The Spaces of Japan

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A compact land with compact houses full of compact people: such is the pervasive image of Japan. Are not the simple beds of traditional Japanese homes folded away during the day to create some extra space? Do not the hotels have stacked capsules into which one slides for the night? Are not the houses themselves more like residences for dolls rather than people?

I arrived in Japan by ship, voyaging across the East China Sea from Shanghai. Two days it took, with a ship full of Chinese travellers in tour groups – for Chinese are not permitted solo tourist entry visas for Japan. As is the way of ships, ours – the Suzhou Hou – eventually kissed the shore and was embraced warily by the dock in Osaka.

In the southern reaches of the island of Honshu, it was indeed compact. Millions upon millions live in these parts, a tsunami of people finding their space on a small land. I began to make my way north, travelling by train. The ageing Shinkansens zipped from one metropolis to another. Kyoto, Nagoya, Kawasaki, Tokyo, Saitami – really a vast megalopolis finding ever new ways to fit human beings into ever more compressed space. The images I had formed from countless representations seemed to be confirmed.

Even the standard hotels were minimal affairs. With names like ‘Smile Hotel’, ‘Route Hotel’ and so forth, they all seemed made from the same mould. A rectangular block contained identical pods: a tight bathroom, a bed, a thin plank on the wall for some odds and ends, and enough floor space to edge along in between. At least I could step off the train and step into a hotel, for the Japanese still assume that many do indeed travel by rail. Some of those travellers – like me – inevitably need a room for the night.

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But I was not so interested in this Japan. So northward I pushed, onto the island of Hokkaido. By now the trains were simpler affairs, although their names claimed much more: Super Hakucho, Super Tokachi, Super Soya, Super Kamui, or Super-whatever. The engines might have had a flash appearance, but the carriages were minimalist. On one such train I plunged into the deep Seikan tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait, wondering about the continental fault line that produces all those earthquakes in these parts. The 50 kilometres passed eventually and, without a sudden inrush of sea water, we arrived above the surface in one piece.

Soon enough I came to see why the train on which I had just travelled was known as a ‘Super’ train. At the port town of Tomakomai, I boarded a ‘local’ train. What glorious machines these are: single-carriage diesel rail motors, which attain a breathtaking top speed of 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. Actually, their main task is to stop, at every remote village and minuscule platform.

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Now I began to see parts of Japan that rarely register in the international image of the place. The rail motors rattled, banged and lurched in the way they had done for decades. I opted for the long, slow journeys to the corners of Hokkaido, to Wakkanai, Nemuro and Samani on the edge of the northern seas. The trains in these run a few times day, so one needs patience in order to find these far-flung and rarely visited places.

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In these parts the platforms were rusty and crumbling. Often, I had to wait for hours for the next connection. Or I would jump on a train, any train and see where it would take me. Each was of the single-carriage rattler variety, although occasionally – on a ‘busy’ line – two would be joined together. On the way, we stopped at one tiny platform after another. They took the word ‘platform’ literally, for usually there was just a flat piece of cement, without any ornamentation. Or, rather, they did have a single sign indicating the name of the place in question. Occasionally, a passenger would board, while another alighted. The number of people on board remained the same – no more than five.

The hamlets through which we passed gave clearer signs of the stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last couple of decades. Here was none of the flash of the big cities, with their impossible cleanliness, order and neon. Instead, weeds grew, houses showed peeling paint and sagging rooves, and few people were on the streets. I loved it, for this was the Japan I preferred to see.

I soon became used to the fact that my destination would be a few wind-blown houses huddled close to the railway platform. In such places, I engaged in watch-pointing-map-referring-and-signing discussion with the driver. Food? He shrugged, with a wan smile. Hotel? He shrugged again, obviously never having taken the time to explore the hamlet that beckoned to me. I smiled in return.

The challenge was upon me, and I scoured the town in question for some accommodation, any accommodation. Eventually, a modest hotel appeared, although none of Japan’s famed ‘love hotels’ were to be found in these reaches. And I could usually find a shop that reeked of fish. But it would also stock some fruit, the ubiquitous sushi and strange packets of crisp seaweed. A feast fit for a king or queen.

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Needless to say, I was the only foreigner in these parts, and no one spoke a language I knew. It was also early November, so the chill of an early winter seeped into my bones, ably assisted by the fierce wind. So after a tour of the place in question, looking out over the sea and dreaming of yet another ship, I retreated to the relative shelter of the hotel room, where an ancient heater, with its paint a faint memory, battled against the cold.

