Yokoso Japan! Come ye and stay for a while … but not too long

12 Oct

kinkakuji kyotoJust come back from a glorious ten days in Japan. Ahh, Nihhon – every time I go back I wonder why I ever left. And then right at the end of the holiday, when all my endorphins have withered and died, when my belly simply cannot stomach another grilled chicken ovary on a stick and my liver is cowering at the thought of more Asahi. Then I remember why.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the place, it’s just that the rabu rabu, when it’s good, is so bloody good, and the bad, well is so bad it just gets pushed to the darkest recesses of my mind as if it never happened. If you haven’t been yet I’d urge you to go, especially if you live in Asia. It’s so bloody close but literally unlike anything on Earth.

All the rumours are true: neon-infused Blade Runner-style city scapes; beautiful snow-capped mountains; peerless temples and hill-top shrines … child porn that would make Jimmy Savile blush. It’s all here. It’s all fighting for space and vying for your attention in the most utterly polite way possible. Like the people who inhabit this archipelago, bad manners is not an option. Learn just a smattering of traveller’s Japanese and you’ll be set – no shrugged shoulders and blank Parisian stares here – and the food has enough variety and quality to keep you happy for at least a fortnight, never eating the same dish twice.

You probably don’t want to hear about how much fun we had though, so I’ll tell you about the darkness. The politeness gets too much after a while, inevitably. Japan’s a walled garden, a playground for the foreigner, but also eventually a bit of a prison. It locks you into the same endless cycle of polite conversations with locals who really should know you better by now – complimenting you on use of chopsticks, linguistic dexterity or just being tall as if the past three years never even happened.

Its otherness, its difference, becomes intensely frustrating. “Why can’t I use my credit card anywhere? Why does it take foreign films two months longer to get here than anywhere else? Why do all the girls have a borderline personality disorder and squeak like a child’s toys when you try to get intimate? And why the hell can’t I find decent CHEESE anywhere!?” Sometimes you just want a beer in a bar without having to order food, a cigarette in the street without having to find the nearest designated smoking area, or a shit without having to operate a Buck Rogers toilet from the future.

That’s basically why I couldn’t live there any longer. That and the child maintenance payments. But post-tsunami Japan needs all the help it can get, and that’s certainly not going to come from Chinese tourists any time soon. So get your collective fingers out and book a trip tomorrow. The soaring highs and the crushing lows are waiting just around the corner…

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