goodbye japan, hello kitty


photo (2)As I made my way to Tokyo’s Narita airport for a long journey back to North America, I contemplated my time in Japan as the varied scenery of the Japanese countryside passed by. I must admit that my knowledge of the Japanese language came only from badly dubbed episodes of “Ultraman” I used to watch when I was five and the Kraftwerk song “Numbers.” This knowledge was not going to get me far. I did, however, know a bit about Japanese history so I was able to contextualize many of the sites I was seeing.

My first impression of Japan was Osaka, a city that strangely felt like it was stuck in the late 1980s – the heyday of Japan’s economic power. Save the Uniqlos and large video screens on every corner, the city was decidedly low tech: wifi was not ubiquitous, smoking was allowed in bars and restaurants and there were still public phones for use. Parts of the city were powered with a web-like labyrinth of electrical wires, giving it a 20th century feel. Very few people spoke English. I wondered if other Japanese cities were like this, and that what we think of as an incredibly high tech Japan was actually a myth.

On to the cities of Kyoto and Hiroshima – both amazing experiences and cities I would like to spend more time in. Kyoto in particular was the kind of diverse city it would be worth spending an extended period of time in, and after having experienced it, Hiroshima will always hold a special place in my travel heart. Along the way in all three cities, I marveled at the idiosyncrasies of daily Japanese culture: the strange breakfast combinations [a hash brown baked into a pastry], the obsession with toilets [each bathroom had a super-electric toilet and I have never seen men take so long in a bathroom stall as I did in Japan], the popularity of Anime characters [both PG and porn] and of course the obsession with American fast food [with a twist].

Then there was Tokyo, a city that felt like ten New York Citys could fit into it. Even without a language barrier the monstrous subway and train system would be as confusing as they come, complete with many private subway lines each with its own ticket. The train stations were all as massive as airports; self-contained cities on their own. It took me three days just to feel confident that I knew my way from one side of Shinjuku station to the other. Still, I was surprised to discover that even in a city like Tokyo the subway does not run 24 hours.

Tokyo is in no way set up in a logical manner, and it seems that the Japanese are well aware of this. It is easy to find small police booths on the streets the primary purpose of which is to help people navigate the streets of the city. They saved me a few times from making eight rights to make a left, and to be sure I was on the correct side of whatever massive train station I was at.

While I was in Tokyo there were a few days of torrential rain. I marveled at the precision of movement of the massive crowds of people each with the exact same make and style of umbrella as they crossed the wide crosswalks. It was like a marching band meets Mad Max meets the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After the sun came out, the umbrellas disappeared, and the city was re-energized. Nightfall brought with it an entirely new texture: many neighborhoods felt like several Times Squares put together, and I was taken by both the numbers of women openly offering me “massages” and the Nigerian men trying to get me to go to an erotic dancer “club” [where I understand they try to drug your drink and then get you to spend all of your money and then some]. This seedy chaos was in stark contrast to the daytime organization of scores of black-suited businessmen clones going about their day.

Like any big city, you can find all kinds of people and all kinds of trouble if you want. However, around each corner was a smiling face. A face to welcome you to Japan: big eyes twinkling, hair bow perfectly positioned. There she was, Hello Kitty, everywhere.

That damn kitty made me break my cardinal rule of traveling light as I dragged a bag full of shiny pink Hello Kitty propaganda around the globe for both of my nieces. I couldn’t help it, Hello Kitty was somehow able to penetrate my heart of stone. After I sent my one niece a video birthday greeting in front of a larger than life Hello Kitty, she wrote me “Dear Uncle J, why are there so many Hello Kittys there?” I told her Hello Kitty lived in Japan, and that I had met her and she gave me some things to bring back. Given Tokyo’s status as the most expensive city on Earth, I probably spent a paycheck on Hello Kitty bags, baubles and trinkets.

Even so, the real Hello Kitty would probably scratch my eyes out knowing how much I complain about my friends posting kitten pictures on Facebook. My position on that remains unchanged. Sorry Kitty.