Putting Baby in a corner

Because of its emphasis on formality and social obligation, Japanese culture is seldom thought of as permissive. And yet, the relationship between the Japanese and their vices is a complicated one.

A perfect example of this can be found in any neighborhood kombini, where a vast assortment of porn magazines share shelf-space with less lurid material, accessible to anyone (of any age) shameless enough to peruse them in public. Famously, though, Japanese pornography often turns a bashful eye on itself, blurring out certain acts as if protecting the identities of participants’ private parts.

Prostitution is illegal in Japan, but the law allows milder, non-penetrative services to be commercially dispensed. In big cities, signs in nightlife districts often advertise gentleman’s clubs and spas (called “soaps”) where these and other services are available. (Not that I know from experience. By reputation, most of these places are considered “Japanese-only,” so no matter how lonely I get, I’ll probably never be tempted to find out.)

So, while it may not be a hedonistic paradise, Japan isn’t as straight-laced and uptight as it sometimes seems. And yet, of late, these same nightlife districts have come under the scourge of a most unusual restriction: no dancing allowed.

Kevin Bacon references aside, the bizarre movement to clamp down on dance clubs has gained traction in Japan over the last two years. According to an article in the Japan Times published last year, the crackdown on dancing has been made possible by a 1984 addition to a law dating back to 1948, which was aimed at regulating hostess bars and cabaret clubs, and was never intended to apply to ordinary dancers.

“There was a time for this law, but not anymore.”

Still, the result is that nightspots need eight different activity licenses for patrons to eat, drink, and dance as they please in accordance with the law. One license in particular is apparently limited to clubs with more than 66 square meters of floor space, which arbitrarily excludes a huge number of music venues in cramped Japanese cities.

For years before I arrived here, these laws remained on the books, but an understanding between club owners and police officers kept them from being enforced. Recently, though, a rash of noise complaints in certain cities and neighborhoods has led to more aggressive policing. Contributing to this is the fact that certain segments of the Japanese populace see the dance clubs as havens of suspect behavior, including drug use and underage drinking.

Now, by and large, none of this affects me, because I don’t live anywhere near a city large enough to have a real dance club. Evidently, though, the newly imposed restrictions are having a real impact on midsized Japanese cities like Fukuoka and Kumamoto, where the closing of certain clubs has put others on notice. A year ago, I went to a dance club in Fukuoka on New Year’s Eve, the only time I’ve had such an opportunity since being in Japan. Strangely, it’s possible that experience may now be a thing of the past.

If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, what makes this movement even more absurd is the fact that Japan’s economy is struggling as it is. While unemployment is relatively low here, the economy has been growing slowly in Japan for almost two decades, and crippling an entire industry for moral reasons is not going to help any.

The biggest city, Tokyo, has enough of these venues to soldier on, because you just can’t close them all. But crackdowns in second-tier cities are only give young people another reason to flock to Tokyo, as if there weren’t enough already. Given how much hand-wringing goes on over the urbanization of Japan, it seems like sweating a couple of dudes kicking it old school is hardly worth the effort.

To me, though, the strangest thing of all is this: dancing is a very real part of Japanese culture. At every undokai, the students perform a handful of elaborately choreographed dances, including the very traditional soran bushi. At the festival I attended in Kazusa last week, the courtyard beside the centuries-old hot spring shrine was the scene of half-a-dozen traditional dances, complete with masks and period outfits. Dancing is one of the many skills of a geisha, and in traditional Japanese theater, both Noh and Kabuki, dancing is a prominent performance element.

Now, the club kids may not be performing a fan dance, but hell, this is the country that invented Dance Dance Revolution! That was a simpler, more idealistic time, the aughts. Today, though, the revolution seems to have run out of steam, its arrowed-based Reign of Terror having faded meekly into a Thermidorian moratorium on all shaking, rattling, and rolling.

In Japan, sadly, it may be too late to bump and jive.


