So here I am. Owing to a set of circumstances largely beyond my control, I find myself living and working in Japan. I could tell you the circumstances, give reasons or excuses, but telling you isn't going to help. Let's face it, life – and other four letter words – happen.
Part Three: Stereotypes and Toilets
So now I wonder if those bans on gaijin I saw in the big city are just for the tourists or if there is a hostility to those of us trying to reside here as well. In the meantime, I can investigate some of the stereotyped ideas of Japan by trying to visit them.
What was that, that Gwen Stefani sang about Harajuku girls? "Damn, you've got some wicked style!" I'm not a fashion aficionado but... er... no, they don't. Not unless poodle meets French maid meets curtain is your idea of wicked. It's hard not to stare in bemusement, but that's not exactly a recommendation. Further to the East of Tokyo, the French maid theme exists on its own, in the form of cafés in which, apparently, the waitresses' vocabulary is of the servile, to Lord and Master variety for the customers. These are popular with the 'otaku', or geeks, that inhabit the area. This is also the place for technophiles – if there's some gadget you didn't realise existed yet, it's probably here. Throw in a few video shops of animation that I don't pretend to understand and that's Akihabara. That said, for that instantly overwhelming moment, it's tough to beat the competing giant video screens that await you at the main exit of the station at Shibuya.
All of this darting about the great metropolis requires the occasional visit to the toilets. For those of you that missed that Simpsons episode, Japanese technology really is far in advance of our own... but also seemingly a way behind. There are two styles of cubicle toilets – western and Japanese. The older the place, the smaller the proportion of western ones, occasionally meaning zero. The Japanese ones are strictly ground level, meaning nowhere to sit. This seems too primitive for me, so I refuse to use them and will willingly trek from floor to floor or station to store to find something more suitable. In fact, they seem to be only used by the older generation of Japanese, which means that the western ones are always full, especially where they are of the hi-tech variety and people spend ten minutes or more in the public lavatory, adjusting the heat, washing their nether regions and so forth. Some of the loos even emit scents and muzak to mask what is going on. If you eventually get to use one, just take your time before deciding which is the flush button. Oh, one more thing – there's always paper; it doesn't run out, get thrown in the bowl or stolen. Yes, there's always paper... except where you have to pay for it by the sheet.
Moving on a couple of stops along from Akihabara, on an almost medically clean train line and you are thrown back into traditional Japan. Here, giant red gateways lead to shrines – or are they temples? – I get my religions a little mixed up, but the pick 'n' mix approach of the Japanese doesn't help; the same people may have a church wedding, visit a Shinto shrine each New Year and depart this world with a funeral of the alarming Buddhist style you may have partially seen in the film Departures recently. The vast majority of Japanese don't hold any strong religious belief, but there remain strong traditions, formal ceremonies and superstitious practices. Ornate gardens in the shadow of a pagoda can also be found here in Asakusa, at certain times of the year.
Anyway, enough of the places that appear in all the tourist guides, I've headed further east, beyond Tokyo. I am in a small city, which means a population of about 200,000, putting it at around the 200 mark in the (long) list of the biggest Japanese cities. Tsukuba, almost pronounced 'scuba', is subtitled Science City, as designated by the government. It's full of researchers and half the people I've met so far seem to have PhDs. The average IQ in this place must be among the world's highest, even with me in it. Surprisingly, many seem quite receptive to this illiterate knuckle-dragger who flunked a bunch of science exams, so I don't need to flee home just yet.
Anyway, Tsukuba-duba-done for a bit; the new job and the ethnocentric shock have taken their toll, so I've plotted a little escape. I'm heading off northish for a few days, where I'll be compelled to play pool, mini-golf and badminton and forced to drink untold amounts of sake or, if I'm lucky, shochu, a similarly colourless, but stronger brew, increasingly popular in Japan. Yeah, it's rough here.