My yearly pilgrimage to Japan is over for another year. I am sad and glad at the same time to be back in Shanghai. I’m happy that I got to have a brief eleven day dose of civilization and sad that I had to leave it behind. At the same time, I’m glad I am home, and a bit sad that China still has such a long way to go before it can be considered a modern country. Leaving Shanghai for a trip to Japan is a necessity in my life here in China because it affords me the possibility to appreciate my China odyssey and fills me with hope for China’s eventual development. It also allows me the chance to view China from the outside for a change, although one of its closest neighbors, Japan is just about as far away from China as one can possibly get in many respects and the perfect place to go to get away from it all.
“Have you gone Native?”
Upon arriving in Nagoya, I quickly boarded the train and made my way to a central train station where I’d planned to meet an old college roommate of mine that I had not seen in ten years or more. It was a great feeling to be in Japan and I hadn’t really taken notice of the unbelievably quite nature of the other passengers. When I received a text I could not read on my Chinese mobile phone and decided I’d better call my old chum. I thought nothing of whipping out my phone and dialing while riding the rails and when my friend answered I gave a hearty “hello” and proceeded to inquire as to where we were going to meet. He was also on a train bound for the station and said he was having trouble hearing me as I overheard announcements in the background. Full of excitement and wanting to make sure he got the message, I simply raised my voice and spoke louder. Having finished my necessary conversation while riding the train, I turned around to see the entire occupants of the train car staring at me. “Ahhh, I’m not in Shanghai anymore” I thought and became immediately aware of the silence, I was in Japan now.
That’s the biggest difference between China and Japan, the decibels. Another difference is that you are not really allowed to talk on your phone while riding public transport. There are announcements, usually in Chinese Korean and English in addition to Japanese repeatedly made on trains asking patrons to “refrain from talking on the phone.” Somehow in my excitement at finally being free from China, I had forgotten this and effectively introduced myself to a train load of Japanese as a barbarian from louder uncouth lands. In reality I wasn’t that loud. On a shanghai subway train probably no one would have heard me at all, not even my friend on the other end of the line.
A half hour later we met, had dinner and proceeded to his home where he lives with his Swedish wife and their two beautiful half Japanese daughters. The night led into a long conversation around the kitchen table where at one point while I enjoyed a pint of Asahi beer my Japanese host asked me, “Have you gone Native? You were very loud on the phone you know.” “Oh, I’m sorry” I responded, “I forgot just how quiet it is here, and no, I’ve not gone native. If you were Chinese you’d probably have yelled at me to speak up.”
After we had finished our conversation and he had turned in for the night I exited the house for a smoke on the lawn. What first captivated me were the stars. His house is located in a suburb far north of the main city which meant there was very little light or air pollution to block the radiance of the night sky. I marveled at just how many stars there actually were for a few moments before I relished I could hear the sound of my own heart beating away in my ears. No, I do not suffer from high blood pressure, if anything my blood pressure probably dropped a few notches since plane finally left the Shanghai tarmac. No, it was just that quiet. Not a sound interrupted the calm of the night. It had been so long since I had experienced such quietness that I had frankly forgotten what it sounded, errr, didn’t sound like. It didn’t sound like China. No neighbors yelled, no horns blared, no pedestrians hacked. The night was pure silence, pure Japan.
“How old is this house?”
The next morning I awoke refreshed and invigorated by my peaceful slumber and the fact that I had not awaken to horns blaring outside my window as they usually do in Shanghai. I took a walk around the yard. It was a peaceful and serene under the bright morning sky as it had been at night. Ancient bonsai trees and landscaping filled the yard surrounding my friend’s, quite large by Chinese standards, family home. I went inside where I was invited on a tour of the house. Paper sliding walls separated the floors into tatami mated rooms. I could easily tell this home wasn’t a new one, but the fact that I hadn’t head bunted any door frames led me to wonder just how old it was. “Say, how old is this house?” I inquired. “Oh about a hundred years old” my friend informed me. “Wow it’s in great shape”, I complemented, and it was.
Perhaps I had gone native, at least a bit, after-all. I was immediately impressed that all the lights worked as we passed through each room, and that there were no water stained or leaking ceilings on the top floor. In China I had never seen a hundred year old home. According to Chinese “experts”, a building that is 20 years old is “a very old building.” This I learned one evening watching the local news when a story appeared about a woman who had died when the balcony she was standing on at the 7th or 8th floor had suddenly disintegrated and sent her plummeting to her death. “In Shanghai this is a very old building. Buildings like this need to be inspected.” An expert interviewed pronounced. Even a five year old building Shanghai can look in far worse shape than my friends hundred year old home. This is partly due to the fact that Chinese cut corners in construction until there is nothing left to cut lest the building disappear and to the fact that building materials are so poor that they come with a 6 month self destruct sequence built into them. Basically Chinese homes and buildings are built like crap out of crap and it is highly doubtful there’ll be anything left of the current Shanghai construction phase in 50 years let alone 100.
