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Friday, Nov. 23, 2001


Kansai and Kanto: What makes them different

Tokyo people are too busy and harsh, sarcastic and embittered. They don't know anything about the finer things of life, have no taste buds to speak of and have ruined udon (Japanese noodles) beyond redemption.

And Tokyo women? They're all of these things, and bulky, too.

That's a brief summary of how Kansai (roughly Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe) people view Kanto (roughly Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama) folks, a view that has been more or less unchanged since the great general Tokugawa Ieyasu set up the shogunate in Tokyo (then called Edo) some four centuries ago.

Until then, the Kansai region had been the center of Japan, where palatial architecture, the tea ceremony and (fleetingly) Christianity were nurtured under two heads of state who knew about such things.

Oda Nobunaga put an end to Japan's Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai, 1457-1568) and moved to unify the nation, largely through trade and free economy. Toyotomi Hideyoshi inherited Oda's leadership and established his seat of government in Osaka.

Both these men loved luxury, had fiery tempers, hobnobbed with foreigners, kept countless concubines and generally lived it up.

Old man Tokugawa was another guy altogether. He was cunning, stoic and infinitely patient.

A famed story has these three men together in front of a bird cage. The bird was supposed to perform heavenly songs but wouldn't. Oda's instinct was to kill it. Toyotomi's idea was to force it to sing. Tokugawa sat back and suggested that everyone wait.

To this day, Tokugawa's words "Nakumade mato hototogisu (Let us wait until the bird decides to sing)" supposedly demonstrates one of the higher virtues of the Japanese temperament.

When he finally seized power in 1603, Tokugawa was in his 60s. A health nut who ground his own herbal medicines, he pushed for penury and endurance. He trashed modernity and extravagance. Then he closed the doors of the nation and threw away the key.

For the next 260 years, it was as though the whole of Japan was grounded by a sourpuss gramps with zero sense of fun.

Not to mention his awful taste in hairdos.

Until he came along, Kansai women favored hair like Gwyneth Paltrow's, only longer, swept lightly from their faces and hanging down their backs. But then gramps decreed that everyone had to tie it up in heavy, complex coils and let it stay there. Ugh.

No wonder people from Kansai always harbored complex feelings of superiority mingled with resentment toward Kanto, and little surprise that Kantoites always felt like insensitive oafs when in the vicinity of the koto (ancient capital city).

A Kyoto woman might say things like (in her flawless Kyoto dialect): "Tokyo no machi wa otokohan mitai dosuna. Kyoto wa onago noyoni yasashii tokoroga arimasu."

Directly translated, this means: "The Tokyo cityscape is so masculine. In Kyoto, things are softer and more feminine." But in these simple words are layers of delicate subtexts that can only be inferred through the context of her conversation, her gestures and her voice inflections.

Suffice to say, she means that it's better here than there. But hey, who's to argue?

There is one thing Kanto does with finesse, however, and that's making soba (buckwheat noodles). Indeed, in Kansai cities, restaurants will often carry signs that say: "Tokyo no soba to onaji aji desu! (We serve buckwheat noodles that taste the same as they do in Tokyo)."

It's a tiny ego-boost to a tourist from Kanto, but we'll take what we can get.

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