CHAPTER THREE

YOKO MESHI

Japan

I have travelled against the clock yet again, delivering myself to this queue at a small shop in Narita airport, Tokyo


What am I holding in my hands? Frankly, I haven't much of a clear idea. Something with rice and seaweed, hopefully no hidden surprises. This is my way of jumping right into the heart of a new country, through the stomach. I have travelled against the clock yet again, delivering myself to this queue at a small shop in Narita airport, Tokyo. I brace myself for all the confusing food and undecipherable labels to come after this one. Comes my turn to be cashed out, I stand in front of a lady who greets and thanks me on a loop, bowing a few times as she speaks. I am struck by so much politeness and quickly realize something crucial: that I have made cultural splits In the few hours that separated India and Japan and that it will stretch my mind to the extremes.

The commute to Shinjuku, in the center of Tokyo, is a perfect demonstration of the highly functioning society the Japanese have: Queues are formed and respected, the train is on time and silence rules over the train car. Arrived in the center, I meet the friends I am visiting and we exit into the street to find it packed with traffic and pedestrians. Still, I find there is very little noise. It gives me the feeling that Japan can be a much more relaxing place than India, though I already look back at my first hour here with anxiety. In fact, the crushing weight of social rules is apparent and I wonder how many faux-pas I have already made. I have turned my ringtone off and refrained from talking on the phone in the train, like the lady announces on speaker, check. I have not stayed on the walking side of the elevator, check. I have paid for my rice snack and handed the banknote with two hands, check. Now, did I blow my nose in public again?

My first few days of exploration show me a Tokyo which is a fascinating patchwork of modern and traditional. I find myself patrolling incredibly tidy streets and playing a vain game of spot-a-dusty-car. The infrastructure is very modern and I commute from skyscraper districts to spotless neighborhoods with no delay. In the middle of this cutting-edge megalopolis, I encounter gorgeous gardens where I drink green tea and stumble upon photographers capturing newly weds or cute children in traditional kimonos.

My visit to the Tokyo National Museum displays the traditional side of Japanese culture more in depth and I marvel at the many breathtaking forms of art that have lived here throughout the centuries. I have experienced the country for a few days only when I fully integrate an important stereotype: Japan has and has had an incredible sense of aesthetics. I see it through the ancient and the modern, at a small temple shop or in the pages of a book my metro neighbor is reading.

My first impression wants the Japanese to be gentle and incredibly polite. Perhaps too polite, to an extent where they become hard to approach. In fact, their extreme thankfulness or sorrow in every exchange I experience is creating a certain distance. Besides, the general level of English does not allow for much conversation. In my first few days, I have come face to face with what the Japanese refer to as 'yoko meshi' ('eating a meal sideways'): a very specific anxiety related to having to speak another language. I often find myself stuck in a basic conversation the local is far too embarrassed to end. I make excuses and leave without the information I needed. Yoko meshi indeed.

On a sunny afternoon, I stop at the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world: Shibuya crossing. I rest and observe the Tokyoites. Their sense of fashion is a testimony to the culture of aesthetics I was so impressed with. Combined with their gentle behavior, it makes them incredibly elegant.

On my way back from Shibuya, I come across another interesting aspect of Japanese culture. I glance at the people reading books on the metro and notice that all the books are hidden under paper covers. I realize I am probably witnessing the most striking example of the Japanese's concern for privacy. In a similar way, I quickly realize that I embarrass the locals when I observe them. The public transports seem to be a lonely place where they build on the relationship they have with their phone, and god forbid they gave a glance at someone. Even families and friends seem reluctant to have a conversation, as it might bother people around them.

Having enjoyed many facets of the very unique Japanese culture in Tokyo, I decide it is time to explore around a little. I have chosen to take a Shinkansen ride that would shake a few letters around. The famous bullet train shoots me from Tokyo to Kyoto at unbelievable speed.

"Kyoto, the ancient city of Geishas" - I tell myself as I exit the subway, somewhere in the middle of this immense grid. I look around to these intersecting streets that seem to be shooting straight into infinity. This first sight is not really what I had envisioned of the emblem of Japanese traditional culture but regardless, I find my way to the hostel with struggle. Before I venture into the far corners of the city, I decide to stop for lunch at a small cafe where a sixty something Japanese lady takes interest in me. The curious woman gives quick peaks in my direction as she laughs with the cafe owner. Eventually, she asks me where I am from and it sparks a conversation. She answers my English with Japanese, as we finger-travel a map to 'discuss' what I am planning to visit. She soon realizes I am ambitious in my planning of this two day stop, and laughs at the width of my exploring. She points the sights on the map, laughing as she slaps me on the shoulder in a clear attempt to tell me "you're crazy!" Perhaps she is right but I am stubborn and I have great expectations for the place.

