Reflections

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Jeolla,
Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our experience of Japan, I think it's fair to say, has not been what either of us expected. I think the most disappointing aspect has been the impenetrability of the culture. The Japanese are polite and will go well out of their way to help you but they are always holding something back. However much they give, there is a wealth they are not prepared to share. They are so reserved, so cautious that you can't help but feel an underlying coldness. I would like to say it was indifference but it is not. It is worse than that. It is a conservative mistrust, a cultural judgementalism and in many respects it makes for a similar experience to living amongst the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill. You will never be a part of this culture. You are not good enough. Please leave us alone.


Before coming to Japan I had two preconceptions (amongst many more) that have proved to be wrong and/or misleading. I was expecting a very modern country and I was expecting a very densely populated country.
I was expecting the modernity of this modern country to all be high-tech and futuristic. I was expecting sci-fi living. I was expecting everything to be new, slick, sparkling, for everything to have been built within the last fifteen years out of newly synthasised materials. This is not the case.
Whilst it is true that the only 'old' buildings are the occasional temple, the extent of the modernity was not immediately apparent. It was only after a while, a week or two of travelling up and down the country looking out of train windows that we began to become aware that everything we saw had been built in the last fifty years. Not the field systems and underlying topography - these things are truly ancient and mask somehow the crude modernity - but all the buildings, all the structures are modern. Not new, but modern. They are all cursed with the bland homogenies of concrete and faux-stone cladding. They are all marred with that depressing reality that modernity brings that is not a futuristic vision of how things could be but a mundane expression of how things actually are.
Whilst in many countries you would expect to see tracts of cities like this, areas of towns, you would similarly expect to see the old quarter or a village form the 18th century down the road. You would expect an ancient country to be composed of buildings from all different eras but this is not the case with Japan. Here, the modernity that everybody speaks of is really the result of the extent of carpet bombing at the end of WWII and the subsequent American-led reconstruction with car as king and grid as his dominant queen.
As for the population density, I was expecting Blade Runner-esque capsule living, high-rise and pod-like. Whilst undoubtedly examples of these can be found, again the density of living was not immediately apparent. Again it was only after a few weeks that we realised that it is just a certain relentless level of density that continues everywhere and does not let up - a level of density that you expect in the centre of any major metropolis. The difference is, in those places you would also expect it to give way to smaller towns, to villages and eventually to large tracts of farmland or uncultivated wilderness. In Japan this is not the case, or does not feel like it is. Here there is no let up. The same density quota is afforded to a family in a city as a to a family in the countryside. The living unit does not change.


And finally...the main hindrance to our full appreciation and enjoyment of Japan was the controlled, prescribed nature in which we were expected to experience everything. There was no adventure, no discovery, but more than this, there was no opportunity to engage with the country on our own level.
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