Category Archives: Japan

MY SKIN IS BARE, MY SKIN IS THEIRS

We love photos of people in natural, unposed situations because they capture a moment at which a person or people were simply living their lives, however active or inactive they were. Errol Morris notes that a posed picture can be just as real and fascinating, and he’s right, but there’s something immediately intriguing about a good picture of someone who’s unaware they’re being photographed. Almost all of us privileged enough to have had access to a camera have tried to take some of these good pictures, and certainly all of us have admired them on the walls of an art gallery or in somebody else’s photo album.

Today I went down to Yuigahama beach, alone, to sit and read a book. (Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, if you must know.) It was reasonably busy – nothing like summer, of course, but it’s getting warmer now and there would’ve been a good couple of hundred people out walking, playing and sitting. After sitting on the sand for about half an hour, a man came up to me and cheerfully asked, “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?” Is it all right if I take a photo? I quickly replied with an affirmative “Hai, douzo!” and returned to my book to read.

Usually it’s me taking photos of somebody else, not the other way round. I’ve never really felt particularly comfortable in front of the camera, but I like to observe, to see things in others that most people wouldn’t notice, and to capture that moment. I’m usually too shy to actually ask someone if I can photograph them, though, so I just end up observing and feeling satisfied that I saw something special. When somebody does want to take photos of me, there’s almost always somebody else there in the frame too, so I never think of it as a photo of me – more a photo of us, and the other person or people probably look way more interesting than I do.

So, for somebody to want to photograph me and me alone was something unusual. I imagine people who get asked a lot are able to immediately return to what they were doing and continue being natural to some degree, but for me, the words on the page of my book were immediately replaced with stacks of self-conscious thought. I was completely aware that in front of me, just out of my lowered field of vision, this guy was snapping away. This wasn’t a bad feeling at all, nor did I feel inadequate or anything like that; I just wasn’t used to it and didn’t really know how to remain natural.

I’d be interested to see how the photos turn out, because I’ll bet that my intense self-awareness will show through in some way. Does that make it any less natural of a photo, though? That’s how I reacted at that point of my life to that situation, and there’s no other way it could’ve been. Nothing wrong with it. Not exactly how I’d like it to be, and it might not make for an immediately appealing photograph, but it’s still a reflection of reality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the fact that I am stared at blatantly on a daily basis – usually on the trains – someone with a camera felt so much more intense than just a pair of eyes. It should really be the other way round, I think: staring is often a product of shock or surprise, whereas someone with a camera, like this guy, is genuinely made curious by your appearance and would like to capture an image because he or she thinks it might be memorable. It’s more innocuous. I’ll spend more time on the beach and see if I get used to it.

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NO MORE LESSONS, NO MORE CURES

This week, I seem to be fascinated by people and things in a way that I haven’t been for quite a while. It’s the sort of week that shows me how much I still have to learn. In a good way. Like, at nearly 23 I’m still very much a kid, and the prospect of gaining more insight into myself and others is an exciting one. There are a number of reasons why this week has been different from others, most of them above my head, but I think the fact that I have been so fascinated means that people have been more willing to tell me things. You can’t fake interest.

I’ve decided that some array of endorphins is released when I speak a lot. Tuesday was a very good day, largely because I was talking for much of it. I feel a similar way when I play goalkeeper in futsal, barking constant instructions to beleaguered teammates. For people who naturally talk loads it probably isn’t such a big deal, but for me – the archetypal strong and silent individual – it’s kind of a rush to have people paying attention and responding to my words. The deal on Tuesday was that I had to trek in to Shinjuku for training in the morning, then halfway back to Yokohama for regular work in the afternoon, and finally home. All up, I was out of the house for a 15 hour stretch, and much of that time was spent talking, so when I arrived home at 23:30 I was exhausted but utterly content.