Hiroshima comes alive

This was Hiroshima. This is not Hiroshima.

I’ve written before about how Tokyo acts as a stand-in for the rest Japan in the minds of most Americans. This phenomenon has at least two notable exceptions: one is Nagasaki, where I live. The other is Hiroshima, where I found myself this weekend.

Even Americans who have little knowledge of or interest in Japan know these cities because of their prominent role in our country’s history. But, having destroyed them almost 70 years ago, most of us are apt to know little about the cities that now stand rebuilt upon the ashes. In fact, both cities are special in ways that have nothing to do with Fat Men or Little Boys, and the pity is that the bombs that once leveled them now overshadow the things that actually make Hiroshima and Nagasaki interesting, lively, liveable places.

This is Hiroshima.

While Hiroshima’s atomic history is best-known to foreigners, to the Japanese, Hiroshima is famous for okonomiyaki, an egg-and-cabbage dish cooked in front of the customer on a teppan. The name is a combination of two words: okonomi, meaning “as you like it,” and yaki, the word for “grill” or “cook.” Though popular throughout Japan, okonomiyaki is considered a regional delicacy in two areas: Hiroshima Prefecture and the Kansai region, which includes Osaka and Kyoto.

As its name indicates, the ingredients used in okonomiyaki vary according to taste. While egg and cabbage are basic components, okonomiyaki often includes meat, noodles, and other vegetables. The Hiroshima style uses more cabbage than the Osaka style popular in Kansai, and typically includes bean sprouts and ham or bacon. Unlike the Osaka style, which calls for ingredients to be premixed in a bowl and cooked simultaneously on the teppan, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki is constructed layer-by-layer, one ingredient at a time. Often, the final layer is a topping of fried soba noodles and a sunny-side egg. When it’s ready to eat, Hiroshima okonomiyaki looks something like this:

I want to put my face in this.

Now, no visit to Hiroshima would be complete without some okonomiyaki, but it wasn’t egg and cabbage alone that drew me to the city. That would be the Saijo Sake Festival, where throngs of drunken revelers gather every autumn to sample sake brews from around the country and get a little yopparai.

Normally, I’m not much of a sake drinker, but for this weekend I made an exception. With over 900 varieties from every corner of Japan, the otherwise sleepy town of Saijo is overrun by booze-hounds both Japanese and foreign, with tens of thousands turning up to blot out. Like all Japanese festivals, the Sake Matsuri is family-friendly, with food and attractions aplenty for children and Mormon teetotalers.

Undeniably, though, the main attraction for most visitors is the Sake Square, where 1,800 yen (~$22) gets you a cup and all the sake you can drink. Because of some complications on our ride up from Nagasaki, we didn’t make it in for the festival on Saturday, though we managed to find alcohol elsewhere. (I met an unassuming guy with a pet turtle and insisted on giving him 1000 yen because I thought the turtle was a street performer. He really didn’t want to take the money, probably because I kept pushing it in his face and yelling “Turtle! Turtle!” at him in Japanese with no explanation. My Japanese buddy explained to him that he needed to take it because this was “American culture.”)

On Sunday, though, we arrived at the festival to find nothing less than a shitshow, which is what happens when a sake festival overlaps with three-day weekends in both Japan and the United States. (The U.S. military installations in Japan operate on an American calendar, so all the servicemen had Monday off to nurse their hangovers.)

Relative to the field at large, I was a picture of moderation, and retained enough of my faculties to tell you that I tried sake from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nagano, Aomori, and a few other prefectures. Sake comes in a wide range of flavors, and while my palate is notoriously unrefined, even I could taste the difference between sweet, spicy, and regular brews.

Many of my fellow festival-goers, however, were absolutely Too Drunk To Taste This Sake. Between the giant New Zealander with the Maori tattoos who kept yelling that he was “going MILFing,” the Japanese guy who kept losing games of Rosham Plate O’ Sake, and the American guy who told me that he keeps his weight down by taking four or more dumps per day, it was a banner showing by all those involved.