I had not imagined such places existed in Japan: few people, open fields, towering mountains, and sparse villages in which the houses felt more relaxed about the space around them. Far indeed from the compact megalopolises of the south.

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Japan: A Freudian Paradise

The tiny police car comes to an abrupt halt as it is about to turn into a side street. Two officers inside the car smile and signal that I should cross the side street first. Still some metres from the side-street, I stop and wave them on, but they insist, with even larger smiles. Meanwhile, traffic on the main road banks up behind the police car. Not a horn is sounded, not a shout is heard. Everyone waits patiently, while I cross the side-street. What incredible politeness.

Polite Japan

That encounter reinforces what I had already experienced countless times: the sense of profound orderliness, politeness, hospitality and quiet of Japan. I had been in Japan for more than a week, arriving by ship in Osaka and travelling north. Being keen to skip past the packed metropolises of the southern islands, I take to the trains. The Shinkansens (literally ‘new network’) are so-so, not as good as the vaster Chinese network of high speed trains. I prefer the slower trains, although they still have fancy names. Super-Hakucho or Super-Hokuto or Super-whatever, but the ‘Super’ really means a slightly faster affair that actually stops at most stations and takes on local passengers. I guess they are ‘super’ in relation to the ‘local’ trains. These are single-carriage diesel rail motors, occasionally hitting 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. And stop they do, at every tiny platform and remote village of the northern island of Hokkaido. I glory in their rattles and bangs and lurches, in the feel that they had not changed all that much for the last century or so. They take me to parts of Japan – Wakkanai, Nemuro, Samani – I had not imagined existed: open countryside with sparse villages huddling together in the face of the constant cold winds of these northern latitudes.

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Yet, even in these villages the politeness and orderliness is pervasive. Compact houses sit neatly beside one another, with not a weed or a scrap of rubbish around them. On the roads, local people drive well below the speed limit, stopping at lights almost before they have turned red. Pedestrians too stop at lights and wait for them to change, even if not a car is to be seen. In lines, people wait patiently. At building sites a special sentry with an orange baton smilingly assists any passers-by as to where they should walk. On trains, the conductor and even the food trolley woman bow politely as they enter the carriage, muttering a smiling word of greeting as they do so. In hotels, shops, on the street, in homes, people bow, nod, smile and are utterly helpful. Even more, excessive noise is a no-no. You can speak on a mobile phone in a train only in vestibule of each carriage. Hotel regulations make a big thing about quietness. Every word is spoken softly.

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At times the polite helpfulness can be misdirected. In Tokyo I have a tight connection to the next train, heading north to Aomori. In the midst of an unfamiliar railway station, I see an older man in uniform. He watches the crush of passengers, ensuring order (although he has little to do since Japanese people are innately orderly). I step close to him and show him my seat reservation. ‘Hayabusa’, he says. ‘Quick! It leaves soon. Platform 18’. He rushes forward, whistle in hand and beckoning me to follow. Up the stairs we run and onto the platform. He directs me onto the train and, as usual, bows and smiles. I find my seat and settle in, only to find upon departure that I am headed in exactly the opposite direction – southward to Osaka, from whence I have just come. Fortunately, the next stop is five minutes away, so I disembark and return to Tokyo. Now I take some time, carefully locate the train I want and arrive in plenty of time on the platform. This time I do not ask for help.

Underside

In retrospect, this little slip says far more than I had anticipated, for it was the first sign of the underside of Japanese niceness and order. After my rail journeying in northern parts, I settle for a few days in the port town of Tomakomai on the island of Hokkaido. In Tomakomai I encounter not only the polite policemen and yet more obsessive order, but also a whole world seething just below the surface.

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In a corner shop, I notice a section with leaflets festooned with scantily clad women and large phone numbers. The lobby of the hotel sports a rack with similar looking leaflets. Intrigued, I take one to see what it means. Soon I decipher ‘Deriheru’, short for ‘Deribarii herusu’, which translates as ‘delivery health’. Apparently, the idea is that a woman will visit a hotel room or a home, or anywhere really, to provide ‘health services’. Intrigued, I begin to research further. I read of the ‘soaplands’ which may be found in any city in Japan. Such establishments provide one – usually a male – with an extraordinary washing experience. Both outer and inner parts are washed carefully and thoroughly by a woman. She then covers herself in oil or a lubricant and slides all over the body she has just washed. Apparently the service is provided naked.

