Silence of Contempt
In many ways, Japan is an exquisite example of how an economy goes up and comes down. There are many who may believe that capitalism and consumerism present the only way forward, yet despite the many brilliant and amazing advances generated by competitiveness, there’s never a free lunch. The production and transport of goods is not valued in terms of total cost to the environment, and to this day, many still display a bloody-mindedness regarding our progeny – those who shall pay the price for our expansiveness.
Since the Bubble Economy burst, Japan has been expertly maintaining a near-static economy. That’s now thirty years of economic stability, and an example to the rest of the world on how to successfully manage capitalism within strict and sustainable limits. Unlike most other economies, with repetitive bubbles and bursts, Japan continues to expand without the economic pillaging which runs rampant elsewhere. And directly due to the sudden collapse and then maintenance mode of the economy, the victims of financial chaos are still present.
Any of the big cities in Japan have had the scars of the Bubble removed, but take a trip into the towns and villages, and there they all still are: decrepit and crumbling. There is no money, still, to demolish gigantic monstrosities – homes, hotels, spas, amusement parks – which speak to the dreams and hopes of a past generation. The fraction of places which survived the collapse in financial access are only still present as they haven’t fallen down, or become unsafe for use. Missing gutters, ancient carpets and stained and bent fixtures all cry for that better time.
Revive the economy! Allocate extra debt and grow the economy again!
For how long? America, China and Russia, and the European Union, have all repeatedly demonstrated there are limits to growth, which are followed by collapse. The richest become richer, but the majority of citizens continue losing out in the global pyramid game. The World Bank happily and arbitrarily raises and lowers interest rates, with absolutely no sense of duty or morality. Perhaps country leaders oughtn’t have taken out loans knowing the debt would be socialised, yet I say, the WB and IMF must take the fall for giving money to unreliable customers.
And this is the clever state of Japan. While as seriously in debt as many other nations, the epic failure of the Bubble has not been repeated. The horrific monoliths which now litter the Japanese country-side of broken dreams was a one-off, not a repeating horror story as in the US and China. What Japan has now, and has built since the Bubble is a representation of a sustainable civilisation, in great difference to the facile growth through debt, yet to be paid for.
Mouths to Feed
Cicadas chirp and sing in the humid heat of summer, clouds floating through the hazy sky. Plants bursting with life, the air is filled with a variety of fragrances. Dragonflies alight on everything, from leaves to walls to people, majestically winging here and there. The township seems almost a museum. Every shop is closed, some are disintegrating in front of my eyes, and the silence seems to take centre stage, persisting even with the cicadas or random car driving by. It’s rare to see anything moving at all, despite there being at least six very large hotels in this village of less than one thousand.
Walking to the hotel I booked, the roads are well-maintained near the village centre, but just past the main road at the train tracks, they suddenly fall quickly into disrepair. Weeds sprout from cracks in the footpath, and retaining walls are covered in moss. There isn’t anyone here to tidy up, even if there was the cash to pay for it. An unfinished drive next to the creek with a minimally implemented retaining wall all speak to limited funds. The hotel sign is crusted with mosses and lichens, and the potholes in the road mention their lack of attention.
All staff in the hotel, bar one, are over the age of seventy. The youngest is less than fifty, perhaps. Everything has been arranged by these people, their children and grandchildren probably working in a larger city. There’s something I really appreciate about older people, most of whom have adjusted to themselves and their lives, and demonstrate a certain comfort with themselves. I also appreciate the thoughtful kindness and good manners most older people display. I’ve always made friends easily with older people, since I was a child.
In coming down to dinner for the first night in our yutaka and geta, I was reminded of my grandmother. Of course, my grandmother wasn’t Japanese, I and strongly doubt she ever made anything in the Japanese style, but eating here reminded me of her. I suspect that travellers accustomed to standard hotel food, or even chef-prepared items, would be dissatisfied with the cuisine presented. I just felt very homely and safe, and I love Japanese food! The old building with its attempted recreation of pre-electric cooking displays, and an old, pink, dial public phone, all provided for a time warp experience.