During one of the many group conversations, I realised something about myself. I’m pretty good at working off what other people say, throwing in comments or adding to (or subtracting from) their words. When I have to produce, I’m not nearly as strong. It’s like being an art critic, I s’pose: you consume and you react, but you never create. Maybe it’s the fault of my hundreds of film reviews that my conversation relies so heavily on the words of others. Or maybe it’s the thousands of hours of self-imposed solitude undertaken during my teenage and university years. It’s not a problem, anyway. If I’m verbalizing and the people are responding positively, everything is fine – who cares whether the inspiration comes from within or without?

The only difference is in relaying a well-rehearsed story. But an organically well-rehearsed story, mind. Last Friday this American guy swore loudly at me, repeatedly, both across a crowded bar and in my face, so of course I used that story whenever people asked me what I did over the weekend. After about four or five tellings, I knew how to make it more interesting than it should be. What to dwell on, what to cull. By that point, it isn’t so much production as it is recitation. Thing is, though, I rehearsed it in actual situations, learning how to tell it by, well, telling it, rather than sitting and studying notes and getting all the words right in my head. That organic practice-without-thinking leads to a story that flows naturally and gets the reaction you want it to.

So I have two modes: /respond and /recite. Oh, and /listen, the default mode where I don’t speak at all. Cool, I can live with that. But you’d think that such an individual would find it difficult to make friends, right? If they have little of worth to say out of their own head, and they know it, how do they go about convincing other people that they’re an interesting person worthy of your time? (Clearly I can’t stop thinking about how others see me, though it’s less with concern and more with curiosity as each year passes.)

And yet somehow, it happens. How does that work? How is it that people are drawn to me and have a relationship with me that is unlike that with anybody else? Maybe it isn’t. Maybe that’s just how I feel at times. Maybe that’s what friendship is at its fundamental level, a deeper connection that means something only to the two of you and nothing to anybody else. You build up your own language, your own points of reference, and you become comfortable enough with each other to show things that you usually hide. At the beginning it’s all building, which is why it doesn’t quite feel natural for a little while. Of course this is just one theory, and probably only holds true in selected situations. Some people walk into your life like you’ve known them forever. I guess it depends on the person.

At one point in Dance Dance Dance, the last book I read, the narrator draws a diagram connecting all the people around him at that point of his life, and it was interesting to see it all laid out like that, sort of like one of those ‘six degrees of separation’ diagrams. Thing was, there were no more than two or three connections for each individual on that map, but if he’d put himself on there, he could’ve drawn connections from himself to every single other person. Weird, that. I’m not too different, yet I’m nobody special for knowing all these people. I’m just here. I s’pose Facebook does the same thing. I wonder, does that map get smaller as you age? Like everything else, it probably depends on the individual.

So yeah, it was just the sort of day I relish, with one positive hit after another. A steady stream of people I could talk to and not feel stupid about myself with. Those strong, euphoric or flattening experiences – having children, fearing for your life, meeting The One, watching 2 Fast 2 Furious – are what you remember and tell people about year after year. However, I can’t help feeling that days of pure contentment such as this are what really matter. Most of us only have 2 or 3 truly life-changing events happen to us, and they do have a profound impact, but the compound effect of all those happy days and their simple delights is an immeasurably greater influence.

Those days are what shape me as a person, more than anything else. Same goes for the bad days. Big things come and go, but day-to-day life is always there, so I reckon if you’re waking up in the morning and you feel like getting out of bed, you’re doing okay.

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PUT THE SPEAKERS IN THE WINDOW

Personal living space matters differently to different people. I think its importance to an individual depends on how much time they spend in it – if you prefer to be out of the house, you tend not to mind coming home to a little box with a bed and a chest of drawers, while if you spend a lot of time in your home, you value having a space that you’re happy to occupy. I belong in the second camp, given as I am to reading on the interwebs, watching films and TV series, and playing the odd game. My legs are slowly turning to jelly through lack of exercise, but I’m enjoying myself, and I’m going to start running the day after tomorrow so screw you.

