The Land of Confusion (Japan)

Japan ~ Osaka – 2015

What do you think of when you hear Japan? Probably a lot of things flash by in an instant…from the deep rooted cultural elements, to the checkered history, the strange and bizarre…all the way to Pokémon and Dragonball Z (as well as so much more) – it’s safe to say that Japan has always painted a colorful tapestry for themselves, one unlike any other place on earth.

Like most western folks I confess I have a rather bare knowledge regarding the so-called land of the rising sun…but that’s alright – as it’s always more exciting and rewarding to go into a place totally unprepared! Every sense is more receptive – your eyes wide like a newborn baby…not wanting to blink so as not to miss anything as you stare up and around at all the newness in front of you. Like being unplugged from The Matrix – all of the preconceptions and travel guides can go out of the window, as you are witnessing it all first hand…you are truly living it in real time. And if you are lucky, nothing will be like it seemed from your armchair back home.

Exhilarating right? RIGHT! So how would all of these aesthetic commodities manage to impossibly mesh together then ? I didn’t have the foggiest idea – but of course I was still beyond curious! I mean…what would I find behind Japan’s veil of mystery?

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Well my friends I will say this…Japan is weird and wonderful – no actually, wait – let me rephrase that…Japan is weirdly wonderful. You see many things in Japan are weird; very very weird – but the weirdness often makes them wonderful…and the things that are wonderful, wellllll they still often cling to a certain sense of weirdness. Sorry…I know I’m sounding like some sort of deranged Willy Wonka right now…but this is the best way I can think to sum it up! 

You see there’s battles on every single street corner! And by “battles” I don’t mean Pokémon battles (to my great disappointment), but battles between juxtaposing cultural elements…it’s bizarre, it’s crazy…but they manage to meld together in the strangest of ways…it shouldn’t work…they shouldn’t be able to coexistbut somehow they do in a way only Japan can manage. 

Think the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang – two opposing forces that form together in perfect unison…well yeah it’s like that except rather than good/evil, or light/dark it’s Buddhist temples and pornographic manga characters…to give just one of many examples…

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There’s also a perfect fusion between the old and the new which I found rather fascinating. On the one hand you are ordering your food through a machine in a restaurant rather than dealing with humans…very Bladerunner-ish…but then on the other side of things you are paying in coins to get a paper ticket stub to ride a rather dated subway!  I like this idea though…not everything has to be updated, smooth, and futuristic – then again I’m biased as I still dream of living in a castle with a moat in the next ten years, so perhaps you shouldn’t pay attention to silly old me!

Mind one thing I didn’t quite enjoy as much was the confusing nature of the transport system…it actually seemed intentionally difficult. The lines criss-cross in the most nonsensical ways imaginable – I would assume because they were just built one after another, and so the map took shape without forward-planning…either that or the architect dropped a bowl of noodles and thought “mehhhh, good enough!”

Anyway, what that means for the user is that they are sure to pull their hair out attempting to understand that which cannot be understood! I’m not even talking about the fact that it is all strictly in Japanese; which sure is frustrating but as I was in Japan I felt was fair enough! I’m really just raving at the layout of the tracks, and routes…my advice is this; attempt to be constantly partially intoxicated on Japan’s surprisingly good, and cheap selection of beers – that way you won’t mind as much, and will just go with the flow!

“Oh, we went the wrong way by 20 minutes? Never mind…these things happen! Let’s go!” as opposed to: “FUCCCCK! WHY DOES THAT LINE GO THAT WAY?! WHY DOES IT HAVE THE EXACT SAME STATION NAME MINUS ONE NUMBER! WHY AM I NOT DRINKING BEER RIGHT NOW?!” – it’s really your decision, but I feel comfortable with my choice.

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I came to the end of my trip seriously wanting more…which has to be a positive? Sure there had been some lows – losing on Tekken to a young Japanese kid which basically destroyed my entire belief that I was a master of that game…continually relying on body language rather than spoken words, so much so that I now feel like a professional body-popper…and finding out there are so few vegetables in the Japanese diet that I may have scurvy, BUT – despite all of this it has piqued my interest massively as both a country, and as a culture – due to that I want to return very soon…next time Tokyo I reckon, so I can experience a change of pace – mind, I’ll still be going in as a rather clueless and ignorant tourist; and you know what?

That suits me just fine.

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Rise of Snaggletooth (八重歯)

I had braces as a kid, and although it was pretty much an all-around horrible experience (like a torture rack latched to your teeth for over a year – which is constantly being tightened by a white cloaked executioner)…I am now happy I had it done and out of the way by age 16. It is all a little blurry now, but to my recollection I used to have rather goofy teeth – and a bit of a snaggle overhang thing which must have been pretty unsightly to behold…in short I looked like piano keys someone had taken a bat to. 

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This isn’t thought to be an attractive look, it’s that “Hollywood smile” or nothing – right? Well so I was led to believe…so consequently after the shackles in my mouth were removed, and I was liberated to the rest of the normal toothed community I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief! “At last I can smile widely in photos, rather than just a tightly pursed smirk! Wahooo, the world’s my oyster!” (not an actual quote).

Anyway, I thought back to this momentous occasion recently due to my trip to Japan. As I wandered the streets there I couldn’t help but notice that…well not to be rude.and not to generalise but..well, most people didn’t have perfectly aligned teeth. Actually most had quite the opposite.

I was naturally a little uncomfortable that I had such a baseless shallow thought, so did my best to put it out of my mind. As if it was just a mirage in a desert, best ignored because it has no basis in reality. But then I kept seeing it over, and over. I even turned on my hotel room’s television…and there they were again; snaggletooth after snaggletooth, crooked teeth and even more crooked teeth…just what was going on here? Perhaps the “ordinary people” can be forgiven, but the Japanese A-listers? What do they think they are playing at?!

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So I took to the internet as every person with a grievance does these days. I wanted to be told that it was all in my head, and that I was essentially an awful person for judging people on their looks, and blah blah blah. But what I actually discovered was a lot more intriguing…

You see what I had inadvertently stumbled into in Japan was somewhat of a cultural phenomenon…a one where so called bad teeth are held to a completely different set of rules. In Japan they don’t jam metal into their mouths to force them to comply to the beauty standards – instead they embrace yaeba 八重歯 – “the multi-layered tooth” – because it’s considered cute, and endearing in a child-like sort of way. They believe that the snaggletooth is not a look better suited to dinosaurs, and is instead down-right adorable!

It shouldn’t be much of surprise to hear that because of this trend the yaeba snaggletooth has ventured into Japanese cosmetic surgery…where people actually check in and ask for their teeth to be given an uneven appearance and/or to be provided with extra fake fangs. This is a small minority of course, but as there is also no standard of beauty that dictates straight teeth should be the sole goal, there is generally not much motivation to fix crooked, and bad teeth. As they are only thought to be a bad thing in the west – there’s a bit of a “who even cares?” mentality I suppose.

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Wish I knew that before I got braces mind you…a year of pain, and slurping at luke-warm soup. Urgh…could have just moved to Japan! Anyway, in all seriousness it made me recognise how silly, trite, and banal our preset ideas about beauty really are. In one place we are told things should be one way, and in another it is the complete opposite. It’s ridiculous really, it should just be about feeling comfortable in yourself…but instead we feel drawn to complying.

I wonder why this is?

Please buy my collection of stories! Get it in paperback here – or on Kindle here! ALL proceeds go towards Macmillan Cancer Support!