Looking around the house I noticed all the light switches were in really odd places. “I guess they added the wiring later,” I said. “Ever have any problem with the wiring?” “No” was my friend’s reply, Why?” I quickly informed him of all the wiring problems in my 8 year, getting on middle age, apartment in Shanghai. About 1/3rd of the outlets don’t work. Every now and then I hear a pop and another wire bursts buried deep within the concrete walls somewhere. When I ask my Chinese friends about this they aren’t shocked at all saying that it’s “normal”. My apartment is “so old”. All I can say is that if houses in China were constructed out of wood like my friend’s Japanese home wired 60 years ago, then there would never be a building old enough for a balcony to fall off of anywhere in the city. They would have all burnt 15 years earlier.
“Did you climb to the top?”
Later on in the day I went to the city of Gifu to have a look around the old town. It’s located next to a modest mountain where Gifu Castle looks down over the city from the summit. For the first hour or so I wandered through the area’s narrow streets taking in the fact that it was basically deserted yet still every business was open and financially surviving. Probably their survival is due to the high prices they charge as they, like everything in Japan is a bit expensive, but well worth every penny spent. I considered lounging away the sweltering afternoon in a cozy coffee shop meditating over my cup of java and increasing my calm, but I wanted to climb the mountain.
The main purpose of my visit to Japan was to climb Mt. Fuji, which I did a few days later, and I thought the climb to Gifu Castle would provide me with a bit of pre Fuji warm-up. With that in mind I proceeded to the base of the hill and unknowingly took the most direct and steepest route to the top, straight up the mountain. The hill wasn’t too hard to climb, but the 35 degree weather ad my overweight camera bag containing at least one unneeded lens became quite the strain long before I reached the top. Still, laboriously and quickly consuming the liter of water I toted along on the way, I made it to the top.
The whole way up, as I vigorously climbed, I yearned for a cigarette. Unfortunately there were signs posted every hundred meters or so warning people not to smoke or face a 2000 yen fine. Whenever I passed other hikers or rest stops I checked the air for the telltale tinge of tobacco smoke and encountered nothing but clean smelling air. So I refrained from smoking until I breathlessly reached the summit and found a map listing the appropriate smoking spots. Whether indoors or out in most Japanese cities and towns, there are designated areas for smoking. I am not sure if it’s the air pollution posing harm to others health or the fact that Japan is impeccably clean, but the Japanese sure do love to sequester smokers to hard to find locations. And of course, everyone follows these smoking rules including all the others, and there are many such rules. Still it makes for a mostly smoke free outdoor environment and environment not just free from smoke but free from all the dangerous pollutants that perhaps make up the majority of China’s air.
Having found the smoking spot and promptly filled my overworked lungs with “fresh” Chinese tobacco, I finally got around to entering the Gifu Castle I had climbed through sweltering conditions to reach. It’s a nice old mountain top fort filled with various paraphernalia from Japan’s Samurai days. I didn’t take much notice of this as I’ve spent countless hours in the country’s top museums looking at he exact same stuff on past trips. What I was interested ion was the view from the castle’s third floor. As I reached the top and exited to the balcony that surrounded the upper most floor I was immediately taken by the beautiful uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside. The sun was bright and the air was a bright blue. I estimate I could easily see at least 20km even though there was light summer haze. This is another treat difference between the Chinese and Japanese experience. Japan has a sky, one you can see through, while China is constantly shrouded in tons of poisonous pollution. At any time of the year on a cloudless day in Shanghai you could be so drowned in smog that you aren’t even capable of pinpointing the suns location. I’ve seen it get so dirty that structures even a kilometer away from my 20th floor balcony are obscured in grey, most likely deadly smoke. Yes, it was good to breath in Japan.
I spent a half hour or so waling from one side of the building to the other before my clam was suddenly interrupted. People had been coming and going the entire time without making much noise above a murmur at the top of the castle had been as quiet as the streets at the bottom of the mountain, until a couple Chinese tourists arrived. They weren’t really being all that loud by Shanghai standards, I’ll give them that, but they were being Chinese. They probably were about as loud as I had been on the previous days train ride during my inadvertently rudely loud phone conversation. I took a moment to listen in, really I had no choice in the matter, but I was curious as to what they were discussing. Since my Chinese language ability is not as good as it should be I can’t relay all the details but I will tell you this, they were talking about China and money, of course. “Wow,” I thought, “you come all the way to Japan and to this lofty castle in this secluded corner of the country with fabulous views and all that is of interest is China and money. God, what a waste that is, but at least they aren’t talking about Japan really belonging to China as those Chinese tourists I overheard in Seoul a few years back had been saying about Korea. At least they are wiser than that.”
Bored by the conversation I was eavesdropping on, I made my way to a beer garden outside the castle and drank a chilled Ashai before descending to the mountain’s base. At the bottom I met my old friend and we went to gather his family for dinner. “Did you climb to the top?” he asked. ”Yes, I went straight up.”