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Japan: some impressions

(I wrote the following essay for the Novacon 37 convention book: I'm reposting it here as a belated write-up of what I did on my summer holiday ...)

They've got our future, damn it.

It's not the shiny future of jet packs and food pills — oh no, that's not what Japan is about. Nevertheless, they've got it and they're living in it, damn them. They've got express trains that run on time and accelerate so fast they push you back into your seat like an airliner on take-off. They've got skyscrapers with running lights, looming out of the sodium-lit evening haze — a skyline just like the famous nighttime scene from Blade Runner except for the shortage of giant pyramids (and they're building one of those out in Tokyo bay). And they shave their cats.

In the future we will all have shaved cats. And six story high pornography boutiques that sell Hello Kitty! novelty toys on the ground floor. And 200mph super-express trains blasting between arcologies through a landscape scorched by the waste heat of a hundred million air conditioning units. And beer vending machines on street corners. And skyscrapers cheek-by-jowl with temples that are modern reconstructions of buildings dating back to the eighth century (said reconstructions only slightly older than the Christopher Wren iteration of St Paul's Cathedral).

Welcome to Japan ...

I visited for the worldcon in Yokohama. Jet-lagged and half-addled from the flight over, Feorag and I somehow stumbled onto an express train at Narita Airport. Narita is one of Tokyo's airports; it's far enough away that if you swapped Tokyo with London, it would be somewhere in Wales. The train was our first moment of culture shock — seats as wide and spacious as a business class airline, and a glass-smooth ride. But fast trains that run on time and don't come with polyhedral wheels aren't a novelty if you travel in Europe: it just served notice on us that our airliner hadn't sneakily flown in circles for the past ten hours. It wasn't until we arrived at the Sakuragocho Japan Rail station in Yokohama, emerging from the ground, blinking like naked mole rats and twitchy with impending jet lag, that I began to internalize where we were. And that's the odd thing: on arrival I was drenched by a maddening sense of familiarity, as if I hadn't gone very far at all. Japan is familiar. It's as close as the back of your own head. From the Sony or Panasonic brand on your television set to the cars in the street driving on the left, it all feels familiar, except for the jolts of mind-numbingly intrusive alienation that keep landing on you whenever you forget to feel at home.

Take the journey from the railway station to the convention hotel. And then I spotted the row of columns supporting the arched roof, the familiar signs and on-ramps, and realized I'd fallen into a Robert A. Heinlein story: the roads must surely roll, and roll is what the moving walkways surely did, about half of the nearly-a-kilometre distance to the conference centre and the convention hotel. But then it was time to get off the walkway and tow our luggage, like bugs crawling across the polished marble floors of a succession of ever-larger shopping malls, built to the proportions of vaulted mediaeval cathedrals, each one vaster and more imposing than the last.

Japan is clearly a nation that worships shopping, a nation that has taken the retail experience to its bosom and raised in its honour a frenzy of poured concrete and burnished chrome, a hypermarket for saints. You can wander into a Japanese department store and lose an entire day, without even scraping the surface of the mall it's embedded in. My personal nemesis is Yodabashi Camera: a department store that has a clothing and houseware department embedded in it where most such shops would feature an electronics boutique department. Half of the sixth floor of its Yokohama branch is given over to capsule toy vending machines, where for 200 yen (about 80 pence) you can turn the knob and acquire a tennis ball sized bundle of mysterious plasticky goodness with a model kit of some complexity within. My favourite (which Feorag acquired from a capsule toy machine at Puroland, of which more later) is a capsule toy that contains a self-assembly model of a capsule toy machine, complete with tiny capsule toys ready to vend. Even the toys teach recursion ...

Yokohama is Japan's second-largest city after the monster that is Tokyo; it's a pretty impressive size in its own right. With about four million people and a predominantly industrial base it's the nearest thing you'll find to a Japanese equivalent of Birmingham — if Birmingham sprawled so far that its outer suburbs meshed with those of mega-London. And as with Brum and the big smoke, the best shopping is reserved for the special shopping districts in the metropolis. I have a low saving throw versus Shiny! and you can take it as a function of the weather (33 degrees celsius with 80% humidity) that my shopping day in the Akihabara district of Tokyo was cut short after just four hours. Akihabara is a market district. Narrow alleyways carve up blocks where covered market buildings divided up into tiny stalls rub shoulders with electronics boutiques. The market stalls sell ... stuff. I found myself in one market where the vendors specialized in
obsolete equipment: one stall, indeed, exists solely to sell various replacement parts for RS-232 serial interfaces. Another stall has a neat wall display, protected under glass, of all 24 different types of SCSI cable — while round the corner from it was a glass-topped jewelry counter, original Intel 286 and 486 processors (guaranteed working!) pinned out on their anti-static foam mats like extinct rain forest beetles. I sigh a nostalgic sigh for Johnny Mnemonic (smuggling a whole three megabytes of hot RAM in his head) and move on.

