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Monday, 30 December 2013

Bridge & Tunnel: The Real Japan

Written by Scott Haas
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     Say what you like about Tokyo--the world’s greatest number of best restaurants, the most amazing modern urban architecture, a place pulsing with powerful energy, passions, and ambition.  But at some point, after the noise dies down, I have to wonder: How do ordinary Japanese people live?

    We know about Tokyo’s three star Michelin sushi bars and multi-course kaiseki restaurants, its all night dance clubs, stellar jazz, the imperial gardens, and Ginza with its lights that make Broadway seem dim.  

    Walking on the main streets of Ginza, eyeing the clothing, you can become aware of falling short.  The clothing and haircuts make locals look like stars in a movie.  We’re talking, on average, $7,600 per square foot.  How do you dress for that?

    No, the people who keep Japan going:--the backstage you might say, the set and lighting designers, the gaffers, the caterers, the people who never get the spotlight--they live outside the city center, and their sacrifice and commitment to the nation at large are what makes Tokyo possible.

    I walked among them for nearly a week, and this is my eyewitness report.

    I’d been invited by the prefectures of Chiba, Saitama, and Tokyo to spend time observing and documenting local attractions.

    It all started late one Saturday afternoon after seventeen hours in the air on two flights from Boston to Detroit and from Detroit to Narita.  It was my 11th trip to Japan in ten years.

    I hustled out of the customs area at Narita, able to do so quickly as I always travel strictly with carry on, looking forward to a night out.  The town has some of Japan’s best unagi (river eel) served in mom and pop joints clustered on a cobblestone walking street where the smell of wood fires and caramelized sugar fills the air.  Killed on site before your very eyes, basted in a sweet and dark sauce, and then grilled over coals, this delicious dish goes down well with cold draft beer, all of it savored while sitting on tatami mats among dozens of satisfied, laughing Japanese.  Followed by more drinks and live jazz--Japan has the best jazz scene in the world outside of New York City--and a late night stroll on Narita’s walking streets.  A perfect way to begin.

    That turned out to be Plan B.


    Plan A: 

    A freelance interpreter, hired by the three prefectures, met me at the airport.  She and I took a shuttle bus, which arrived a mere forty minutes later, to the airport Hilton where we were met by the tour organizer and a second interpreter.  

    Both men, in boyish jackets, monochrome ties, and practical eye-ware, exchanged business cards with me.  I was then permitted to go to my room for thirty minutes.

    Following my rest, I was joined at a briefing, held by the men I had just met, with five other writers from all over the United States: Atlanta, Kansas City, New York, and Los Angeles.  Each one of us was asked to introduce ourselves and state our purpose.

    We were given Chibakun, which is a stuffed animal in cherry red that has a long nose ending in a black puff ball, and told that it is the mascot of Chiba and the shape of the prefecture as well.  

    The briefing lasted under an hour.  I hadn’t eaten so went to the lounge afterwards.  A trio of young Japanese musicians was playing desultory jazz.  I asked a waitress in the dim light for a club sandwich and a whisky.  

    She explained that the bar was closing, and pointed in the direction of the remains of a buffet from a dinner that had ended some time ago.  I picked up a plate from a stack and put on it salad greens drenched in miso and rice wine vinegar as well as beef sliced in long, rectangular shapes in plum sauce.  A waitress came by with a glass of water.  I was back in my room within twenty minutes.

    The reasoning went that isolated from Narita we would not be out late taking in the town.    

    Sunday morning I was up at 4:30 A.M. due to jet lag.  Later we rode on a bus into Narita and walked by big crowds of locals and others in transit between flights.  The town is close enough to the airport for people with long layovers to stop by.  Think Queens or East Boston, proximate to airports, and that is Narita.  

    Outside a compound of Buddhist temples off the walking street, people were setting up stands of pickled vegetables and dried fruit.  

    But we were here for Sunday morning prayers.  


    The audience was made up chiefly of Western foreigners and a few trusting and hopeful Japanese, whose expression of faith was evident in their downcast eyes, hands folded in prayer, and bent knees.  

    Bells tinkled, drums sounded, an old string instrument whined, and a line of men, with shaved heads and colorful robes, filed in.  The service started slowly, built to a climax signaled by the pounding of one enormous drum and then the lighting of fires, symbolic of purification, at an altar, and within twenty minutes it all died down and the men filed out.

    Foreigners in the crowd took photographs on their phones and cameras, which appeared on Instagram and Twitter. 

    Then we strolled the temple grounds.  A shop sold flat, wooden amulets on which were written brief prayers for luck, to ward off illness, and to inspire long life.  A retired tire salesman approached us.  He was now an unofficial temple guide.  He showed us carvings, paintings, and the interiors of other temples.  

    After the tour ended, we were told it was nearly time for lunch, which would start at 11:30.  We had finished breakfast at 9 A.M.  In the thirty minutes until lunch, we were permitted to have a look at shops on both sides of the walking street.

    Shops sold impractical and colorful items meant to evoke memories of Narita.  Alongside many eel restaurants and a few bars were displays of chopsticks, fans, clothing that had on it the name of the town, slippers, kimonos, pottery, and pickled vegetables.   

    Up ahead, I heard live music, laughter, singing, and applause.  A typhoon forty-eight hours earlier had forced the cancellation of a jazz festival.   Local musicians, the club manager explained to me, had gathered to play now.  

    “Come on in,” he said with a big smile.  “Sit down!  Have a beer!  Enjoy the music.”

