Thursday, April 23, 2009

Back from vacation

I enjoyed Japan immensely.

The first thing that must be said is how overwhelming I found Tokyo. It is a huge city. It was a huge city of over a million people 4 centuries ago. Now it is over 30 million, and even from the top floor of the tallest building in the city, I could see no end to it. The language, both written and spoken, is completely foreign. Fortunately, the subways make announcements in English as well as Japanese, and maps usually have both languages posted. The public transportation is superb. There is less traffic in Tokyo than in San Francisco or Portland. The crowds made me sweat. Going through the subway stations during rush hour was like being in a crowded stadium in which everyone is rushing onto the field--as politely as possible.

The second thing that must be said is how homogeneous the culture and people are. I saw more racial diversity in Portland, Oregon, which is a notoriously "anglo" city, than in Tokyo. Foreigners stand out, and for a city the size of Tokyo there aren't nearly as many non-japanese as I would have thought. I was in a sea of dark hair and eyes, a sea in which my curly hair might as well have been a beacon. The only other person I saw with curly hair in my 3 weeks there was a red-headed child. All young business men wear black or very dark blue suits. I developed a theory, after hours of people-watching, that the more successful and self-confident a businessman was, the lighter his suit. It is a male dominant society--men take the seats on the subway first--they do not give them up to women--and they go through doors first, too, for example. Women showed a lot of diversity in their choices in dress and shoes. Some of the clothing combinations were atrocious, and the shoes, well, somehow "fuck-me" heels didn't seem appropriate for long walks through the subway tunnels, and yet there they were.

And then there was the cigarette smoke. Japan has apparently made a lot of changes in the past 5 years, but depite the creation of "non-smoking areas" there is often a pall of smoke shrouding hotel lobbies and restaurants. I found it very unpleasant.

My first week I loved the food, but thereafter, the food was sometimes difficult for me. I love sushi and sashimi and yet something I was served at a kaiseki feast in Kyoto disagreed with me so strongly that I was sick for days and rarely able to eat traditional japanese food afterwards. They use a lot of oil in their food, to the point that even a bowl of udon noodles and tempura was an ordeal to eat. They pickle a lot of their vegetables in a manner that made them odiforously inedible. I ate so sparingly (for nearly a week I lived on toast and sugared tea/soda--I couldn't even eat eggs for protein) that my energy-level bottomed out several times a day due to the physical demands of being a tourist. I was cranky about feeling tired and ill so much. My travelling companion was very understanding and solicitous, but he got impatient after a while, which was good, because he often pushed me to do things I felt too crappy to want to do, and as a result I saw more of Japan than I otherwise would have.

The parks, temples, and shrines are beautiful. For centuries the Japanese have lost buildings and artifacts to fire and war and they have continually re-built, preserving a unique spiritual and architectural heritage that awed me on numerous occasions. My companion is kinetic. He does not know how to still his mind, how to empty it and let it fill the space he is in. He does not know to take in a place with all his senses and more just by being, really being present, and so I left most of the places that appealed most to me with a sense of longing. My reluctance to move on eventualy became a reluctance to initiate the process of truly appreciating where I was, and in some ways I became a tourist, marking another sight seen off my list, eager to move on to the next one, because when the day's list was complete I could rest. In the evenings I often soaked in the tub to rid myself of a chill so deep the beds of my fingernails were blue.

The festivals -- I hope Japan continues the traditional festivals -- the carrying of the floats through the streets with the chanting, the drum beating, and the costumes. I hope they continue to keep their young people engaged in it, because the festivals are truly moving and unique, and it saddnes me to think that they might some day be lost, as geishas will be, before the century is out. I saw Kabuki, and Noh, and Bunraku. A tea ceremony, an ikebana demonstration, many museums, wood block prints of incredible intricacy, and the deer of Nara. I saw the 1001 life-sized statues of Kannon, all similar but each unique, with with 40+ arms, in a rows that stretched longer than a football field. I was moved to tears by the sight of those statues and the thousands of man-hours of work they represented, awed by what we can accomplish that is creative instead of destructive.

And some nights I wept at the news out of Washington DC. The outrage I felt at learning about the torture that was conducted in my name resurfaced, and as the details became known, I was horrified. I was reminded of Nietzsche's warning "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster" and was deeply saddened by the knowledge that we lost the war on terror so soon after the 9/11 attack. We lost our moral high-ground. We became the animals we sought to fight. My Grandfather fought the Japanese during WWII and had nightmares every night of his life for 60 years afterwards. Nightmares about torture. He heard the cries of soldiers in his sleep and many nights he woke me with this thrashing and shouting, and to know that what was done to him and men like him was done to others by Americans in the name of America--it gives me a grief as deep as the loss of my sister. My anger rises at the staunch defense of these tactics by Cheney and Rove others, and all I want is this: Every man and woman who formulated, perpetuated, and perpetrated the policy of torturing prisoners should themselves be water-boarded 183 times in a month. And anyone who defends it to this day should be waterboarded 80 times in a month. And then, and only then, when they themselves have been subjected to the treatment they advocate, will I give any credence to anything they have to say -- provided their minds haven't splintered into a thousand points of light.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks like you had an excellent vacation. The contrasts between the huge city and the tranquility of the temple complexes is quite something, and allows one to escape the croweds before braving them again.

It's not a shame that you realised that you too are a tourist when visiting a country as foreign as Japan. The environment is entirely different; the people are entirely different; the food is entirely different; and so on.

That said, I'm sure it was a great experience, and I am very pleased for you that you went on this trip.

11:09 PM, April 23, 2009  

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