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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2001


Cars that levitate and suitcase houses

When you come to Japan, one thing you notice is shapes. Shapes are different here.

Take the rectangle, for example. Most people would say that a parking space for a car is rectangular. Not always so in Japan. Holes are fair game as parking spaces in Japan, as well as swatches of garden and precipices.

Sometimes, land is just too expensive for houses to have a garage. Thus, cars are parked in any available space, even if the space in no way resembles the shape of the car.

With Japan's many canals that wind through neighborhoods, it's not unusual to see cars parked daringly close to the edges of the canals. What is beyond the edge is not to be worried about. As long as there is enough room for four tires, it is a valid parking space. Many times, when the car leaves, the space returns to its previous employment as a children's play area, sidewalk or road.

I have a feeling that the way they decide on a place to park a car is by drawing a line around the car, as if it were a homicide victim, then parking the car by squeezing it into that outline every time. If you park outside the lines, you're likely to step out of the car into the canal.

Even so, the hood is likely to be sticking into the garden, and the back bumper is hanging out over a precipice.

You get the feeling these parking spaces would be difficult to include in the blueprints for the house:

House builder: "We've got an extra space about the size of a fruit bowl. Perhaps you'd like to put in a mailbox?

You: How about a parking space?

Builder: If we put a two-by-four under each back wheel, we could extend the space over the canal to accommodate a car. But the car will be teetering on the edge.

You: That's OK. As long as it's free space.

Builder: We'll adjust the fulcrum a little.

You: Do you think there is enough room to add a little Shinto shrine and a "torii" gate too?

Builder: Sure.

Another shape the Japanese challenge is that of the horizon. When you think of the horizon, you probably think of a straight, horizontal line.

There is also an "indoor horizon." When you walk into a Western house and look across the room, you're likely to see a horizontal line, at about the height of the sofa, piano and most other furniture.

But the indoor horizon of a Japanese house is completely different. Due to small houses and the Japanese ability to collect things, many indoor horizons are made up of stuff stacked upon more stuff, all the way up to the ceiling. Sometimes I get an uneasy feeling that all the mountains of stuff are going to heave off the walls and tumble down.

The family lives at the bottom of all this, in the foothills. You would truly need hiking gear if you ever decided you wanted to get hold of that box up at the very top near the ceiling.

I imagine that for people who like to collect stuff, every time they leave their houses, it's like trying to close a suitcase packed full to the brim. Maybe they even use straps around their houses to keep all that stuff inside.

The last shape to be challenged in Japan is the circle. Most people think of islands as being round. Not in Japan. The country itself, a group of four islands, is often depicted as four squares instead. On TV weather reports, they have divided Japan into four blocks: the main square of Honshu and the smaller squares of Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.

I guess the other, smaller Japanese islands are just square eggs.

Contact Amy Chavez by e-mail at amychavez@excite.com. To subscribe to "Japan Lite" for free, go to www.amychavez.com .

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