    But as I pulled up a chair, our organizer saw me and said it was time for lunch.

     I had assumed that we would go back to Plan B.  

    But Plan A was not just a small, perfect bento box of grilled eel on pressed, vinegary rice.  It was also a huge portion of sashimi, salad, roasted pork, and dessert.  



    Unlike Tokyo, where delicacy is the rule, here in small town Japan, many people want big servings of food.  The workday is long and making ends meet can be stressful.  Eating a lot satisfies both physical and spiritual hunger.  It was hard to get up from that table.

    But we managed to do so and, post-prandial, we rode on the bus to a new and vast cluster of connected shops in which famous brand clothing was sold at a discount.  I felt as if I was in suburban America--first a big lunch, with portions like those at Cheesecake Factory, and now an outlet mall--where the state of relaxation was achieved through having more.

    To affiliate with another culture is always a marvel.  So much of Tokyo’s ultra-modern architecture, frenetic pace, high-end fashion, and super expensive restaurants is foreign, but this?  This I could understand and appreciate, having grown up in a small town in New Jersey.

    It had been a long day, not a moment to rest or contemplate, and now, as the sun set, we sped to our final destination until tomorrow.

    I had stayed at ryokans previously.  Small, family owned inns beside natural hot springs with solitude and silence.  Our itinerary stated we were to stay at one that night.  This excited me greatly since ryokans are my favorite accommodation: Peace and quiet, hot baths, and simple, seasonal food that is delicious and mostly vegetarian.

    But as the bus left the highway and headed through a series of fallow plots of land towards the seaside, I could see, off in the distance, colorful, bright lights.  We pulled up to a big, long building and entered.

    It was magical!

    The facility, comprised of over 250 rooms, contained baths the length of the building.  Recessed lighting adumbrated long, circular baths, two shallow pools of hot water, and two glassed in cubicles in which, respectively, a solid gold bathtub and a solid silver bathtub had been placed.  

    The bathing areas were segregated by gender so in the area where I went there were dozens of naked men and their sons.  

    Above the baths were rooms and hallways overlooking brilliant neon and Christmas like bulbs.

    Dinner was held in a long, private room adjacent to other identical spaces.  The noise of people on brief holiday from hard work was deafening.  Huge portions of food arrived!  It was all very merry, and as we ate our meal, dressed in the traditional yukata (cotton robes), I imagined the relief that this establishment offered people whose jobs demanded so much of them.


    Karaoke rooms lined a corner of the hallway beside us and the sheer delight evident in the ataxic men crooning songs of romance and longing had poignancy.

    One man sang of how everyone had left him, but noted that the imaginary woman to whom he was singing remained by his side.

    The next morning we went to the lavish breakfast buffet.  Families, dressed in either yukata or Hawaiian pajamas, made certain that they had their fill of eggs, sausages, pancakes, salad, fruit, and even spaghetti!  Spaghetti for breakfast?  Why not?  

    Husbands, wives, grandmothers and grandfathers, boys and girls, teenagers, nieces and nephews, families lined up in a frantic rush to get their fill.  

    I thought of hostages released from captivity enjoying their first meal in freedom.  The stress of daily life cannot be underestimated, and the satisfaction that the food provided these hard working people moved me.  I even saw a man from the karaoke bar the night before, the same singer who had crooned about the woman who stood by her man.

    After leaving the resort, we drove to the base of a mountain and rode a cable car up to the top.  The deciduous forests had not yet changed turned red and yellow and orange, but the green was no longer that of summer.  Darkness hinted, and a pair of hawks rode the currents.

    At the top, we had views of the Pacific, small harbors, and post war factories.  Industry was apparent; hard work was etched into the landscape, which reinforced my impression of the lives of people we had met so far.


    On the walk down, we saw an enormous statue of a Buddha, in a sitting pose, about six stories high.  A monk, looking beatific, explained its history.  He had a shaved head, a constricted facial expression, and beautiful black slip on shoes.

    After the talk, we drove to a small fishing village and ate fresh fish and whale.  We grilled the whale at the table.  The whale tasted like grass fed beef.

    Then we made our way to Saitama City, which is the capital of the prefecture or state of Saitama.  We were there to see the very remarkable bonsai museum.  With galleries and a courtyard of miniature trees, held at one time in esteem by the aristocracy, the impression was meant to show the power of cultivation.  I may have been distracted by private thoughts unrelated to botany, but I felt sad as I imagined that the plants had been tortured to represent not their natural state, but the state desired by those who had power over them.

    I was wrong, of course, misguided, for the trees were lovely and shaped, in a few instances, by hundreds of years of care.

    Saitama itself was much the same: A quiet place to gather thoughts, outside the center of Tokyo but close enough to drive in for work or dinner, a show, and shopping.  

    That night a few of us left our hotel to enjoy a typical Japanese bar: No signage, down an alley, third floor, King’s Arms had old school jazz flowing through speakers, cold cocktails perfectly stirred, and a Japanese crowd that didn’t mind our quartet.  We were the only foreigners in the place, and as the drinks arrived and we settled in, thoughts of fancy pants Tokyo faded.  

    I looked around the room and thought of the past few days: The reverent faces at the temple, the super abundance of food, the big shipping malls and the lavish family resort, and the relief that the hard working people of Japan felt in enjoying life outside the big city.  

    This was the real Japan, and I had been part of it.  


©Scott Haas


Last modified on Monday, 17 February 2014