I always prefer a homely experience to a cultured, sophisticated one. Modern hotels seem cold and for convenience; sterile, and having a manic phobia of complaint. This old hotel, according to its Yelp user reviews got less than three stars of five. The stained carpets and cracked glass, ill-fitting fly screens and simple, home-built kitchenette could all be suspects. I’d give this hotel about four of five, simply because I felt at home and welcomed. The sheets immaculately clean, along with fresh yutaka and towels, every surface spotless, and accoutrements such as razors and toothbrushes sealed from the factory.
Repair to the sign, the road, the doors, removing the stains and replacing the gutters and glass would all cost money, yet not really alter the experience as much as getting a home-washed towel. The huge amount of food provided for both breakfast and dinner ensured I needn’t buy lunch, and the small yet very clean onsen amply took care of my satisfaction. The only two ways to upgrade would be to have more customers, which is unlikely since the bypass was put in, or to go into debt, which cannot be repaid, as there is no prospect for future customer increase.
No doubt, the hotel owners are still repaying the Bubble loan they took to build the place, a debt their grandchildren will probably have to take on. The banks and the financial institutions hold a deep responsibility for their lending practices, and the lack of protection for people who have depended on loans to make a better life for themselves and society in general. But there is one thing made most clear by Japan: the economy cannot prosper when there is a falling population base.
This small village is the world writ small, where Japan is the most noticeable industrialised nation, facing the task of restructuring the national economy to accomodate the inverted pyramid: there are more people over fifty than under. As the number of people working and paying taxes decreases, how can a taxation-based, infinite-growth economic system continue? This village exemplifies the best of Japanese traditions: make do, be sustainable. There are mouths to feed, and every opportunity provides for the family. This minimalism is how we all must adjust to, and choose as our own way to live.
There are not enough people in the village to maintain what is there, and no money to upgrade or replace what requires it. This is a long-term, slow decline in the standard of living, and this is the reality that we are all facing on this planet as productivity, output and value all begin relatively altering. This decline is the return to equilibrium of life which existed before unregulated debt creation supported the huge overshoot of the Bubble. The final outcome shall be whatever is sustainable in this part of the world: the number of people the land can support, and how the people live in balance with local resources.
The train leaves once hourly, but not the same time every hour. And sometimes, there is no train for two or three hours, depending. There are one or two busses a day. There are no bicycle rentals, but there are taxis awaiting passengers. There are always feet, for those of us that possess them. No pogo sticks, though, for love nor money. Up in the hills, according to three different tourist signs scattered about the station entrance, there are sheep or cows one can visit, if the inclination is there. There is also an ice skating ring, but I didn’t have the pleasure. Most attractions centre around the plethora of hot spring hotels in the village.
Venturing out of the village sans car is a challenge in and of itself. The timetables are all accompanied with extensive explanations in Japanese, completely obfuscating salient information: public holiday services are reduced. Consequently, the bus for this hour does not occur during the week of Obon, meaning there shan’t be another for three hours. But Obon isn’t listed in Japanese as being ‘holiday schedule’ – it’s a locally known fact. Everyone else is in a car or on a motorbike. Sucker!!
Although not so busy, I expected there to be additional, not reduced, service during a holiday, as this is the time when people can visit. The Goshikinuma are famous and unique, having been formed forty-thousand years ago by the eruption of Mt Bandai. The pyroclastic flows dammed up several rivers and the chemical reactions created the multi-hued lakes. A typical Japanese tourist destination: immaculately tidy, ice creams, and omiyage shops full of items, and pleasant staff everywhere. On the bigger lake there are row boats for hire, and a hiking trail along the various ponds. Most park their cars at the entrance, walk the trail, then take the often-running bus back to the car park. Not so us.
I checked the timetable for the return journey at the entrance to the hiking path, but not when we arrived at the exit. After my travel companion sifted through the myriad goods while I got coffee, we missed the last bus for two hours. Having already checked the shop (yes, only one), we were left with a dilemma – burst into tears, or start walking. We found several more businesses of almost sufficient interest on the one hour walk back along the main road, and also discovered a couple of cafes. All through this experience a sense of inconsequentiality pervades. Not meaningless, nor any brink to oblivion, but just a vague lack of impression.
