Friday, April 4, 2008

My Japan

Most people have a highly skewed view of Asia in general, and Japan in particular. For many, Shibuya is Japan – and enormous sea of neon and giant plasma screens with Harajuku girls thrown in for good measure. And quite honestly, I saw some weird-ass people hanging around the entrance to Yoyogi Koen on the Meiji Jingu side, and I can direct you to some really good restaurants in Shibyua that you’d miss for all the neon – and the neon certainly is part of the Japanese experience.

The other Western ideal of Japan is the Zen monastery. Anyone who’s actually been to Asia and carries that particular brand of baggage with them is struck by the cognitive dissonance generated by the contrast of all the arts and religion we see from Asia over here and the reality over there. The emphasis we see is on tranquility, harmony, and natural beauty. In reality Asia is crowded, noisy, and outside of Japan, dirty and smelly. The smell of Bangkok, for example, has to be experienced to be believed. Incense, savory food, and perfume mix in an olfactory quilt that also includes a river that smells like an open sewer, diesel fumes, and rotting garbage.

The Westerner often forgets that a.) art and religion are often a reaction to an actual living situation that is the exact opposite from the aspirations of the humanist or theologian, and b.) that the arts and religion we see comes from the upper class who could escape to the country without having to actually do anything as messy as slop the hogs.

Japanese adults live in a very small mental box. Bullying and conformism often dominate their lives. To compensate for this, they tend to let their kids run wilder than one would expect from a strict semi-Confucian society. But by 40 those kids will be corporate drones, or have carved out a more pleasant niche as a small businessperson – but still traditional in form.

As an adult, some of the escape hatches in Japan actually do have to do with art and nature, and Tokyo is surprising in its ability to smack you with a quiet park right around the corner from a bustling street. That is one of the attributes I love about the place.

I lived there for 2 years around the turn of the millennium, and this photo essay is a look back at the old neighborhood. I had a day to relax in Tokyo, and I spent it revisiting old haunts. It was an extremely pleasant way to spend an early spring day.

When I lived in Japan, I consciously decided not to live in the Gaijin ghetto. My train station was one of those random platforms that the tourist would pass at high speed in the Romance Car on the way to Hakone. I took the Odakyu line into work, and if I got on the train after about 7:30, I was pushed into an already over-crowded car by guys with white gloves and paramilitary uniforms. The car doors would open at the station, and there would be a hiss as of someone opening a soda bottle as everyone in the car exhaled and gulped a breath of fresh air, while the people whose faces were smashed into the door stumbled out before getting pushed back in again.

Obviously, I was an early riser, as having my nose pressed into some salaryman’s armpit while being forced to stare at some other, seated salaryman reading a pornographic version of Sailor Moon Manga is not my idea of a good time. I hate Manga.

Guys often copped a feel in that situation, in fact there were anti-Chikan (pervert) posters in all the train stations when I lived there. There were wild rumors that Japanese girls sometimes felt up foreigners in such situations, but I only knew one guy who had that happen to him. When he told the story to his (Japanese) wife she said: “you know that was a guy, don’t you”?

My station was a 3-level deal. The top level was the tracks and platform. The second level was ticketing and a few restaurants. The street level was shops and bicycle racks, with a big open terrace where kids skateboarded in the evening. They’ve put in an elevator since I was there – in 1999 the Japanese attitude to the handicapped was “suck it up”.

This is the view of the train station that I had every morning:

My neighborhood had a few foreigners in it, but it was about 90% Japanese. I certainly didn’t know any of the foreigners by name. I felt no need to pay twice as much for a crappy apartment in Roppongi or Hiroo so I could be close to the consulates and the groceries that specialized in foreign foods. I already spoke some Japanese, my wife reads Chinese, so between us we were almost a literate person. We took advantage of that and lived in an area that was not crawling with sailors and Marines on leave from Yokosuka (sorry Jim and Janiece*, but there are a lot of Goobers on that base, and the first place the Goobers with a weekend pass in hand head for is Gas Panic).

That meant shopping was done Japanese-style. This is Marusho, the local grocery about 50 meters from the back entrance to my station:

Yes, space limitations usually make for 3 and 4 story grocery stores in Japan. They have big box stores, it’s just that the boxes are tall, not wide.

The streets in the neighborhood were quite narrow, and there were retaining walls one to two meters high all over the place, so street signs were always accompanied by mirrors:

See what I mean about narrow streets:

The majority of people lived in 3 – 5 story apartment buildings:

However, there were still single-family dwellings in the neighborhood, too:

Unfortunately, many of those were torn down since I lived there, and construction continues apace:

This is my place, Maison Nagai (owned by an old Samurai family, the Nagais, natch):

They say everyone is equal in Japan. Society is supposed to be homogenously middle-class. Bullshit. There is a Japanese proverb: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Stores like Tiffany’s abounded when I was there. Looking at average salaries and expenses, if everyone was middle class, Tiffany’s should have gone out of business in about 15 seconds.

So what was up? Well, everyone in Japan is expected to work, so salaries are pretty middle class for the majority of people. There aren’t many entrepreneurs – that heyday was in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, before the new Keiretsu completely re-instituted the old Zaibatsu system under a different name. Morita would not have gotten Sony off of the ground in the 1970s.

But income isn’t wealth. Let’s say you were in an minor Samurai family under the Tokugawas. Meiji came along and made you get a real job instead of swinging a sword, so you got a degree and became a bureaucrat. Your kids became salarymen and so on. But, neither Meiji nor his son Taisho confiscated the family homestead. So you have 40 acres in some backwater part of Edo. Your family hangs on through the war years, and goes back to work in the Occupation. Now developers start coming in. Your 40 acres in some rice field known as Shinjuku sits right on the place where Yodobashi Camera wants to build their new store. You have them sign a 50 year lease, and bingo, you’re getting 20 million dollars a year in rent.

