To be honest my major mistake regarding Japan until I got there, was judging it by it's fancy cover, the cover on the right side of course.
I knew it has some stunning countryside and culture but still I always assumed it's this ueberhightech society in which technology shows it's viability for the future – oh well it doesn't do show so much.
Although there are some real nice goodies and solutions for everyday life problems, being human is still the issue – or solution. The sense of perfection and craziness I've drawn from the media (despite earthquake and tsunami related issues), proved to be a ghostly whim appearing and disappearing constantly. When was the last time you got an »taped« audioguide, half heartly recorded and not telling you more then what's written on the signs? Then on the other end, do you really need heated toilet seats (yes, yes, yes if you don't like to sit on ice) or lots of vending machines?
There are however some big industries who are driving progress but this didn't stop Apple to enter their homemarket and create a big impact – probably the reason why the iPhone is so popular is simply it's simplicity. Don't get me started about the controls for the toilet seat.
The perfections in century long crafted rituals (e.g. tea ceremonies) and architecture of the past, mostly bond to the elite or religion, seem also to slowly vanish – perfection in crafts is nothing for the modern mass market and traditional performances (shadow play in Gero), although great in execution are spiced up by multimedia elements.
Spiced up is also the building market, buildings come and go instantly, but they did so in the past as well. Many cultural heritage buildings are actually modern copies of an original building, which was devasteted by the forces of nature. Ironically nature plays traditionally an important role in the layout of a building. The play of the trees’ shadows on white walls is just amazing and the sound of running water is more then relaxing and invites to whistle along. Unfortunately this, as well as an distinctive japanese touch on the smaller buildings, is slowly getting lost in all the megapolises’ building frenzy. Too often there are buildings who stand out by not fitting in – that's what their respective owners (probably deep rooted and part of the system) want, I guess. Hereby some buildings seem like trying to dress up european without really succeeding. And there is a certain adaption of european lifestyle, which I just can't believe. On the streets of Tokyo and Osaka you can see a lot of “patisseries” and spot products like “Baumkuchen”, german toys and a lot of BMWs.
So even if the modern consumer market has offerings all along the spectrum, it's not said that people invest in “Made in Japan” products. Actually they really like to adapt things for their home market and thanks to the U.S. a rich culture of overavailability and overimpressing the poor spectators has developed here, starting with vending machines on each and every corner, flashing billboard mobs and advertisers in front of restaurants – not to speak of the many deluxe places which want to attract you by offering some craziness from hostesses to robots for a big amount of money – at least the entertainment should be guaranteed. And entertaining is not an easy task.
One day I was watching “Oz. The great and powerful.” and was better entertained than I would have thought, especially of all the humor and lack of seriousness it displayed at some points or to put it blandly: I laughed a lot. But I was the only one laughing I think, without having to do too much with things lost in translation I guess.
So guess what, a lot of Japanese may seem shy in the beginning, first and foremost because of the culture, second because of the language, I guess – this also proofed right for me: In some instances I just let go or didn't start at all because I had this feeling of approaching sth. honorably is only possible for me if I can do it in Japanese – what most of the time wasn't possible.
Moreover even if most people in a train are reluctant to sit next to another person, they're even more reluctant if it's a gaijin. But then again they are more at ease when they're drunk (who isn't?). And there is a real drinking culture in Japan.
So there is great food ranging from dried apple to raw fish. On of my favourites is still “okonomyaki”, which is basically on one half a flat pancake, on the other half an omelette and inbetween fried cabbage, ham, shrimp and noodles topped by a yummy brown sauce and mayonnaise (by your own choice). So it's not all raw fish and rice but a more diverse food culture than I thought – although all the “macha” taste can get annoying at some point in time.
Talking about culture, when I visited a temple an older couple approached me asking about my whereabouts and after some smalltalk the man said to me »Germany has also a big cultural history«. This made me thinking: We may have a rich (cultural) history but what is the state of »german culture«? I don't have an answer yet.
Here in Japan I was shocked about how much was not so japanese (whatever that is) as I would have expected it to be and the styles are undistinctively the same as in many other countries – western convenience. But then again regarding the topic, I was blended by some Tokyo style reports.
In Sendai I talked to a japanese graphic designer who worked and lived abroad and now came back to Japan: She said it's sad that most people copy (western) styles though that one of the major barriers (despite adapting things) for interactions with “the west” is the lack of knowledge of the english language.
Sometimes you figure out how to communicate something via signs or using google translate, but doing so on the fly about important things is a bit more complicated. It's not always about telling somebody what kind of food you do want. But then again it's most of the time exactly this – and asking somebody to take a picture of you. And even though a lot of Japanese are avid picture takers, I can't say that the people in Japan are more obsessed with cameras than people in other countries, but for sure there are many people who are using state of the art DSLRs or MFTs. And looking at the scenes they photograph I’m not sure if it's always worth the money to gear up like this – but then again I shot some film and got it developed and scanned for around 100€.
There's one thing I learned not only out of this: People don’t really need something to spend money on, they just have to think or believe that they need it, and humans are pretty emotional about beliefs.
Talking about beliefs, there's a weird mix of modern day life and religious rituals in Japan. Attending a rememberance ceremony along the Myagi coast and visiting a house (container) for some tea and snacks, I found myself sitting right next to an act of exorcising a possessed woman and soon thereafter nipping on my tea while watching the priest typing on his mobile and having a smoke. These are the real valuable experiences, as it's also the case with some sights, for the better or the worse.
The gutsy part of the “Peace Museum” in Hiroshima carves itself deep into your memory. Compared to this the High-school students who collect signatures against nuclear weapons seem delicate – and pathetic in a way that they seemed to do it because it’s expected of them. All the gay rainbow colored peace displays doesn't make it any better: It’s just a ridiculous view of peace. Thousands of years of warfare proof it. So what can you achieve in a short breeze of 67 years time? The bombs devastating inferno only took seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years.
Having been in Japan for 3 weeks I have to admit it's nothing compared to people I met who spent 2 weeks in Tokyo alone or were walking through Japan in 180 days. More so the beginning of march really isn't the best time to visit. Like in Central Europe there's still a mix of brown earth tones, cold spring nights and even white leftovers of snow in some places.
Furthermore prepare good savings. And though the JR Rail pass is great to cover big distances fast and cheap, I really would like to drive around Japan by my own the next time. You're just so much more flexible, especially regarding the really interesting places far off the public transportation networks. Learning some Japanese will also be not a wrong decision.
But having been in China for a couple of days makes you miss some things one had in Japan – stay tuned, perhaps I have to revise some things. Pictures to follow.