Masking Reality

Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  ,
Thursday, April 7, 2005

When I first arrived at Narita Airport, Tokyo's main gateway to the outside world, I noticed a large number of people wearing white masks covering their nose and mouth. Even in my snail-like jet-lagged mind, it triggered memories of the SARS episode a couple of years back. As much as my body was capable at that point of registering anything beyond a desire to sleep for the rest of my life (and of course the need to seek out the Qantas desk and do some damage to my arch nemesis), I felt slightly alarmed. East Asia had been on alert due to recent bird flu incidents, and I formed the impression that Japan was fearful of some inevitable outbreak.

As with so many things over here, I was utterly wrong. All these people were not, in fact, battling Ebola or Bubonic Plague - they merely had a cold. Back home, we are subjected to the deeply attractive image of a cold sufferer's dribbling nose as they valiantly fight the germs that, ultimatey, they will pass on to the rest of us when next they sneeze. Not so the Japanese. Their war is a private one, in which others are spared the gory detail and, hopefully, the same fate. This politeness and consideration of others seems entirely typical of Japan, and is one of the many things that deeply impresses me about the Japanese people. I would appreciate it beyond words but for the fact that I appear to have been made an honourable exception to this social rule. Sick students seem to think that my greeting them with "Hi everyone, how's it going?" as I walk into a class actually means: "Hi everyone, please remove your face masks and present me with a random sample of diseases." To be fair, I am not sure what other option these poor students have. Learning to speak another language is difficult enough at the best of times, without having to overcome a surgical gag and a nasal passage that resembles a mountain stream in torrent. And frankly, if I cannot see a moving mouth when a student speaks to me, I have absolutely no idea where to look. Worse still, from a professional standpoint at least, students could be speaking Swahili from behind their inadvertent muffling devices for all I could tell. So I guess mask removal might end up being the lesser of two evils, even at risk of developing my own runny nose.

With winter more-or-less gone here, I was looking forward to a sharp reduction in the number of students who looked as if they had just escaped from a toxic waste dump. However, the manufacturers of the ubiquitous masks had other ideas. I am convinced that it is they, in collusion with certain public authorities here, who were responsible for the cruel proliferation of the one true great nemesis of the Japanese people: the Japanese cedar tree. This delightful organism is both so abundant, and so prolific in its production of pollen, that it provides the pharmaceutical giants with an almost limitless supply of hayfever sufferers. A student recently told me that a staggering 25% of the Japanese population labour under a pollen allergy, many of whom only shake off their winter cold in time to don the white mask once more as an ineffective guard against their omnipotent foe. I feel dreadfully sorry for those who spend much of their public lives in this way, even though it would appear to carry no stigma and is almost as common a sight as someone wearing glasses. My only wonder is that it has not yet developed into a fashion craze, or that the longest-suffering have not seized a commercial opportunity and sold advertising space on an otherwise blank yet permanent fixture.

A much more pleasant side to the arrival of spring in Japan is Honami, the Cherry Blossom Festival. Trees up and down the country burst into spectacular pink and white bloom and inspire many cultural goings-on. Honami is starting in Tokyo now, and this has been my first real opportunity to experience a major event in Japanese culture. Central Tokyo boasts many large parks, which at this time of year become magnets for families, work colleagues and just about everyone else who seeks to enjoy a picnic under a canopy of pink. Even a quick journey to one such public space, Ueno Park (see below), enlightened me as to why the Japanese people so enjoy their love affair with cherry blossoms.

The effect of a tree-lined path in full bloom is damned impressive, even accounting for the huge volumes of people who turn out to witness the scene. If other major events and festivals in Japan are like this, I will be well pleased.

Another benefit of spring's coming is the weather. The climate has been transformed in a matter of days, and now we enjoy beautiful sun, warm afternoons with gentle breezes and only the occasional spot of rain. This is very welcome, as I had previously thought that the only sight in Japan more common than white face masks and Nova branches was the umbrella. Taking advantage of this upturn, I recently visted Kamakura, one of the ancient capitals of Japan and a beauty spot that has so far escaped the worst consequences of Tokyo's relentless land-hunger. Kamakura boasts a great many sites of historical interest, but in a remarkable feat of bad planning, I only managed to see two of them. Still, they were well worth the short journey from Yokohama.

The most popular attraction in Kamakura is the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine (below), dedicated to the victory of a local warlord over his enemies in the late 12th century, a victory that first united Japan as a single entity and ensured Kamakura would be its capital for over 130 years.

Like many ancient temples and shrines in Japan, Tsurugaoka Hachiman is maintained in wonderful condition, although most of the original shrine has presumably been replaced and renewed over the centuries. We were lucky enough to witness a ceremony involving what looked like the shrine's top brass parading through the grounds to strange and haunting music, before performing some rites in front of a crowd of well-dressed dignitaries. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out what they were actually doing as yet, although a student suggested it probably had something to do with the arrival of spring, symbolised by the first cherry blossoms. If this is true, then the "well-dressed dignitaries" were probably executives of surgical mask-producing companies giving thanks for the sudden release of unfathomable amounts of cedar pollen.

Perhaps even more impressive is the Diabutsu, or Great Buddha, one of the largest bronze statues in the world. Completed around 1350, the Diabutsu still watches serenely over the pilgrims and tourists below, and cuts a seriously impressive yet peaceful figure. Although Buddhist traditions have exercised a significantly greater influence in Japan than other faith systems, most Japanese people are actually pretty secular in their beliefs, or combine following Buddhism and Shintoism. I would guess that this has contributed to many of Japan's ancient relgious sites not falling prey to the periodic purges associated with changing religious politics in other parts of the world, and that people of all faiths have contributed to their upkeep. The Diabutsu, therefore, is still in remarkable condition for its age, and was well worth the extra time spent there.

I will, no doubt, go back to Kamakura many times and get to see the rest of its treasures. If they have survived countless centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis and bombing, I am sure they can endure a little longer until I get myself better organised. But having settled in and dealt with the formidable array of necessary "start-up" administration, always a drain on free time when you first arrive in a country, my Tuesday-Wednesday weekends are now set to encompass many new touristy/culturey experiences. Next week sees me taking an overnight trip out to Hakone, my first night away from the big city since I got here, which already has me pretty excited.

In the meantime, anyone who is remotely interested may care to find many more photos from the past six weeks right about... here. And while you bore yourself rigid with my holiday shots, I am off to plant some cedars and start my own surgical mask-making empire.
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