Interestingly, my companion did manage to capture a photo of an actual monkey perched at eye level, nibbling something while sitting on a tree branch. The pervading mood of the entire day, however, had already left me speechless, and when our close cousin was spotted, I couldn’t even be bothered pulling out my iPhone. The weight of waiting for hours for scheduled busses which were, in fact, not scheduled at all, left its lasting impression, and one inescapable conclusion: hire a car.
The Day that Wasn’t
After breakfast, I began packing my things, eager to return to the convenience of subway systems, or my own bicycle, when my companion expressed his desire to visit Lake Hibana, one of Japan’s largest lakes. ‘Oh. We have another day of this.’ As I’ve aged, I guess I’ve reclaimed some of my childhood patience, most of which was lost through my twenties and thirties. Gritting with firm resignation my determination to continue enduring my companions unbreakable silence, and the interminability of failed public transportation services, I refocussed.
The previous day left me primed for more walking, yet I obstinately refused to bring my hat. At least my companion had already checked the train times there. Once we arrived, the next bus was ostensibly scheduled for an hour and a half later. The few businesses in that location were already closed down – mid-morning on a Thursday – and devoid of conversational entertainment, I suggested walking to his point of destination.
On the way, we enjoyed many fine sights of the glorious mountains, the very ones in which nestle the Goshikinuma where we were the previous day, strewn with mists and wispy clouds. The air was lovely and fresh, and the paddies bursting with rice, all shades of green from spring to deep. Those planted earlier already had grains of rice maturing, indicating October will, once again, provide a strong harvest.
It took almost two hours to walk to Nagahama, a fateful destination, I’m sure, yet happily discovered the disastrously named Cobito Cafe at the marina. My hatlessness had ensured my sunstroke and singed skin, but it was pleasant to stop walking, none-the-less. I guess my companion was once again disappointed he’d forgotten not only his camera battery pack, but that the haziness precluded even his iPhone from making good of the lake. Refusing to communicate anything verbally, I meekly suggested we make do with the day, and visit civilisation.
Relenting, we eventually set off for the busstop which, naturally enough, possessed a timetable completely irrelevant to reality. The 3k walk to Okinasawa station began well enough, but about two-thirds the way there, a down-pour caught us. I was hoping some good-natured local would rescue us from our plight, yet we were only observed. I vagrant and indefatigable went past on her suitable old lady’s bike, but she gave me more conversation than my taciturn friend.
Checking the cloud radar, I calculated that although there was ample time to reach the station, that another downpour was approaching. Jogging directly, we could have made it, but a certain unresponsiveness forthcoming ensured a fast dash with minutes to spare just before we became drenched. At least the train was following its stated schedule, and arrived only a few minutes late, to my eternal gratitude.
Humanity and Death
Upon purchasing some lovely umbrellas, we began, once again, walking. Aizuwakamatsu is a lovely country town suffering from a severe lack of alternative traffic routes, resulting in the typical city centre congestion. Other than that, a few shops were still open for business during Obon, and finally the air was freshening and cooling. At least this area had a sense of some form of impact, and seemed welcoming.
A minor mystery occurred upon arrival at the castle, which some signs indicated was Aizuwakamatsu, and others Tsurugajo. This duality in naming was reinforced upon entering the museum inside the castle, which indicated that the original name of the area was Aizu, but was then changed to Wakamatsu. This area was also one of the last strongholds for the clan-based culture of Japan prior to the new government taking power in the late 1800’s. The entire town was razed to the ground with fire, and anyone left who had demonstrated allegiance were shipped up to the northern-most tip of Aomori.
And then through the 1900’s and the Pacific War, Aizu’s history of education and training provided some Japan’s most notable reformers and leaders. Most of the traditional painted screens are of the fires; all of the portraits – and there are about thirty – are of the men and women who helped shape Japan before its defeat and conquest in 1945. Is violence the only way we have of moving forward? Isn’t there a different way to harness power and ambition, yet preserve the past? Is identity inherently destructive?
Evolution seems to require some sort of coercing force, resulting in adaptation. The blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism in Japan definitely provides me with insight into how such differences in perspective may be combined harmoniously. The total inability of Christianity to even harmonise with itself, let alone progressive social developments such as de facto relationships, and consensual sex, indicate, to me, abject failure in structuring the teachings of Jesus within society.
