28.11.2016

PURO Travels: Understanding Japan

After a twenty-hour flight I set my foot in Tokyo for the very first time. When I got off a bus in Edogawa I saw the city that immediately took me out of my comfort zone. What hit me was the air that smelled unfamiliar, the unknown architecture, and the fact that I couldn’t decipher anything I read. During these two weeks in Japan I experienced what it feels like to patiently learn the world anew. I understood neither the signs nor words and I kept getting lost among more than 150 metro stations. I tried mimicking strange gestures and behaviors while being simultaneously frustrated and amazed.

 

Gallery of oddities

On my very first day in Tokyo I went to Akihabara – the cradle of Japanese pop culture and electronics. The unceasing festival of weird and exotic Japan takes place here – the festival that engendered a number of national stereotypes. Cosplayers (disguised as manga and anime characters) and (unsettlingly) young girls in skimpy maid costumes invite people to clubs. Among the colorful neons, screens, and lights you can meet the fans of manga and anime as well as those who spend long hours in a multi-story game centers. I visited one of these – Taito Station. As I was passing by photo booths, UFO-catchers and arcade games I caught a glimpse of a plush Hattifattener closed in a claw machine. Forgetting about my age and limited funds, I decided to get it. People around me were also trying to get a hold of collector’s anime characters, Pokemon mascots and other funny gadgets. I gave up after a few attempts and headed towards Super Potato – the paradise for the fans of games from the 1980s and 1990s. That’s where I spent most of my time in Akihabara playing Mario, eating peanuts, and curiously observing an enigmatic Japanese man who sat among the flickering and noisy machines, smoked a cigarette, and stoically read a book.

 

 

Worshipping anime

A couple of days later I went on a trip to the Ghibli Museum where I discovered and made friends with my inner child. Established in 2001 by Hayao Miyazaki, the museum pays homage to the art of animation and legendary productions of the Ghibli Studio. On entering the building, visitors are greeted by a huge Totoro and eagerly take pictures with him. It’s now or never for cameras inside the museum are strictly prohibited. Tickets usually sell like hot cakes so I had to plan my visit a month in advance, but it was worth it. I walked through chambers filled with artifacts from “Spirited Away”, watched a short film about a romantic relationship between a spider and the common pond skater and visited a stunning exhibition which presented a step-by-step explanation of how the mechanism of a time-lapse animation really works. I stayed until the closing, wandering the souvenir shop and dreaming of a comeback.

 

 

Cafes for...animals!

Exhausted after a long day, I ended up in a cat café nearby Yoyogi Park. Tokyo is astonishing, but also tiring and overwhelming. Calm and cozy cafes with animals give you a chance to rest in the companionship of owls, cars, hedgehogs, and even goats. They are popular not only among tourists and, in many cases, a reservation is required. In my case, a few minutes of line standing was enough. Prior to entering the café, I had to wash my hands, read and accept the rules (you mustn’t wake up or feed the cats) and leave my backpack in a locker. The interior was charming. Cats, slowly licking their fur and dozing off in the armchairs, looked half-interestedly at a group of older women who kept throwing colorful balls at them.

 

 

Tastes of Asia 

When writing about Japan, it’s impossible not to mention food. In my case, this was a rather problematic issue. Since I don’t eat meat and fish, I could instantly forget about the majority of exquisite restaurants on my culinary map of Tokyo. Not every place had an English menu and a lot of supposedly vegetarian meals included dashi, i.e. a broth with dried bonito flakes. The language barrier and cultural differences turned every dinner into a stressful experience. Then, to my relief, I discovered the Sushi-Nova restaurant chain where it was possible to order food via a tablet, there was no problem finding vegetarian options, and sushi arrived at your table after a few minutes. When I went there for the first time I felt as if I’d visited a restaurant of the future. Also, the futuristic interior and low prices make the place popular among teenagers who go there after school.

During my trip I decided to spend one day in Yokohama. It’s a large port city famous for the largest Chinatown in Asia. Its crowded streets are full of market stalls with fried chestnuts and the smell of food pervades the atmosphere. There are restaurants everywhere you go. Paper lanterns and gold-red decorations make you feel as if you were in China.   

 

 

Wild East

On the search for Japanese places worth visiting, I found an information about Western Village. It’s an abandoned Wild West-themed amusement park located in Nikko. Established at the beginning of the 1970s, the park was closed in 2007. Since then, the place has overgrown with lush greenery – something I could see with my own eyes. All of it makes you feel as if the park had stopped functioning in midstream. The dishes are all set in the cafeteria; forgotten cards and paper scraps collect the dust. The most bizarre thing about the park are the realistic human figures – a sheriff sitting behind a desk, a barber surgeon, a postman and many more. Their motionless eyes stare at intruders and make their skin crawl. The sturdy ones, who make it through the thick bushes, will see something equally phenomenal – a replica of Mount Rushmore stretching above the park.

 

 

Divine Jizō

In Nikko, I also went to see the Jizō statues – the statues of deities from the Shintō pantheon. Jizō is considered to be the guardian of travelers, pregnant women, and children who died after birth. According to the beliefs, children below three who die without performing any duties to their families go to a land by the river nearby the gate to hell. That’s where they build stone pagodas for their parents. Jizō is their only solace – his statues can be seen all over the country. Sometimes they are wearing children’s clothes or you can see stones placed next to them – that’s what parents do in order to ease their children’s plight.

 

 

My journey was definitely too short to let me truly understand Japan. I learned, however, that this weird, exotic country everyone views through the lens of articles such as "10 most shocking facts about…" doesn’t really exist. Japan is not the land of eccentrically dressed people, controversial night clubs and perverse sexuality. It’s much more ambiguous and fascinating than all of its stereotypes.

 

Text and photos: Asia Flisek

She comes from Gdańsk, but, for a year now, she has been living in Wroclaw - the city her grandma used to tell her about. She is a film studies student, who likes Czech cinematography, Franz Kafka and dialogues in Wes Anderson's movies. She collects beautiful books for children and adults. 

 

 

 

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