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Japan Diaries 2

Beautiful People – Real and Imagined

During my first week, I had the strange feeling that I was on the sets of one of the many Korean movies and serials that my family has become addicted to. Each new girl I passed by on the streets looked more beautiful than the last. In fact, I don’t recall having seen any ugly girl during my first week. It could have been the jet-lag or it could have been the sight of everyone I met on the street looking like they had just stepped out of the pages of Vogue or Cosmopolitan. It could also just have been the effect of that heady and dreamlike feeling one gets when one lands up in a society and place one has never been to before.

I recall my college days in Imphal in the early 80s when one day, on a whim, we suddenly decided to hitch a ride on one of the many goods-carrying trucks that plied daily between Imphal and Gauhati (as it was then spelled). Our destination was Kohima where one of my friends had relatives. So, early one fine morning, all four of us took a rickshaw to BOC and after much haggling and bargaining for our fares with the driver of one of the many trucks heading towards Kohima who normally stationed themselves there, we were on our way to Kohima. One incident in the otherwise uneventful journey which I vividly remember was when a monkey suddenly crossed the road in front of the truck just as we rounded one of the many bends on the road. Our driver suddenly braked and started to reverse on the narrow road. We had barely reversed when he changed gears and, without a word, we were on our way again. It was obviously something he had done innumerable times on his many journeys throughout the length and breadth of northeast India. Perhaps because of our driver’s timely action in quickly reversing his vehicle and thus averting bad luck, we duly arrived in Kohima without any further incident. Though it was summer and the sun was still high in the sky, we could feel a slight chill in the air as we got down from the truck. With some time on our hands, we made our way to the famous Kohima War Cemetery where we were greeted with the famous words “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today”. After a quick tour of the Cemetery, we walked on down to Kohima’s main market area, ostensibly to check the goods on sale. But, to be frank, it would only be fair to admit that it was really the girls that we went to check out. During my first week in Tokyo, memories of pretty women walking down the streets of Kohima intermingled with the real thing on the streets of Tokyo. Perhaps it was the result of being cooped up for hours in the cockpit of that truck with our superstitious driver or the novelty of being in a new place. Whatever it was, every female we met and passed by seemed more beautiful than the last. As we rested our weary limbs on a roadside bench, I clearly remember the words of one of us who sighed, “Man, how is it possible that everyone we meet here is so beautiful – even the old ladies here have such rosy cheeks….” I recalled these words all throughout my first week in Tokyo because, like Kohima on that magical evening a long time ago, every girl looked more beautiful than the last.

It most definitely must be the scent, the aura, the strange and wonderful sights of a new society and place that brings out such a strange reaction. It was only after the first week that I began to notice some not-so-beautiful ones amongst the people I met on my daily commute to office and back. In Kohima, I recall that, by the second day, we were back in our senses. Though the Kohima girls were no doubt beautiful, more beautiful girls we had left behind in Manipur came into focus again and I for one thought I saw her face in all the girls I passed by on the streets. In Tokyo, the feeling lasted for about a week. Now I’m back to normal, back to my senses, though I must admit that they really are beautiful, most of them.

And practically no fatties anywhere in sight. The Japanese are probably the most fit people I have ever seen. In my two weeks here, I have seen less than ten people who could be called fat. The majority are rather on the thin/skinny side and from what I have so far seen, the percentage of fat people here must be 1% or even less of the total population. One of the reasons they keep fit must be the amount of walking they do. The Japanese seem to walk everywhere! It is common sight to see well-heeled and beautiful girls dressed in their best, as well as men, young and old, all suited and booted, walking everywhere. I meet them everywhere I go. On the Metro, on my forays into nearby areas trying to get my bearings of the place where we presently stay, on my two-hours walk from our residence to office and back last Saturday morning just trying to get to know the route. This also seems to be because of the high cost of maintaining a car in terms of various taxes running to the equivalence of at least Rs. 40,000 or more a year. This, apart from the price of the car, maintenance and petrol. Luckily for me, because of my line of work, I should be exempt from the taxes. The only reason I’m still walking and taking the Metro daily is that I still haven’t been able to buy a car.