For the vast majority of my life, my living space has been perfectly acceptable. Except maybe that year without a door on my room, or the first two years at school in a dormitory with 14 other boys. Even my last flat in Christchurch, a particularly small place by NZ standards, was acceptable – while my room was tiny, it had a separate lounge and kitchen, so I could waste time in them without feeling hemmed in.

When it came to light that I was going to move to Japan, I had this picture in my head of me in a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats, sliding doors, and a futon that I pack away each morning. That wasn’t what I got. Instead, I was given a room that, subtracting the bed, desk, clothes rack and chest of drawers from the equation, only had about 1.5 square metres of floor space. Not only that, but there was no real lounge to speak of, just an austere kitchen/dining area. I was happy to be in Japan, of course, but it kind of sucked coming home each night to such an unwelcoming space. Students told me it was small even by Japanese standards. And as for bringing other people round, fuggedaboudit.

My relentlessly pragmatic brain didn’t get upset, though. It just said ‘right, we must find a new space where we can make rays of sunshine and pink unicorn’s tails’ – to wit, a new, better place. Rather than putting any sort of plan into action, however, I half-heartedly performed online searches and sent off a sum total of 0 inquiries. Then, a little over two weeks ago, a gentleman brought an advertisement for his small guest house to one of the schools I teach at. It told of a place in beautiful Kamakura with a big, traditional room in a decent location. I fired off an email and went to check it out.

Of course it was just like the picture I had in my head. Why wouldn’t it be? I was lucky in getting my job, lucky in meeting certain people here, now exceedingly lucky to have something like my dream living space fall into my lap. I took it, and moved in last Friday. Now I live in one of my favourite places I’ve visited, in a space I adore, with wonderful people for landlords and a month-to-month contract (should something else miraculously turn up). You never appreciate things until they’re gone, and now that I’ve gone a few months of preferring not to go home to my tiny cupboard of a room, by golly, I’m appreciative of this.

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PEOPLE SAY I’M BIGGER FOR WALKING THIS TOWN

This week I ordered a pizza over the internet. Big whoop, you say. Anyone can do that. Yeah? Go to the Domino’s website and try. Seriously, try it: go through everything, right up to the final click to confirm the order, and see how far you can get. (If you can read and understand Japanese, well, don’t.)

This isn’t really a big deal in and of itself – I figured out a few online forms with the help of a character translator (called Rikaichan, an incredibly useful tool if you have to visit websites written in Japanese), and got a greasy dinner. However, it’s an important boon for my confidence. I’ve been here nearly five months now, and I still haven’t been to a post office, or bought clothes, always doubting that I could communicate to the extent required. But here, I managed to communicate with a machine that only understood Japanese input. Surely, then, communication with a shop assistant would be less of a challenge?

My point is that I haven’t tried things in Japan purely because of a lack of confidence. Life here is very easy if you stick to the basics: supermarkets, convenience stores, the train system. You really could live here a long time without actually learning how to speak Japanese. That’s not good enough for me, though – I mean, the whole point of coming here was to be challenged in my everyday life, and it’s like I’ve erected a barrier around me to stop that from happening. Not anymore, though! The pizza may be just as greasy, stodgy, and regret-it-afterwards as back home, but with it at my side I shall conquer all!

***

Let’s keep talking about food – I went to a shabu-shabu restaurant for the first time on Friday. It’s something that I’ve wanted to try for a while, one of those cook-your-own type deals with boiling water on the table and an array of raw ingredients you dump into it. The place was Imahan in Asakusa, an apparently quite famous restaurant with appropriately famous prices (thank Christ for lunch menu deals). It was, to quote Henry Rollins, really fucking good. Fresh, delicious beef and veg, tasty sauces, good noodles… worth the $40, absolutely.

