Ahhh Japan. Land of fan waving Geishas and polite people bowing and everyone gazing heavenward at the silent drifting cherry blossoms in the spring. Oh also it’s the land where you can buy a Toyota from a vending machine, rent a dog to take for a walk, and perform syncopated dance routines in the park dressed as Hells Angels crossed with Elvis.
I’ve spent no little time in Japan, and the contrasts there are more extreme than anywhere I can think of. Once my son Tyler and I were roaming about and we came upon the most remarkable amusement park. We didn’t want to lug the backpacks through the park and just left them beside the front gate. You could leave a camera or a purse. No one would consider stealing them.
Kinugawa Ranch was an olde west town complete with a single horse. You could dress up in cowboy gear, stage a fake gunfight and sip exotic Coors beer in a saloon. It also featured the second biggest Mt. Rushmore sculpture in the world, after the one in South Dakota. It’s half the size of the original and cost 25 million dollars or about a gazillion yen.
Inside this mountain was the world’s biggest teddy bear museum but it was the gift shop that held the real surprise. One shelf had purses for sale some for $30 and some were a bit more expensive. There were two handbags at a million yen ($10,000) each. One was the paw of a Siberian white tiger, well worth 10k in my opinion since there were less than 100 left in the wild at the time (but, consider they have four feet each, so that’s a plus). Another one was an America coyote head, also 10k, which seemed a tad overpriced to me as they are not quite so rare (but consider they have only one head).
The Ranch operated from 1970 until 2007 when it closed for ‘maintenance.’ It’s still closed but you can go there and break in. Many do and there are lots of videos online of rowdy Australians posing with the dusty manikins and bustin’ windows.
Kinugawa is in Nikko which is a traditional tourist destination with ancient temples and tea houses. In Nikko you will find the three monkeys who see, hear and, what was it, smell? no evil. They are quite small, which both disappoints and amuses in equal measures or sukebe in Japanese. Oh wait, it’s speak no evil, right?
Traveling in Japan is easy and so very not the USA. The trains go 250 mph (in the America long distance trains do 70 mph and since historically I.D. wasn’t run through ‘the system’ to buy a ticket, trains are populated by criminals and those too terrified to fly (fun crowd). Taxi drivers in Japan wear white gloves and the doors spring open automatically. Convenience stores selling great food are everywhere and there are more vending machines per capita than any other country. They dispense everything from used women’s underwear (hey, don’t make fun) to Bart Simpson novelty socks, adult diapers or liquor. It’s sad but true that adult diapers outsell baby diapers in Japan and it isn’t a fetish. It’s just well, folks getting old.
In America Walmart’s slogan is, ‘Always lowest price.” In Tokyo I went to an auction 20 years ago where they were selling single cantaloupes for about $100 each and that was wholesale. In 2019 a melon sold for $22,500. And there’s the Bluefin tuna, an endangered species that went for $3.1 million recently or about $4,500 a pound (so eat slowly).
The Japanese are super anti-gun, so when I found myself in a Tokyo gun shop I was a just a bit amazed. A careful inspection revealed them to very accurate replicas of Al Capone’s Tommy gun, Dirty Harry’s Colt 45 and James Bond’s Walther ppk. I asked the clerk what the score was and he told me “Japanese man like to draw gun in front of mirror.” I totally get that.
I was in a Tokyo 7-Eleven (now a Japanese company) once and was looking at the magazine rack and saw Time Magazine, The Guardian and Eve, a magazine devoted to photos of naked children (only made illegal in 2014). Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Less creepy (but not by much) are parlors where you can pet a woman’s hair or pat her lovingly on the back. These places are called cuddle shops and services vary from a ‘sweet smile’ 300 yen, to a full night’s cuddle (no sex—honestly) for 60,000 yen or sixty bucks and hour. Other services include:
· Customer sleeps in girl’s arm (3 min) – 1,000 yen
· Girl pats customer on the back (3 min) – 1,000 yen
· Customer pets girl on the head (3 min) – 1,000 yen
· Customer and girl stare at each other (1 min) – 1,000 yen
· Girl changes clothes (1 time) – 1,000 yen
· Girl gives customer foot massage (3 min) – 1,000 yen
· Customer gives girl foot massage (3 min) – 2,000 yen
· Customer sleeps with head on girl’s lap (3 min) – 1,000 yen.
· Girl sleeps with head on customer’s lap (3 min) – 2,000 yen
In most countries, being caught sleeping on the job is frowned upon. But in Japan it is totally acceptable to be caught napping. This is called inemuri and it is valued as a sign of commitment because you’re working so dern hard. Sleeping at train stations, in school, or in the office, is a common sight. Try that in America and you’d lose your suspenders and your belt. And getting puking drunk in front of your boss (after hours) is not only not a problem it’s almost required. I have seen well-dressed businessmen and women literally falling down and redinnering in the gutter. I guess it’s considered a pressure reliever, like bombing Pearl Harbor…too soon?
One new trend on the rise among young women is yaeba (literally ‘double tooth’) caps on the canines, which lends their smile a kind jumbled, old-cemetery-tombstone appearance. Crooked teeth are actually a thing.
If you rent a car, god help you. The freeways are easy enough but buildings are numbered by when they were built and the streets generally don’t have names. It’s easier now with gps but it used to be that the only ones who could find an address were the fire department and Dominos Pizza.
And the traffic lights might be a little confusing. Almost universally, red means stop and green means go. But what happens when you live in a culture where green also means blue? They do have a new term midori which means green but because of tradition you’ll see green, teal, turquoise, and aqua lights in an effort to keep everyone happy.
There is also a boom right now in teenage girl groups. They are almost always dressed in school uniforms and the videos are very popular with young and old (men) alike. Again, I’m just reporting. At the other end is sumo wrestling where they do not wear schoolgirl uniforms but rather fabulously embroidered skirts.
And yes, there really is a suicide forest called Aokigahara where folks are found hanging from the trees with regularity. Suicide in Japan is not the huge dishonor that it is in the West. Although the rates are far higher in Japan compared to America, it’s the South Koreans who top the charts.
To me the most unusual part of Japanese society is the prolific world of game shows and video pranks. If you pulled some of these stunts in the West you would do jail time but there it’s considered funny to film someone naked in a spa putting money in a massage chair only to have it swivel toward an opening door—then rocket engines ignite, propelling the surprised sap down a ski slope, his whatnots flapping in the wind at 50 mph past the startled skiers.
Oh yes, and they get even more frightening like the elevator prank when you step into an elevator and the floor gives way dropping you down a long chute into the basement. One classic is of a woman in a crowded beauty salon who all of sudden doesn’t hear the dozens of people surrounding her. She sits up and they are all dead. She runs into the hallway and they are dead too. She runs screaming in the street and everything is normal. Ha-larious.
At least with game shows you know what you are in for. I love the show where they tie pork chops to young women’s foreheads and the last one to duck through a hole in the stage is the winner as the iguanas are uncaged and lunge for them.
But underneath all this mayhem are a warm, lovely people who celebrate thoughtfulness as almost a national religion. Like any society there are ironic edges but in Japan respect and politeness rule, and your neighbor really does look out for you. Did you know that Japan still has the world’s third largest economy and is 1/30th the size of the U.S. with about 1/3 the population?
In Japan they have almost no personal injury lawyers and fewer than 10 gun deaths a year vs 40,000 in the USA. They don’t jaywalk, they honor their elders and there is no litter or graffiti. So yes, they have some quirky pastimes, but they don’t believe in harming others and they have a well-earned sense of national pride.
15 years ago my son Tyler walked the length of Japan and made this video love letter.