There is an aspect of the Japanese that I find quite irritating and, in fact, quite surprising and somewhat incomprehensible in a way. They are so meticulous that quite a number of things get bogged down in details which really gets my goat sometimes. For example, it took more than seven days to process our ID cards, without which I cannot apply for a Driver’s License which would enable us to look for a car. It will take another ten days or so for the car registration. So here we are, depending on good ole leg power and the Metro to get around town. We cannot but help comparing this to Maputo where it took us a day to get our IDs. It also took about a week for me to get my name stamps made. First we approach the shop, then they give a quotation, then a cheque is issued, then they process the order, taking a few days to make the stamp, then they call and then someone goes to get the damn thing (with all the unseemly delays, you cannot but help call it the ‘damn’ thing). Compare this to India, where you can even wait as they make the thing in a few minutes, if you want.

Coming from a world where sometimes chaos is the order of the day, it is sometimes quite nice and refreshing to live in a city where order reigns supreme. But I do sometimes miss the chaotic traffic of Delhi. Here everyone meticulously follows all the traffic rules. Having driven all over Delhi on a daily basis for the last two years, I can see that traffic here is almost the exact opposite. Though I still don’t drive here, I can see that its going to take me longer to reach any of my destinations once I drive because there are traffic lights after almost every hundred metres which are, surprisingly, so un-synchronized that one has to stop at almost each and every light. And pedestrians are kings here. On zebra-crossings without the ‘walk/don’t walk’ signs, the pedestrian is king and will cross without looking to the right or left – the driver has to stop and give him way. Somehow, despite all the chaos, I will miss the driving in Delhi where one basically drove without a thought for the other vehicles on the road and pedestrians formed the scums of the roads, to be honked at and never given the chance to cross in front of you! Survival of the fittest or the most daring somehow has a nice, macho ring to it!

But, at the same time, pedestrians will also walk all the way to a zebra-crossing to cross the road, unlike India where people cross the road wherever convenient and zebra-crossings seem to exist only because the traffic rules say that they must be there. But still, one can occasionally see someone zig-zagging between traffic to reach the other side. Such people usually walk with a swagger once they reach the other side. It seems to me that in a country where everyone follows the rules, crossing the road where you are not supposed to passes off as a most daring act and somehow qualifies the person as some sort of a rebel! If only we had only such rebels back home!

Another aspect of the Japanese that is noticeable at once is their aloofness. I commute by the Metro daily and once I reach the station become part of the millions in this teeming city rushing to get to work. The really surprising part is the quietness of it all. Despite the hundreds walking to their destinations, you will hardly notice anyone talking. There are automated ticket vending machines where you just put in the money, punch the desired amount and the ticket comes out along with the change. The need for talking to anyone seems to have been completely done away with. On the streets, you find vending machines at almost every corner where you can get anything from cigarettes to drinks just by inserting money and pushing the right button. There are price tags on each and every item in all the shops, from vegetables to food, drinks, clothes, cosmetics, etc. You just take whatever item you want, go to the payout counter where the attendant tallies up your items as you watch, pay the amount which is clearly shown on the machines, and go home. There is simply no concept of bargaining here and one can buy the whole month’s necessities without having to utter a single word.

One of the common reasons for their aloofness given by most people I’ve talked to here is that the Japanese are generally very shy and hesitate to talk to strangers. Another reason given is that being a proud people and perfectionists, they are very reluctant to talk to others unless they can speak the language perfectly. Whatever the reason is, their aloofness is something that seems quite odd for a people known to be extremely polite and friendly otherwise. In Europe, for example, it is quite common to greet even strangers with a ‘Good Morning’ especially when confined in limited spaces like lifts, for example. But here, serenity and quietness reigns supreme in such situations as we each punch the desired floor number and go on our own ways.

Let me end with the one thing that reminds me of my childhood and home each and every morning as I get off my designated Metro station and walk the 8-minute stretch to my office. The sound of the-rengs (cicadas) chirping away among the trees in a small park that I cross each morning bring memories of those carefree, lazy summer days when we were kids without a care in the world. I haven’t heard their distinctive chirping(?)/singing(?) for the past 15/20 years or so and to unexpectedly hear them here on the streets of Tokyo each and every morning really makes my day. I’m sure they were put there by Someone high above to cheer me up and remind me of where I come from, even if I find myself in a city and a world that we as kids growing up in a godforsaken corner of the world could hardly even dream about.

(28 July 2007)

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