We then went to Kamiya, an incredible and widely-known bar, which was more like the dining hall at school than any other bar I’ve been to. As we walked in, an older gentleman called to us across the busy room and motioned for us to join him. My companion said we shouldn’t, citing some rubbish excuse about him being drunk and this area being a Yakuza stronghold. Bah. We had enormous beers that were a struggle to finish, then staggered home.

It was a day full of ‘here I am’ moments – like, this is Japan, and I am in it, I made it here. Standing before the massive gate at Asakusa shrine, shabu-shabuing at Imahan, looking across the Sumida River to the bizarre Asahi building… I’m in the foreign country, and things are all foreign, and I’m really enjoying it.

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TODAY WAS A GOOD DAY

Somebody in Japan had this wonderful idea that there should be at least one public holiday every month. At the moment all that misses out is June, so this means we have wonderful holidays like Marine day and, this past Monday, Respect for the Aged Day. There’s also the Autumnal Equinox and Health and Sports day coming up in the next three weeks, so it’s all coming up sunshine and roses.

As a result, I decided to do something different and go out on Sunday. I was on the train to Shibuya, listening to Dreadzone, when an elderly couple came and sat down either side of me. Normally this wouldn’t be anything special, but the fact that chose those seats over several pairs of adjacent seats in the carriage told me I should prepare for some light conversation. Sure enough, they both leaned around and front of me and hit me with all the English they had.

Nice cellphone! Which cellphones are better, Japanese or Western? Are you from America? Is today your day off? Etc. Of course it wasn’t as grammatically correct as all that – just “today day off?”, for example – and there was plenty of Japanese vocab sprinkled in too, but I could understand and I responded to all their queries with civility. Half the people in the carriage were giggling uncontrollably to themselves; I’m sure the sight of a very tall gaijin being accosted by a typically earnest old couple was a hilarious sight.

After a while they got off, and I was able to return to my soothing, unchallenging music. Upon reaching Shibuya, I soon learned it was the day of the local matsuri. I’d never been to one of these before, so you can imagine my excitement. Teams of shouting, grunting people were carrying heavy mikoshi up and down the closed-off streets and, by the looks of things, having a lot of fun. What I’ve heard is that basically it’s one long day of drunkenness with alcohol flowing beforehand, at several stops during, and long into the night afterwards. I don’t know whether that makes hauling these things around in the brightness and heat easier, but most people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Several hours and a bottle of shochu later, we picked up and headed off to a club called Womb. I tell ya, I never thought I’d happily pay ¥3500 (around NZ$40) just to enter a complex of darkened rooms, but there it was. It was AMAZING. There was the thumping electro/house, the laser lights glowing over the crowd, the dry ice turning people more than five feet away invisible… the atmosphere was perfect. Most of all, it really felt like everyone was there to have a good time, which gave the unusual effect of a jam-packed dancefloor filled with happy people. Unusual, because back in NZ, you couldn’t have that without the requisite pushing and shoving. Here, everyone was just glad to be in the company of about 750 like-minded people.

What’s more, being taller than pretty much anyone else in the room, I was an obvious visual focus for a lot of people. This meant that, in a very foreign experience for me, they would often follow my lead. I put my hands up, they put their hands up, and so on. I became very excited and was soon taking every opportunity to string people along, which is hilarious if you can imagine me with my lanky, unco dance moves being the leader of the pack. They all kept smiling and laughing, so I carried on until my shirt and pants were so soaked with sweat that I had to leave the dancefloor and re-hydrate.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so disgusting, or euphoric, in my entire life.

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I WOULD LIKE TO LEAVE THE RIDE

Hello, 11th of September. I have an appropriate post for you.

I don’t know if I should be writing about this – not because it might get me in trouble, but because I’ve been here such a short time and I’ve only had one relatively tame experience with racial profiling by police. I could also be accused of fearmongering and of racism as strong as anything I mention. However, it is important and I should know as much about it as I can just in case something happens; also, perhaps this will be a useful set of links for other people. I don’t know. On with it.

