Giuliettaexpat moved to Tokyo in Summer 2005, with her husband and their three children. In this beautiful article – written in the beginning of 2008 – she tells us about her Japan.
I arrived in Tokyo on a very hot and damp August 27th, more than two years ago, with a lot of fears but also a willingness to discover this new world.
My first image of Tokyo came during a rushed visit the previous May, a thick and ugly city, very far, light years from my own concept of what is beautiful, pleasant, liveable. And yet, I still wanted to get to like this city where I would have to live and survive for the next three years at least.
What struck me first during that initial exploration on Japanese soil was the complete aesthetic disorder that seemed to reign in Tokyo, that ensemble of different buildings, very close one to the other and so resulting into an ugly mix of colors, forms and materials; and all traversed by those horrible electric cables, huge, with no good reason some placed here, others there… I have to admit it, that was my first impression!!! Now, although the aesthetic chaos as a matter of fact is still there, I have started to like it, to find a kind of charm in it.
One has to get to know Tokyo and discover it gently, living it “a’ la Japanese”, focusing on details and remembering that in Tokyo one should never go back, because that one detail that seemed so beautiful and admirable some moments ago, now could be drowning in the surrounding ugliness.
Japanese and more generally all those who live in Tokyo, learn, in time, to focus their attention on small things: the little shrine framed by two hideous skyscrapers; the little frail flower that keeps growing in the cement; the autumn leaf falling from a lonesome tree that barely survives in the city’s noisy traffic.
In time, we get to share that very Nipponese ecstasy towards the changing of Nature by the rhythm of the seasons…
This kind of ecstasy I actually found a bit hilarious at the start of my life in Japan. I used to tell myself that for us, in Italy, leaves are red in Autumn as well and trees blossom in Springtime there too, but no one would spend their days in such aesthetic contemplation!
But then, after some time, I started to realize the meaning of it, and I gather that is a very peculiar sensibility that we have probably lost in our beautiful European towns… So now I find myself staring at the cherry blossom too, just as enchanted by it, and for certain, I never miss the chance to enjoy a beautiful picnic beneath the blossoming sakuras.
Here in Japan, I have learned how to look beyond what seems meaningless and worthless. I have understood that the beauty of a city is not only the harmonic ensemble of its old and ancient buildings; but that what counts is also the air one breathes, the culture and traditions that take form on every street corner, the sounds and the lights that escort you day and night.
And so it happened that I’ve created my own image of Japan, a blend of colors, sounds and oddness, the Tokyo I like and that makes me smile and keeps me in a good mood with its eccentricities and its habits so different from us westerners… A city with a shining sky and an ever warm and brilliant sun, a city that I really appreciate for being so well organized and clean, the only city in the world – as far as I know – with public toilets cleaner than the private ones.
In those first days of August 2005, I was really amazed – and still am – to see new rolls of immaculate toilet paper standing there up on the shelves of the public toilets in the gardens and the metro…
Actually, the image of the Tokyo I like starts exactly there, in this absolute and pleasant cleanliness, in those sideways free from faeces and cigarettes. In Tokyo smoking on the streets is forbidden, amazing in a city with an extremely high rate of smokers. There are special smoking areas on the sidewalks where people stop, smoke their cigarettes, use the ashtrays, finish their cigarettes and get going once again.
This makes the city inhabitable, liveable.
Then of course, there are the excesses that we get used to and that still make me smile at times, like those many faces of young and less young people, partially covered by their little masks, not to spread the germs, or perhaps not to kill them… I don’t understand that yet!
I especially enjoy the parts of Tokyo where you can go by bike – although strictly on the sideways, and where children can walk around by themselves in total security. Japanese little primary students go to school unaccompanied, with their little yellow cap, typical of the elementary school that indicates that those children walking on their own are the responsibility of all adult citizens, who are consequently supposed to be there and available for help in case of difficulty or simply to cross a street.
These children, with their little yellow caps and leather bags represent my Japan, and so likewise, the little Japanese from the private schools with their uniforms, all strictly alike, with their short trousers, even when it snows, their little skirts and their knee socks.
Japan is a super modern country with ancient traditions, a country where the old and the new cohabit, from the skyscrapers in Ginza to the old and ever rare Japanese houses still resisting here and there, although suffocating amongst the new buildings.
