Japan round-up

One of the strangest things about spending time in Japan was the surgical masks. Or, rather, how absolutely not-strange they were to nearly everyone around me. After a day or three, I got used to maybe one in five people wearing a mask over his or her face. As I spent more time riding the rails, particularly the JR Yamanote line, I found that this wasn’t even that difficult to imagine an explanation for, either. In a very crowded car, people are literally right in one another’s face, and crowded cars are the norm in Tokyo. I don’t know if the masked themselves would draw this connection— Japan disclaimer—but at all events reaching for some sort of barrier stopped feeling mystifying.

It still felt strange, though. Like someone had announced an outbreak without me noticing. While, in the meantime, the whole thing was routine to everyone else. People wearing masks were a decided minority, but I think in Tokyo it has become like, say, glasses: it has been normalized in the sense that some people wear them, other people don’t, and you really pay it no special regard.

A few other notes about Japan that should wrap up my public commentary…

That one, mystery coin which lacks any arabic numeral indication of its value? Five yen.

Speaking of yen, my Lonely Planet guide was excellent, but its recommendation of ¥100 stores for souvenir shopping seemed unfounded. The Daiso in Harajuku was sort of interesting to wander around… yet in the end mostly just seemed full of mass-produced tat indistinguishable from that in the US.

Likewise, I think LP and other sources overhype the “bookseller neighborhood” of Jimbocho (I found no noticeable cluster of bookstores), and vending machines. Yes, vending machines are everywhere, but nearly all are just beverage dispensers offering one of three or four menus. Even if you include capsule-toy machines, those mostly offer dull, dumb junk, just like ours.

Cherry-blossom viewing is not overhyped, however. At first I was uncertain, but when I wandered into Ueno Park on my first full afternoon, I suddenly realized that yes, this is as crazy big as described. Viewing ukiyo-e prints, later, and seeing the continuity of this tradition through centuries, further underscored that until you appreciate sakura season, I really don’t think you begin to appreciate Japan.

Also living up to advance billing: 1) Department store openings. I attended the 10am opening ceremony for the Mitsukoshi store in Marunouchi, and it was totally worth it. As thorough a not-in-Kansas-anymore moment as any, the entire trip. 2) The difficulty of finding your way around. I had an individual map for nearly every place I wanted to go… and it was still hard. I also had a compass, and got good use from it. Bring one!

An odd thought while attending a kabuki performance. While much of the audience were obviously tourists, we were joined by locals and even several afficianados, who would occasionally shout at some specially impressive performer or performance. One of the terms I heard repeatedly sounded something like “bouya!!” I have found no corroboration online, since, but I have also not found any firm contrary etymology, so I still wonder just a bit if this contributed to our slang expression “boo yeah?”

Can’t say that I share the sentiment, but I’ve read that at least a few people, zinesters e.g., feel some nostalgia toward the Kinko’s chain now subsumed within FedEx… for these, good news, Kinko’s still exist in Japan.

Japanese TV was fascinating. I won’t say it’s objectively more weird than, e.g., American TV. Honestly, step back and take a look, and ask yourself if anything could really be that much more weird than our shows and ads. But Japanese TV is certainly novel as an outsider, because it was basically all new and different. Much seemed, after a while, like it had some correspondence with something or other from American TV. One exception: anything that wasn’t drama seemed to include an inset window of someone’s face at almost all times. Here, too, I don’t know that there’s anything uniquely odd; is this more weird or even all that conceptually different from having phantom laughter burst in repeatedly during a program? But it was, as I say, novel, as one more thing that seemed to be a basic cultural convention, of which I had never heard any hint.

Life is learning; travel is AP coursework.

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