Fast-tracking in Tokyo

by Conrad Hughes
Groove Korea (

I had anticipated that my brief, five-day sojourn through the Tokyo Basin, including Kawasaki and Yokohama, would be relaxing and culturally mind-expanding. But as I arrived back in South Gyeongsang Province and alighted from Korea’s public transportation system, I found myself surprisingly relieved to be home. How strange.

Upon first reaching Narita Airport, I still had a journey ahead of me; Narita is exceptionally far from the main city of Tokyo. I inadvertently bought two tickets for the fast train, one of a dizzying array of options. Sixty bucks down already. After sprinting for the almost-empty train, I sank deep into my comfortable seat and stared at the ridiculous media advertising. I bought a bento box from the 7-Eleven on the way to my friend’s house and happily munched as I walked past old 400 cc motorcycles. These were all good things.

My new friend showed me to his apartment, and I settled onto the futon while he slept at his computer (which apparently is normal). The next day I woke up and took a walk around the strikingly juxtaposed community of Kawasaki, a beautiful city full of smoke-belching chimneys and industrial architecture next to a wide river with lush trees; zero litter, zero spit, zero bad feelings. I walked in the 92-degree heat — quite a novelty in October — without headphones for what felt like the first time in years. I enjoyed a perfect, heady, 35-decibel silence punctuated only by the concentrated sound of three girls feeding a plump stray cat some sliced almonds. I felt the distance, spiritually, from the chaos of any Korean city. The refuse removal schedules were taped up in fresh laminate, undamaged by gum, and no one was shitting in the street. Buses even stopped for red lights.

Two hours later I arrived at a fertility temple, one of the few remaining in Japan. The venerable deity is a meter-long phallus called “kanamara-sama,” Japanese for “huge iron dick.” But to my surprise there was a kindergarten class on the same site, making the whole circumambience a little strange: A monk greeted me at the entrance, the woman at the sex shop waved and the collection of giant penises was attenuated by the laughter and play of children within visible range of dildos for sale.

Japan is a little off-putting on the sex front, though, since it seems 80 percent of the women are either wearing some kind of 1800s Victorian-style ruffled dress or stockings and suspenders, or a combination thereof. After spending some time in Akihabara and Harajuku (both near Tokyo), it slowly came into my view, like a sexy Magic Eye puzzle. It’s quite endearing at first, but seeing the scores of men buying “idol” pictures of girls who couldn’t be any older than 7, I felt like the sex scene in Japan could use a reality check.

The prevalence of these pictures made me think about the reasons people buy them, and why so many basement stores are selling semi-legal pornography in Japan. Maybe the plain, simple lack of inter-gender interaction is the problem. The trouble is seen in Korea, too, where younger generations interact with one another via embarrassed giggling, a natural barrier. But in Japan, women and men seem to have nothing to say to each other. It is widely said that men want younger girls because they can’t talk back. They are seen as submissive and hierarchically subordinate. Buying a picture of an “idol” to feel some kind of human connection is pretty terrifying if you stop and think about it for a spell. Then again, prostitution in Korea is blatant. No wonder most foreigners in both countries take a wide berth when it comes to the sexuality of their respective cultures.

I’d come to Japan to see some friends in the presence (or shadow) of the Yokohama Beer Festival, one of many traveling festivals, but especially cool for its Japanese beers and other lovely German and local craft brews. And other Japanese stuff: tasty fried things and no spit or trash. Vending machines, schoolgirls and the like. Yokohama is one step further down the Semi-Express line from Kawasaki and is entirely the city of the future, the closest thing to a perfect place I’d ever seen. Large, beautifully designed yet innocuously soulful modern buildings permeate the majority of the city. Piled next to grandiose red-brick warehouses, between which were the beer festival tents, and backing onto a harbor buttressed by parks, they had some appealing architectural design.

I loved the beauty of Japan (and really enjoyed seeing some old friends), but not its effects. The rules and regulations kept everything beautiful, but also kept people separate, encouraged child pornography and produced apologist foreigners who were working hard to duly fit in. When I was informed that I shouldn’t wear a tank top out of the house on a 30-degree day for fear of intimidating people, I thought how ridiculous that would seem in Korea, a country where I feel pretty much free to do whatever I want because everyone else does. So now, when I see an old man hacking up spit in the street while he discards his litter with wanton abandon — something that would not happen in Japan — I feel entitled to carry my own personal idiosyncrasies with me.

When I got back to Korea I breathed a sigh of relief and found myself for the weeks following enjoying the oddness that Korea exudes — finally out from under the thumb of the bullies. Like the fat kid who starts working out and gets a beautiful girlfriend, Korea doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. A country with a kind of downtrodden, gleeful pride in its recent success, but still unsure — that’s Korea. Japanese pride seems sullen and selfish in comparison. While the country is beautiful and impeccably micromanaged, it’s for that reason that I’m perfectly happy to call Korea my home. Long live chaos.

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