Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why Japan?

We have just returned to the US after having lived in Tokyo for a year, and it was an important year for our head engineer.  He was old enough to enjoy his surroundings beyond what was immediately in front of him, and even better was old enough to be trusted with tiny little mechanical devices like model trains.  Although he has picked up new lines of interest over the past few years, including the standard boy passions like dinosaurs and ocean creatures, he still loves his Thomas & Friends.  It's a rare day when he doesn't play with them, and he probably knows more about how steam engines work than any adult born in the diesel era.  Instead of growing out of his Thomas stage, he instead expanded his train love to include anything that runs on the rails, so Tokyo was his mecca.  He loved the endless subway rides and level crossings, and I think the trip we took on the Shinkansen was the highlight of his year closely followed by the Hakone rail system winding up the mountain side.

Beyond that, Japan is a beautiful place; rare, unique, and completely foreign.  It's hard to adequately imagine the level of sensory overload that comes with stepping into the Shibuya crossing or Shinagawa station for the first time.  It's dizzying and isolating.  Two blocks away from the mass of humanity wind these little tiny streets so cramped cars edge through at walking pace and corners require three point turns.  The flashing billboards and press of people turn into crowded narrow buildings and an intimacy with your surroundings you don't find in western cities.  Everything is clean and safe, but exciting and frightening in its foreignness.  A street 8 feet wide winds between 3 and 4 story buildings, every type of shop and restaurant imaginable topped by floors of apartments with laundry hanging over the balconies to dry.  To a foreigner, everything seems closed off and unwelcoming, but opening any door results in the same irasshaimase! (いらっしゃいませ) and whatever tiny bit of English anyone might speak comes out with as much polite helpfulness as possible.

Japan is equal parts beautiful, fascinating, frustrating, isolating and endearing.  It will probably be hard to convey that on a 3' x 8' model train layout, especially since the chief engineer rarely lets me drive the metro trains.

Hayaku: A Time Lapse Journey Through Japan from Brad Kremer on Vimeo.

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