Sunday, September 21, 2014

Experiencing Japan Slowly

21 September 2014

Japanese culture is intricate and multi-faceted, and we're spending time just observing and trying to understand as best we can given our US frame of reference.

There are flowers in all the markets, and flowers in gardens - while Japan is known for the cherry blossoms in spring, flowers seem to be cherished year round.  So we see the autumn flowers in addition to miniature trees for sale, and in gardens as we walk around our neighborhood.

In the neighborhood, we mostly see women and children - young families, school children, and very old people.  (I should add that many of the very old people seem to have osteoporosis problems, with very bent backs.  I'm not sure if this is because people spent years working in fields or physical labor, or if it's because Asians, as with Caucasian people, or more prone to osteoporosis.  But many of the extremely old people have very bent backs - this is very apparent when people watching.)

Anyway, we don't see very many men around the neighborhood.  Where we do see men, and women without children in tow, is at the train station.  Hordes of men.  Almost all in what we have come to think of as the working person's uniform - dark slacks, white shirt, often a tie and jacket but not always.  The very occasional blue or striped shirt.  Women in a feminine version of the same.  

When we sit and have a cool drink at a train station, after a day of walking around, we watch these business or office workers walking through the train stations.  The walkways are often marked - center section for walking in one direction, two narrow corridors on each side for walking in the opposite direction.  So that no one is doing the salmon swimming upstream against the current thing.  And everyone seems to stick with this pattern. 

It's mesmerizing.  Men and women in the business uniform, walking as if on conveyer belts, the inner band going to the right, the outer bands going to the left.  It almost looks like a machine moving people along.

And then I start thinking it looks like some science fiction movie, where people are orchestrated by a giant computer (think "The Matrix") and everyone is an android or cyborg or something.  It's the strangest looking thing - there isn't a modicum of individuality to be seen in 99% of the people.  Every so often, someone comes along in jeans and a brightly colored shirt.  Something out of the norm.  But for the most part, there is a definite conformity of dress, style, action.  And as someone from the US, this seems just, well, odd.

But thinking about it, it almost makes sense.  Japan is a relatively small country in terms of land mass, being an island nation.  But the country is fairly densely populated, with about 126 million people, making it the tenth most populous country in the world.  Tokyo especially is quite crowded.  So people need to work together and move together according to a plan to prevent bottlenecks, even at the train station.   

The conformity?  I'm not sure where that comes from.  The school children all seem to wear uniforms.  And in talking with people, roles seem to be well-defined - men work, women take care of the home and children, single people work, students study, and that's the way it is.  

I met up with a friend, an English woman who has lived here for 25-plus years, and she said yes, life tends to be somewhat regimented in Japan, especially in the cities.  Life is more relaxed in rural areas.  And yes, working people are expected to spend extra hours at work.  (The capsule hotel phenomenon started for businessmen who missed the last train home, since the trains stop running about midnight or 1 AM.  And even small convenience stores stock white shirts, ties, and socks for those who have to overnight at the office or a hotel, so they can buy clean basics for the following work day.)

At the same time, there are funny frivolous things that seem so opposite to the serious life of business people - check out the light posts in our neighborhood.  Pea pods!  Pumpkins or some kind of squash!  Fruit and veg baskets in metal attached!  And bas relief fruits and vegs on the cross bars!  How funny is that?  

The town also seems to have worked with the school children on a project to create banners for the light posts.  One side has some writing in Japanese, with three colored stars.  The other side has original children's art, which is wonderful.  (I love kid art - the colors are exuberant, the stories fanciful, and the whole thing just happy and creative, even if the execution isn't perfect.)  So we have pea pods and pumpkins, decorated with children's art, lining the main streets of our town.
My fave has got to be the little girl and her cat - notice the detail of the bell on the collar of the cat.  Just too adorable.

We've also found that not only homes but businesses in the area have lovely gardens by the sidewalk.  It's just how things are done here.

And a few homes have goldfish in large ceramic pots outside.  This one even had turtles in a large plastic basin.  I'm not sure if the animals are a feng shui thing, or family pets, or what.  But the goldfish add some color to the area.

Okay, last little bit of rambling - we've all heard of bento boxes, the lacquered boxes holding different bits of food for a meal.  We found a take-away place that has plastic bento boxes. 

So this was today's lunch for me.  (I don't have a picture of Richard's take-away lunch, which was a "hamburg steak with vegetables and rice."  But it wasn't as pretty as my bento.)

Starting at the lower left with the obvious rice (with a few azuki beans) and going clockwise:  some kind of salad of cooked greens; cooked vegs, though I'm not sure what the beige veg was; small bit of grilled salmon, with a small bit of Japanese omelet under the green plastic under the salmon; something the restaurant clerk called "tofu tempura" but was more like fried tofu skin stuffed with chopped vegs and tofu, with a ginger sauce; and some pumpkin thing in the lower corner, obviously orange.  With the pink pickled ginger in the center.  And of course it came with a set of disposable chopsticks.  What a fun lunch!  

We've decided to stay in Tokyo for another week, there are a few things happening at the end of September that we wanted to stay around and see.  We'll move to an "apart-hotel" (hotel of apartment-like units) for our third week here, more in the center of Tokyo proper instead of the suburb we're in right now.

And we'll continue to report on what we see, do, and perceive is happening around us.


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