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After such a wash, one may – if that is one’s inclination – rest at one of the ‘leisure’ hotels that festoon the city landscapes of Japan. The tell-tale sign of such a place is that they offer two types of rates: a ‘rest’ for a couple of hours and a ‘stay’ for overnight. Regular travellers may stay only after 10.00 pm, although they need to be out by 9.00 am. In fact, a journey through Japan can be made staying at these garish establishments with their discrete entrances, especially since there are about 30,000 of them in Japan. In an effort to provide a somewhat different experience, the rooms may have themes, such as pirate ships, churches, trains, classrooms, hospital wards, under-sea or even a water-slide. Inside the room, you may find a VW Beetle, a merry-go-round, chains descending from the ceiling, or a small garden with a bridge. And check-in is entirely anonymous.

Is this world of ‘health service’, ‘soapland’ and ‘leisure’ or ‘love’ hotels entirely concealed? No. Is it simply an accepted part of everyday life, as the ubiquitous American-style fast food outlets or the pod hotels? No. It hovers in between. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan, and this impossibly polite and ordered society simply cannot allow it as part of the surface fabric of life. Hence the euphemisms, the efforts to make it appear as though it is something else that actually contributes to the order and neatness of life. The catch is that such a life would not be possible without the intimate closeness of its underside.

An Intimate Moment

The Japanese seem to accept this fact. Let me give another, unexpected example: the ubiquitous toilet seat, in which repression and release function side-by-side. These elaborate seats come with a curious panel of buttons.

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Initially, I ignore such devices, but then I become intrigued. How do they work? I try pressing the buttons, but to no avail.

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However, after sitting upon such a toilet a few times, I notice that a green light goes on after some water noises. I then press the ‘bidet’ button. At this moment, a phallic like tube emerges from the back of the toilet.

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And before I know it, a stream of water shoots right into my nether regions. Actually, it strikes the bull’s eye.

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After the initial surprise (mixed with a little pleasure), I decide to try the shower button. What will it do?

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This jet of water seems designed for cleaning the ceiling, since it jets almost straight up with significant force.

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Freud would have been absolutely thrilled. Return of the repressed – with a vengeance. But as I dry off, I also realise that Japanese cleanliness goes a long way, since it seems to me that anyone who uses such a device cannot help but having one’s whole internal system washed clean.

A Wary Embrace: From China to Japan by Ship

A gentle kiss and then an embrace – so does a ship touch the shore of a new place. Before that kiss, the ship draws patiently closer. After first sight, it carefully regards its new (or perhaps old) lover, considering best how to approach the shore. But eventually it does so, edging ever close until the first touch, kiss and embrace.

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Voyage

My first arrival in Japan was by ship, voyaging from Shanghai across the North China Sea to Osaka. Two days it takes, although obtaining the ticket and actually getting on board took some patience and deft footwork. The smiling guard at the terminal simply would not open the gate for me. At a loss, I tapped on the shoulder of the first passer-by to act as a translator. After much discussion, I was directed to shipping company’s office – in a small corner on the floor of a high-rise many blocks away. Here a sour-faced woman was filing her nails and having her hair done by an older woman. With immense reluctance, she rose and summoned a young man, who spoke in a whisper.

Would I like to pay for the ticket now? Do I have enough cash, for they take no credit cards? I answered in the affirmative and followed him into an office. He held his finger up to his lips and pointed. A man was comatose on a stretcher on the floor, wrapped in a sleeping bag. I handed over the cash and he wrote out the ticket for me – in silence. I was to arrive at the terminal tomorrow, at 9.00am. On my way out, I said a few words in Chinese to the sour-faced woman. Her face lit up, and she beamed at me all the way out.

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By next morning I was at the terminal early, almost too early. Ticket in hand, my passage was smooth. I boarded amidst crowds of Chinese voyagers, off to see Japan for a few days. Our ship was the Suzhou Hao, a modest ship of uncertain vintage. Boarding involved clambering up steep stairs – more like a ladder. With each step upward, the whole structure creaked and swayed. And the final step onto the ship itself was more like a leap over the abyss, with a narrow plank for guidance. A safety net was slung underneath, in case one of the many grey-heads stumbled and fell.

Already I felt in my element, evoking deep in my bones a love of the sea. Who knows, it may well be that such feelings come from a heritage of Dutch seafarers. I managed to score a rare cabin with a view over the bow and the port side through a couple of windows. For much of the voyage, I would stand or sit before the windows, if I was not on deck. I gloried in the silence and solitude.

