Japan is paradoxical in many ways.
Paradox 1: It is exactly like I expected it to be and it is completely different than I expected it to be. How Japan did not meet my expectations: who am I really to be the judge of this country? On the other hand, my perceptions are what they are, and I don't think that I am so na´ve as to look at this land through starry doe eyes, gasping at every tall building that I see
. Tokyo was definitely the mega city that I imagined, but it wasn't the dreamy place that we saw in Lost in Translation, or figments of our imagination. Although it is as compact as people say, and is a clear concrete jungle, it is spread over a huge area, making it difficult to explore over a small period of time. All the transportation runs under-ground, making it impossible to grasp where you are at any given moment. Your sense of the 4 directions is thrown off by the trickiness of the sun and its reflection in the skyscrapers. Every place that is recommended by any tour guidebook is completely overrun by tourists. What is meant to be the most spiritual part of town, Asakusa, a beautiful temple, a magnificent area which still keeps some of the charm of old Japan, with tiny alleys, endless cherry blossoms and various shrines and one huge Buddhist temple, is completely covered with human flesh, from gate to gate to gate. While it is understandable that this area was always somewhat of a market and full of trade, now tiny tourist shops crowd the alleys and solitude in the temple, or on some random steps or in any alley is completely unthinkable. Tourists of all shapes and sizes roam this area shopping for polyester kimonos shouting to each other, over each other. The smell of street meat, corn, chocolate covered bananas and various traditional Japanese snacks fill the air and paper plates, napkins, toothpicks litter the streets of this otherwise immaculate city. As for first impressions, this is not what I expected
. This is because in my mind, I never realized that Japan is one of the highest tourist attractions in the whole world. And as much as I hated working around the Rockefeller Center area around Christmas, being kept captive in our office building because the tourists were so abundant that a lunch-break would imply an hour-long battle past awed crowds staring at an electrocuted tree, which is world famous for god knows what reason, Asakusa and Ginza would be no different. Geared toward the ADD mind of a western tourist, who cannot think to sit though four hours of a Kabuki, ponder upon the simple stones in a rock garden or spend 20 minutes without replenishing his consumerist tendencies. Hey, why not capitalize on tourism; it's smart and a billion dollar market. But I did not spend 600 dollars on a 3 hour plane ticket to have my idealized Japan whisked away from me on a carpet of people clad in shorts, tube socks and Reebok sneakers.
And so this is the story of how Japan did meet my expectations, and how it became the place I would want to visit again and again.
Paradox # 2: Skyscrapers and cherry blossoms. Just like New York, Tokyo is a city that needs to be lived in to be truly known. It's difficult to acquaint yourself with a place without making it somewhat personal. And where is it easier to make things personal than in a cemetery. After some more confusion at the train station, and buying our million dollar tickets to Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train chasing the Japan we all imagined, I brought our little tour group to a cemetery
. WE climbed a long hill, into what seemed like a completely solitary temple with perfectly manicured shrubs and bushes. The garden was divided into various parts, each one devoted to a different deity, each one having a different feel to it, one being spacious and airy, another makes you feel like your are almost indoors, very cozy. From there, we ventured on into the cemetery; in it there was one long alleyway that was covered on both sides with sakura trees in full blossom. Every time the wind blew, the air filled up with tiny petals drifting in the air, landing on the stone and marble tombstones, and cobblestone that we walked on. People were sitting by on the grass enjoying picnics and wine, as if they were sitting in a park, not upon the ground of their dead ancestors. But as we quickly discovered, the cemetery had no eerie feel to it at all. It was full of life and beauty, gnarly trees bent in every direction, grass spurted out of limestone, each tomb had a collection of poles, or rather wooden plaques resembling old-school cross country skis, with different prayers written on them. It seems that the deceased are very much a part of every day life, the cemetery is not old or abandoned or covered with cobwebs, instead it lives, it is well taken care of, and not by the caretaker, but by the people who visit their families frequently, arrange new flowers and bushes and sit around with the various generations alive and past and drink sake reminiscing on good times (I suppose). Our stroll through this area really lifted our spirits and the heaviness that we had felt from the beginning of our crowded day. Here we were alone, to walk and ponder and sometimes share a joke or a random comment. Andrew and papa walked in the pack, taking pictures of everything that they saw, while mama and I headed the parade and watched the huge black crows, the shifts in the direction of tree growth and other such trivialities that made our evening so fun. Also in this area, we found an amazing restaurant, where all of us ate to our hearts' content enjoying every chopstick-full because we were so hungry. Thinking about it makes me hungry; I'm going to go get something to eat.
The time has come for me to place my impressions of the past 2 weeks upon this page yet again. I guess the major difference between these two weeks and all the previous ones is that Andrew and I were hanging out with my parents this whole time. Early Thursday morning, on the 5th we grabbed out minute pieces of luggage and headed down to the u-bus, which took us to the airport. And a mere 3 hours later we climbed off the plane straight into Narita, Japan. And soon enough, after two rather expensive train rides we were walking the streets of Tokyo, looking for our hotel in the Kobayashe district of town. Just like all travels to rather unusual places, this one already seems distant and somewhat surreal.