Tokyo is ... well dammit, I only spent four days there and you expect me to describe it? Tokyo left me feeling like an illiterate Albanian shepherd teleported without warning to the UK, staring slack-jawed in wonder at the vast, gleaming, powerful public works of metropolitan Huddersfield, reeking of wealth and efficiency and a goat-free future. From the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper I looked out across the high rise skyline, red lights blinking fretfully in the grip of a typhoon as winds strong enough to blow sheets of rain up the glass of the window rumbled around me, and I realized: this future has no place for goats.

* * *

Of course, Japan isn't all skyscrapers, or shopping malls, or ungulent unpersons. It's a real place, with real people living in it, sliding past the windows and around you on the pavement and the subway, and sometimes talking. And it's a real place with a countryside and plants and insects and birds and things, muck and soil between your toes. I don't do muck and soil much, me: I prefer my nature tamed and theme parked, and my insects quiet.

We arrived during a cicada swarming season in Tokyo. Tokyo isn't particularly quiet at the best of times (we are talking a city where a big expensive house might have a garden almost a metre wide separating it from the street on one side and its neighbours on the other), but the cicadas are something else. When you have to shout to be heard speaking above the noise of insects' mating calls, it's pretty clear that nature doesn't care how much concrete you pour — it's going to demand the last word. All that concrete and air conditioning can't spare you from the muggy climate when you go outside. In August there was a heat wave, with temperatures topping forty degrees; by September things had moderated to temperatures in the low thirties on Tokyo and Yokohama. One day in Yokohama, when the heat was too intense, Feorag and I got out of town and headed for Hakone in the hills. You don't get hills like these in the UK. For one thing, they're incredibly steep — but what makes the difference is that every available slope is covered in green. Nothing tells you that you're living in a high-energy-input biosphere with maybe 30% more daylight per year than cliff sides covered in frenetic solar-powered hermaphrodites.

Hakone is a hot spring resort in the mountains; we ascended about 550 metres on a remarkable 1930s high-altitude railway, its two creaking carriages taking slopes of up to 1 in 10 and making several switchbacks into sidings along the way. We spent most of an afternoon there, in the Yunessun spa, which offers a weirdly commercialized version of the traditional Japanese bath house experience. It boasts something like 23 different bathing experiences, including an outdoor trail that meanders around a geyser and a shinto shrine between hot springs and flumes, by way of a coffee-flavoured pool and a sauna hut. Bathing there is an exhausting experience, entailing much running around and queueing. Luckily the Garra Rufa fish in the final bath will be happy to nibble away the dead skin of your newly formed calluses; unluckily for us, we missed the regular scheduled appointment to be eaten by a shoal of fish and had to leave in time to make our rail connection back to Yokohama.

Japan isn't just the land of extreme bathing: it's the home of ubiquitous toddler icon Hello Kitty. For reasons too arcane and embarrassing to explain, I spent most of a day exploring Puroland, an indoor Hello Kitty theme park situated in Tama New Town, one of the sprawling Tokyo suburbs. Puroland is like Disney World, if you compressed it to bonsai proportions, installed it inside a huge squash court and pickled it in saccharine. Everything inside Puroland is colourful; indeed, it comes in every colour you could possibly want, just as long as what you want is some variant of pink. The usual fairground theme park attractions take on a slightly crazed, pre-hyperglycaemic edge as the cat goddess with no mouth — for Hello Kitty is clearly the kami of kitsch — stars in a beautifully choreographed (if somehow aseptic and unthreateningly sterile) musical extravaganza, for the finale of which she throws a giant party and descends from the gallery wearing a gown illuminated by a thousand winking LEDs as hordes of uniformed toddlers in colour-coded caps scream and wet themselves with joy. By the time Feorag and I made our escape, by way of the inevitable photo-op, I was wishing for a brace of daleks to frighten them all back behind the sofas.

I may sound churlish, but the total asphyxiating impact of being surrounded by a million reflections of Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel and their friends — who are so optimally innocuous that they make Mickey Mouse look like a slasher movie monster — is ultimately oppressive. If the Singularity ever takes off among the animatronic workshops of Puroland, the computer will be our friend, and it won't take "no" for an answer. Bomb the place with catnip and ipods pre-loaded with goth rock — it's the only way to be sure.

