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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 19, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Tokyo (and a bit of Idol)

I never had any ambition to visit Japan. I was content with photographs and books. I especially had no desire to eat Japanese food.

The only reason I went to teach for a week at the American School in Japan was so that a certain family member who is an otaku (devotee of animé and manga) could explore Tokyo to her heart's content.

To my surprise, I ended up loving Tokyo the way I love Paris, Barcelona, São Paulo, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Tokyo is a city that keeps getting destroyed. A devastating earthquake in 1923, and the American firebombing in 1945 left the city with only a few pockets of older buildings.

Yet, while there are many modern sections of the city -- garish with neon lights -- most of what the Japanese rebuilt after the war was uniquely and traditionally Japanese.

After all, Japanese have never built their houses to be permanent. When paper is a major component of interior walls, you're not building for the ages. Houses have no resale value -- only the land they're built on.

On tiny lots that fit together like polygonal puzzles, houses crowd to the boundaries; but shrubs and flowers and miniature trees fill every possible space, so that the streets are graced with color and life.

It's a city with little air-conditioning, though it gets as hot (and as cold) as Washington, D.C. Many two-way streets are so narrow that only the Japanese, with their extraordinary courtesy and awareness of other people, could let cars, bicycles, and pedestrians make their way without incident.

But it's not the streets or the houses, the extraordinary shopping districts or the gorgeous public spaces that make Tokyo a miraculously comfortable city to live in: It's the trains.

Trains that go everywhere. Train stations within walking distance of every neighborhood. Trains that are well-marked, easy to use, and relatively cheap. (And in the last five years or so, Tokyo has become wheelchair-friendly, with elevators in the stations.)

But the success of the trains would not apply to America as we now organize our cities. If, in Greensboro, we had stations in the same proportion to the population, they would be so far from most of us that we would never walk to them; and if we had stations in the same proportion to the area, there would only be a relative handful of riders per station.

Except in a few exceptional cities that geography has forced into a limited area -- San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston, Salt Lake City -- America won't benefit from urban railways until we create neighborhoods that cluster rather than sprawl.

But even if we can't benefit from Tokyo's example, it's still a joy to visit there. There is as much energy as on the streets of Manhattan -- except that everyone is unfailingly polite. Everyone accepts that pedestrian traffic can only move at a certain speed, and I never saw anyone pushing through the crowd.

At rush hour, there are trains so crowded that gloved officials actually push people together so they can all fit in the cars. But that's the point -- only when someone is physically pushing them will Japanese people allow themselves to intrude into someone else's space.

And it's clean. In my entire week in Tokyo, traveling into dozens of different neighborhoods of every kind, I saw exactly two pieces of litter. Two!

And this despite the fact that the government insists that everyone must divide their garbage into multiple types of recycling, most commonly four -- cans and bottles, reusable plastic, burnable paper, and "other."

OK, I'm glad I don't actually have to work in a Japanese corporation -- way too much conformity! I can't even work in an American corporation. But there's still something graceful about the formality of dress, which reaches into every level of society.

The school uniforms that are depicted in Manga and Animé are real. Girls wear those short pleated skirts; boys wear those quasi-military uniforms.

Then there's the charm of watching little helmeted children being carried to school in child-seats mounted on the handlebars of bicycles.

Or the startling cheerfulness of being greeted loudly by employees upon entering a store or restaurant.

Or the respectfulness of being asked for your preferences at every point. For instance, at a bakery I was always asked whether I wanted my pastries to be individually bagged in plastic or grouped according to type.

And you don't hand your money directly to the clerk, you put it on a tray, and then your change is returned to you on the same little tray. At first I thought this was rather ridiculous; but then I got home to the U.S. and when people dropped change into my hand it felt so ... coarse.

The rules of courtesy are not the same as ours, however. Japanese politeness consists of benign blindness. When someone does something ill-mannered or appalling, unless it's an actual emergency or criminal act, it is simply invisible.

I was on a train on the Chuo line, heading from Musashi-Sakai to Kichijoji, when a young woman (who was dressed rather like a country girl, so perhaps she was a visitor to the city) suddenly had a sneezing fit. At once it was obvious that she had been caught without a tissue, and was in dire need of one.

I happened to have a pristine packet of Kleenexes with me, and, being an American, I immediately pulled it out and gave it to her.

