Saturday, March 16, 2013
A tiny unexpected pleasure
What the hell, we thought, the weather has at last turned sweet so why not take a short break outside the city? So we reserved a room at Kawaseki-en, a great rambling Japanese inn in Yugawara, a town bubbling with hot springs geared for bathing, which we knew to have excellent food and its own fine bathing facilities, including several small private baths which couples could reserve for themselves, all for 50,000 yen a night including an elaborate dinner and breakfast. (Top-class ryokan where you eat from antique bowls and the furniture is museum quality can cost twice as much.)
After we had settled in, we decided to explore the area.
Sprawling Makuyama Park accommodates a series of hiking courses and a great rolling slope called Yugawara Bairin planted with a variety of flowers, some of which are always in bloom. At this time of the year, the plum is just coming into bloom and the mountain is laced with flowering pink.
People come from all over the country to wander through this grove of flowering pink plum, whose fragrance seems to roll down the mountain in clouds.
But first we had to trudge up the long long road to the beginning of the flowering slope, past the tangle of cars with license plates from all over the country, past dozens of roadside stands offering cups of tea and baskets of just-harvested mikan tangerines. When we finally got to the flowering slope itself, we were encouraged to carry on and offered hiking sticks to make the climb easier. It was also suggested that we might like to take off our hiking boots and dunk our tired feet into a wooden enclosure filled with hot water from a local spring and white stones to massage our soles.
After a few minutes in this foot bath, which was so hot it takes a minute or two for our feet to adjust, all the while looking up at the flowering hillside, many people decide that they don't really need to climb the slope after all, that this is as far as they need to go. After all, they can see the flowering plum very well from here, with their feet resting relaxed in the foot bath, and can smell the plum very well too. Ahhhh.
This is the best time to view the plum, said the man next to me with his feet soaking - the plum is almost in full bloom. Full bloom is too late, he said. A little lesson in Japanese aesthetics.
- Alphonse de Tiende
Friday, March 8, 2013
In Tokyo almost everyone has a bicycle. Bicycles are the best way to get to the station unless you can walk or are reasonably near a bus stop. To get to the station, a car is a bother or at worst, useless. So every day millions of bicycles find their way to stations and there's the problem: where to park them.
Suburban stations have their own bicycle parking lots, which cost maybe 100 yen a day and are presided over by a local character. So far so good, but there are usually so many bicycles to be parked that their parking lot occupies as much ground as the station itself, and as this is valuable land right next to the station there is great pressure to use it for something more productive than to park bikes. Of course there's always the rogue crowd willing to take a chance and park their bike illegally on the sidewalk, although they know there's a fair chance the police will come by with a large flat-bed truck and simply load up all the illegally parked bikes and take them away, nobody knows where.
|Bicycles illegally parked on sidewalk outside Hiyoshi Station|
The problem is particularly acute at major stations like Shibuya and Shinagawa, where somehow space has to be found to park thousands of bicycles but there is no space around these densely urban stations for anything as frivolous as a bicycle parking lot.
To this problem a very Tokyo solution has evolved. At many of Tokyo's major stations a tower has been erected. The tower can be up to five stories high and can accommodate many hundreds of bike racks. Alternately, this towering five-story parking lot tower can be located underground. In fact, underground parking lots seem to be the most popular because nobody sees the ugly brutes.
But think, just after the offices let their minions out, there is going to be a rush to retrieve hundreds of bikes at once. What makes this solution workable is a very efficient, very rapid elevator which can bring your bike back to you in 22 seconds.
The routine is: you take your bike to the parking facility, swipe a card across the reader to identify your bike, then wheel your bike up to the door. The door will open and a set of arms will take your bike from you and the door will close. When you want your bike back, you swipe your card across the reader and your bike will be wheeled from the depths of the facility onto the elevator and whisked back to you. The website www.maniacworld.com/tokyo-bicycle-parking-tower.html shows how it all works.
There are a number of these automated bike parking lots around Tokyo and more are under construction.
In Yokohama, there is an automated automobile parking lot which works similarly. What is notable here is that the automobiles are parked stacked on top of each other with a three-inch clearance.
- Zeke Suzuki
Sunday, March 3, 2013
This cozy country
So Esquire columnist Bob Greene comes to Tokyo and freaks out - all this bowing, people so energetic, naked ladies and Miami Vice in Japanese on TV - and goes home exhausted, suffering from cultural concussion.
It works the other way too, of course. A Japanese engineer I know, a sophisticated guy who has figured out a way to record the entire Library of Congress on a single compact disc, comes to me and says he has been invited to give a ten-minute presentation of his work at Bell Labs in New Jersey and he wants to know how to greet them.
Ours has to be the last generation which clutches when it travels to the other side of the world.
It must be less traumatic for foreigners to come to Japan, though, than for Japanese to venture abroad. Japan is so cozy, and abroad is so, well, brusque.
Think of it this way: Japanese go to New York and immediately get yelled at for not closing the taxi door, then they get looked at strangely for waiting for the green light before crossing the street. They conclude that New York is the frontier.
