Shrines, Gardens, 7-Elevens: A Japan Journal, Part I

At Ueno Park, Tokyo, on a Friday afternoon in June (Jay Nordlinger)

Japan is renowned for efficiency, and Narita Airport, outside Tokyo, does nothing to impair the country’s reputation. They zip you through. At least they do so on this afternoon, when I arrive. The airport is chockablock with employees. They act like they want to get you out on the street as fast and conveniently as possible.

One could get used to this. And to Japan at large . . .

• A sign in the train says, “Good Manners, Good Tokyo” (in English). It admonishes you not to look at your phone while you walk. I, for one, could use the admonition . . .

• And where do you walk? On the left, usually. Because, in Japan, you drive on the left, too — as in Britain. Do you walk on the left in Britain? Not that I have found, actually. In fact, I’ve always found this confusing.

• At stoplights, they wait, the pedestrians do. I mean, they really wait. There could be no car in sight, and they’ll wait still, until the Walk sign comes on. My American feet have a very hard time abiding by this.

The lights are long, too. Really long. Well, at least people have time to look at their phones . . .

• Many people think of Tokyo as a Japanese New York, and that is not wrong. But it is New York on steroids, I think. Tokyo is a riot of commerce, an explosion of capitalism. New York looks practically rural by comparison . . .

• To me, Japan is both familiar and foreign. Part of what makes it familiar is the stores — the chains. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wendy’s. Even Hooters, for heaven’s sake.

On virtually every block, there is a 7-Eleven. And if not a 7-Eleven, a Family Mart. And if not a Family Mart, a Lawson. I understand this chain originated in Ohio. But it is now a Japanese fixture.

• Don’t forget the Kit Kat stores — whole stores devoted to Kit Kats. Including in green-tea variety.

• And Hello Kitty? Archeologists of the distant future might conclude that Hello Kitty was a deity in these parts.

• A great many people — a great many — wear masks. White masks. Evidently, this is to keep out germs, or keep them in, or something. To my American mind, this is a little . . . overdone?

• On the streets are many stylish women. A lot of them use umbrellas, in the sun. This is the original use of the umbrella, as I understand it: to provide shade. (This function is embedded in the name. Umbra, in Latin, is shade.) In Taiwan several years ago, I learned that many Asian women strive to keep fair. Other women around the world work hard — very hard — on their tans.

A chacun son goût, you could say. To each his (her) own.

• I myself have to buy an umbrella — for the rain. It is made in China, of course. Many years ago, I decided to initiate a personal boycott of Chinese products. I kept reading about, and reporting on, political prisoners used for slave labor. Then it rained, in New York. I went to one store for an umbrella — all were made in China. As at the second store. As at the third store.

That was hard on a boycott.

• Grant that all babies, toddlers, and children, everywhere, are beautiful and delicious. Japanese ones? They may just take the cake . . .

• Many shirts have English written on them. English words, sentences, slogans. Some of them are a little weird. A little nonsensical. Here is one sentence that parses: “If I were in your class, would you sit next to me?”

• My hotel is on a very interesting street, but I can’t tell you which. It has no name. This is confirmed to me by more than one person. I ask a hotel clerk, “When you tell people where you work, or how to get here, what do you say?” She answers, “Well, you say things like, ‘It’s in Akasaka’” (a district). “There is a certain ramen shop on the corner, and then you turn left, and . . .”

I’d never make it.

• Consider the word “Tokyo.” I tend to think of it as “Tok-yo.” But, in the Japanese mind, it is “To-kyo” — meaning “eastern capital.”

I talk with a scholar of Japan, who says, “When I publish in English, they always want to split the word ‘Tok-yo’ [at the end of a sentence], which we regard as wrong.”

I can well understand . . .

• In a 7-Eleven — or is it a Family Mart? — I hear “The Entertainer” being played, in a jazzy version. It is a lousy version. But I think the composer, Joplin, would be pleased with his rag’s fame. Its worldwide fame. I think he would be astounded, too. I feel glad for him, standing here. I really do. He deserves this fame.