Only afterward did I realize that I had just done something appallingly rude. Until I did that, the young woman was invisible. Her sneezing, her nose-wiping -- none of them had actually happened until I called attention to it by offering the Kleenex.

The only thing that excused my rude action was that, as a gaijin, nobody actually expects me to know how to behave with proper civility.

Look, foreign countries are, in fact, foreign, and there are things that a visitor doesn't know. Nor would anyone in Japan be so impolite as to point out to me that I had done something wrong. I only got tips on manners from fellow foreigners, who knew the kinds of things that Americans would inadvertently do wrong.

Did I make any native Japanese friends? Of course not. I don't speak Japanese, and while practically everyone in Japan knows some English, relatively few are fluent. How can you become friends with someone you can't talk with?

But I met dozens and dozens of Japanese who were kind, courteous, helpful. Everyone I asked a question of tried to answer me -- though my questions were usually more sign language than anything else. I didn't meet a single person I didn't like. And if they didn't like me -- this big, hulking American who took up way too much space -- they never gave me a hint of it.

Though, come to think of it, the Japanese aren't as small as they used to be. The older generation -- people my age and older -- are still markedly smaller than Americans. But the younger generation had many young men who were my height or nearly so -- six feet or taller.

I have been holding the best news for last: the food.

I thought it would all be appalling. Have you seen what Japanese eat for breakfast? Soup! Fish! And they eat parts of animals that we discard -- not to mention animals and plants that in no way resemble food to us.

All of that is true. In every restaurant, there was something completely disgusting on the menu. And since most restaurants display plastic models of their menu offerings in the window, you actually have to see the stuff.

But folks, the oddities are almost like a competition to show how macho they are -- "We can eat things that other humans don't dare to eat."

Because in every restaurant there were dishes that were not only edible, they were also extraordinarily delicious!

Like the yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant where we were brought trays of raw (but seasoned and marinated) chicken, beef, and vegetables, which we cooked ourselves in small firepits built into the tables. Everything was delicious, but the beef was brilliant.

Ever since I left Brazil I have been discontented with American beef. While a few restaurants in America know how to cook beef well (for instance, Leblon in Greensboro), the quality of beef you start with makes a huge difference. What we ate in that yakiniku restaurant was so perfect it made me want to cry. Instead I ate so much that it made the other diners want to cry ...

Here's the thing, though -- every restaurant we went to was terrific. In the neighborhood of our hotel there was a food store -- Emio -- which is like an extraordinarily good food court. Different mini-restaurants specializing in different aspects of Japanese cuisine offer takeout choices. Everything looked so good we were hard-pressed to choose.

And sometimes we didn't choose, because upstairs in the same building were two restaurants -- one was Mia Bocca ("My Mouth"), a Japanese version of Italian food (which was excellent), and the other was a Japanese dessert restaurant with only four entrees for those who insisted on a full meal -- and those were all excellent.

In fact, almost any restaurant you happen upon -- even little soba-ya noodle houses -- will have high-quality ingredients and meticulously prepared and served food. This was our experience -- and what we were told by American friends who have lived in Tokyo for decades.

(For more about the enormous variety of Japanese cuisines, check out: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2036.html.)

And there's no tipping.

That's right. You never tip anybody for anything. This nearly drove me crazy at first, but it quickly became clear that tipping is not needed. Everyone does their job as perfectly as possible because they take pride in what they do. So I have rarely had waiters as careful, accurate, gracious, and helpful as all the waiters who served us in Tokyo.

The cab drivers were flawlessly courteous, without a tip. The guy loading our luggage onto the limousine bus to the airport ($30, as opposed to a cab ride that would have cost $500 -- that's not a misprint, it's about five hundred dollars from where we were) was highly organized but treated even disorganized Americans with cheerful courtesy.

Even the airport officials who came aboard the bus to check that all of us had passports were so gracious that it was almost a pleasure to undergo a security check.

Nobody gets tipped, because nobody needs to be rewarded for perfect service. Perfect service is simply expected.

Back to the food: Apple juice in Japan is nothing like the stuff we have here in America. It's so fresh and perfect and light that it tastes like -- get this -- a fresh apple! We couldn't get enough of it -- and every restaurant had it.