That’s how rich Japanese are made. But they don’t flaunt it. The signs are subtle. Classy diamond rings, the quality of their clothes, but not in the sleazy Hollywood way. Oh no. You’d never know they were really rich unless you followed them home and found that they have A PRIVATE FREAKING PARK as big as two American football fields right in the middle of an extremely developed Tokyo neighborhood:

Even in Feudal times it was dangerous to conspicuously consume. Hence the wall. Yeah, I snuck in there one night. It was right around the corner from my place. It was pretty nice.

I lived technically in Shibuya Ward. As I said, say the word Shibya to most people, and they think of this. But Shibuya Ward is big, and I lived in the area where it borders with decidedly blue-collar Setagaya Ward and the quiet part of Meguro Ward. Setagaya was about a 5 minute walk from the house, Meguro was about 10 minutes away.

The street on the way to Meguro Ward was lovely. It wound its way past Higashi Kitazawa Station, a local stop on the Odakyu line (my stop was an Express Stop). It was lined with small shops that spoke of 1950s reconstruction. Yakitori restaurants that held about 10 people:

Udon places about the same size:

Ceramics stores:

And liquor stores:

Tokyo University has a branch with a nice park in the area:

You can still see real 1950s construction here and there to get a feel of what Occupied Japan looked like. I’m sure some developer will be tearing this down soon:

There used to be a traditional Chinese Pharmacy in the area, but it has since closed, so no pictures of deer peni for you.

Now Marusho was all well and good, but I’m a cheap bastard, and in Japan you pay through the nose for convenience. So I got on the internet and found the nearest Daiei, which was a Wal-Mart like chain. It happened to be one express stop from me in Setagaya Ward (remember what I said about blue-collar Setagaya) in Shimo Kitazawa, which is a part of Setagaya Ward that is not so much blue collar as overrun with hipsters on a budget. The rich kids hang out in Harajuku, the working class weirdos hang out in Shimo Kitazawa.

But my Daiei is now closed, being transformed under corporate restructuring imposed by bankruptcy:

I love the Shimo Kitazawa area, because there is still a lot of stuff left over from the 50s. Café Masako, for example:

The Occupation ended in 1955. I wonder how many GIs drank coffee and tried to pick up local girls in there?

Behind the station there is a small roofed neighborhood that was probably built in the late 40s, but evokes an even older Japan. Most tourists would walk right by the entrance:

Inside you feel like you have walked into one of the flashback sets for Riding the Metro (a movie I highly recommend, BTW, despite the bad reviews in English ). Need a massage?

Wooden stalls and steel sinks:

Japanese pickles for sale:

And a metaphorical view from the 1940s to the 2000s:

When I was taking these pictures, I grabbed lunch there in a Japanese Udon / Katsu place. It was full of construction workers on lunch break and families taking a rest from shopping. There was just one waitress and one cook in the place, and every table had a button to call the waitress over when you were ready to order. I could see the panic in her eyes when the white guy walked in, because she was running around and had no time to pantomime an order with some gaijin. Her relief was clearly visible when I asked for a seat for one person in Japanese. I had a great lunch and a huge Asahi Super Dry (about 2 US beers in the mug) for under $12. Japan is not as expensive as people make it out to be. But you have to have a sense of adventure and look for places with no Caucasian faces.

Finally, I took the Odakyu express one more stop to Umegaoka. “Ume” is Japanese for “Japanese Plum” which is not a plum, but a small apricot. The Japanese make a disgustingly sweet liqueur out of them, and it is often homemade. During the harvest season, Japanese grocery stores carry Umeshu home-brew kits.

Umegaoka has a famous park with nearly 1000 ume trees. Ume bloom in late February. I prefer Ume season to Sakura season. The celebrations are much more sedate because it’s too cold in February to get drunk and neck under the ume blooms, whereas Cherry Blossom season is one of the few times you’ll see PDAs in Japan.

At the back of the station is the flagship store of one of the most famous Sushi chains in Japan, Midori Zushi. There is always a line there, even at lunch. They specialize in fugu. Only in Japan would people flock to eat in a place with a highly poisonous creature featured prominently on the front of the store:

The park is just lovely, even when the blossoms are just about gone:

It is also thoroughly Japanese, with the obligatory holy rock:

And unpilfered bicycles neatly parked in a row without chains or locks:

I spent the rest of the afternoon there, watching the kids play in the park and drinking milk tea dispensed hot from a vending machine. I miss Japan.

*Jim and Janiece, if you have personally been to Gas Panic, please don't ruin my high opinion of you by telling me.


Janiece Murphy said...

John, no offense taken. Sometimes Marines and Sailors can be complete asses, especially if they've been at sea a long time.

And I can confirm that I have not in fact been to Gas Panic, although I have spent some time in Japan.

CW said...

John I am pretty sure I've been to that liquor store... No comment on whether I've been to Gas Panic :-0

John the Scientist said...

CW - not you! I expect something like that out of Jim, being a former Chief Warrant and all, but now I'm crushed.


dan said...

cool, i was in Tokyo 1991-96, best days of me life. email me at danbloom GMAIL to chat/

also polar cities can you blog on this idea> pro or con

Cory said...

I'm considering living in maison nagai... I'd like to privately e-mail you. Can you contact me at


Anonymous said...

John, I actually lived in Maison Nagai(102)until Feb 08, either you moved into my flat or you lived up stairs. My wife and I loved the area, we spent 3 and a half years there. We really miss Japan and would love to come back for a holiday. Did you have a little dog named Pepper?

John the Scientist said...

I was there 1999 - 2001. I think I may have been in 102, also.

No dogs, I had 3 cats.