(NB: I have not ascertained as of this time whether or not Hello Kitty is shaved. She certainly sheds, but pink spangles ...?)

* * *

It's hardly a secret that Japan is a crowded archipelago, but to get a feeling for what this means is quite hard. I'd recommend a monorail journey. Japan probably has more monorails than the rest of the world put together (I told you they'd got our future!) and most of them are fairly cheap. Take a commuter train to a terminus, pay for your ticket — 200-300 yen, or maybe 650 yen for a day pass — and ride up and down the monorail, streetwatching. Most of these pocket railways run on overhead tracks, ten metres up, above most of the suburban rooftops. A sunny afternoon in Tokyo and a rumbling glide across a seascape of frozen tiled waves: the houses huddle together with barely a gap, punctuated by public playgrounds and pocket parks the size of an English suburban garden. Even the obviously wealthy (with Bentleys and Rollers parked ostentiatiously in their carport) lack insulation. I'm told the custom when you buy a house is to knock it down and build a new one in its place — after all, construction is cheap compared to land, and who wants to live in a used house? But high-rise apartments seem to make up the majority of housing, and custom has yielded priority to structural engineering in the small matter of buying and selling flats. I have an unnerving feeling that I'm mirroring the reactions of an American citizen of exurbia visiting Britain's crowded inner city estates: how do they manage to live there, so close together? Part of the answer can be found in any estate agent's window — three bedroom houses at a price that translates into the low millions of pounds — and suddenly Japan feels disturbingly familiar all over again.

At street level the congestion tends towards extremes unheard of in the UK since the last of the rookeries was demolished by Victorian public- spiritedness. This really brings itself home when you try to locate a backstreet bar and restaurant. If you're lucky, it'll open off the stairwell of a commercial block — lucky because it's easy to find. (Japanese addresses and street numbering systems are a thing of beauty, if you are a many-tentacled horror from beyond spacetime and an afficionado of non-Euclidean geometries to boot.) If you're not lucky, you'll find yourself in an alleyway that's literally ten centimetres wider than your shoulders, going back and back until it ends in a pool of light around a sign advertising Asahi beer, in front of what looks like somebody's back door. A cat, sitting in a cardboard box on a table in the window next to the door looks at you lazily and yawns, and you wonder if this is really a restaurant. Then you hesitantly open the door, and see a cluttered bar with menus on it, and a staircase off to one side. As you sit and work your way through a creditable meal, you realize that the yard is indeed someone's back yard — because the staircase leads up to the owner's apartment, and her family are going in and out about their business even as she holds court over the counter top.

The cat jumps out of its box and you see that its coat is curiously brindled, almost like a Rex — but it's not a Rex. It yowls irritably, and jumps down to commence an inspection tour of the restaurant. You look closer, and notice a Poodle bob on the end of its tail. Yes: someone has clearly shaved this cat.

* * *

Japan seems to have an oddly self-effacing relationship with its history — of which there is no shortage — as a few days in Kyoto will reveal. Kyoto, the former imperial capital, looks like just another modern Japanese city at first. But then, as you're walking through a shopping arcade that specializes in commercial catering supply shops (such as the shop that sells nothing but cash registers, or the signage supplier), you spot a gap between two stalls — and plugging it, the courtyard of an ancient Buddhist temple, sharing a cigarette with the high wooden archway of a Shinto shrine. There's a sign in front, with an English translation, so you pause to read it. "Founded by the abbot ... around 768 ... burned down during the wars ... this is a modern reconstruction ..." And you're about to walk away, disappointed, when you read the final words: " ... created in 1633." It's just as much a modern replica as the Christopher Wren reconstruction of St Paul's Cathedral — and yet, the same language is used of reproduction castles cast in the concrete of 1930s modernism, or Buddhist temples from the fourteenth century. There are eighteen world heritage sites in Kyoto, sprinkled across the malls and by-passes and office blocks of an otherwise modern city like the pock-marks of an infectious history.

If Kyoto was a British city, the entire place would be pickled in a bell jar of planning orders and heritage commission reports, and the residents would perpetually be a-grumbling about the lack of parking spaces and the impossibility of getting permission to put up a satellite dish. But Kyoto doesn't care. Its houses and offices are transients, a fluid sea of habitation that ebbs and flows and throws up a spray of eight story high department stores and electronics warehouses and porn shops to break around the rocky outcroppings of historic monasteries, temples and shrines.

* * *

On our last day in Kyoto, Feorag and I left our hotel and headed for downtown Kyoto. As we descended the steps into Shichijo subway station, an elderly fellow rushed over. "Hello! Remember me?" He called. (Apparently we'd met him a couple of days earlier, in a haze of shrine-going that ended with us both getting templed out.) "Here, please can you help me?" His spoken English was heavily accented. He dug around in his belt pack and pulled out a a sheaf of papers which he thrust under my nose. "Can you proof-read?"