(Ordinarily, I’d include some pictures here, but since my camera is still fritzing hard, I’ll post other people’s pictures later on once I’ve cleared them for public consumption.)

For those of you taking an interest in the health of my liver, be assured that the weekend wasn’t a total debauch. After coming down from an afternoon of day drinking and pouring some greasy food into our bellies, my friends and I visited the Genbaku Dome, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Just meters from the epicenter of the atomic blast that decimated the city, the Genbaku Dome was used an exhibition hall until 1945, when the bomb exploded and reduced it to the scarred and hollow shell that still stands.

Sixty-seven years later.

At night, the Dome is lit from below, and the result is at once beautiful, eerie, moving, and surreal. Like Nagasaki, Hiroshima has been rebuilt so completely that it shows no scars save this one, which it preserves with solemn dignity. In contrast to the commercial neighbor that surrounds it, the skeletal remains of the domed roof are especially poignant, naturally evoking the image of a body licked clean by fire.

Nearby is a monument to Sasaki Sadako. In 1945, Sasaki survived the atomic blast, but ten years later she succumb to radiation poisoning. During her hospitalization, Sasaki began making origami cranes, inspired by an ancient Japanese legend that said the gods would grant her a wish if she finished a thousand of them. Her story is famous enough in Japan that it is included in junior high school English textbooks, and while she is not as well known in America, it is because of her that the paper crane has become an international symbol of peace.

The Crane-Maker.

While the Sake Festival was my excuse for visiting Hiroshima¬†this particular weekend, it wasn’t my main reason for coming. That would be the nearby island of Miyajima, home to the Itsukushima Shrine, one of Japan’s most beloved sites.

This photo and some of the others are courtesy of my friend, who is unaware that I am misappropriating them for personal use.

In 1643, the scholar Hayashi Gaho included the Itsukushima Shrine in his Nihon Sankei, or Three Views of Japan. Considered by Hayashi to be the most beautiful scenes in all of Japan, the Nihon Sankei are wildly popular destinations for tourists both foreign and domestic. And while I’m not in a position to comment on the other two–Matsushima Island in northern Miyagi Prefecture and Amanohashidate, the giant sandbar in Kyoto’s Miyazu Bay–I can affirm that Miyajima’s standing is well-deserved.

First built in 593, then expanded to modern size in 1168, the Itsukushima Shrine consists of twenty buildings jutting off the scenic coast of Miyajima. The island itself has a lot to offer, with beautiful mountains, blue water, and friendly deer in abundance, but what makes it special is the iconic torii (gate) that rises out of the water a hundred meters offshore.

Try to focus on the interesting torii without being distracted by the suave.

At about 50 feet in stature, the torii at Itsukushima is among the biggest in Japan, and easily the most famous. Painted the same shade of orange as the rest of the shrine, the torii dominates the seascape, and is visible even from the far side of the channel separating Miyajima from the mainland. It is distinctive, not just for its size and age, but its style as well: the legs of the torii are cylindrical at the top, but as they descend, they curve and bend and bulge like the trunks of orange trees. This makes the torii seem organic, almost a living thing, two trees growing into a gate.

We visited at high tide, so the base of the torii was underwater, but at low tide the water recedes and visitors can walk out and see it up close. There are also boat rides available, but unfortunately, we were pressed for time and couldn’t stay long enough to take advantage.

When I saw this torii, I nearly Miyajizzed my pants.

Although I spent only a short time at the Itsukushima Shrine, it is a breathtaking place, and certainly ranks alongside the temples of Kyoto as the most impressive sites I’ve seen in Japan to date. So if you decide to stop in Hiroshima for sake and okonomiyaki, make sure you leave a little room for Miyajima. Hayashi Gaho and I agree that you won’t be disappointed.