Last Friday’s Metropolis had a feature by a gaijin on his experience of being arrested in Japan. He was held for 19 days without charge, suspected of “not cooperating with the police and hitting a man with a bottle”. It reads like you’d imagine a standard account of jail experience in a foreign, first-world country would read; indeed, not unlike the great Matt Frear’s. Most of it doesn’t sound that awful, but you can feel that the worst thing would be the absence of those daily comforts we most take for granted. A shower, a decent meal, a book to read.

Thing is, Matt was held for a day, while Paul was held for 19. Without charge. I must repeat that because it is most important. How can this be legal in a supposedly ‘free’ country? I turned to Wikipedia (what? It’s usually right) for clarification of the law that makes that possible, whereupon I found a page about Daiyo kangoku, or ‘substitute prison’. The stipulation is that under standards of habeas corpus, you can be detained by authorities for 72 hours; next, the prosecutor can request ten days’ detention (a right that is frequently exercised), usually used to elicit a confession; finally, a further ten days can be requested for the same reason. 23 days altogether. Paul got off light.

My first reaction was to think that this must not happen too often, but then I remembered back to my first day of training for work. During the persistent ‘don’t do drugs’ spiel drummed into our heads by the trainer (Simon Amstell from this entry, a really top bloke I’ve found), he said that judges really don’t give a shit about you. They just want to stamp the piece of paper and go home. So that’s what they do. The same Wikipedia page says that further detention past 72 hours is requested in 85% of cases, and 99.8% of those are approved. These figures date from 1987 so things could have changed, but it’d be foolish to write them off just for being 20 years old.

Concerned at this sentence in Paul’s article – “His two friends, mere onlookers, were also guilty and spent the same 10 days as their friend” – I thought shit, this could happen to me even if I did absolutely nothing wrong, I must find out more. The following is a list of things I found interesting (needless to say, some of them contain fucking strong language):

*A 2000 Shizuoka Police guidebook called “Characteristics of Crime by Foreigners Coming to Japan”
*A magazine on ‘Shocking Foreigner Crime’ that was stocked in convenience stores (and quickly withdrawn after protest)
*Do gaijin commit more crime than Japanese nationals? Not really. So why are they being vilified in some quarters?
*Instant Checkpoints in Japan: Extranationality as Sufficient Grounds for Suspicion
*Don’t leave home without your Gaijin Card
*Looong account of experience with prison in Japan (if you ask me, the guy behaved really stupidly and deserved some kind of retribution, but y’know… civil liberties…)
*Japan Times reporter arrested for kicking “No Japanese” bar signboard (this is a real clusterfuck, with bigots and idiots on both sides)
*Gaijin achieves EPIC LULZ by accosting a homeless man in Osaka, then throws the guy’s bike at a garbage truck, then gets beaten by the garbage truck driver (video)

A guy called Debito Arudou features heavily in all of this. He appears to have the biggest online presence of any gaijin rights activist, and while he appears to be the kind of guy who would be an activist even if he lived in the Garden of Eden, he’s smart and he knows more about this shit than anyone else I could find. He’s also a naturalized Japanese, putting him in the unusual position of looking like a gaijin (and presumably being subject to the same racial profiling) but carrying documentation which qualifies him as a Japanese citizen.

All I’ve really done here is compile a list of things to get upset about, mostly things that could happen in any Western country, but when you put them in the context of that 23 days I think the implications are a bit different. I’ve learnt tonight that idiots are idiots in all countries, some people can’t handle their piss, and that I put myself in serious danger that time I went all the way to Ginza without carrying any official identification. I must state clearly that this isn’t a bitchfest about how Japan sucks, because it doesn’t and I’m loving my time here. I do, however, find it interesting when civil liberties I’ve previously taken for granted don’t exist, and when any kind of racial profiling is supported by police/politicians/press/a general authority.

