Japanning sounds a lot like trepanning (there’re seven letters in common, stay with me), the ancient ‘medicinal’ practice of drilling a hole in someone’s skull to release bad spirits – you may remember hearing about it if you ever read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’. Coming to Japan feels, in a way, a lot like that – opening up your head to relieve it of stagnant notions and claustrophobic ideas to allow space for the new and free to develop.
Until about 4am on Monday morning, I’d never been outside of Australia before. Some four months ago, my sister and I realised we had two weeks off work at the same time in which we ought to go travelling. At first we thought New Zealand may be a good idea, but considering my dearth of international travel experience, opted for a destination that would challenge and excite my deeply Australian mind a little more than Tasmania-to-the-right-of-Tasmania.
It’s worked. Japan is a land of dichotomies – of contrasts and contradictions. I suppose all countries and cultures would be, including my own, but a certain keenness of vision has overcome my uncultured eyeballs once you notice one, and then another, and then another and another. There’s the landscape, the lofty, quake-born mountains protecting massive, flat plateaus. The food, where your choices lurch between the totally uncooked or the deeply, deeply fried. The fashion, where everyone rocks a uniform or you’re blinded by Harajuku-individualism. The commitment to efficiency versus the passion for ritual. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I anticipated culture shock before we’d left home turf, but I had no idea what it would feel like. The total lack of understanding of what was going on around you, the ability to recognise familiar notions and sights without any of the associated homegrown interpretive knowledge. I have trouble fitting in the back seat of most cars, so after ten or so hours of fitful half-sleep bent double in a plane seat, being thrust into a different hemisphere of earth felt like losing a hemisphere of my brain.
Luckily, that leaves a lot of space to fill. After a good nights rest, the city of Tokyo became much less intimidating, and everything became interesting. Instead of trying to fit a Western peg into an Eastern hole, I found myself analysing the shape of that hole and changing the peg to fit it. Repeated customs grow clearer, key phrases become familiar, every experience draws on old knowledge to interpret the connections between what’s similar and what’s changed. You can almost feel your brain reshaping itself as it comes to terms with the fact that things are very, very different all of a sudden, and that’s okay.
Traversing the streets can be hectic. It’s barely stopped raining since we’ve gotten here, and there’s a lot going on at the dullest of times. The intense variety of things to see and do can be paralyzing – a walk through Harajuku became more of a streetwalk than a shopping spree. I’ve felt most comfortable, so far, at those places that can be easily related back to home. The food courts, the sports arenas – places where you can relax – you know how this setting operates, you know how everything works, you can enjoy the differences, rather than feel as if you’re navigating them. You can savour the sumo – the five minute ritual preceding a ten second fight. The baseball, where fans swing towels around their head at every home run and beer-toting girls run around the stadium having to search for customers – an unlikely situation, were they at the MCG. Really, everything runs about the same as it would in Australia, just with different objects filling the space.
It’s a pleasantly unsettling thought to have, on occasion, that I’m on a different half of the planet. It wasn’t that hard to get to. It didn’t really take that long. I feel as if my world has simultaneously shrunk and expanded. It’s not difficult to stay connected to Australia from here. Communication that easy makes it harder to believe that I can’t just step outside and go visit the people I’m talking to. Being so far from home has made me appreciate it all the more. New things are best looked at up close; the familiar is more interesting at a distance.
I’m unsure how I made it this long without having left the country, but I do feel as if a pressure has been removed from my brain. My insular, Austra-centric headspace has been thoroughly lanced. I caught myself, sitting in a T.G.I. Fridays (we’re soaking up authentic Japanese culture), actively realizing that the franchise has been borrowed from America, not the one we have on Chapel Street.
Today, we’re on a shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. Buildings, oceans, mountains, and trees are whipping past at a rate faster than the Lilydale line has ever taken me. We’re going from a bustling, neon-fuelled mega-city to a place with an uncommonly high density of temples. Having poured malevolent spirits from my brain for the past three days, I’m ready to have the benevolent kind poured right back in.
Probably the sake kind, too.