Nagoya: Old & New

10 Jul

I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything entertaining to say about the last three days here in Nagoya, but I realized that I really didn’t need to add any colour commentary. Japan speaks for itself. The utter singularity of their culture is so fascinating; there really is no other place like it. For example:

For my first night out, Kurisu took me to join some of his colleagues at a place called Beer Garden Maiami, which was like a combination all-you-can-eat-buffet, endless beer fountain, cabaret, and barbecue. If it sounds like a complete clusterjam, that’s because it is:

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IMG_1370Watching the crowd jostle and dance and scream and throw their hands in the air for what was ostensibly a seedy b-grade late-night bubblegum-pop cover act, it occurred to me that there simply was no Western analogue for what I was seeing. The Japanese work themselves nearly to death during the day, and are grateful for any release whatsoever from the banality of their jobs once the sun goes down. I’m beginning to think that’s why all the advertising and iconography here is so colourful and vivid: it’s like, “Hey, don’t be blue! We know your life sucks, but we can make it better!” And in this context, better means “cooking highly-questionable raw meat on a brazier at your table on a tenth-floor outdoor patio and sucking back pint after pint of beer in forty-degree heat”. God I love it here.

My first solo adventure came the next day, when I walked through central Nagoya to Osu Kannon, which is the shared name for a huge Shinto temple and the covered shopping district next to it. I was only slightly terrified that I would lock myself out of Chris’s building while he was at work and be trapped outside in a sweltering foreign city, but once I set foot out the door all sense of diffidence vanished.

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Fushimi dori, Nagoya’s main drag. They have these metal walkways over the highway so pedestrians can cross the street without having to wait at a busy intersection. GENIUS.

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Osu Kannon Temple, shrine to the Shinto goddess of mercy.

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Prayers and wishes are inscribed on these incense rolls and burned in the nearby brazier.

Despite the oppressive heat and the literal plague of pigeons surrounding the temple, I found Osu Kannon to be a place of great serenity. The noise of the bustling city retreated, replaced by wind tinkling through ceremonial bells and carrying wisps of incense across the square. Tenders to the shrine called out in ritual chants, their elongated lowing sounding like something out of history. I gather that Osu Kannon is a more touristy shrine than most, even though I was the only white person there, but even to this clueless gaijin it was a peaceful and transportive experience to a time long past.

Then, of course, I walked ten feet further into the square and was smacked in the face with modern Japan: Osu Kannon’s shopping district.

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The Japanese – especially young people – love to display English on their clothing, even though they have no idea what it means. Of course, we do the same with their language, so I guess it works out. Although I hope people in Toronto aren’t getting tattooed with things like “Comme des FUCKDOWN” in kanji. That’s just silly.

The colours, sounds, smells, and heat here were violent, and after the tranquility of the temple, the sensory overload of the shopping district was a little jarring. Everything you can think of can be bought and sold in Osu Kannon, from kitschy tourist crap to genuine Japanese treasures and everything in between. I agonized over an exquisite set of ceremonial swords and a beautifully detailed figurine of Akira’s Kaneda, but resisted the urge – both were too expensive and too self-indulgent. I satisfied the spending lust by buying a few small souvenirs for friends and family, and made my way home. In Osu Kannon I spoke to people who had no English and yet we understood each other perfectly, and I walked away with the heady mixture of old and new Japan swirling in my veins. It was energizing and exhausting in equal amounts.

Then, it was back to the apato for some homemade udon and katsu stir fry and a good night’s sleep – for the next day was SUMO DAY!

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Sumo was held at Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, situated on the same grounds as Nagoya Castle. This is the moat. I want you to imagine storming across that huge-ass thing as a 7th century Japanese soldier.

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Two rikishi, or sumo wrestlers, probably headed out for a quick post-round snack. No, actually. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but these guys eat like their careers depend on it. Which they do.

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GANBATTE SUMO!

What an incredible experience this was. The crowd was huge and excitable, and it was cool to watch their fans ripple across the stadium as they tried to avoid heat stroke. Once we’d taken our seats and found a program, Kurisu and I cracked out our 8% STRONG ZERO fruit cocktails and began betting drinks on each match. Lemme tell you, those goddamn things pack a wallop (and are available at any corner store, or combini!). A few matches in, and we were bellowing the wrestlers’ names out and screaming along with the crowd like true aficionados.

Sumo is a really interesting sport, and is couched in sacred tradition. The rules are simple: one rikishi must push or throw the other either to the ground, or out of the ring (or dohyo). They begin each match by accepting a drink of water, wiping their bodies with paper, and casting a fistful of salt in the dohyo to purify the proceedings. The stomping you may have seen is meant to cast evil out of the arena. Then they crouch and engage in what our program described as a “cold war”, glaring at one another until they’re both ready to fight. There is no bell or starter gun that begins the match – the rikishi will break off and retreat to their corners to slap their chests and legs, psyching up both themselves and the crowd, until they’ve reached the proper mental and physical state. The match only begins when they use their eyes to wordlessly agree to charge one another – making it an intense and fascinating thing to watch. The matches themselves last anything from three seconds to a full minute; most are over in ten or twelve seconds. Then it’s pass out the drinks, and on to the next fighter!

We left in the early evening, drinks in hand (open alcohol in public is not frowned-upon) and made our way back to the city for some poker with Kurisu’s friends. It was about the closest thing to a perfect day in Japan as I could imagine. Stay tuned, because our next stop is a three-day trip to Tokyo, and that theory will be tested in full!

Things I’ve Learned So Far

  • Japan lives in perpetual balance between old and new, traditional and modern, ancient and trendy. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk but it makes for an amazingly unique experience for a gaijin like me, who comes from a wholly homogenized culture.
  • I expected most things in Japan to be expensive, but I assumed things like electronics and cars would be cheaper. Not so, apparently – all that slick Japanese tech we love to buy is just as pricey over here. Disappointing.
  • I would be so much more of an avid sports fan if sumo was an option. It’s an incredible spectator sport and it retains so much of its traditional ancient ritual. Definitely an unmissable event if you’re ever in Japan.
  • Cooking suspicious raw buffet meat on a table brazier=toilet trubs.
  • Our convenience stores have nothing on Japan’s combinis. Nothing. And they’re everywhere here.
  • Drinking in public. Drinking in PUBLIC. DRINKING IN PUBLIC!
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