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Soon enough, the engines rumbled, the deck hands wound in the mooring ropes, and we pushed off from the pier. An announcement came through in Chinese, of which I could understand the odd word, but the gist – I assumed – was that we were now setting off on our voyage. We joined the throng of ships on a tributary of the Chang Jiang (Yangze), only to turn into the main passage. Barges full of all manner of goods passed, larger ships mingling with them. Along the shores, the cranes of port facilities spread in all directions. Ship building yards appeared, constructing oil and gas tankers. Other yards were refurbishing some container ships, with the dust of the work blowing across the river.

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At the wide mouth of the river, we left the busiest port in the world. It was like a naval highway, with lines of ships running to the horizon. The yellow, muddy plume of the Chang Jiang pushes far out into the sea, but eventually we slipped into clearer water. The swell became more pronounced, with the ship developing a roll and producing an impressive bow wave. Out at sea again!

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Simplicity

A fancy ship it was not. Already this was clear the moment I stepped on board. In all but a few cabins, space was shared. One could opt for the ‘backpacker’ room, which was no more than an open room with thin mattresses arranged on the floor. To be sure, the women had a raised platform with seaweed matting, but the men simply slept on the floor, lined up next to one another. In second class one at least had bunks. Would first class perhaps be more ‘private’? Not at all: the rooms were still shared, albeit with four in a room and the bonus of a toilet. As with second class, showers were shared in a separate room.

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Intrigued, I set out to explore the ship further, keen to find out where we would have our meals. A passenger ship such as this usually offers a number of options, from snack stations, through cafeteria-style meals, to an à-la-carte restaurant. I searched in vain, for the only place to eat was the canting, the dining hall. As I was soon to find out at meal time, only one menu item was available – take it or leave it. Everyone – barring the Italian and Dutch couple – was perfectly happy with such a fare, assuming this was the norm. Fortunately, the unassuming meals were freshly cooked and palatable – actually, more than palatable. As for our Italian-Dutch friends, they seemed to find it all a bit much, asking for coffee at breakfast, complaining that the cold dishes were, well, cold.

Our vessel did sport a bar, namely, the beer dispensing machine, and – naturally – a mah-jong room where the old fogeys gathered to play and watch. And the duty-free shop? To say that is was sparsely stocked would be an understatement. The wide selection went all the way from the odd carton of cigarettes to a few bottles of alcohol, with some chocolates making up the middle ground. The browsers and purchasers were as few as the items on the shelves.

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Simplicity – no discoes, expensive ‘duty-free’ shops, elaborate restaurants, spas or open-deck bars were to be found. The main purpose of the ship was to take passengers from China to Japan and then back again. It may have carried a couple of containers, but it did not take cars or trucks. Only passengers. It seemed to me China in microcosm.

Encounters

That feeling was enhanced by the fact that nearly all the passengers were Chinese, mostly of the doddery and retired variety. A mother with a young child stood out, as did the group of young men skylarking on the deck. All of them were in tour groups of one kind or another. The respective group leaders would hold aloft a distinctive flags, bustle about and shout to keep their flocks together. Some of the groups wore brightly-coloured new caps so as not to get lost, or at least so that the group leader could identify them quickly – unless of course, the caps looked the same, as was the case with some of the groups.

The rest – six of us – were laowai, but none Japanese. A couple from Switzerland had been travelling the Silk Road, taking seven slow months to reach the Pacific. They were living on $30 per day, couch-surfing, staying in cheap hostels, eating simple food. They also travelled in cheaper countries (Japan would be a problem), avoiding those with a reputation for being expensive (Australia was out). Yet they were inescapably European in their outlook, no matter how progressive or even alternative they might have appeared. They dreamed of building a youth hostel in Central America, in Ecuador perhaps. And they operated like any couch-surfer one encounters, passing over contact details and blog addresses, keen to find yet another couch on which to sleep should they be passing through.

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The Italian and Dutch couple looked out of sorts, or at least the Italian male half. He seemed to find all matters Asian disconcerting and distasteful. His eyes longed from home. Both of them tended to keep to themselves, only chatting with us in the last hours before Osaka.

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For me, more intriguing was the sole American on board, a serious mountain climber who was now on his way to Japan to scale some precipitous cliffs. He lived by the adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool, than open it and let them know you are a fool. But he was no fool. Although he initially said that he was still – at 40 – looking for a purpose in life, it turned out he actually did have such a purpose. When the two of us had a chance to talk, he spoke of his desire to achieve the highest global accreditation in mountain climbing.