Snack foods: In Tokyo, peanuts and cashews in the convenience stores (which seem to spring up every thirty feet or so) are not greasy or oily at all -- just delicious. (Oddly, Snickers and Kit-Kat were the only American candy bars I ever saw.)

Fresh produce: You don't have to handle the produce to find perfect, unbruised, exactly-ripe fruit and vegetables. That's the only kind they offer. It's expensive, but none of it will be wasted when you get it home.

Finally, my climactic experience in Tokyo: Bakeries!

Most notably the Little Mermaid bakery just a few doors down from our hotel. I've had great pastries in France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, and (of course) here and there in America. But Tokyo's bakeries are astonishingly uniform in their excellence. I could have pastried my way through every day ... and, in fact, I pretty much did.

Again, there are tastes that Americans aren't used to -- in Tokyo, black, brown, and kidney beans are used to make a sweet paste that fills some pastries. This flavor was simply too strange for us to appreciate.

But most of the rolls and twists and puffs and breads were so delicious that I took a huge bag of them aboard the plane for the return flight and I ate way better than those who partook of the airplane offerings.

And I haven't even gotten to the sights. Like gorgeously evil-looking gigantic spider statue in the Roppongi Hills shopping mall. And the extraordinarily creative and fascinating Ghibli museum.

It all comes down to this. If you have an itch to travel, but you never thought Tokyo would be an interesting place to visit, think again. Tokyo is one of the best places in the world to sightsee, shop, eat, get around in, and generally hang out.

*

Last week on American Idol, Paula Abdul called Adam Lambert "the bravest contestant we've ever had."

And a friend of mine wrote to me that if Adam doesn't win, the contest will lose all its credibility.

Look, I can't disagree. Adam Lambert has one of the most versatile, polished, expressive, perfect male voices I've ever heard. He goes into and out of his falsetto without a break or flaw. He dares to use extraordinary arrangements of familiar songs. And his performances range from soulful ballads to over-the-top flamboyant shows that remind me of Bette Midler (and that's a good thing).

But let's not forget that last year's winner, David Cook, was every bit as brave, with a voice almost as versatile -- he was just not as flamboyant in style. He did extraordinary arrangements -- remember his "Billy Jean"? "Little Sparrow"? "Always Be My Baby"? And the unforgettable simplicity of his absolutely straight performance of "Music of the Night"?

For that matter, Jason Castro last year was every bit as original and brave as Lambert. He simply didn't have the vocal technique -- but what he had, he used wonderfully well.

David Cook's voice has a timbre that Lambert's cannot duplicate -- which is not a flaw in Lambert, merely an observation. When Lambert sang "Born to Be Wild," he was certainly flamboyant, but on the tag line his voice simply didn't have the rasp and body of the original -- or of David Cook.

In other words, no matter how brilliant one singer is, there are songs and tones and techniques and riffs that other performers can do better.

In this year's competition, Allison Iraheta gives such exuberant, spot-on performances that in almost any other year she would have been the leading contender. Like David Archuleta last year, she's young, and sometimes it shows -- but, like David Archuleta, it never shows in vocal technique!

And Danny Gokey would be the front-runner this year if Adam Lambert weren't in the competition.

But it goes deeper. Kris Allen reminds me of Jason Castro -- though he's even cuter and cuddlier (or so I'm assured by those in my house who appreciate cuddlesome male singers). And Anoop Desai's soaring tenor begs to cover album after album of pop standards.

In other words, this is a great year, and just because Adam Lambert is such an extraordinary performer doesn't turn the other contestants into chopped liver. Do I expect Adam Lambert to win? Yes. But then, at this point in last year's competition I expected David Archuleta to win.

And if Lambert wins, I'll be thrilled -- he's truly brilliant. But I want albums from Iraheta, Allen, Desai, and Gokey, too.

For that matter, I'd love to have an album of the underappreciated Megan Joy, whose sarcastic, playful performances reminded me of Bette Midler, the Puppini Sisters, and Jane Siberry. No, she couldn't have won American Idol -- but she does a wonderful job of the kind of song she loves to sing.

I'm watching Idol this year, not just because I like the kids and am rooting for favorites. I'm watching because it's a great variety show, week after week.

If Paula and Simon would stop wasting time heckling each other instead of respectfully listening and then making their own comments without referring to each other in any way, the show would be perfect.


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