Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Uninvited Guests

I woke up around six like usual and I wanted to skype family and friends. The room was pretty full though, and most everyone was still asleep so I tiptoed out to the hall where our shoes were, intending to leave the room to call. As soon as I neared the shoe area, I saw something skitter out. I looked closer, then recoiled. Cockroach!

A flurry of packing and apologies, we made our way to Nara. We had a friend we were going to meet there anyway, in addition to the sacred deer I wanted to experience. Within an hour we were in a hotel, one nice enough they can pay the roaches to stay out.

The best thing about the hotel is there is a TV. I don't really like a lot of Japanese television because it's mostly reality shows, but my favorite parts are actually the commercials.

It's amazing what commercials say about a people. They are designed to have a laser like focus on their target audience, so what you see is exactly what the Japanese are interested in. A good example is a commercial for candy. In America, a candy commercial would have 1) kids 2)be on during the day when kids are home and 3) be a cartoon or have some kind of furry mascot. The only thing the Japanese commercial for candy had in common was the furry mascot. Otherwise it was an adult woman (acting like a little girl) eating the candy and saying things like “sugoi!” (cool!). Also it was on during prime time. So what did I learn about the Japanese? They like candy, even grownups!

Anyway, it's just another way for me to observe these people in their natural state. I feel like I could watch Japanese commercials for a long time, and maybe learn a lot of the language from it. However, I would probably end up with affected speech like the Japanese brothers who learned how to speak english from Howard Cossell's racing announcements in Better Off Dead (if you haven't seen that movie, you need to see it.)

About the city. Nara is...different. The strange thing is I can't really put my finger on why. It's got the same cars and buildings. But the people seem more closed. In Kyoto, I felt like a gaijin, but that the people were okay with that and I never felt like I couldn't go somewhere because of it. In Nara, we were told that as foreigners we would not be welcome in some places. I figured this is always the case no matter what country you go to (or even within your own country sometimes) but I'd never had this actually spoken to me.

We started walking up the street from the hotel, and it was immediately obvious that it was a place for tourists. There were many shops and restaurants, all with similar stuff. There were no residential areas or side streets like Kyoto had.

An interesting part of this walk was the arcade we saw on the side of the street. Walking in, it seemed to be full of crane machine games, which I'm not very good at. At the back of the room was a forest of photo machines which we tried out for fun. Apparently you can customize the photos and add lots of decorations to each picture, but we were unable to read most of what we could do, ending up with some pretty boring pics of the two of use acting dumb.

As we left that area, we noticed an escalator up to a second floor. Cool! Up we go. At first it looks like standard arcade fare, with tokens and games, but it is soon revealed there are no prizes. Also, playing games with tokens just lets you win more tokens. What gives? Bobbie stays on this level to play a horse racing game while I explore more.

Turns out there are two more levels. Level three is pachinko machines, though they are not packed with people as I've seen them. The third level is fighting games only, which is boring to me so I went back downstairs pretty quick.

After playing a seizure inducing round of pachinko, I head back down to see how Bobbie is doing. She hasn't yet been able to get a seat at the racing game. In fact, most of the seats are packed and there are few games we can play. And we are the only foreigners on any of the floors. Suddenly I am very uncomfortable and insist that we leave. As we go, we see a man with a bucket of tokens dump them into some sort of machine that has a fingerprint reader attached to it and I start to understand what is going on. No prizes? Fingerprint readers? No foreigners at all? I smell illegal activity. And as exciting as it is to be seeing a side of Japan that is hidden from the tourists, I am not interested in stepping on anyones toes with my huge American feet.

The rest of the day was uneventful until we met up with a Japanese friend from UMASS who was great company and an informative guide. Heading home, the hotel was nice and it was cool to just hop into bed and not have to climb up some rickety ladder to sleep. But I missed Kyoto dearly, I missed the tiny houses built right up against each other, the secret alleys and paths that lead to god knows where. But most of all I missed the people. I missed waking up in the morning and watching the students walk to school. Strolling the roads at night to see old women sweeping up outside their doors. I missed the life. As silly as it sounds, I paid a thousand dollar plane ticket to watch a group of people go about their daily lives.

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