Saturday, December 7, 2013

First Impressions of Japan

Today is Saturday, December 7, 2013.

Before I went to Japan to live, I visited there with my Japanese husband for about six weeks in the summer of 1975.  I remember being unprepared for the heat and humidity, and being grateful to get into an air-conditioned train.  I remembered seeing a big billboard ad for Kirin Beer and thinking that a nice, cold beer would be very welcome.

The humidity wasn't the only shock; the view outside the train window was a shock, too.  Most people associate Japan with beautiful images of stately Mount Fuji, clouds of pink cherry blossoms, austere rooms with rush-matted floors and little furniture, stunning gardens, ancient temples, and shrines, and beautiful, kimono-clad women posing with delicate paper parasols. I sure did.  And I saw all of that, but not at first.  What I learned is that if you want those beautiful views of Japan, you have to know where to look. 

If you take the train, however, be prepared for ugly.  Most modern buildings and homes in Japan are of concrete construction, the vast majority with plain stucco exteriors in drab earth tones.  Of course, I first saw this well before Americans started painting their homes in earth tones.  My first visit to Japan was back in the mid-seventies, when homes in the United States were either bright white or vivid colors.  

Concrete isn't a bad choice, especially for areas with high humidity.  (I've realized since the time I first visited Japan that concrete is the material of choice for a lot of places in humid areas.)  The humidity isn't the only reason for the concrete, though.  Remember that Japan is very earthquake-prone.  As well, the Japanese have learned from hard experience that their traditional wooden buildings were always at the mercy of fires, and since Japanese people still heat their homes one room at a time with small gas or electric stoves, the danger of fire is very real.  I don't know if they still do this today, but back then, there was always someone in every neighborhood who walked around the streets with wooden blocks or sticks, making a clapping sound with the wood, and calling out to their neighbors to be sure to put out their fires before going to bed.

Homes tend to be narrow, with very little yard space around them, if any at all.  The vast majority of homes are surrounded by a fence, often a very high one, for privacy.  Homes are built right up against streets and railroad tracks, and it seemed as if I could just lean out the train window and touch the houses.   In some areas there were few buildings over two stories high, but of course in the cities, more and more buildings are taller.  Few buildings are more than about 5 to 8 stories in height, however. 

There were a lot of telephone lines, and I realized with a start that you never see modern things like telephone poles and wires in pictures of Japan.  Sidewalks are nonexistent in most areas; everyone just walks in the street.  Storefronts come right up against the street, and the streets are incredibly narrow.  In Japan the storm sewers (suido) are separate from the sanitary sewers (gesui).  The storm sewers are semi-covered concrete troughs that form the sides of most streets in Japan.  The sanitary sewers are totally out of sight.  

Zoning is different in Japan, too.  Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are really just a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, each with a small shopping street.  Nobody has to go very far to shop for groceries or anything else one might need for one's home.  The shops are mostly small, mom-and-pop specialty shops, with living quarters above the shop for the owner's family.  The streets are irregular, so from the train window, they look like they're all jumbled together.  

So where did I find the beautiful views?  I saw that beauty is mainly an inner thing.  Homes are as beautiful on the inside as they are ugly on the outside.  The older homes do have those big rooms that are mostly empty of furniture, but most modern homes are small and cluttered.  Gardens anywhere are so tiny that you have to take a close-up photo of them in order to eliminate the ugly surroundings.  The temples and shrines are there, all right, but they are few and far between in the big cities, unless you're in Kyoto or Kamakura.  (By the way, Kyoto and Kamakura were never fire-bombed by the Allies in World War II.  Even then, we knew what to leave alone, thank heaven.  But to be on the safe side, the Japanese totally emptied those cities of their art and historical treasures during the war years, including explicit plans for the rebuilding of  all the temples and shrines.)

There are women in kimono, but you don't see them except on special occasions. On New Year's Day many people dress in traditional garb to visit a Shinto Shrine to pray for good luck.  Coming of Age Day used to be held on January 15, but with the institution of the "Happy Monday system," the day is now celebrated on the second Monday in January.  On that day young people dress in their finest traditional kimono to attend ceremonies marking their formal entry into legal adulthood at the age of 20.  Apparently, the peak of attendance at these ceremonies was during the mid-1970s, when I first went to Japan.  These days, fewer than half of the "new adults" participate in the ceremonies, and most of them are actually 19, rather than exactly 20.  

Kimonos are also seen at weddings and funerals, and in the geisha district of Kyoto, Gion, which covers only a few blocks in the heart of the city.  (There used to be something like 80,000 geisha in Japan in the old days.  They were already pretty rare when I got there. Now there are maybe 2,000 traditional geisha, at the most.)  One other time people dress in kimono – actually cotton kimono called yukata – are the summer festivals of Tanabata (Star Festival) and O-Bon, which I will tell you about in a future post. 

I had a lot to learn about Japan, but the first lesson was something that it took me a while to process.  The Japanese tend to reserve their beautiful things for their inner spaces.  You see beautiful things behind a door or inside a fence.  You see beautiful things in corners and tucked inside small spaces.  You have to look carefully to find beauty. :-)

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