It took us a quarter of an hour to disentangle ourselves from his polite but insistent demands that we check the English vernacular in his papers, which turned out to be part of the second edition of a huge Japanese-English dictionary — which, as Professor of English at Kyoto University, he was editing. Self-effacing politeness is a fearsome weapon: between us we checked at least five pages before we realized escape was possible.

In self-defense I have to admit that I'm not used to being mugged on the subway by feral English professors and forced to proof-read Japanese-English dictionary entries: I have entirely the wrong reflexes for such social situations and so, as one is trained to do when confronted with a situation that promises embarrassment, one tends to go with the flow. Enough has been written about Japanese society and how it differs from western cultures to fill whole libraries — most of it rubbish, for when you get down to it, Japanese people are no more and no less human and variable than anyone else. But I submit that when you live in a country so densely populated that it makes London and the commuter suburbs of the south-east look like West Texas, a tendency to conform to expectations in social situations isn't just about being a doormat; it's a vital survival reflex. Japan balanced on the edge of a Malthusian population trap for nearly a millennium, in a way that the British isles only approached in the nineteenth century: too many people, not enough space, and no escape. It's like a huge, lumbering space ship adrift in a sea of possibility — a generation ship that has filled all its living spaces over the centuries, with nowhere for surplus mouths to go.

These living conditions place a mold around the behaviour of the people who live with them. Take the wearing of uniforms, for example. In the UK, with a few exceptions — the uniformed services of government, police and military and fire services — we respond poorly to being placed in a uniform; it's a sign of depersonalization, stripping us of individuality. In Japan, however, uniforms are everywhere. Even people who don't have to wear them seem to gravitate towards workwear that's uniform in its appearance: taxi drivers in dark suits, peaked hats, and white gloves. Uniforms confer status — a uniform is a sign that you belong to some greater social context, to a corporation or a shop or a school or something important.

And so, we have an island safe for eccentric English professors: an island where outward conformity provides an ill-fitting disguise for social experimentation and strange subcultures. An island where people live like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, nevertheless dragging the scars of ancient history behind them. A land of monorails and shopping malls and coin-operated ramen noodle stands and spas with twenty flavours of bathing feature.

I'm still scratching my head over it all, and wondering how much I missed (and how much of a fool I sound like to everyone else who's been there). But I do know one thing — I want to go back again.



Narita is one of Tokyo's airports; it's far enough away that if you swapped Tokyo with London, it would be somewhere in Wales.

More like Oxford, but oh so artistically true.


Charlie, I was in Japan around 1990 - I was 14 years old. Just dropping a line to say you don't sound like a fool at all. Although it's not the culture I'd like on live in, they have a lot of things that are worthy of being admired (and copied!). The image of Japan as a generation starship is very interesting.


No, not more like Oxford. More like Stansted, and not a lot more than Gatwick or Heathrow.


Ever thought of offering this sort of thing to Fleet Street, Charlie? It's better than most of the trash you get in the Sunday travel supplements, anyway.


On the airport distance debate... having been in both cities enough times, and having just compared the distances using Google Maps: Narita is just over twice as far from Tokyo station as Heathrow is from London Paddington (line of sight, HEX and NEX endpoints.)

Tokyo station -> NRTT terminal : 35.4miles Paddington station -> Heathrow terminal: 12.3miles

This is of course misleading since the HEX travels almost a straight line, while the NEX is more curvey. NRT <-> Tokyo is approximately an hour trip, more or less depending which method you use.

As for the cultural experience of a westerner in Japan, I have learnt one thing: it's different for everyone. More than any other place, your experience is a direct reflection of your self, and your life. (Invariably nutty and off the hook... :)

Enjoy! It's my favorite place in the world.


My favourite place too. It's as alien as you can get in the developed world. The overcrowded living promotes a kind of aesthetic myopia. Even the contents of a bento box can be a work of art but so much else is dingy and going to the dogs. I guess one is a reaction against the other. Perfection in small things. It can also be a chastening experience for a pampered, white, middle class male such as myself. I have a beard and got caught in a subway car with a few score of infants from a local school. How they laughed and pointed at the ape man! A country where it is much more polite to snort up your mucus than blow your nose and where the toilets are smarter than you are. Brilliant!


and wondering how much I missed Quite a good summary, IMHO. About what I would say after a couple of years. Did you notice the (near) absence of vandalism ?

beer vending machines on street corners are actually quite rare - they were more common some time ago, until they got problems with binge-drinking youths.

