Monday, December 20, 2010

Dispatches from Japan, 1.

In which we visit Japan, armed only with the word 'arigato'. It's amazing how far a sheepish, guilty smile, a nod and a few arigatos can get you. From Tokyo, to Fukuoka, to Nagasaki so far.

Made up of seemingly discrete neighbourhoods, from their cultural identities and the divisions of every map, guidebook and conversation about the place, Tokyo is unfathomable without a subway directory. In my head it is a huge series of sub-cities that would take a lifetime to come to grips with. In reality, each subway station is so huge that the exit-to-exit distance is often longer than that between stations. Navigating them, when destinations are completely unknowable until you can at least see daylight, would probably be exciting for somebody less anxious and crowd-averse than me. It is difficult to understand the city's layout, and the way it fits together, when travelling takes place primarily underground.

I come to terms with a place by walking around in it. Tokyo is not geared toward this. While an extremely walkable city, being pedestrian friendly and clearly nightmarish for car traffic, people seem to avoid walking as much as possible, and take the subway instead. Even when the next station is 200m away. While trying to find a different terminal in Tokyo station, we accidentally walked to the next one along, Otemashi. Had we known, we would never have taken the subway this one stop, but there is no way of knowing.


There is a twittering sound on replay at the train station, which serves to remind us that there are no birds outside. No birds, animals or nature of any kind, apart from the sashimi which has not yet made the transition from flesh to food.

Everything functions so perfectly, without being automated or artificial. Things work, and when they don't, somebody steps in and fixes it. A woman and her little daughter, perhaps 3 years old, stopped to help us when our tickets wouldn't let us through the train barriers. A gruff looking older man saw us interrogating our map, turning it around, me getting angry, and asked if we needed help. A woman in a souvenir store left it, walking us to the escalator we needed. People are never as frustrated with our fumbling as I am, myself.


Everything is perfectly packaged in far more packaging and plastic than could ever be justified, and cutesy. A bag for your rice ball? A bag for your shoes? Dancing cartoon tabby cats plastered down the side of the Shinkansen which was empty, apart from us a handful of stern and silent businessmen.

We visited the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum this morning. I had no idea that almost one third of the population of Nagasaki were killed, and another third seriously injured. I don't think I would have known that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki if I hadn't been a nerdy, precocious teenager. I never learned about World War II at school, and our World War I history was limited to writing imaginary letters home from a soldier called Roly, and something about how butter was scarce. This is one of the reasons that I love travelling. No war, famine, travesty or event is understandable once you've visited the museum. But testimonials, images and museums can make you feel something, and remind you how little you know of the world.

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