I’m sitting next to Tim Flannery in a dusty airport lounge, both of us waiting for the clock to strike 11. There’s a dull murmur from the passengers around me, punctuated by words like “aftershock” and “meltdown” and “radioactive” which rise from the usual talk of family and sports with alien menace. I have no idea what you’re meant to say to a former Australian of the Year, so I ask him if he’s been to Japan before.
“Never,” he says, looking just a little anxious. “Have you?”
“You’ll love it,” I tell him, “But it’ll be nothing like you expect. This place is full of surprises.”
The first time I was in Japan, I queued up to visit a Buddhist temple on the eve of the New Year. Unfortunately for me, a few thousand Tokyoites decided to follow suit. This meant the cobblestone alley leading up to Senso-ji temple – wide enough to fit at least twenty broad-shouldered men abreast – was packed tighter than rice-grains in a piece of sushi. This is a regular occurrence, though, and the Tokyo government has a tried and true system for managing these crowds in the most efficient way. They do so by interspersing uniformed police and council officials at regular intervals throughout the alley, which stretches more than 250 metres back until it bleeds out into the neon playground of the Asakusa nightlife district.
These wardens are armed – with dual-sided signs. One side says what I imagine is “Halt” in bright red Kanji (styled in the Japanese equivalent of Comic Sans) while the other seems to say “Please proceed in an orderly fashion” in a sickly fluorescent green. Both sides also sport a picture of Astro-Boy: on the “Halt” side he’s nursing a disappointed expression, while on the “Please proceed” he’s all wide smiles and joy, raised thumb outstretched above his head in his classic pose of post-war optimism. I did wonder about the copyright implications of Astro-Boy’s presence but I figured that if he was giving the thumbs-up he couldn’t be particularly worried.
The amazing thing about Japan (at least from a Westernised perspective) is that when you wield a sign saying “Halt”, they actually pay attention. Despite the knife-edged winter breeze, there was no pushing, no shoving, no drunken curses, just a few thousand jacketed people standing quietly waiting for the signs to turn. When Astro-Boy raised his thumb again, the crowd would surge forward politely towards the sharply-inclined stairs that led up to Senso-ji’s interior, and the cauldron into which they would throw loose change in exchange for an auspicious year. This sequence of events – stop, surge, stop, jump around (discreetly) to stay warm, surge – repeated every five or ten minutes until a cacophony of fireworks flooded the skies above the temple and most of Tokyo.
I managed to be one of the first to toss a coin into Senso-ji that year, only a few minutes after 2006 died and 2007 began. I remember wishing for a year full of good times and blessings, but moreover to make it to the next one. It was a pretty bad year but at least the gods listened to the final bit.
The second time I was in Japan, I was hopelessly lost in the Kita business district of Osaka when I saw a young man getting his swag on across the street from me. He was wearing a bright red track top, dark blue baseball cap, and the sort of fat-rimmed squarish glasses which are still in fashion at the moment. In amongst the demurely-clad housewives and suited businessmen strolling around him, he looked like some two-bit ruffian or a uni student interning with the Yakuza. I watched him stroll past a game arcade, then double back and pause at a big machine whose name I couldn’t see.
He scuffled around in his pockets and stuck something into the machine. “Fergalicious” immediately blared out across the quiet late-morning street and the Yakuza intern exploded into movement. His arms swung this way and that, his feet stomped at the ground with determination, and at times his entire torso gyrated like an out-of-control Furby. Other pedestrians stopped to take photos of him. So did I. He continued for all of about ten minutes, then simply stopped, brushed down his track top, and swaggered on like nothing had happened. The first and most enduring thought that I had watching him was, this guy is insanely good at Dance Dance Revolution. However, I did wonder about his choice of song for the rest of the week.
The third time, I touched down in Osaka at around 8 in the evening and within a couple of hours was out drinking with Tim Flannery and five other journos in a side-street izakaya whose staff had virtually no English vocabulary but did have a lot of Asahi beer and skewers of fried chicken.
Each time I go back I find something new in Japan. Some quirky, zany, entirely unexpected event will have me in stitches as I recount it to my friends, or it’ll get me thinking even long after I step back on home soil. For me, Japan will always be a country of surprises. Some funny, some uplifting. Some heartrending beyond belief.
On my last trip to Japan, four months after the tsunami, the newspapers were still running daily maps of radiation levels on the inside spread. One year after the earth shook, I don’t know if those maps are still being published. Apart from anniversary features in the news, most people outside of Japan will forget about what happened. But personally, I’m looking forward to the next time I’m sitting in that dusty airport lounge, waiting to be surprised.
Ed: This piece originally appeared in Poetic Justice, a UNSW LawSoc publication.