And six story high pornography boutiques With at least two floors entirley dedicated to gay porn


I was over there at the same time as Charlie, in two of the same cities, and I missed the monorails, and the six-storey porn shop, and the flesh-eating fish... I have to go back!


I think I remember Johny Memnonic carrying hundreds of megabytes in his head, which is a little less ridiculous.


Great piece. I want to go to Japan now.


I met that English professor as well! He and I shared a bottle of wine by the banks of the Kyoto river. He was quite a character - I wouldn't put it past him to ask someone to proof his papers.


When I visited in 1999, taking a couple of weeks between a Tokyo-area convention and train out to Hiroshima and working my way back (including at least one monorail excursion), I felt the strongest connection to the movie Gattaca, in particular the sing-song beeps in the endless train station corridors providing navigational guidance beacons for the blind.

And of course, the freshest sushi I have ever found: breakfast at the Tokyo fish market.


Your point about the Japanese happily adopting uniforms (and collective identity) reminds me of Momus' essay on "superlegitimacy":

"Whereas in the west we tend to feel uneasy relating to a train driver as a train driver, preferring to see him as 'just a guy', 'just passing through on his way to a management position', 'whatever he wants to be', 'a fan of the Redskins' or 'a guitar player', in Japan being 'Mr Train Driver' to the very core of your soul is just fine. If this man has a wife, I'm sure she refers to him as 'Mr Train Driver' in bed. I can imagine him wearing his uniform even on days when he has no work, as the schoolgirls do here, so wrapped up in the deep joy and honour of being 'a schoolgirl', the pleasures and freedoms of what we'd see as a categorical limitation. I imagine my train driver hero walking by the sea wearing his uniform, and even the sea calling out a cheerful greeting: 'Thank you for your great work, Mr Train Driver!'"


Terrific essay. It really captures what I love about Japan. I still remeber one of my first nights there, more than ten years ago. I was walking through a series of tiny back streets in Tokyo, and realized this was as close as I would ever come to the feeling of visiting another planet with an alien culture and civilization.

Once in Kyoto, we were accosted by legions of tiny teenage schoolgirls, who were staking out the temples to ask questions of the gaijin, as an assignment for their english class!

I've visited four times now, and I'm ready to go back again!


And a 100Meg speed internet connection is commonplace. My Japanese wife was horrified to learn that 3 to 6Meg is the best I can get here ( for any resonable price ).


Hi, nice essay. Quite on the mark for a short stay. I lived in Tokyo for 902 days, starting in 1999. It is a country obsessed with accuracy and complexity. You will find both in everything, even where they are unwanted. A country suffused with consumer electronics, with a worldwide reputation for efficiency; they are a paper-based society, of mind-numbing inefficiency in most things.


Goth rock? Nah. Speed metal. The thought of the disciples of Hello Kitty, confronted with some old-school Anthrax, warms my cockles to no end.

Still, cool. Nice to know that the future is only an airline ticket away.


You didn't sound like an idiot at all. I lived in Japan for three years and could never find the words to explain it. What's Japan like? Well, I think you just have to go there yourself.

And by the way, I think the rail station in Yokohama is Sakuragicho, not Sakuragocho.


Marius @9: correct. Direct quote from the "Burning Chrome" paperback, p. 2:

"I had hundreds of megabytes stashed in my head on an idiot/savant basis, information I had no conscious access to."

Of course, even the meanest among the tech-savvy has that much on their key ring nowadays.


Now I'm curious, Charlie. When I was there in 1998 for a multiday meeting in Tokyo, I was struck by how much I did NOT need to adapt to Japanese signs and conversation. Language was not a hurdle at all. The subways all had LED signs announcing stops in kata-kana, hira-gana - and English. Arriving at the front of the line in a restaurant, the server takes one look at us, and says "Table for two?"

Did you ever run into situations where their lack of your language was a problem?


Great article. I was stationed in Yokosuka with the US Navy back in the early 70s and loved the country. It is an exciting mixture of sci-fi and antiquity.


Amen to that. sometimes I look at Japan and feel like I should be taking notes and prepping for the rest of my life.

Next time you go, I highly recommend you visit a public bathhouse. Totally changes your perspective on nudity.


My spousal unit Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) and I were also at the 'con in Japan, and spent a couple additional weeks travelling around. In I compared Japan, and in particular the Tokyo-Yokohama corridor, to the Motie's homeworld in THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE. Taking the bullet train to other cities (Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, et al.) revealed a more suburban landscape and countryside along the way.


I too was accosted by the "professor" and asked to proof-read his papers.