The use of different beliefs about the application of religious texts, resulting in not just social division and chaos, but murder and genocide amongst other horrors, is disturbing. Yet perhaps it is not so much the religious basis of the culture – Japan’s history is just marked with violence and upheaval as most other ‘civilisations’ – but the act of justifying violence. Perhaps this is the point of evolution about which humanity is circling. Perhaps I’m reaching the conclusion that violence, in any form, is the signifier of a species unevolved. There must be a better way.
The ride back to the hotel was just as uninspiring as the ride there, but after a nap, and the wine which engaged me to break the intractable silence over dinner, actually elicited some feeble conversation from my opposite. Consequently, we discovered a profound opposition in our respective perspectives on violence and its value to society and human evolution. With my travel companion assuring me that violence is natural and a normal, relatable element of human nature, I personally and quietly concluded my relationship with him.
After such an interesting interaction, which was intermittently interrupted by a newborn who kept staring at me, I felt determined to visit the hotel’s private onsen, just as soon as I finished that bottle of Spanish red.
Unable to pull himself away from the voluminous messages he was receiving, or his glum disposition, I headed to the onsen. Quiet, clean, spartan and welcoming, such facilities have undergone decades of refinement to achieve this state of presentation. The outdoor onsen has a steel mesh ladle with a sign proclaiming that both leaves and insects are also friends of the hotel, yet the boiled beetle floating there didn’t seem convivial.
Soaking in hot water outside is pure pleasure, and if you’ve never tried it, I strongly recommend it! Aches and pains are soothed away, the mind reduces its ceaseless cascade of ideas for a few moments, and the soul takes a break from the relentless vagaries of the human personality. The fresh, cool breeze and light rain enhance the experience, vanquishing demands, boosting satisfaction.
Second eldest of six children, with four step-brothers and sisters, an a plethora of de facto parents and a huge extended family, one would think that I’d have natural social skills and work very well with others, but one would be very mistaken. Perhaps it was the constant bullying, physical violence and psychological games, combined with my particular and peculiar personality, which has resulted in me being so socially inept. Perhaps I was simply born this way. Perhaps this is the outcome of karma, lives spent isolated and awkward, and this is the continuation of lives spent detached from the needs of human socialisation.
In any case, my current mentality is very much averse to criticism, especially that which has no constructive purpose, or useful content. I seem to have become overtly sensitive to a lack of support, yet when some positive reinforcement or friendliness offered, I freeze. Stuck in my old personal reactions from high school, or perhaps earlier. Odd, especially since I have highly developed skills in offering support and giving fun, positive feedback. I’ve had enough. This quandary annoys me no end.
Thusly, I find myself once again happy and satisfied completely isolated, longing for connection with something, anyone, yet knowing that reaching out only brings more awkwardness and somehow more criticisms. There isn’t much I gain from human interaction, aside from teaching. Only in that situation where I’m helping people who wish to improve themselves do I feel like I’m working productively and satisfactorily. Until, of course, some random whomever it is I’m devoting all that effort to complains that I’m ineffective or lazy.
There really is no end to human suffering, the cause of which is humanity itself.
Directly related to this random creation of suffering is my erstwhile travel companion. I do like to talk, make stories, complain with acerbic insight, and expound upon whatever principles I observe in action around me. He made it clear that he didn’t want to hear the sound of my voice by the evening of the first night, which left me in a pickle: what am I supposed to do for four days without speaking? I tried calming myself, and just pretend I was alone. It is a very odd feeling sleeping in the same room, being side-by-side constantly, without speaking, yet watching that other person send a multitude of messages to others.
For the hours we two spent alone together walking over hill and down dale, fording streams and navigating non-existent schedules, it wasn’t as if there was much else to do. I tried occupying my mind with games, but such an activity only goes so far. Complete isolation. Nothing else for it. It was a small relief to get into the onsen.
The Road Less Travelled…
…is better done by car, or with a like-minded travel companion. Best, both.
Termination of Subscription
Ensuring this was the actual date of departure, I packed in the sure knowledge that the packing was being done for the eminently practicable purpose of returning home. The previous night had delivered a furious gale, keeping me awake and alert through nine tenths of the noisy darkness. Irksome is the person who sleeps through such a tumult, yet such is the hell of my idiotically sensitive personality.
