The Cherry Blossoms Were Beautiful But . . .
Fleeting Impressions of Tokyo and Kyoto Revisited
For some of us who spent childhood and maybe adolescent years in Japan, the question “What’s going on nowadays in the old country?” is hovering somewhere in the back of our minds half the time, whether we admit it to each other or not. For news/info junkies like myself, there’s nowadays the internet, but even if one is pretty up-to-date info-wise, it’s still not easy to grasp the big picture, missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.
I just returned from a whirlwind one-week trip to Tokyo and Kyoto with my wife and two kids, primarily to see relatives. As always on my trips “home,” everything I see, hear, taste and feel were all-too-familiar on the surface. But there was something going on right before my eyes that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…
So here I am, less than a month after our return to Vancouver, still a bit dazed as I gaze at the beautiful cherry blossoms of the late-blooming varieties still gracing familiar neighbourhoods.
But the season will move on and the petals will scatter, leaving me still wondering: “What did I really see over there, and, fortunately, why do I still find Vancouver so endearing?”
A few recollections might throw some light on the “big picture.”
It’s a quiet Monday evening inside the Nihonbashi main store of the famed Mitsukoshi Department Store chain. It’s practically deserted around the glittering interior of the ornate granite structure as it’ll be closing time soon. Here comes a family of four Asians (?!) in somewhat casual attire, in contrast to the many female employees, dressed to the nines who keep smiling. Mother and daughter are peeking eagerly into one famous brand boutique to the next. The father and son are sort of aimlessly strolling back and forth. Yes, it’s us.
Having just arrived from Vancouver after a ten-hour flight and checked into a cheap business hotel in Nihonbashi in the heart of Tokyo’s financial district, we immediately came out to look around. Most offices seem to have ended for the day (not working late all the time like a few decades ago). Then we hear the PA announcement that “We’re closing for the day.” Our son is nowhere to be seen . . . probably somewhere on the same floor. The upshot was that he came wondering back while at least five or six store clerks were helping us look. Someone had suggested announcing a message for him. (“But tell him to meet us where?”). A small episode, to be sure . . . but how deserted Nihonbashi in central Tokyo felt that Monday evening, even inside Tokyo’s classiest department store! And so many storeclerks lavishing just one family of Canadian (at least the wife and kids) bumpkins with so much attention!
Our stay in Tokyo got off to a great start with an early morning visit to the now world-renowned Tsukiji fish market. We got there when the daily early morning auction was over, but still managed to enjoy out-of-this-world nigiri sushi at the counter. We strolled down narrow streets, selling often wholesale everything from myriad versions of tamago-yaki, sort of seasoned omelettes in various roll and box shapes and finest konbu (dried seaweed), to myriad chinaware.
Shopping underground around Shinjuku station one afternoon was visual/sensual overload like wandering through some modern day version of the Greek labyrinth, each branch going through another “shopping street” (clothes, accessories, cafes, small eateries, whatever) leading to another urban railway or subway station. And that was just around the east exit of the station. The place looked familiar, but nevertheless exhausting for me. But the kids and wife didn’t seem to mind when it came to shopping.
We were in Kyoto for just two nights and two days plus, and found the atmosphere of the ancient capital to be much more relaxing than Tokyo. It was a stay all too short in the city which the US “spared” the atom bomb toward the end of World War II because of its historical and cultural value. It probably has more temples, shrines and other historic architecture—mostly wooden—per square kilometre than any other city of its size in the world.
I felt the traditional spirit of the most important of Japan’s historic capital cities, still pulsating in the people. My wife laughed when I remarked that “even the facial features of some young Kyotoites bear traditional samurai-like characteristics.” I meant it in contrast to much bigger Tokyo, where the population is a veritable hodge podge of the many Japanese racial types of all backgrounds. Historical crafts like the weaving and dyeing of fine textiles, and handicraft of Buddhist religious items from beads to gold Buddhas all still thrive, as a walk about in many quarters will reveal. Dyers alone filled at least three pages of the local yellow pages phone directory.
One taxi driver told us that Kyoto too was feeling the effects of climate change. “Until about 20 years ago, the temperature always went two or three degrees below during the night so any water left outside will freeze solid, but now, water never freezes at night. People used to spend much of the day around the hibachi (the large round traditional kind). “Now we can walk around with our back straight even in winter.”
I got the impression that the Japanese society was ageing. In the big picture, the demographic peak of the baby boomers are about to go into retirement According to a survey comparing the “motivation for work” of different nationalities, released by the UK research institute FDS in ’07, the Japanese “shockingly” (Bungei Shunju, May, 05) placed last. I saw that the literally jam packed commuter-hour trains are definitely a past phenomenon. But also missing was that palpable collective energy of people, eager to get more done, faster, all the time. They’re now a nation of older people, relatively speaking, more relaxed and ready to enjoy life within affordable limits. Even the performance of high school students, once among the best in the world in math and science, now lag behind Europeans and some other Asians.