All sorts of functionaries make it plain that they expect to be tipped (even for opening the door of a taxi - in Japan the taxi driver pulls a lever to open and close the door for you, an indulgence it's easy for Japanese to take for granted when traveling abroad), but nobody seems grateful for the amount they are given. (There is in Japan no custom of tipping.) Purchases are hardly wrapped, if at all, and nobody seems much concerned about being polite.
Japanese travelers leafing through magazines at a New York newsstand quickly learn they are not encouraged to do so although in Japan it is perfectly OK. They discover that American cars have names like Matador and Cobra and the advertisements for them snarl about horsepower and brakes. They recall wistfully that Japanese cars have names like "Parsley" and "Ballade" and that advertisements for them show young people holding hands.
In New York, buildings are monstrous, closing out the sky, while the open spaces of America extend to an empty horizon. Japanese think of the landscape of both urban and rural America as bleak, lonely, uncomfortably majestic. In Japan, there is no "Marlboro Country" which demands to be lived up to ("Golden Bat" country, maybe), and in Tokyo there are no boulevards scaled to make the stroller feel insignificant. All Tokyo is a jumble, like the family living room on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Japanese go to the States and see television news featuring anchor people (tough, rugged nomenclature, that) who speak with enormous confidence and tremendous vigor. In Tokyo, TV is more low key, as if it were put on by the neighborhood amateur dramatic society or a bunch of friends in a silly mood.
American sports on TV seem to celebrate aggression - the slow-motion playbacks seldom analyze form, but focus on people getting hammered. Favorite sports on Japanese TV are high-school baseball tournaments, marathons through the middle of large cities while the citizenry waves little paper flags as encouragement, and sumo, which although certainly violent (for several seconds at a time) is so drenched in ritual and weighed down by the roly-poly physiques of its participants that it only serves to underline the singularity of an act of violence.
In America, few people seem to have a hometown to return to. Everybody has to pump their own gas. Drunks are hauled off to jail. Children are scolded in public. People write angry things on the sides of buildings. Handshakes are wrestling matches. It is difficult to spell people's names and they never give you their visiting card. A party means standing holding a strong drink while trying to make conversation with people you have never met. People are surprised when a train is on time.
Japan, on the other hand, is a country where infants are carried warm and snug on their mother's back or nestled in a pouch on their front, pampered with cute little toys (the Japanese cute toy industry is big business), and sung the sweetest nursery songs in the world. When they reach kindergarten, Japan Railways, like a proud father, hangs their watercolors in the stations.
The Japanese grow up accustomed to being fussed over and as adults the habit lingers. In Japan, as evening approaches the shoji shutters of the house are pulled closed and after a hot bath drawn up to the chin and a dinner prepared by the loving lady of the house, the family arranges itself around the kotatsu, a warm blanket over a low table under which an electric fire glows) to sip sweet juices or warm sake. (Japan must be the only country whose national drink is coddled.) After an hour or two of easy conversation - rapier witticisms and thundering arguments are not encouraged - the family finishes off with bowls of ochazuke, rice pablum, a dish which puts few demands on the digestive system, then rolls into beds laid out on the tatami inches away from each other which cannot be fallen out of. Rabbit hutches, by definition, are cozy.
In the morning, the Japanese are swept off to work on a tide of fellow commuters. The train is crowded, as the womb is crowded, but there is no cause for anxiety because each stop is carefully announced in dulcet tones and everyone is told to hang on tight as the train approaches a curve and reminded not to forget their umbrellas. It is like being taken to school by mother.
In Japan, the whole country is one great commune. Almost everyone describes themselves as "middle class," and there is little of the gnawing pressure to improve oneself that drives Americans. There's a single time zone and a single language. The country's schoolchildren all study the same textbooks to the same schedule. To venture forth from Japan is for a Japanese like leaving the bed for a blizzard.
The Japanese police are avuncular to the point of being prepared to lend carfare. They take kids aside for walking sloppily or riding their bike in a reckless manner, and they make it their business to know when a baby is born on their beat. The Tokyo subways put up artful posters reminding people not to get their fingers caught in the closing doors and to surrender their seats to their elders.
At stoplights Japanese drivers switch off their high beams so as not to dazzle the driver in front. A phone call brings bowls of noodles to any house any time, even in a downpour. A child crossing the street holding up one of the yellow flags obtainable from a box at the crossing could stop an army. Visitors to the house, even the paperboy on a collection run, bring a little gift. When you join a Japanese organization, you can expect a welcoming party in your honor. The whole country saves old newspapers.
Youngsters who want to be thought of as malcontents cut their hair bebop style and wear black nylon jackets which say something like BAD SOLDIER TEAM WORLD WAR ESTABLISHED 1987 across the back. Japanese painters of a romantic inclination have to move to Paris because in Tokyo there is no Sturm or Drang.
When American students from the American School who have grown up in Japan go abroad to experience what their parents insist is their homeland, they come back reeling. Life in Tokyo is a snuggle; life abroad is a hockey game.
Can foreigners resident in Japan partake of this coziness? Absolutely, but they should be wary. It is addictive.
- Rick Kennedy