Mercifully cool and refreshing, the breeze had been divested of its oppressive humidity. The companion of apathetic tendencies continued his contemptuous refrain regarding the frivolous use of spoken language, and we embarked an hour early the train back to the nearest Shinkansen station. Enjoyably, we were seated separately on that particular journey, and to my delight, I was confronted with three people only too happy to engage!
A competent mother was being accompanied by her very beautiful young daughter and her baby son. He, like most infants between two months and one year, immediately pinned me with an unblinking gaze. Most people don’t believe this happens to me, but nine times out of ten, it does! Perhaps it’s my handsome and manly beard, or perhaps the dashing and cheaply-bought Ray Bans, but babies tend to lock onto me with a silent stare.
Almost every parent, so far, appreciates the sudden lack of need to constantly monitor their new born while he or she is monitoring me in complete, frozen silence. I merely wave, smile, and say ‘konnichiwa’. Some babies respond with a smile, or by turning their heads, but most just continue diligently staring. I discovered that taking off my sunnies has little effect, but that some babies move their lips when I make the serving of a tennis ball noise – by sucking air in through my pursed lips.
He had already fallen asleep.
Arriving at the Shinkansen station two and a half hours early was a very minor upgrade from having to roam about the station from whence we’d come, but a little is much better than flat-out nothing! I discovered not only somewhere mostly comfortable to sit, but Wifi, too. As per usual for my existence, not all was tame nor normal whilst there…
Although my erstwhile friend suddenly offered to fetch me cake from the convenience store, and the uncharacteristic show of generosity was welcomed, it merely highlighted his extreme poor manners over the previous two and a half days. My ire was already beyond consolable. However, this was not the most peculiar experience of that station.
Whilst happily typoing away, from the corner of my eye I noticed some personage peering at me. Piqued, I turned to find one of my students staring, shocked, at my face. Oh good grief, thought I! Yet the interaction was pleasant enough, if slightly confusing. I introduced her and my associate, and she to her husband. They were both holding tennis rackets, and I was quite curious as to how they’d managed to be so far from home on an apparent mission for a match.
Despite asking twice, no response was availed me, and I let the questions return to the endless aether. As Madonna intoned, ‘If you have to ask more than once or twice, it wasn’t meant to be yours in the first place.’ I did ask, however, if she were stalking me, in Japanese, and the joke was well received. They soon left to catch their train, leaving me to my virtual isolation and iPad keyboard of errata. You have NO idea how many times I’ve had to backspace while typoing this document!
Alighting the beautiful and magnificent example of Japanese ingenuity, even non-verbal communication a rarity, we were sped back to the verdant megapolis of Tokyo. It really is a marvel how the Japanese preserve this enormous city with minimal crime, minimal graffiti, maximum safety, and supreme cleanliness. I love this city. Of course, there are idiotic folk who target ‘outsiders’ for their pathetic and pointless xenophobic outbursts, but compared to the bombings, stabbings, rapes and murders which occur in most western cities, ‘tis but a scratch.
The clear air allows an uninterrupted view of the clouds about Mt Fuji, the sunlight attempting to reignite my sunburn from yesterday, and the rising apprehension of actually needing to say goodbye to he who shall not be named after alighting from the wonderful train. Only Maglev Shinkansen will succeed it.
We exchanged our divergent needs of transport post-arrival, and went noiselessly to his ticket gates. The face of a man who knows he has erred beyond reason raises to mine, and in a fit of discomposure, I lost my poise and blurted in a very heavy Australian accent, ‘See ya.’ I didn’t even get to the end of this short phase before my gaze was torn from his and I began marching to my next necessary point of transit, and away from him and his.
A miserable end to a year-long affiliation which promised to bear so much fruit, and by which I enjoyed a sense of connection. Such a beautiful and extremely intelligent young man, but who, like me, completely lacks social skills. Perhaps this is our mutual purgatory… yet another commonality. I guess the trigger which prevents my instigating contact now is his response of blaming the victim. I must perfectly repudiate such a position. I have no authentic choice. He may change his position with maturity, yet, the contemptible silence perplexed me beyond reason, evidently.
I’m single. Again.