At some point, I was just delaying going to Japan. Making the journey, once a faint but seemingly unrealizable desire, passed silently into inevitability. The question of Japan turned from whether to when, and from when to how often. This dual-purpose round of Notebook on Cities and Culture interview-gathering and mandatory birthday departure from the homeland, as it approached, didn’t loom as My Trip to Japan. I’ll remember it as My First Trip to Japan, certainly, and indeed My First Trip to Asia (Unlesss You Count Living in Koreatown). But even now, in the middle of it, I understand that it simply starts my lifetime count of total hours logged in Japan ticking.
“You aren’t going to get lost?” asked my mom before I left the States. On the contrary; not only would I get lost, likely several times per day, but I would make doing so my first priority. I know of no more educational way to travel than simply heading off in any direction — often directly away from my destination — and seeing how things shake out. I’ve never learned anything, not in a lasting way, while getting directly from point A to point B. Doing the opposite works best when traveling solo, or alongside an easygoing companion. Roaming back and forth between meetings in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and Nara, the four major cities of western Japan’s Kansai region, I’ve made a point of turning up hours early in order to lose my way, and, ultimately, to gain a firmer grasp of place. As with geography, so with information: “Efficient search,” once tweeted Aaron Haspel, “is serendipity’s implacable enemy.”
My first impulse to enter Japan through Osaka, the country’s boisterous, Chicago-esque “second city,” came when Momus publicly pondered moving there himself:
I’ve never seriously thought about living in Osaka before. I love Tokyo best of all. But increasingly, my outlook has Berlinified, by which I mean I regard expensive cities like New York, London and Tokyo as unsuited to subculture. They’re essentially uncreative because creative people living there have to put too much of their time and effort into the meaningless hackwork which allows them to meet the city’s high rents and prices. So disciplines like graphic design and television thrive, but more interesting types of art are throttled in the cradle.
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Despite its shabby bits, Osaka is a vastly wealthy city (if it were a country, it would be one of the world’s richest) with a vulgar commercial energy Berlin can’t begin to match. Osaka is massive, industrious and dense, and there are businesses here that cater to every imagineable human whim, and that don’t close on Sundays. And if you want to escape the density and intensity, well, the mountains of Shikoku aren’t far.
The day after my arrival, I went to visit a friend of mine who, through 25 years of tourist visas, makes his part-time home in Nara. He wisely urged me to minimize my days in the garish concrete maze of Osaka and maximize my days amid the lightly worn yet deep history and quiet natural beauty of Kyoto. Contrarian to the core, I responded that, if I’m to spend time in the most refined and civilized country on Earth, I long to experience the height of its vulgarity. Yet I wouldn’t entirely dismiss this as my own haphazard justification. Isn’t there genuine fascination — genuine value — in concentrating on the dot of yang within the yin, the dot of yin within the yang? “The interesting lies in the in-between,” said the German-language Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada. That’s precisely why when this same friend, showing me around his thoroughly Japanese neighborhood, asked if I’d like to eat some Californian food, I jumped at the chance.
Yet even in the allegedly vulgarian, consumption-driven metropolis of Osaka — “the stomach of Japan” — a westerner can neither ignore nor escape this high civilization. From what my explorations have so far shown me, the Japanese sense of convenience penetrates everywhere and everything. Of all the countless amenities that result, I’ve grown most used to — indeed, now feel entitled to — beverage vending machines on the street. They come full of not just hot and cold coffee and tea, but cans of corn and azuki bean soup as well. I’ve quoted David Sedaris on the subject before, and now I’ll return to Momus:
Cool sugarfree green tea dispensed from machines on every corner. Why don’t we have this in the West? Because Western inequality means the streets are full of poor people who would smash the machines for the coins inside. Also, Western people like sugar, and sugarless drinks would quickly be discontinued for lack of sales. As with all these things, it’s not a question of importing Japanese technology, but of importing the Japanese mind. What’s more, while you can have a few of these things in your private home, ultimately the West cannot have them until they can exist in public space.
I landed at Itami, the older of the two large airports near Osaka, which immediately confirmed my hopes of seeing a slightly older, less polished urban Japan. Everything around me seemed to have been manufactured twenty to forty years ago. I boarded a train and thrilled at its stretches of avocado green seat fabric and wood-grained wall plastic. Yet all of it also looked and felt surreally well-maintained. Every westerner I talk to about the vending machines — and I talk to all of them about the vending machines — says a variation on the same thing: back home, people would trash those things! Nobody seems inclined to trash anything in Japan; the public trusts itself to treat the country as, well, its home. Later, I learned that the locals regard Itami as the “bad” airport, the one whose unpresentable dinginess fills them with shame.
From Itami on, every hour in Japan has presented another reason to let my face drop into my palm and mutter, back toward America, “Why can’t we have nice things?” But part of me knows full well that I couldn’t live as a unit of a population that regards itself as one big family. A public that won’t trash things is a public that, for a variety of reasons, can’t trash things. I bear no obligation from the complex, burdensome social contract that allows the Japanese clean streets, washlets, trains that show up, pedestrian bridges, subway-station bathrooms, and green-tea vending machines. Yet the society can’t stop non-participating me — the dot of yang in their yin? — from enjoying these same luxuries. Walking through the supposedly unrefined embarrassment that is Osaka, a city that has yet to show me so much as a piece of garbage, I accept that, despite Japan’s considerable expensiveness, I’m freeloading.