I caught a glimpse of the micro picture in my all-too-brief reunion with male cousins of my own age, past 60 and approaching retirement at 65. One at a major electronics firm got transferred to a subsidiary, now helping to run a small operation the latter bought out in Seattle, Washington, doing months-long stints there. Another, at a major engineering firm, is being phased out, going to work only three days a week now. He appeared the epitome of the sincere, hard-working hands-on executive who doesn’t play office politics and ends up getting eased out. The former was his usual confident self, looking fit and, I must ruefully admit, a lot more hair on his head than yours truly. The latter, whom I’ve been close to since kindergarten, is looking a little older and, incidentally, unable to hold his liquor as well as he used to as a typical hard-drinking “son of Kyushu.”
No wonder, perhaps, that one major cultural trend of recent years in Japan has been the prevalence of iyashikei, meaning roughly anything that provides comfort (iyashi), from entertainment, the arts and literature to cuisines and exclusive resorts. The self-deprecating catchphrase among Japanese financiers nowadays is “Japan passing.” It’s a play on “Japan bashing” by envious competitor nations back in the good old days, in hindsight, of the 70s and early 80s when Japan was the cash-rich economic powerhouse gobbling up US and European assets. Now the big players are heading for Shanghai, Hongkong and even Singapore, leaving out Japan, to the chagrin, presumably, of people around Nihonbashi.
So the old, and young, too, appear to be preoccupied with trying to enjoy themselves as well as they can afford to. The shockwave end of the lifetime employment system of the pre-globalization days is still being felt even harder, I daresay, than the people slogging from day to day may realize themselves.
When we caught the resplendent cherry blossoms in full bloom at Ueno Park, we joined the throngs of folks young and old, out to celebrate O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing), one of the oldest and happiest seasonal traditions in Japan. It could well be my overactive imagination, but the spontaneous smiles on the faces we encountered as we strolled under the soft pink canopy looked to be the happiest of the facial expressions we saw during our brief stay. Their joyous spirit overflowed even into a massive popular restaurant at the foot of the hilly park near Ueno station, where we had lunch.
The place was divided between a regular table and chair section, and a raised tatami section where you left your footwear on a rack and sat on zabuton (flat cushions). The decades-old local institution of an eatery was packed, as always, with families out for the day, travellers young and old about to depart for the north or just arrived, and groups of old business-types unwinding with a beer or two. The pages-long menu, as you might expect, was filled with all manner of traditional cuisine from sushi to katsu-don, tempura and soba, to the veritable must-have array of “Japanese Western” dishes from deep fried prawns and thick-curry and rice to deep-fried pork cutlet, steak and spaghetti. Didn’t mean to make your mouth water, but that’s what I meant about enjoying life as much as possible within means.
So what’s going on in Japan? The people are turning inward, largely “opting out” of the rough and tumble of the “world out there” and are trying to enjoy themselves to the max within means, even as the baby boomers going into retirement try to figure out what to do with their hard-earned savings because the government doesn’t seem to know where the economy is going in this globalized world either. Probably an oversimplification. Nevertheless, after a while back in Vancouver, a small episode reminded me of the quality of life that we’re lucky to have here that might be hard to find over there.
One evening I found a parked car I didn’t recognize blocking our driveway. So I left a note saying “Please don’t block our driveway next time. Thank you” under its windshield wiper, and found the following note in the drive next morning. “Dear Sir/Ms, I’m so sorry for parking in front of your driveway. I had no idea that I was obstructing it. Many apologies. G.” I’ll probably never know who “G” is, but he has the decency to take time to apologize to someone he’ll probably never meet.
Here again was but a tiny example of the many times I’ve encountered decency and kindness on the part of total strangers since we moved here 12 years ago. A sense of INDIVIDUAL social responsibility, that adds up to a better collective quality of life. I’m not by any means saying Japanese people are not decent or kind. Like the Mitsukoshi sales clerks mentioned at the beginning. It’s just that life in densely populated cities like Tokyo is too stressful, competitive and fast-paced for people in general to interact with decency, much less show kindness to total strangers they’ll never see again.
And the difference in breathing space, both physical and mental. A Japanese acquaintance here who recently spent a few weeks back Japan on business, said he tried to work as much on line from his old home in Nagoya, going into Tokyo only for meetings. “I found it too tiring in Tokyo crowds.” Yes, the people in Kyoto also seemed more relaxed than in Tokyo. Back in Vancouver for a while now, I am relaxed enough now to enjoy our late blooming varieties.
My head is still a bit confused though.