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THE FEELING IS FRIGHTENING, BUT ISN’T IT EXCITING

Typhoons are a big deal here. A typhoon hitting the mainland will dominate all news hours and publications, and has every man, woman and child on the alert. Schools wait anxiously, ready to close their doors, and train lines shut down at the first sign of danger. Calls to loved ones run at about 500% of standard (my estimate). Cellphone companies must love typhoons.

My first Japanese typhoon hit in August, and I was told by everyone I met that I should be careful and not make too many plans because if I went somewhere, I could get stranded. Over the course of the weekend it struck, I received about five messages from various people making sure I was okay, even though I’d only been in the country for seven weeks. And of course, it was a massive anticlimax. It rained a little bit, and the wind was a tiny bit stronger, but there had been much fiercer storms since I’d moved here. I continued drinking as usual (yes, that’s right Ed, drinking).

This week another warning went out all over the news. Typhoon coming, lock up your daughters etc. I was like, yeah, whatever, strike me down with your pathetic volley, I’ll be on my feet and coming back for more. But this time, they weren’t kidding. I went to work on Thursday in steady rain, and by 6:30pm – halfway through my shift – it had picked up sufficiently that all of our schools in the region were closed, so that people could get home before the trains shut down. That night, sleep was difficult as the trees outside flailed about and sideways rain splattered against my window (which I now know leaks like a sieve in extreme weather).

On Friday the rain had stopped, but the gusts of wind remained. I was meeting friends in Tokyo, so I went to the train station, where I found that most trains weren’t running and the ones that were had been delayed by about 50 minutes. I waited, it eventually came, and it was PACKED – packed like you would imagine Japanese commuter trains are, with guards shoving passengers inside so the doors can close.

Being squeezed in such a tight space was something I hadn’t experienced since the dining hall queue at school. I wanted to take out my camera and get a photo, but this was impossible because my arms were pressed against my sides by the two young guys and tiny old woman to my left and right respectively. To my surprise, even in these conditions, people still closed their eyes and went to sleep, no doubt dreaming of that PlayStation ad where millions of people have a huge pile-up. By the time I came to get off, we may have been lovers; I can’t be sure.

I arrived in Shinjuku at 2, by which time the nastiness had been replaced by brilliant sunshine (well, as brilliant as it can be through the thick smog). I met my friends, and had a very pleasant afternoon and evening drinking and eating. Can’t wait for the next one. I can be like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Twister.

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MOVING WITH THE PACKS LIKE HYENA-ENA

New article today in The Japan Times: The blame game. It gives a summary of some recent scapegoating of foreigners in Japan, and the picture it paints is one of all-around unpleasantness in a great many aspects of Japanese life. Foreign or half-caste children in schools are unclean and smell bad because their foreign mothers are sending all their money back to their home country! War brides are foreign spies! Too many African kids on a school running team gives them an unfair advantage! If the thousands of foreign workers on Japanese ships had to return home due to turmoil in their country, Japan’s shipping industry would grind to a halt! It’s a pretty angry editorial written with maybe a little bit too much passion, so you’ve got to question how reactionary it is. Especially me, someone who’s only been over here three months. Who am I to comment?

Well actually, just last weekend I had my first experience with police in Japan, and this article pretty accurately reflects my (admittedly tame by comparison) experience. E and I returned to Roppongi (yeah I know, don’t ask) and were still there at about 7:30am dancing when we noticed one of the girls we were with had been gone a while. We went outside and she was crying on the steps, her bag having been ripped from her hands by a group of men. I stayed to comfort her while the others went looking for culprits; about ten minutes later they returned with police. They established pretty quickly that I couldn’t speak Japanese, which I guess gave them confidence to say what they said next.

I can’t say I speak Japanese, but when I listen to people talk I can usually understand enough to make out what they’re saying, especially if it’s clear-cut and unambiguous. The following exchange happened about three times:

Policeman/detective: Who’s this guy?
Girl (through tears): A friend.
Policeman/detective: OK.
*three-second pause*
Policeman/detective: Are you sure?

