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Saturday, July 3, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Never been there, never done that


"Twenty-five" seems a fine number for the necessary hours in a day or an easy-to-find shoe size in centimeters, yet for me that digit has now garnered a special significance. It marks the number of years I have lived in Japan, soon to inch one step forward to 26 -- more than a quarter of a century.

These are not consecutive years, mind you, but when patchworked together they all add up. Looking back to the day I first stepped off a KAL flight at old Haneda Airport, I see I have survived 17 prime ministers, 15 sumo grand champions and seven attacks by Godzilla. I arrived in Japan before videos and CDs, before Walkmen and Gameboys, before convenience stores and telephone cards, before pop icons like Ayumi Hamazaki and Hidetoshi Nakata were even born, back in the days when there was only one McDonald's in all of Kyushu, the island of my then residence, and -- I feel certain -- only one Western-style toilet there as well. I visited both often.

So when a friend recently asked what haven't I done in all these years in Japan, I had to answer first with a long pause. For -- naturally -- when you live in a place for a considerable time, you cannot help but accumulate experiences, sort of the way a navel gathers lint. It took several minutes then to come up with the following list -- my Neverland of nonaccomplishments in Japan.

I have never climbed Mount Fuji. The saying goes that you're a fool if you've never done it once, and you're a bigger fool if you've done it twice. In my case, however, I have always felt sufficiently foolish enough already, so that further clarification has been unnecessary.

Besides, I am not a climber. I was raised on the table-flat prairies of the American Midwest, where the only object one needed to ascend was the family sofa. I still do this, in fact, partly in memory of my youth, but also very much in the spirit of a mountaineer. For if the question goes, "Why climb a sofa?" my steadfast answer is: Because it is there. Mountains I leave to the birds.

I have never practiced any Japanese traditional art. This includes kendo, aikido, ikebana, calligraphy, tea ceremony, noodle slurping and so on. While I find most of these arts attractive, I also think they are somehow protected by my lack of participation. In short, I feel I would be more likely to derange flowers than arrange them.

What's more, I do not see how participation in such arts increases appreciation of Japan. One does not need to paint to enjoy a classic portrait, to don a tutu to recognize fine ballet or to undergo tons of pressure and extreme heat to see the beauty in a diamond. I can thus enjoy a full-body slam in judo well enough, thank you, without ever having experienced it myself.

I have never been to a shrine on New Year's Day. Yet I regret this and annually bug my wife about joining the midnight crowd at one of Tokyo's major shrines. At that point she gives me one of her "You must be nuts" looks, of which she has several, geared to match her wardrobe.

"Do you like crowds?" she asks. "Do you like lines? Do you like being crushed beneath a mass of humanity like a robin's egg beneath a steamroller?" I must confess then I have never liked that much.

Hence we pass on the shrine and I welcome the new year the same way I do every day -- by climbing up on the sofa.

I have never been to Tohoku. True, I can count my presence on Shikoku in mere hours, and my entire Hokkaido experience is confined to the few blocks of central Sapporo, but I can at least say I have been there, done that. Yet, all of Honshu north of Aizu-Wakamatsu is phantomville to me. So I can't help but wonder . . . does it really exist?

"Yes, Virginia," says a friend in Akita who sometimes mistakes people for states. "There is a Tohoku." He then goes on to extol the "narrow road to the deep north" and draws for me pictures of rice fields and mountains, festivals and hot springs, and snow and more snow.

"Did you say, 'snow?' "

So put Tohoku down as one of my "things to do in the summer." For I am not a fan of snow. Which explains why I have conducted most of my Japan exploring in a southerly direction. To me, snow is best experienced through postcards. An observation that means, yes, I have never been skiing.

I have never visited the Tsukiji fish market, even though it is continually listed as one of the top tourist attractions in Tokyo and I have now lived in the mega-city for 15 years. My wife once even had her gallbladder removed right up the pike at St. Luke's Hospital and I still didn't go. And once, she says, was enough.

Yet I feel no overwhelming desire to see dead fish spread upon a pallet, especially at an hour of the morning best reserved for dreaming. For me, dead fish and dreams are not harmonious images.

Besides, if I wish to see dead fish, I need to look no farther than my wife's dinner plate.

"Of all the gall!" says my wife, who minus a gallbladder still has no trouble digesting dinner, though she will still gag on my jokes. "Are you comparing my fish consumption to that of the Tsukiji fish market?"

If the fishhook fits, I tell her, wear it.

So she suggests I go fly a kite.

And, well, whaddya know? There's one more Japanese thing I have never done.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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