"Goth rock? Nah. Speed metal. The thought of the disciples of Hello Kitty, confronted with some old-school Anthrax, warms my cockles to no end."

I am almost positive there is already a Japanese band which combines these two aesthetics


So .. Japan is our future. I can see that. Could be worse, could be better - there is a lot to like about Japan and a lot to be wary of.

I did spend 19 months living in Okinawa, which isn't Japan at all but give you the flavor of the place; same decorations, same culture, but with more room to spread out. I was told that for the Japanese Okinawa was a hick backwater .. but I liked it.

We really need cheap space launch so the malcontents and borderers can have their frontier.


I'm pretty sure that the majority of Japanese live in houses, not apartment buildings. You are judging the whole country based on Tokyo, and even in that case you have failed to see that there are vast areas of Tokyo where most buildings are not high rise apartments.


Maybe this "professor" is actually a performance artist?

"this future has no place for goats"

Warren Ellis will probably take this as a challenge, and the results of his researches will really squick us out.


Los Angeles sounds like the urban antithesis of Tokyo. Everything here is horizontal sprawl, an endless flat landscape of minimalls, highways and palm trees smothered in brown smog. With no usable public transportation to speak of, it takes half an hour to get everywhere by car, and the only pedestrians you see are homeless people.


Those were 320 GB ...


coltrane@30 Actually I'm the exception that proves the rule in the greater Los Angeles co-prosperity sphere. Still a pedestrian after 12 years. Actually, there is a moderately good transit net here, it's just that you drivers are blind to it. You also miss out on the Trax resturant in Union Station. The light rail system is incredible as long as your destination is near a station. In particular taking the red line is like teleporting since it completely bypasses all traffic. Though taking the Amtrack back from Little Tokyo puts me in the Densha Otoko mood.


Goth Rock and Hello Kitty.... actually there is already an anime featuring the combination made by .... Sanrio, the makers of Hello Kitty. So the niche market of goth-kitty as exploited by the Goth=Lolitas( )(of which there is of course a Hello Kitty subset) is re exploited back the the kids as Kuromi with a metal guitarist character ( ).


The key word is 'near a station', which does not apply to 95 percent of Los Angeles. I've taken the bus during those times I had no wheels, and it takes about 4 times as long to get anywhere on it than driving by car.


A wonderful read! I think you have to be careful though, if living in Japan has taught me anything, it's that the surface and the reality of a situation can be so very different. If you ever come back, I encourage you to go somewhere out of the way; come up here to Hokkaido, or go down to Kyushu. Tokyo is like this cultural vortex, sucking everything and everyone into it. Once you get into the countryside, you'll find a very very different Japan, one that hasn't yet left the 1970's or 80's; coincidentally when the country was going through so much growth and modernization.

In any case, like all things, you get the good and the bad together. It's a fairly safe country, but that has costs too. In terms of uniform, you have to take into account the normalizing effect of the can't succeed as a taxi driver unless you dress in the "uniform." And all that density and congestion in the cities means that the rural areas, (like where I live) are deserted, broke and with nobody under the age of 40.

And don't even get me started on the anti-intellectualism, surface environmentalism (and under the surface planetary rape) or lack of political change.

I love Japan, but I'm not so sure it's the future we should be striving for. It looks glitzy and shiny and exciting, but underneath that facade is a very different reality.


In 15 years in Tokyo I don't think I've ever seen a shaved cat - I must be hanging out in the wrong areas..!

Narita certainly feels like it is a Wales-like distance from Tokyo, even though geographically it isn't. Even though it is only 40 miles from the center, the train still takes over an hour.

In the land of the 300km/h bullet-train this shouldn't happen. The (unofficial) reason is that the train is not allowed to compete, time wise, with the buses that also shuffle people from the airport to the city. The buses take an hour or more. So the train must also run at a leisurely pace. Things have improved though. It used to be that the train had to match the slowest speed of the buses, and consequently took over 90 minutes to the center.

Japan does lead the world in so many areas including, unfortunately, mindless bureaucracy..


So, did you run into any of those giant centipedes I hear they have in Japan? Having just learned about them makes me wonder about what a bug-ophobe like me should do if ever visiting Japan. Bring along a bug smashing mallet?


Ahh yeah, the dreaded Mukade. Between them and cockroaches it can get pretty gross in the south!


@37: Not the very big ones, but one day I tried to take a pic of a little brother-version. I got very close, and the centipede leapt forward and attacked the camera. Scary animals.

OTOH, in late summer the sky is full with large dragonfiles in all colors.


