalent; an Imperial Palace, (not that grand); the original Geisha district, lots of McDonalds’, and, of course, the ever-present, beautifully naff lights.

But what was most unusual in Japan, and was consistent throughout the whole country, was the unwavering kindness and generosity of its people. It seemed they have an inherent duty to make visitors feel welcome, to not just offer directions to a map-reader on the side of the road, but personally take them to their destination. Maintaining the facebook theme, we occasionally updated our status along the lines of ‘does anyone know anyone in Japan?’, and a remarkable response awarded us with friends of friends of friends to stay with dotted all over the country. Toshi hasn’t seen our friend Jasper for 11 years, but a couple of facebook messages later we found ourselves in his elderly parents’ bed in Hiroshima, whilst they slept on the floor next door and he on a chair. We were furnished with multiple pairs of shoes, lighters, tissue boxes and home-cooked meals at every incredibly kind acquaintance we burdened with our stay. “Wow, those are cool drumsticks” (conversation sometimes limited). “Please have them, take them back to your family in England.” Even the shopkeepers, air hostesses, waiters want to please and deliver. Our only concern now is that every future destination may be a disappointment.