Blue skies, cascading rays of sunlight, crisp but cool transitional breeze into spring – what more can one ask for? Well, maybe a little less concrete in the immediate surroundings and a stop to the dull throbbing in the back of my brain, but other than that, these sort of days are pretty rare, especially here on the ass end of Japan, so feeling all inspired, I decided to hop on my bike and visit the other teahouse district here in town (veritably, our town overflows with culture, touristy and contrived as it may be), and take some pictures.
I had forgotten to take the pannier bags (a fancy word for “saddlebags“)off of my bike, so just as I turned onto the final bridge marking the entrance into the teahouse district, I became aware of how absurd I must have looked – seemingly packed for a cycling expedition across the wilds of Africa when all I wanted to do was snap a few pictures on the other side of town. I did notice that people tended to give me a little more berth as I passed (hey, they’re not that big!), and on more than one occasion, I overheard whispered snippets of “sugoi…!“, which, granted, really isnt all that unusual around these parts since you can apparently merit a “sugoi” for something as simple as stapling two pieces of paper together. (An experience, which, to this day, I still remember not-so-fondly as one of the moments I was closest to committing homicide).
But it wasn’t until an elderly guide, standing guard at a brightly (dare I say “gaudily”?) festooned lamp post in one of the side alleys asked me if I had come far – to which I replied with the name of my neighborhood here in town – and he asked me what prefecture that was in….!!! that the true depths of people’s misinterpretations really began to sink in. I felt like the ultimate poser – all these people thinking I had pedaled all the way here however many hundred kilometers from another prefecture to snap pictures of this sad little excuse of a teahouse district armed with nothing better than my digital point-n-shoot (let me tell you, if I had to pedal my ass here on bicycle from another prefecture you’d better believe I’d make it worth my while – I’m talking telephoto lenses, tripods, assistant with the light meter, the whole nine yards) – when in fact I lived barely 15 minutes away. A poser and I wasn’t even trying!!
I was relating this story to a friend of mine and he asked what on earth I was doing with panniers on my bicycle anyway (since I, contrary to what one might believe, don’t routinely go on cross country cycling expeditions in Africa), to which I explained that I used them to store all the various clothes, paperwork, rain gear, computer stuff, etc. that I needed to schlep from my house to work to my girlfriend’s house and back all the time without killing my back with a backpack which would be absurdly huge if it was to contain all that. He mused over it for a bit (simultaneously tearing his starbucks coffee cup into three neat little piles sorted – disturbingly – by color) (why do almost all my conversations inevitably take place at starbucks? Anyway, being something of a “weight weenie“, he agrees that it’s a good idea, but then follows it up by asking “yeah, but doesn’t that add like a pound and a half to your bike?”
Being half-panda, I’m not the lightest creature on the planet – my friend, while not quite up to panda-standards, nonetheless is no tiny ballerina himself. In any case, if you weigh over 200 pounds, does it really matter if your bike weighs an extra pound or two? In many ways, this sort of weight-weenie type culture and its obsession with shaving every single last ounce of “unneccessary weight” off of a bike – and its siblings in other fields such as cars (horsepower-freaks) and computers (hardware-nuts) – strikes me as the ultimate in poser-dom. I mean, is it really like that extra 1/2 ounce you saved by switching to an exotic alloy for the derailleur really going to make any difference in the long run? Wouldn’t it simply be easier to lose one or two pounds by dieting for a couple of days? It’s not like any of us are the next Lance Armstrong – exotic titanium fiberglass fibers and complex aerodynamic computer profiles are wasted on mere mortals like us.
And yet, that sort of practical-minded way of thought holds no sway in this country, where gharish excess and singled minded pursuit of “the newest and the best” – irrespective of actual need is the rule, rather than the exception. Thus it is not uncommon to see skiers drop thousands of dollars US on the latest and greatest ski fashions, gear and equipment – and then promptly snowplow all the way to the bottom. Or to see cars equipped with tow hooks and grill guards that will never go off road, or casual point-and-shoot tourists equipped with photographic equipment that would make any professional drool with lust, or – as I hilariously saw one time – a man dressed in full – and I mean full Harley Davidson leathers – from head to toe, complete with heavy duty riding boots, kevlar abrasion patches, a helmet with flames and crossbones painted on it – the whole works – swaggering out of a building like he was the leader of the Hell’s Angels – and then promptly mount a tiny little pathetic 200cc “motorcycle” – barely a step above a moped, really, and put-putter off into the distance at 15 mph. Embodying the truest sense of “poser-dom” and really taking it to heart, in Japan, appearance is everything – skills, need and suitability are all questions that never seem to have much bearing on the final results of any undertaking. Put more colloquially – it doesn’t matter how much you suck, just as long as you look good while doing it.
And while the intellectual in me revolts in disgust and abject horror at this way of thought – and the wanton consumerism and superficiality it engenders – at the same time, a part of me deep down not only understands and accepts this part of the Japanese mindest, but wants to embrace it with wide open arms.
I complain a lot about Japan, and my co-worker often asks me why, if I bitch and moan so much, do I still stay here? And inevitably, while my answers change depending on my mood and whether or not I’ve eaten lunch at the time, one response always seems to surface – “Because sometimes the way the Japanese are is exactly the way I am” – whether it means the way of thought, way of doing something, or just the way things are. There are so many times in my everyday life when I’m doing something and I have to just pause – over some tiny little thing, from the way the faucets are designed, to the way toilet paper holders work, to the way a mechanical pencil advances the lead – pause and marvel to myself “if I was to make such a thing, this is exactly the way I would make it….!!!” It never ceases to amaze me that whoever designed the object in question must have sat down and thought about it in exactly the same way I would have – and that this country must be filled with millions of people who share this exact same way of thought.
And thus, when I’m in the bike shop – ostensibly to purchase a cheap replacement brake pad – and I take a circuitous route back to the register, passing by the beautiful, beautiful carbon-fiber-titanium alloy beauty of a racing bike, running my fingers all over the drop-dead sexy super-thin profile kevlar racing wheels, top-of-the-line ultra-light weight components, glistening gears and a design that looks like it could cleave the wind like Moses parting the Red Sea, I can’t help but smile even as the pads of my fingertips rest ever-so-lightly for a split second on the $4000 (US) price tag before letting it flutter away from my vision as I turn and head back to my much more mundane reality – yeah, I will never ever in a million years ever be worthy of such a bike or be able to ride it to anything near its fullest potentional – provided even it didn’t break the first time I sat on it – but still I want it, simply because it’s new, it’s the best and because it simply looks good. And it is in moments like this – even as the shop owner, catching my longing gaze at the resplendant beauty in the corner, informs me that he’s sold three of them in the past month – that I realize that despite all my complaints, and all the difficulties I have encountered in the past, there are still some things about Japan that I just plain get.
A few more pictures from the teahouse district after the jump.