Following her advice, I start with the closest place because I have sacrificed my morning to the Shinkansen. I leave the cafe, happy with this sweet encounter, and head in the direction of Gion. The old neighborhood is the epicenter of traditional Kyoto, and the more 'residential' sight to be seen. I stroll through the streets, between old wooden houses and praying grounds. The cafes and restaurants couldn't look more typical, and many of the people are dressed in traditional kimonos. I easily differentiate between the few Japanese couples dressing up for a tourist experience and the local men and women in the fancier outfits they seem to be wearing regularly. In the streets of Gion, I am lucky to witness how the Japanese are attached to the traditional side of their culture. The sun slowly sets on the people who have enriched my day but Gion has something special in store for me. Like rare birds, Geishas start making short appearances to jump in different taxis that will drive them to dinner venues or Meiko dance shows. They catch all the eyes in the street, and return the curiosity with dignified faces.

The following day, I beat the sun to an imaginary race and make an early take off for the Fushimi Inari-taisha. The place of the thousands red gates offers me a ghostly ascension into misty hills as I beat the crowd to a visit of the beautiful shrines at this famous sight. On my way back down, I progressed into a thickening crowd and make a quick escape for my next destination. Following the gesture of the lady at the cafe, I make a commute North of the city. I reach the Kurama-dera and venture into the mountains. I take a steep hike up on the way to the temple. Alternating between paved steps and curvy gravel ways, passed the many bear warning signs, I slowly reach the monument where I take a well-needed rest. I doze off on a bench, woken eventually by the giggling of passing school children. I suppose bench siestas are not a common thing in Japan but I am having a slight moment of exhaustion after all the visiting Japan has offered me. Finally, I resume my visit around the temple, and through a discrete gate at the back of the courtyard. The way now leads to the higher section of the mountain. The temperature drop as I enter this world of shadows where the many trees overtake the ground in roots, and you might encounter a bear apparently. My visit of the Japanese mountain lasts for a while and I return to Gion for the rest of the afternoon.

My adventure in the hills and mountains of Kyoto grant me a good night sleep and I wake up ready for a morning of visiting. My Shinkansen back to Tokyo is scheduled for mid-afternoon and my plan is to spend the morning at the bamboo forest of Arashiyama, in the west of Kyoto. I reach destination and wander around for a while. I am heading in the wrong direction when my luck strikes again: I stumble upon the small Kokuzoyamacho Temple, that I have for myself. I sit and enjoy the moment of stillness on the steps of this temple, on the edge of the forest, before heading to the bamboo grove. At destination, I progress on walking paths that cut through a forest of bamboo where an engaged couple has organized a photoshoot in traditional outfit. I pass the many visitors, as well as the local young men pulling tuk tuks, and finally reach a traditional Japanese garden where I relax under trees that are turning red with the season.

My last few hours in Kyoto are the usual struggle with food. I start my visit of a few Japanese places, but yoko meshi again. I struggle in pointless gestures to make my questions understood and cause nothing but stress for the waiters whose day I have now contributed to ruining. I can see the embarrassment they are suffering and when I finally manage to communicate my preference for vegetarian food, I become something of a plague. Despite my great appreciation for countless aspects of the culture, the delights of Japanese gastronomy is somewhat lost on me. Don't ask me. To me a good description of Japanese cuisine would be some kind of crazy challenge to gather all the meat and fish in the world and stuff either one, preferably both, in all dishes imaginable. A good ninety percent of what they conceptualize as vegetarian is topped with tuna flakes or filled with fish-tasting seaweed in an attempt to console the Japanese palate, the remaining ten requires careful research to be found.