E said that at the bottom of the stairs, he was experiencing the same thing, though he could understand more than I could. They referred to him as ‘koitsu‘ (this is very informal, possibly rude between strangers, and basically means ‘that guy’), and their tone was particularly suspicious – “what’s he doing here? I reckon he probably did it” etc.

Eventually they understood that we weren’t evildoers, she got into the police car and they went off, and we sleepwalked home swapping our tales of discrimination. It’s not like it was a big deal for me or anything – I was never in any doubt about whether I would be hauled off to jail or not – but it was interesting. And in light of the above article, I’m beginning to feel like it’s symptomatic of a pretty common attitude towards foreigners. Admittedly some of these foreigners are 50-something men with a bad haircut throwing themselves at barely resistant young Japanese women in Roppongi bars (don’t take it personally, guys), but we’re not all bad, not really.

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FIND MY WAY INTO THE GOLD RUSH

I only live about a half hour by train from Kamakura, which is referred to by some as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, which is to say there are a lot of splendid temples to be seen there. It being summer vacation and all, I woke up on another beautiful morning yesterday and decided I’d go and check it out.

I arrived there around midday. MISTAKE. It was about 33°C with ~80% humidity, so it felt like 40°, and I was melting. Cleverly, I had stopped at Shop99 on the way and bought some face and body refresher towelettes – portable showers, basically – but I could see that they would only provide fleeting relief. As I walked through the Shopping Town, I would hear someone say ‘atsui’ (hot) about every five seconds, so it wasn’t just me with my New Zealand-accustomed body.

I also arrived wearing $3 jandals from the Warehouse. Again… MISTAKE. When choosing my wardrobe for the excursion, I didn’t really consider the possibility of walking for about 10km on stony roads and steps, but I figured I was stuck with them. In case you’re wondering, Ma, I also forgot to put on sunscreen, and no, I won’t do that again. Although it would’ve been much worse under New Zealand’s cleaner skies.

Enough of that, though, because it was a really great day out. I set out from the station amid hordes of holidaymakers, armed with my DK guidebook and a willingness to beat less travelled paths. What most people do is head straight for Hachimangu, which is quite close to the station, but I decided I wanted to get away from the noise and bustle of crowds. So, when I got near it, I hung a right and struck out in the direction of Zuisen-ji, renowned for its Zen garden. On the way I stopped briefly at Hokai-ji, a small, quiet, rather poorly maintained temple. Not much to see there apart from a poorly concealed corrugated iron shed and a bunch of kids possibly up to no good, so I carried on.

If I wanted to escape noise, I was kidding myself, because I was truly in the Land of Enormous, Incredibly Loud Cicadas. It’s not like I haven’t seen or heard them before, but man, not like this. It’s a generally uniform sound though, unlike crowds talking, so it eventually becomes part of the wallpaper. Which makes it better. Right? I mean, it’s more peaceful, more natural. And as I got closer to Zuisen-ji and further away from the main drag, the cars and motorbikes thinned out and the serenity began to take over.

Zuisen-ji wasn’t quite what I was expecting. They had the most detailed information leaflet, complete with a detailed explanation of the place and its philosophy and an impressive old-style map which made the water garden seem enormous. However, when I eventually I got there I found it wasn’t any bigger than my apartment. Quiet and peaceful, certainly, but it didn’t seem like there was really a lot of beauty about it. The temple itself was not open to the public, so you could only peer into small sections of it from behind a barrier. The history was all there, but it was almost like it was protected from the prying eyes of visitors.

I pressed on to Sugimoto-dera, which was the greatest delight of the day. Where Zuisen-ji was prohibitive and unwelcoming, Sugimoto-dera was informal and open. There were places where you obviously weren’t supposed to go, but they didn’t throw up KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs everywhere; instead, they leave it to you to figure it out. The temple itself was compact but impressive. I spent a good ten minutes in there just looking at statues, smelling the incense and enjoying the calm atmosphere. The rewards of this place weren’t spelled out for you, but they weren’t sheltered behind poles of bamboo. Perfect.

