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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001


Exotic Japan found in mundane things

I had just purchased a sweat shirt at the Gap, picked up some shampoo at the Body Shop and ordered pizza from Pizza Hut when I received an e-mail saying: "You live in Japan? How exotic!"

I cleared my throat, made up a cup of Starbucks home brew and pondered: Does exotic Japan still exist?

It was 5 p.m. and out my window fisherman were leaving on their old wooden boats. They come back at 2 a.m., their wives rushing to the port to meet them. Sometimes the ruckus awakes me as I hear fishermen call out the names of fish as others put them into flat wooden boxes by variety: "Mebaru!" "Tai!" "Chinu!"

Exotic is Japanese food. The other night in a Kyoto-style restaurant, I ate my first autumn meal of the year: fish garnished with that spectacular fiery fall icon, a petite red leaf of the Chinese maple. This was in stark contrast to my morning meal, "American breakfast," which included a salad.

Exotic are the times I visit the Buddhist priest at the temple on my island. We talk about Japanese culture while drinking tea and eating traditional sweets with a small, whittled stick. Last week, the priest explained to me that Japanese don't like to buy used goods because "We are worried about the spirit in things. Depending on the history of the object, it could bring bad luck." He used the example of a kitchen knife. A Japanese person would feel strange buying a used kitchen knife because they would wonder if the knife had ever been used to do something bad, such as kill somebody.

Exotic is how even mundane things can take on a unique Japanese flavor, such as when I went to the dry cleaner and heard a beautiful sound emanating from the apartment above: Someone was playing a koto.

Exotic is walking into a travel agent plastered with posters of "exotic" destinations such as Disneyland and Universal Studios. Under the glass on the counter are photos of each airline's food.

Exotic are the secrets of the Japanese education system. A friend's 7-year-old son had to take an entrance exam to get into grade school. When I asked him if there was any particular reason he wanted his son to go to that school, he said, "No, but the education is good at that school, so we know the 'yakuza' won't send their children there."

Exotic is how every Japanese person is so nostalgic about childhood. "When I was a child," said Mr. Shimizu, "we didn't have heat in the house, so we always went outside to play to get warm. Nowadays we have heat, so children stay inside and watch television. It makes them weak."

Exotic is the cause-and-effect relationships considered to be general knowledge, such as when someone says, "You look tired. It must be the cold." Or the surprising honesty when someone whispers to you the truth: "Don't bother filling out that survey. No one will read it anyway."

Exotic is the fact that in the same block, you can find the Happy Town grocery store, the Smile Life pharmacy, the Red Shoes-Permanent Wave Space beauty salon and the "convenience store" that closes at 11 p.m.

Exotic is Japan's ubiquitous fountains, which are so talented they can sing, dance and play music, the mailboxes that sing when you drop in a letter, and the countless chimes and light-and-sound shows that take place every time a clock strikes the hour.

Exotic is the fact then when Japan is just too exotic, you can always go to McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, 7-Eleven, Eddie Bauer, even (gasp!) Tokyo Disneyland to get away from it all.

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