Japanese gestures are very ritualized, and this is something that is ingrained and will take time to change. This is in stark contrast with the desire for ‘westernization’ that clearly surfaces in Japanese behavior. Young people appear to be intrigued by western practices and traditions and try to adopt the same habits; namely getting married with a western ceremony, in a fake church, with a fake priest and a fake ceremony. This would be better if in English, much more exotic, although none of the guests would understand a word! But how much nicer is their own Japanese ceremony celebrated in Shinto temples…
Luckily though, traditional practices and habits persist, such as the ritual ceremony of new year, the women in kimonos, the Tea Ceremony, slow, so slow that it does not really match with the frantic rhythm of lives focused on home/work…
This life that doesn’t give you space for resting, so that the Japanese take a nap anywhere they can, on the train, at street corners, waiting for the underground, on park benches. I look at them, admiring their ability to cut themselves off momentarily from the outside world, just time enough for a little nap…
Certainly Japanese society consists of very tough rules and – to us westerners – it looks like a society that has framed its own citizens within a scheme that never changes, never adjusts to the passing of time.
Young people try to resist the system, reacting to it, disguising themselves in colorful clothes and frequenting the commercial areas of Shibuya and Omotesando, dressed up in very fashionable clothes or like Manga characters, showing off in a kind of protest against their society and all else it implies.
Eventually, they will either accept that scheme or will be cut out by it.
Another image that describes Japan are the perennial automatic distributors. They are at every street corner, close by old temples, near schools and they distribute all sort of things from water and cola, green tea and black tea, hot coffee and cold coffee (both impossible to drink!) to even soups, for gulping down fast on the street.
Yes, because the concept of very fast food is again a typical Japanese feature: you can eat an o-bento quickly anywhere, standing on the street, and then off you go again with no time wasted, up again to catch the rhythm of this very speedy life.
And then there is Japanese technology, where you need at least two days to learn how to flush your toilet; two more days to study the control system of the TOTO toilets (the most trendy and fashionable brand of toilets and baths accessories) where there are several options for washing, and hot and cold drying systems. I must admit that my fear was initiated at finding my youngest daughter Camilla experimenting with tooth-brushing in the toilet itself, as she had already enjoyed using the bidet for uses known only to herself…
To fix up the above-mentioned sophisticated mechanism of your precious toilet, this super-technological Japan will send you home a perfectly dressed plumber, who in suit and tie, will take out his mobile phone – as every respectable manager possesses – to let his supervisor attentively listen to the strange noise of your blessed flush.
Let’s not forget that this is the only country in the world where you find the instructions to use the toilets in the public toilets! Yes, how to use Japanese toilets (similar to the ones generally called ‘Turkish’) and how to sit on western ones… This can be easily explained by the characteristic Japanese habit of explaining all, of giving instructions on everything, as nothing is left to individual judgment but is rather made clear, all-explained and properly described… in Japanese!
Walking around in the Nipponese metropolis every step introduces a new world, and this continues for years as there will always be something that you didn’t do and that you can always do now. I still haven’t rented a dog – and yes, you can! – and haven’t yet walked him out all dressed up; neither have I had him meet his doggy friends at a canine party, although I admit I was amazed and still I am when I see young elegant ladies pushing with pride their ‘special doggy’ strollers… and I still wryly smile when wandering inside special clothes shops, spas, patisseries… all of course conceived for our four-legged friends!
Yes, because Japan is also a society where women are emancipated, refusing to stop working to be just mother and wife. And so they get themselves a dog and care for him as one would a child and sometimes more so!
This is in reaction to the standard family structure that has remained up to now, with a housewife devoted to raising the children while the husband spends his time at work. It looks like this structure is also cracking, but I guess it will take some time for a real change.
Over these few years, I have accumulated in my mind various images of what I love and what makes me smile: the snow-capped Fuji-san, majestic and imposing; the Japanese gardens and that great feeling of peace deriving from them; Tokyo’s bay and its skyscrapers that look like they almost touch the sky; the Japanese thermal baths where I can relax in the hot waters; my bicycle rides, when I always feel as if I were on holiday…; the many fake Elvis Presleys, singing and dancing close to the Meiji Jungo temple; the dog in a kimono walking by his owner; the little Japanese girls neatly dressed in their marine uniforms.
And then, together with the images there are the sounds, like the lullaby of the sweet potato seller, when he passes by every evening with his cart; there is the music at 5pm that reminds me that is time to go home; the strange cantilena of the sellers when you get in and out of the shops; the screaming of the ambulances, as here in Japan there are no special sirens, but it’s the nurses themselves who politely ask the people to kindly move back and let the ambulance go through…
And then the scents, that of Soya, of Japanese soups, of smoked fish for breakfast.
I still have all these inputs, but in a way it’s as if they were already memory; memory of those two years and more, when on that August 27th at Narita Airport I wondered what sort of life I was going to have…
Not too bad my Japan.
Translated from italian by Silviaexpat