SV@33: firstly, it's very difficult to have a first impression of something you already know about, and I know for sure Charlie knows about gothic lolita. Secondly, it's not really to do with Hello Kitty. Indeed, going through my collection of Gothic Lolita Bibles, I cannot find a single image of her. The origins of gosurori are a little obscure, as can be evidenced by the number of unsourced statements in that Japanese article you link to, and the style has evolved, with different influences coming in all the time, but Hello Kitty is no more significant than she is with Japanese people in general.

The goth/Kitty thing is, for sure, a British innovation, albeit one on which Sanrio has been quick to capitalise.


That restaurant with the shaved cat in a cardboard box wouldn't be the vegetarian restaurant "Mikoan" just off of Teramachi in Kyoto, would it?


As someone who finds himself living in this wonderfully self-contradictory land of gold fish vending machines, noodle flavoured ice cream and 15 story high karaoke parlours, it is reassuring to be reminded that these things aren't entirely normal.


Great piece Charlie. I've lived in Japan for over 20 years, and it's fun to read a fresh take on the place by someone who can actually write. I particularly liked the spot on comment on Japanese addresses.

One recommendation for your next trip to Tokyo. Some evening when the weather is good (Friday night is probably best) go to the Hachiko Square exit of Shibuya station. Across the intersection is a Starbucks. Go there, buy your coffee, take it to the second floor, and fight/wait for a seat at the counter by the window. Look out the window. The intersection is huge with many roads converging. As cars from each direction take their turns, a continuous flow of people exits the station, creating a huge crowd of many hundreds (thousands?) backing up from the edge of the intersection waiting for the light to change. Finally all the cars stop, the green walk light comes on, and the huge wave of people surges across to vanish into the streets of Shibuya. Then the whole process happens again, and again, and again... I find it fascinating to watch, but perhaps I am easily amused. It could be an age thing.

Which reminds me, I am still trying to recover from the psychological damage you inflicted upon me at the Japanese Worldcon. I attended a number of your sessions (excellent all), and I don't remember for sure which one this was (perhaps the trauma has pushed it from my mind), but to make some point or other you asked all audience members who don't own a cell phone to raise their hands. Only one did. Me. You gazed (disdainfully?) down from the Olympian heights of the prestigious authors' dais and dismissed me with the comment, "Well...he has gray hair."

I was too stunned to even attempt a justification ("But, but, but I just don't need a cell phone. Really! I work at home as a freelance translator and spare-time SF writer. I could learn to use a cell phone if I had to!") Instead, all I could do was think, OH MY GOD, HE'S RIGHT! I'M OLD!!!! The only thing that saved me from total ego annihilation at that point was the realization that I'm actually only 10 years older than you. Ten years ain't that much, buddy. You'll be here soon.


If it's any consolation, Mr. Schultz, I held out against the cellphone tide for as long as I could, before succumbing last year.

I'm glad to hear of at least one person who continues to hide out in the jungle, long after the war ended for everyone else. ;-)


Some evening when the weather is good (Friday night is probably best) go to the Hachiko Square exit of Shibuya station.

I have never been to Japan so I simply must know: how is it that the weather is best on Fridays?


Marc Schultz @ 43:

Don't feel bad, my wife only got a cell because I bought one for her and canceled our landline. And she's 27. Even now her phone is often dead or in her purse with the ringer off -- if you want to talk to her you have to leave a message and she'll call you back in a day or two maybe.


Ha! I've also spent time with that same English professor during a trip to Kyoto, over four years ago. I spent a while standing in Kyoto station editing english phrases and talking about American-Japanese relations. I had no idea that this was his routine behavior...he's quite a character.


acb@13 the schoolgirls do here, so wrapped up in the deep joy and honour of being 'a schoolgirl'...

Which is exactly the same reason I wear a Japanese schoolgirl uniform on the weekend as well.


Hi, Charlie.

Very entertaining!


It seems to me like you were utterly and completely confounded by your trip.

Wait, let me rephrase. It seems to me, and me alone, like you were utterly and completely confounded by your trip. This is not the impression the rest of your readers seem to be getting, though, so I must be mistaken. Yet I can't get past the sense of "WTF?" that permeates the essay. I don't mean that I'm saying "WTF" at the things you're describing --- although I am --- it's that there's a sense of the author continuously muttering to himself, "I don't have a clue what the f---ety f--- f--- is going on here, but I know that I should have something to say about it, so here are some words. And some shaved cats. What the f---ety f--- f---?"

Yet nobody above seems to have gotten that impression from your essay. (Nor did the blog I linked here from.) I am either unusually persipicacious or just completely out to lunch.

Which is not to say that I didn't find it rather enjoyable. And I must say that I did not know that the Japanese liked to shave cats. That is more than passing strange.


