On Loving Japan
An Evans-Manning Award for an exceptionally good comment to Richao, who posted this in the “Paris, New York, Disneyworld” thread:
I’ve been to Paris twice and fell for it more than I had expected. There truly is something magical about the city and the people that makes one (or me at least) feel as though this is one place at least where humanity has shown itself capable of great beauty. Strangely, it wasn’t the food that did it for me: apart from an Italian restaurant I visited on both trips and one rather pricey restaurant in Montmartre, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the cuisine. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that I regularly eat better French food, for less money, here in Washington, D.C.
But riding the taxi into and out of town on my most recent trip allowed me to see the dirty underbelly of the suburbs, which sight hinted at the reality you describe. It’s something, though, that I put out of my mind as soon as I got home because it’s not what I want to remember about the city. For me, I think the appeal is in the weight of history and the way Parisians carry themselves. (I’ve spent a good portion of my life abroad (in Japan), and have never managed to reconcile myself to just how slovenly Americans dress or to the arguable lack of respect it shows for oneself and the people who have to gave upon the terrifying sight of American bodies in American fashions.)
What’s interesting about your thoughts on Paris, Rod, are how they parallel mine on Japan, though almost, as it were, from the inside out. Few people, arriving in Japan for the first time, find themselves falling in love with Tokyo or Osaka at first sight. Both cities are overwhelming, crowded messes of concrete and asphalt. Neither city reveals itself to the casual observer. Indeed, I’ve known foreigners (Canadians, specifically, in my experience) who show up to work and head home within a week because they find it unbearable.
And yet both cities are full of nooks and crannies, and it is those spaces–which require some effort to find–where those cities reveal their beauty, and the beauty of Japanese culture: The attention to detail, the fanatical pursuit of perfection, whether in cuisine or flower arranging or in customer service.
For example, I spent years in Osaka before returning to clerk at a law firm there, and it was only then that I was truly introduced into the culinary delights of the city. The central entertainment district, where most business in the city gets done, is a jumble of a couple hundred (?) six-to-eight-story buildings, each with one to four tiny restaurants on each floor. Each restaurant seats on average between six and twenty patrons, and because competition is so intense, each restaurant reaches levels of quality that I never knew existed. Perhaps the best meal of my life was a multi-course meal eaten at a restaurant that had six seats at a bar, behind which was the tiny kitchen and the chef. He had trained in France and served a French-inspired meal that used ingredients sourced entirely from within Japan (and about half of which you probably could not buy at any price anywhere in the western world and which have no names–that I know of–in English). Another was the sushi place, again with about six seats at the bar, where there was no menu and where no money changed hands (they send their clients a bill at the end of the month).
And then there was the Italian meal had with old friends in the Japanese equivalent of small-town Ohio (i.e., a run-down town of about 60,000), in a half-vacant/shuttered shopping arcade: Step inside, and it was as if we had stepped through Professor Kirke’s wardrobe, but into Tuscany rather than Narnia: The attention to detail was overwhelming, and that meal–prepared by an Italian-trained Japanese chef who had, for whatever reason, decided to come home to podunkville–remains the best Italian meal I’ve ever had.
I’m willing to wager that none of these chefs have any ambition to expand their operations, to grow their business: The ambition is perfection, and how do you maintain perfection unless you personally prepare (or at least inspect) each dish that leaves your kitchen?
I’m not genetically or culturally endowed with the attentiveness to fully incorporate this single-mindedness into anything that I do. Like most Americans, I’m easily distracted and overly conscious of status, narrowly defined (i.e., professional job, educational credentials, etc.), but I recognize these as flaws, as curses, really. That is one gift that Japan has given to me.
I’m not sure which I prefer: One of my great regrets is that we’ve only just begun to explore Europe, which I love and which overwhelms me every time I visit. By contrast Japanese history rather bores me, and I’ve never felt particularly moved in any of Japan’s wonderful temples. Yet, in Paris and elsewhere, I get that Disneyland sense that it’s best not to look too closely, else you risk seeing through the pretense and realize that much is put on for show. In Tokyo or Osaka, however, it’s precisely the opposite: I know the cities are going to wear me down when I visit, but I’m eager to dig beneath the overwhelming sensations of the city and discover what lies within.