By this time my feet were really bloody sore, so I headed back to Hachimangu to see what all the fuss was about. I must confess, it was a really cool place, and the crowds were actually one of the best things about it. I realised that I was wrong: the sounds of nature aren’t superior to those of humans, they’re just a different type of deal. Here you could revel in the energy and fascination of others and feed off that, not to mention simply being able to watch people do interesting things. Like the pilgrims throwing coins into a shrine and praying briefly, before running off to get their children under control or charf some shaved ice.

I wondered, is there more holiness in the lives of these pilgrims than there is in mine (if there is any)? They throw in their coin, put their hands together and bow their heads for a few seconds, and presumably recite what they’ve been taught. To my secular thinking, that doesn’t constitute being holy; it’s just a procedure. But then, some are more diligent than others. One guy took ten minutes to get through it, while another couple was done in fifteen seconds. Just like Christianity I suppose, there are varying levels of diligence, of faith and adherence.

My thing is that I came to these places and I greatly admired what they stood for, without actually believing in it. I soaked up the atmosphere and took several moments of pause (especially at Sugimoto-dera) to reflect on why I was here, and none of the reasons were religious. Is my way of thinking less appropriate for these stunning locations than that of those pilgrims? I mean, it’s not going to keep me awake at night, but I just wonder if it really matters. It’s easy to say no, it doesn’t matter at all, and that’s probably what I think, but I’m not going to commit to that without at least considering the idea that I may not be doing it right. After all, those who know me will tell you that I’m not at all an arrogant, elitist, selfish prick. Not in the slightest.

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STITCHES OF SPACE THAT SLOWLY COME AND GO

About 1000 JETs have passed through Tokyo in the past week before heading out to their various outposts around the land. When I first decided to come to Japan, the first avenue I explored was JET, and by all accounts it’s the most attractive option for people arriving in this country. The pay is better, the work is more enjoyable, the lifestyle more interesting. Still, I’m really happy with the decision I made. My transition from New Zealand to Japan was near seamless, and that’s almost entirely down to the hard of work of people at the company I work for. Plus a healthy dose of optimism and self-assuredness on my part, of course.

I knew a couple of people from Christchurch in this JET intake, so I headed into Shibuya on Tuesday to have a few drinks with them. A few drinks turned into pitcher after pitcher at nomihoudai karaoke, and various drunken introductions. Here’s the crazy thing: two of the other guys in the group we were with came from Christchurch, and it turned out that they knew some good friends of mine who are now scattered about the globe. Then there was another guy who was taught maths by my friend Marty’s dad. And the other week I met a guy whose brother used to live in my last flat.

That’s the thing about New Zealand. You talk about there being a maximum six degrees of separation between any two people in the world, but in NZ I reckon it’s more like two or three, and often the connection is even more direct than that. It’s a small country, and people move around a lot – around the nation and around the world – so it ends up being pretty easy to find a link with another person, and that tends to be first on the order of business when you meet another NZer. I’ve lived in the Waikato, in Auckland and in Christchurch, plus I have friends from all over the country – and some from overseas – so it really isn’t hard. Still, it surprises me every time.

Last night I headed back into my favourite part of Japan so far: Ginza/Nihonbashi. Shibuya’s cool and all, but you won’t see ganguro girls or hordes of hosts dirtying the streets around here (although I was offered a massage on my way to the station – which I declined). I visited the Tokyo International Forum, which has an extremely impressive glass atrium, and took lots of arty photos. Then we went to 100 Dining, where drinks and food are very cheap (usually ¥100 or ¥200) and pretty nice, and after that to an izakaya called Gohan. Gohan means ‘food’. I love that. Where shall we go for dinner? I don’t know, shall we go to Food? We haven’t been there for a while. They had some really great stuff there…

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