I have chosen to take a Shinkansen ride that would shake a few letters around. The famous bullet train shoots me from Tokyo to Kyoto at unbelievable speed

It seems that Tokyo has decided to make a statement. Something in the line of: "Oh, you think you've seen crazy fun? I'll show you crazy fun." In fact, my last three days in the megalopolis fall on both the Halloween celebrations and a cosplay festival


I return to Tokyo for a long weekend, decided to explore more of another side of the culture. The previous weekend, I had had a chance to witness the crazy fun side of Japan. 'Crazy fun' being the best description of what seems to be Japanese entertainment. At the hours of day, I visited cat cafes and drank 'druggy cocktails' in the middle of a brightly colored cupcake land. In the evening, I played video games among the wide demographics of the arcades and attended a robot show where shark-riding anime girls fight with swords while inflatable donkeys play the guitar. In the middle of this, I also tried my tongue on fugu, the deadly blowfish which requires ten years of learning to be served safely. I washed it down with the fish-skin sake that accompanied it, giving yet another finger to my dominantly vegetarian diet.

This time around, it seems that Tokyo has decided to make a statement. Something in the line of: "Oh, you think you've seen crazy fun? I'll show you crazy fun." In fact, my last three days in the megalopolis fall on both the Halloween celebrations and a cosplay festival. I begin with the former on a busy evening at the Shibuya crossing, where mignons and yoshis have come out to party with the zombies. An impressive amount of people have dressed up and made their ways to the crossing where policemen are struggling to arrange traffic. Party-goers meet and laugh together, trading selfies in the process. After a good while, I leave the busy district for a night that will transport me to a whole different world. In the middle of a day crowd this time, I meet and greet proud cosplayers who also trade selfies. I am thrown back by their commitment to this passion and how complete their costume can be. I mingle among this crowd, self-conscious at my poor knowledge of this whole sub-culture so unique to Japan.

Something that has struck me in Japan is the extreme balance people have between a very rigid work life and a culture of wild hobbies. More importantly, in the middle of the fun weekend crowds, I marvel at the striking contrast between the two faces of the Japanese. Only in Japan do people have extreme self-consciousness on a busy Tuesday metro and then wander the Saturday streets with flashy blue hair and purple eye lenses. Similarly, only in Japan is there such high social pressure in formal settings and a lack of negative judgement for one's hobby choices. It is truly amazing.

On my last day, I research a few shops and find a bottle of Habushu for my ultimate Japanese experience. The habu snake sake is a specialty from Okinawa used in traditional medicine, to cure rheumatisms and increase male libido. More importantly, it has a freaking viper in it! I could not leave the country without having had a sip. I drink the beverage and contemplate my experiences of the weekend.

Haneda this time. I am sitting across the boarding gate and looking at the airline staff's parade. They are making their way to the plane and, as they reach the gate, they face the waiting room and bow a greeting to passengers who are too absorbed in their phone to notice. One of the staff makes an announcement that they are expecting turbulences and the boarding will be delayed. I imagine her bowing with a smile: "Yes, you might die. Sorry, sorry."

I look at the crowd of passengers who are too spoiled with etiquette to pay attention to the greetings of the airline staff. "How fascinating is Japan!" -I think. It might very well be the place on earth where you are treated the best, and yet you feel that a human is a human. Everybody needs to go wild every now and then, I see Japan as proof of this. The extreme social pressure for conventions triggers an equally extreme need for informal things. The culture seems healthy and, besides metro-perv behavioral issues related to the high level of self-repression, the country has a very low crime rate.

Japan has shown me clean streets and beautiful things. It has made me feel safe and have unthinkable fun. I look back at the short time I have spent where the sun is born each day, and I feel incredibly lucky. Perhaps the place is not the easiest to navigate, but it has treated me well. I have explored a little piece of this fascinating land and learned about a complexe culture. I have seen social rules that are impossible to keep up with, and forgiveness for my breaking them.

Japan is a gentle employee who gives you the nicest of smiles and the warmest of greetings, hoping that you won't strike a conversation. It is five anxious locals with yoko meshi for one funny lady who will have a two-languages mysterious chat with you over a map. Here, old districts belong to traditionally-conscious youngsters and busy city spots hold eccentric meetings. This country of all experiences is a place where you will likely be considered as having barely more manners than a circus monkey but you will be welcome anyway. The Japanese will treat you with dignity. They will look at you with curious eyes from this homogeneous place because, after all, Japan only needs Japan.


Japan has shown me clean streets and beautiful things. It has made me feel safe and have unthinkable fun. I look back at the short time I have spent where the sun is born each day, and I feel incredibly lucky. Perhaps the place is not the easiest to navigate, but it has treated me well. I have explored a little piece of this fascinating land and learned about a complexe culture. I have seen social rules that are impossible to keep up with and forgiveness for my breaking them

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