TV & Radio
Posted on Mon, Jan. 09, 2006
Author to tourists: See the authentic Japan
By John Bordsen
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Karin Muller, 40, lives in Raleigh, N.C., but this author/filmmaker is often at exotic locales. Her new book "Japanland" (Roeale, $23.95) is the companion volume to the same-name travel documentary now airing on public TV.
Q. You lived with a Japanese family for seven months. How did that go?
A. I'm a competitive judo player, and the father in the family was a sixth-degree black belt, as well as CEO of a very large insurance corporation. He's the most intelligent and smoothest man I ever met. I worship him. He always knew precisely what to say and is extraordinarily good at handling relationships and social situations.
I lived in the "granny suite" attached to their house, in a suburb of Tokyo. Eventually I moved to Osaka on my own.
Q. Americans get such jarringly different images of Japan: Urban neon and strange fads - versus tradition and tranquility. Samurai simplicity and honor - versus chain-smoking businessmen crammed into subway cars. Which are the valid impressions?
A. All of them. I originally thought the film would have judo as it backbone, with some kind of fantastic ending. That didn't work out. What instead fascinated me was seeing the contradictions - pockets of ancient Japan that survive and thrive in an incredibly sophisticated economy.
You see the sidewalks, neon signs and cars in Tokyo, a more Western city than any I've ever seen. Yet also in Tokyo, you'll find some 40 sumo stables - a step 300 years in the past, where people are living in a feudal lifestyle. You see the same in Kyoto, where a geisha lives a feudal lifestyle.
There are over 100 such pockets throughout Japan.
In the northern mountains, there's a 1,400-year-old pre-Buddhist mountain ascetic cult called Yamabushi. Its followers sort of wander around, worshipping trees and waterfalls and all sorts of things. Not what you'd expect to see in modern Japan.
Here's a good example of how old and new manage to blend: I joined a Samurai mounted archery team; you go to practice on Saturday, get on ex-racehorses, and - decked out in 400-year-old clothing and on ancient saddles, gallop horses and shoot arrows at targets during a 12-second run.
But when you talk to the men on the team, you learn most of them are "salarymen" - the term for up-and-coming businessmen who work 6 ½ days a week and wear just the right suits, carry the right suitcase and have their short hair parted 7/10ths of the way across their head.
And on weekends, they turn into mounted archers.
I saw a lot of what we'd consider a contradiction. But they manage to use essentially ancient culture and traditions to underpin modern society.
Q. What's life like in a Tokyo suburb?
A. Very modern because it was a very expensive suburb of the most expensive country in the world. It had all the modern conveniences.
You're not allowed to buy a car until you've gone to the local police station and proven you have a space for it. Space is at a premium. This is not the traditional Japan with old, winding streets.
Yet there's no such thing as a Wal-Mart, nor big supermarket. Virtually all women went shopping on bicycles, to tiny corner stores. The grocer, the dried-fish seller, the tea merchant, the rice merchant, the tofu seller. These are 1960s bikes with baskets on the front and kids on the back.
There's no parking lot for cars at the store; there'll be 100 bikes there. And these wives buy their stuff, go home and cook dinner.
The largest supermarket we had would be considered a tiny corner market by Americans.
Walking down the street, you'd think you were in America, except for the writing on the signs. But go into this market and you'd see three aisles of seaweed, virtually no processed food, and one tiny corner I called the "bad mom" corner because they had sweets there. Plus three dust-covered liter bottles of Coca-Cola.
Q. Yet we hear so much about Japan's cutting-edge youth culture. How does this play out?
A. Youth culture is huge at the same time. They're called "new human beings" by the older generation, which is baffled by Japanese youth, especially urban youth, which they see as almost an alien species. Must be what the 1960s were like in America. A real generation gap.
When I was there, the fad was 9- to 12-inch platform shoes and wearing black face paint covered with white makeup. It was extraordinary.
But it's not like Japan is in crisis. I started to realize that when these young women turn 30 - the traditional age by which you must be married - they take off the platform shoes and find a husband, often through a matchmaker. They settle down in an apartment, get a bicycle and have babies.
It's the same way Americans who burned their bras in the `60s are all Republicans now.
I met a number of women - the rule, not the exception - who when they turned 30 said, "I'm going to get married this year." To whom? "I don't know; I haven't met him yet."
One-third of marriages in Japan are still arranged. It's not like in India, where you first meet your spouse at the altar. But you go through a matchmaker, or two sets of parents get together through an alumni association or something and have a meeting - lunch or coffee, perhaps - for the explicit purpose of seeing whether the two young people they brought along would be compatible for marriage.
Q. You're a single woman. Did you go on a date over there?
A. Remember my host father? Smooth as single-malt Scotch? He always knew what to say - except one time. He was at the dinner table, talking about finding a matchmaker for his daughter, who is 28. I said, as a joke, "Papa-san, can you find a husband for me?"
The man's face went white, like a shark just bit him at the knees. He was speechless.
That gave me an indication of how difficult and expensive it must be to marry off a 35-year-old white woman in Japan.
I had only one pseudo-date. If something was very important, I'd hire a guide to help me translate. At one point, I stayed with and filmed a homeless man in Osaka, so I asked the tourist association to get me a guide.
The man was in his 30s. He turned up with black teeth - a four-pack-a-day smoker - and immediately got drunk. He told me he was a Marxist living off his girlfriend. And for some reason, she wouldn't have sex with him.
After we did our film gig, he called me up at 2 in the morning to ask for a date. As he explained - drunkenly - it wasn't just to have sex; he wanted to speak with me as well.
Q. What would you advise a first-time visitor to do, knowing what you know now?
A. I'd try to experience Japan as a participant, rather than a spectator. Japanese tourism is set up to be a spectator sport: Go to Kyoto, see a temple, see a garden, see a temple ... eventually you get templed out. Same with festivals.
It's possible, even during a brief visit, to get behind what they call "tateme"- the facade Japan gives the world. Get a glimpse of the true, inner character, the "honne."
There's a monastery on Mount Koya, four or five hours by train from Kyoto. You can spend the night, sleeping in traditional Japanese quarters, in a room with rice-paper walls on a mat or futon. Eat Japanese food. Hear monks chant in the morning. That's what I'd look for.