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Saturday, April 26, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Overrated and underrated — again


Over the past couple of years I have twice offered lists of overrated and underrated aspects of Japanese life as seen from my bespectacled point of view. My glasses aren't exactly rose-colored, but neither do I have the evil-eye. These are just some friendly peeks and pokes at what I have come to like and not like in my many years here. So here goes. . . One more list — but probably not the last — of the best and worst in Japan.

Underrated — dried squid

Now this I have enjoyed since my very first Tokyo beer, three decades back. Dried squid can be as playful as string cheese and as addictive as a bowl of chips. Sometimes it's so hard to put that next tentacle down. Plus you can chew on it forever and, unlike Juicy Fruit, the flavor never goes away. For years I used to carry souvenirs of dried squid to America whenever I returned home. Everyone absolutely hated it. Which meant I had to eat it all myself. Making dried squid, to my mind, the perfect souvenir.

Overrated — train station bento

I admit there is something cute about the typical train station bento. The tiny compartments of assorted food and the red plum in the white rice make for a nice photo. But while a picture lends a thousand words, here the one word left out is this. . ."Blecch." I would rather eat my shoe than most station bento. To start, that mass of cold rice hits my stomach like a size 10 Santa in a size 8 chimney. It'll sit there for days before working its way through. Such bento are renowned for their variety, but I find them all pretty much the same. I'm gonna get fish, I'm gonna get egg, I'm gonna get seaweed, and I'm gonna get bored. So I always pass on bento when I travel. Give me a beer instead. And some dried squid.

Underrated — Setsubun

Setsubun is the folk holiday in early February in which families traditionally fling beans out their front door while shouting, "Good luck enter! The devil vamoose!" (Loose translation). The place to be, though, is at a shrine where the affair becomes a party. Here, shrine officials — quite often with celebrities alongside — toss beans, munchies and fruit out to the festive crowd. Kids stand up front and are the main targets, but aren't we all kids at heart? If you're lucky, you might catch a mikan thrown by a movie star. But be careful. If your hands are bad, you might catch it in the kisser.

Overrated — flower-viewing

All Japanese festivals — Setsubun included — are adventures in crowd control. No matter the occasion, what you will see are mostly other people. Which defeats the purpose of viewing flowers right from the start. That's OK because for many looking at flowers is only an excuse to drink. Sometimes it seems the entire Japanese calendar is a hunt for a similar excuse. Well, hunt no more. Flower-viewing is it. Overrated, unless you like tanked-up crowds.

Underrated — Odaiba

The Odaiba land development in Tokyo Bay is looked upon with disdain by many Tokyoites and not because it is largely built on garbage landfill. Buckets of tax money went into that ground as well, at a time when many thought that money should go elsewhere. Still others regard shiny Odiaba as a tourist trap. So . . . consider me trapped. For Odaiba is fun, with cyberpunk buildings, youthful malls, beaches, fine museums (Go to the futuristic Miraikan. Wow!) and even the Statue of Liberty welcoming Tokyo's contemptuous masses.

How can you beat it?

Overrated — Ginza

Someone should tell the guidebook people that Ginza glitters no more. The main attraction — like much of Tokyo — is shopping, only here you get to pay more. There are also some fine galleries, but you need to have your finger on the art pulse to know where to go. After that, the most pleasant experience might be drinking Doutor coffee at the 4-chome crossing, while you watch the people go buy. I mean, go by. If you're lucky, you might even get a seat.

Two more quickies . . .

Underrated — the rainy season

Sure, I hate rain, but the June to July season of Japanese showers also keeps off the bright summer sun and humidity. A fair trade, I think. Plus, if it doesn't rain, the days are comfortably overcast. And if it pours, we get happy farmers. Another fair trade.

Overrated — Golden Week

And, sure, I love holidays too. There is nothing I would rather do than not work. The problem is not working at the same time as everyone else. The only quiet, noncrowded place to go in all Golden Week is my office. Luckily, it's the one spot I can afford.



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