Noel: I have a low taste for culture shock. (Hell, I even manage to get a fix of culture shock visiting the USA, and that's a society that's so unselfconsciously self-centred that you have to work hard at it.) I wouldn't say I was confounded so much as that I wanted to be confounded. Show me that alien civilization experience, man!


My memories from Tokyo 1999 are: * going to what seemed like a traditional village restaurant, except it was on the 35000000th floor of an office tower * having sukiyaki at an office dinner, and then being told that each of the dozens of wafer-thin slices of beef I gobbled down cost about $10 * going into Tower Records, HMV etc and finding albums on CD that had been deleted in the West decades before (assuming they had ever survived LP->CD transition) just sitting in the normal racks like any other release ... except they're not alphabetised in the way I'd expect, and because they usually sit spine out with Japanese characters, you have to pull out each CD individually to see what it might be. * perfectly transcribed sheet music of popular music in almost every genre, none of which is available in the West * visiting Akihabara and discovering why there are big gaps in the model numbers of electronic devices in Western Stores: it's because only about every 5th or 10th model gets exported. * seeing FM radios the size/thickness of credit cards (and I've never seen them anywhere since) * being able to negotiate the subway system with its minimal English language signage with greater ease than most English-language subways and airports


Japan will probably get even stranger. Consider that

A) its population is likely to drop, with an ever-increasing percentage of old people;

B) Japan is hard at work creating humanoid robots to take care of their elderly.

Picture the future Japan: Millions and millions of old geezers mixing with millions of young, cute androids (in various costumes)...


Michael Williams@39: The CDs in Japanese record shops are ordered according to the order of the kana, so you get a, i, u, e, o then ka, ki, ku, ke, ko and so on, through the rows starting sa, ta, na, ha, ma, ya, ra, and finally wa, wo and n.


Feòrag @ 53: One twist was that sometimes artists were split up into different positions along the rack. Are there multiple (ambiguous) phonetic renderings that might cause this?


Michael Williams@54: There are one or two that sound the same: �?� and �?� both come out as "ji" and similarly �?� and �?� are both "zu". For a Japanese artist, it would be clear which one to file it under, but it would be a trickier call for foreign ones, or Japanese ones with foreign names (it took some time to work out how they'd rendered "Moi dix Mois"!) I suspect that different members of staff had different ideas of where some artists should go.


I lived in Tsukuba Science City for 352 days (mainly for tax reasons). It's on the edge of Tokyo, roughly as far out as Cambridge. They took all the national research institutes out of the centre of Tokyo and moved them to a field. 25 years latter, it's Stevenage, if Stevenage had far too much money. Nice bike paths though.

The sense of WTF never goes away.


Noel, yeah, I got that WTF vibe, too, but mostly because when I spent a month in Japan many years ago I spent the whole damn month freaking out. It was a glorious experience.

Here's something funny. Two aspects of Japan turn out to be reflected here in Puerto Rico. The first was something I noted back when I visited -- the Japanese make very little distinction between outside and inside. Now I realize that this is just because it's warm there, because here in PR, in places without air conditioning, anyway, there is the same lack of distinction -- all you need is a roof to keep the rain off. The kids' school is a great example. Everything's outside.

The other is the uniforms. Puerto Ricans love their uniforms -- not just schools, but almost every business's employees dress in company shirts with names embroidered on them. It's a question of belonging to the social group, I figured, and the comments here seem to confirm it.

Anyhoo -- Charlie, you write great travel posts. Feel free to keep doing that. :-)


Nice info there. I jsut got back from Tokyo and posted a bunch of photos here:


Bomb the place with catnip and ipods pre-loaded with goth rock? it's the only way to be sure.

Hmmm. I'm not so sure that's such a good idea.



Having been in Japan with the military in the early 1950's, I cannot imagine how the country has changed. The exchange rate was 360 yen per $1.00! Food was excellent, people very friendly, hard working and mostly seemed to be poor. Few cars. Bicycles and scooters were the major mode of transportation. As I recall, American cigarettes, coffee, sugar and msg were the most highly desired items from Americans. Train and bus travel was somewhat antiquated. Some beautiful places but also, still some signs of damage from WWII. I hope to return again. Loved the country and people.


Like Jay B., I was stationed in Japan in the early '50s -- eight months of marvelous discovery & pleasure. In fact, I echo every word he writes about it. But mostly I loved the rural areas, the country farms, the practice of crafts that even then were fading away as Machines were taking over. I'd love to re-visit that Japan, but I'm not so certain about Modern Japan.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 5, 2007 9:36 AM.

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