‘I already have the highest accreditation in the United States’, he said. ‘But global accreditation is another matter entirely’.

‘What does that involve?’ I asked.

‘Exams and climbing’, he said. ‘You have an intense burst of climbing in a remote place for a couple of weeks. Then you study and sit for the exam’.

‘So where have you climbed?’ I said.

‘I’ve ice climbed in the Canadian north, during winter’, he said. ‘I’ve climbed in the tropics during the wet season, dangled off cliffs overhanging the sea or raging torrents in gorges below, clambered up cliffs beneath the earth in massive caves’.

‘Do you have to go to the moon as well to scale precipices there? I asked.

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In the midst of these encounters, the most entrancing was the retired Chinese labourer.

‘Are you a back-traveller?’ he asked me.

‘Yes, I suppose I am’, I said, pointing to my backpack.

‘I’ve been back-travelling for ten years’ he said. ‘I worked in heavy industry and workers like me are allowed to retire at 55. Since then, I learnt some English and have been travelling’.

‘Where have you been?’ I asked.

‘Most continents’, he said, ‘except Antarctica! But I like to travel on my own, staying in back-travelling hostels, searching out new places, and meeting people’.

‘Have you been to Japan before?’ I said.

‘First time’, he said. ‘But this time I have to travel in a group. I don’t like it so much, but the Japanese government does not allow Chines people to travel there on their own’.

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A Difficult Relationship

With that, he raised a host of issues that set me thinking for some time. The ship’s passage may have been quiet enough, with the East China Sea relatively calm. But the passage, from China to Japan, is one fraught with a long and difficult relationship. China may in our time be recovering its traditional sphere of influence, pervading Japan in terms of culture, language and economics. One need only consider the Japanese alphabet, with its obvious dependency on Chinese, or the cultural norms of Confucianism, or indeed the number of container ships stopping by Japan after an extended run up the Chinese coast, to see how this influence works.

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Not so long ago, it was another story. By the turn of the twentieth century, Japan had ‘modernised’ – a euphemism for shifting from feudalism to an aggressive capitalism. Its armed forces deployed the latest advances, enabling it to thrash Russia in the 1904-5 War, leading to the abdication of the last tsar. Japanese armies overran the Korean peninsula, seized the eastern reaches of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and occupied large parts of north-eastern China. In the end, the Japanese did the communists a great favour, for they enabled them to develop effective modes of guerrilla warfare against the Japanese themselves and thereby gain immense credentials with the bulk of the Chinese population. In turn, this contributed to the success of the communists against Chang Kai-Shek and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, it was Chinese communists, along with the Russian Red Army and the Korean communists who forced Japan into surrender at the end of the Second World War.

But not before a series of atrocities were committed that run deep in Chinese (and indeed Korean) memory: summary beheadings, ‘comfort women’, the rape of Nanjing – the list is long. The fact that Japan continues to drag its feet on admitting and apologising for such acts only adds to Chinese anger. Today, the Japanese government engages in little provocations from time to time, with senior government figures paying visits to the shrine commemorating war dead, among them convicted war criminals.

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As a result, both sides view each other with a mixture of wariness and respect. The Chinese often look to Japan in admiration for its achievements. For instance, only recently has China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy on the globe. Japanese learning and culture too are admired. As more than one Chinese person has said to me, ‘China is so big and Japan is so small, so how can Japan have become so powerful!’ Yet, the Chinese constantly watch for signs of Japanese aggression, for that militant streak that always lies just below the surface of an impossibly polite culture. On the Japanese side, they are caught, with the old protagonists of China, Russia and Korea on one side, and the more recent protagonist of the United States on the other. Faced with this unenviable choice, they have opted for the time being to side with the United States. One can only wonder how long such a situation will last, especially in light of the decline of the American Empire. Japan may continue to assert itself in small ways – such as unilateral claims to small islands belonging to China or Russia – but in the end it will have to decide which alliances enable its survival.

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Our approach to the Japanese shore, then, felt warier than usual. We passed by a nosy aircraft carrier from the United States on our way between the southern islands. Our Chinese ship perused the Japanese coast with extra caution. But eventually we would touch, with the lightest kiss on the cheek. The embrace was made more out of politeness than affection. I cannot help wondering if such a kiss and embrace will one day be a little warmer.

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