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Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The overrated and the underrated


Several months ago I devoted a column to aspects of Japanese life that I felt received too much or too little attention in the eyes of foreign visitors.

The list begged for more ink than just one column and I admit to having a soft spot for lists. I am very sympathetic when they beg.

And so here we go: a few more overrated and underrated slices of life on these what-could-be-fairer islands.

OVERRATED -- Japanese festivals

Which festival? Well, any of them. For they are all the same, are they not? Sure, the core events might be as distinct as samba dancing in Asakusa (in August) or fire flinging on Mt. Aso (in March). But to gain a glimpse of the goings-on, you need to wedge in close and that is where the distinctions blur.

For on almost all occasions what you will see most of is this: the back of the person in front of you. And more than prize photos of a unique event, what you will likely take home are these: crunched toes from wayward feet, a sore back from too much standing, bruised ribs from someone's swinging elbow, and a stiff neck from trying to crane it over the crest of the never-ending sea of people.

And let's not forget the food. Festival food is identical across Japan -- various grilled meats, noodles and doughy creations that are tantalizing to the senses and murderous on the fat levels. Did I mention they were overpriced? As bad as that sounds, there is also this: You have to stand in line to get them.

UNDERRATED -- Green tea ice cream

Here's an auto-reflex as certain with some people as a sudden kick from a rap to the knee. Action: You approach a foreigner and say, "Hey, want some green tea ice cream?" Reaction: "Eeew! Yuk!"

Just getting people to try green tea can be a hurdle. But green tea ice cream? To some visitors the combination sounds as palatable as bologna and marmalade.

In the end, it's their loss. For matcha ice cream has a richness and grace that matches Japan just as well as kimonos, sliding doors and sculptured gardens. It's delicate, it's luxurious and it tastes quite fine. One honest spoonful can change many a yuk into a yummy.

OVERRATED -- The Meiji Shrine

Stately Meiji Shrine is a prime target of most Tokyo tourists. Granted, the cool shade and serene gravel walkways do provide a counterbalance to the pedal-to-the-metal pace of the busy city. That tranquil Meiji also rests but one loud shout from the teen crowds on Takeshita Street and the Coz Play Zoku dress-up dollies on Jingu Bridge only serves to emphasize the shrine's quiet majesty.

Other than that it's a pretty boring place.

As for gripping architecture, you have a couple of giant-sized torii near the entrance and that's about it. The shrine itself is remarkably forgettable.

The Meiji Museum, located on shrine grounds, will challenge your ability to yawn and walk at the same time.

The inner garden of the Meiji Emperor is stunning during iris season, but for the remaining 11 months it's run of the mill.

Iris season or any shrine festival will also introduce you closeup to thousands of other people who -- more than Meiji itself -- may leave a lasting impression on your toes, ribs, etc. (see overrated festivals above)

UNDERRATED -- Yasukuni Shrine

Controversial? You bet. Yet, I say it's better to view the controversy first-hand than read about it once removed and anybody can visit Yasukuni anytime. It offers a clearer view into Japanese politics than anyplace else in Tokyo and only when the prime minister goes does anyone get steamed.

Visually, it tops Meiji hands down, with its own stupendous torii, a stone-paved promenade and the towering monument of militarist Masujiro Omasa, the oldest bronze statue in Japan.

The Yushukan Museum next to the shrine offers a nationalistic view of Japanese history that will fascinate hawks and infuriate doves, yet both birds will be impressed by the exhibits, most of which have brief English explanations.

If that is not enough, Yasukuni is but a short stroll from lovely Kitanomaru Park with its green lawns, languid moats and fine museums. In summer there is also the Kudanshita Kaikan Beer Garden which presents -- to my mind -- far better costumes than the girls on Jingu Bridge. That being: The waitresses dress as playboy bunnies. If "dress" is the right word.

OVERRATED -- Mt. Fuji

Japanese feel a spiritual tie to Mt. Fuji that most foreigners cannot unravel. The closest we can come is marvel at its picture-postcard beauty.

And whether from a southbound plane, a speeding Shinkansen or a Tokyo observatory, it is a beauty indeed, shaming even the beer bunnies at the Kudanshita Kaikan.

That is, if you can see it.

For -- from Tokyo -- Mt. Fuji often gets lost in the clouds, haze, smog. It leaps out crisp and clear in the winter months and then fades as temperatures rise.

Like most mountains it is best viewed from a distance. If your stay in the Tokyo area is short and in the wrong season, you stand a great chance of missing it altogether. The better bet is to buy the postcard.

UNDERRATED -- Japanese monkeys

And why not? They're just as smart as chimpanzees and even take baths. Somehow chimps have a cuter image, which to me seems a sort of racial prejudice, monkey-style.

I feel certain a Japanese monkey could have upstaged Ronald Reagan in any film, although "Bedtime for Bonzo-san" might not have stirred the box office in the postwar climate.

But mark my word, one day the stars will shine on these clever apes. So much that if George Bush were to reverse Ronald Reagan's path and go from politics to movies, I could see him one day sharing the bill with a Japanese monkey, especially considering how well he got along with Koizumi. I mean, Bush seems to connect with Japan.

But Bush can't follow the Reagan film storyline. There has to be some twist reflective of the higher skills of Japanese monkeys. Perhaps something like:

"Bedtime for George."

More lists on the way . . . some day.



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