• At a Shinto shrine, there is music — music and dancing. Up on a platform, a man in a kind of loincloth beats a drum. Down below, people sing a song, or chant a chant, whose lines frequently end in “oi oi.” As they sing, they dance in a slow circle. Their movements are coordinated, with the occasional clap. I have the impression of looking at a stately, mystical macarena.

• When bamboo grows here, man, does it grow. None of the wimpy stuff I sometimes see at home. But, you know? Bamboo seems fake to me — not quite natural, more like manufactured. Plastic, almost. A hard plastic.

What an interesting tree (if tree it be).

• I give you an oasis, Hamarikyu Gardens, in the midst of the big city:

• How about some purple finery?

• The star attraction of Hamarikyu Gardens is the 300-year-old pine, planted in 1709. Quick, who was president in 1709? (No one.)

• Like many old creatures, the 300-year-pine needs crutches, canes — support. Behold:

• The Japanese really know how to do paper, as in paper you write on. Stationery stores are disappearing ’round the world, as technology strides ahead. But Tokyo has some jewel-like stores, including Kyukyodo. Rarely have I seen so elegant a shop. I know a lady who says she can spend hours in it, and I understand why.

• In the store, some elderly ladies talk with each other. I enjoy seeing this. I can sort of imagine them in their youth. These ladies, born as early as 1930, have seen their country go through vast, convulsive changes.

• Grant that all weddings, everywhere, are beautiful. There’s something about a Japanese wedding, though — with the typical Japanese attention to detail, and beauty.

• I meet a lady named Kawasaki. “Like the motorcycle,” she says. In the early 1970s, she went to school in America. Students, not quite remembering her name, would call out, “Hey, Honda!”

(I know a lady who was married to a man named Churchill. In college, one of his professors addressed him, not trying to be funny or mischievous, as “Mr. Chamberlain.”)

• A few weeks ago, I was in Oslo, which has a royal palace. Its grounds are a public park, and any Tom, Dick, or Harry can go right up to the palace, with just a few feet to spare. The Norwegian royals have almost no privacy . . .

. . . in contrast to the Japanese royals, whose home is out of public view, as I understand it, but whose vast grounds, or a portion of them, can be experienced by Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Riku, Kaito, and Haru).

• See this eatery, below? There are many of them. Why is there an apostrophe over the “e”? No idea.

• I should not poke fun at Japanese English — particularly given the state of my Japanese (nonexistent, and laughable when pronounced). But . . . on this sign, warning of collisions between walkers and bicyclists, did they perhaps mean “crash”?

• Some of my favorite food in all of Tokyo is really cheap food — such as onigiri from 7-Eleven. These are rice balls, or rice wedges, with various tastes tucked within. Oh, for a Japanese 7-Eleven near me at home! I would hit it often.

• On a busy street, a smell hits me — a good and familiar smell. Something national and primal rises within me. I turn around — yes, it’s a burger joint (Island Burgers).

• The Yasukuni Shrine is that controversial site that politicians sometimes visit and sometimes not. It commemorates Japanese war dead. It also sanitizes, or falsifies, history. The gift shop contains books such as The (Alleged) Nanking Massacre. Is this the equivalent of Holocaust denial? It would be hard to claim otherwise.

• Sitting in a subway car, I think, “Damn. This car is cleaner than many an eatery back home.”

• In Tokyo, as far as I can tell, there is no litter. None. Curiously, there are no public wastebaskets either, or all too few. (Where do people throw their stuff away?) There is no crime, or virtually none. And no begging, at all. It is simply not done.

The aforementioned scholar quips to me, “Maybe I should start. There is a market opening for me.”

Enough Japan-ing for today, ladies and gentlemen? Okay — we’ll take the “bullet train” to Kyoto tomorrow. Thanks, and see you.

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