Marge: C’mon, Homer, Japan will be fun. You like Rashoman.
Homer: That’s not how I remember it. Besides, if we wanted to see Japanese people we could have gone to the zoo.
Homer: What? The guy who washes the elephants is Japanese. His name is Takashi. He’s in my book club.
I love experiences that are difficult to transmute into language; they recede before my fingers when I try to write about them and escape through the edges of my mouth when I try to talk about them. Pictures, too, can flatten the vibrancy and texture of a truly surreal encounter, as if compressing it into the second dimension deflates it like air from a balloon. Sometimes after a brush with the bizarre there’s a conspiratorial element with those involved, as if my dad and I would only be confirming that we’re certifiably insane if we tried to tell anyone about our evening. Okay…enough with the obnoxiously cryptic introduction! Check out one of Shinjuku’s primary nightlife attractions: Robot Restaurant.
“Restaurant” is a relative (and in this case, generous) term; dinner consists of a cold bento box that remained untouched on most tables. The sensory overload escalates gradually, and the show begins with a fairly tame traditional dance sequence involving immodestly dressed women, samurai weapons and orchestral music. The slow simmer of insanity begins with the second dance, where the women wield shields and swords that proudly bear the emblem of the Knight’s Templar (as if the show weren’t anachronistic enough already). Several mystifying minutes later, the craziness reaches a crescendo when spears of neon light cascade from the rafters, robots lurch awkwardly around the dance floor, and for the first time, Gangnam Style is an appropriate choice for background music.
A hybridization of a burlesque show, nightclub, and a futuristic theme park ride, the Robot Restaurant is peppered with cameos from one non sequitur after another. A dancing panda emerges casually from an entrance gates strangely reminiscent of King Kong. Giant, mechanical, robotic women (I’m somehow satisfied at being able to type those words in that order) sitting in ornate thrones-on-wheels roll around while scantily clad women dangle off their sides. Men in white lab coats plastered in glow sticks cruise around on Segways (the sole practical application of the Segway since their creation). At one point, two robotic samurai engage in a battle to the death with a woman in animal furs riding a stegosaurus while video game sound effects provide musical accompaniment, a testament to the gleefully, self-consciously simulated nature of the entire production. When you gaze into the abyss, a parade of dancing pandas gaze back.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve felt a magnetic pull towards Japan. Maybe it was partially prompted by my parents introducing me to sushi when I was much younger (leading to the realization that raw tuna and salmon, shrimp tempura rolls and grilled eel with barbeque sauce are some of the greatest gifts given to humanity). I’m sure being exposed to Japanese entertainment in the form of video games (if my nostalgia for Ocarina of Time and my continuing devotion to Super Smash Brothers are any indication) when I was growing up and movies later on (from Myazaki to Kurosawa) permeated my subconscious on some level. At the same time, it resonates on a deeper level than that; Western fetishization of Japan as an odd, enigmatic country has become a cultural cliché. In science fiction ranging from William Gibson to Phillip K Dick, Western artists have emphasized that Japan represents “the future,” equating them with technological superiority and a penchant for the bizarre.
Many Americans seem fascinated with Japanese culture, gawking at the mysterious, foreign “Other” that represents the incomprehensible and the gleefully surreal. Even one of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons (see above) relishes the opportunity to paint Japan with vibrant brushstrokes that emphasize a strange vision of the future (in one scene, a sentient toilet talks to Homer). Hell, all of this rambling, self-indulgent philosophizing on my part is immediately following three paragraphs of hyperbolizing the Robot Restaurant. Actually I take that last part back…cultural sensitivity is great but I feel like I’ve still barely skimmed the surface of our surreal experience that night (and awesome. Did I mention awesome?) To bring things back down to Earth, Japan is more than distilled weirdness, technological ability and futuristic toilets (although the toilet seat opening for me automatically thanks to a sensor on the floor was fairly magical) and I’m very grateful I had a chance to experience it firsthand.
After a relatively painless Saturday morning flight from Busan to Tokyo, my parents and I reunited at our hotel room, which almost necessitated a crowbar to pry off my mom’s hug. Apparently they missed me? As we munched on a traditional Japanese breakfast of assorted sushi, pickles and miso soup while staring out at the Tokyo skyline, I was forced to admit that I had missed the hell out of them too. Embarking on our first adventure, a trip to Meiji Shrine, solidified Tokyo’s status as a place with one foot in a world of antiquity while simultaneously plunging headfirst into modernity. Neon is the city’s primary color, technobabble is a common dialect and modern buildings built during reconstruction efforts following the Second World War dominate the city. At the same time, places like the Meiji Shrine, the Shinjuku Gardens, and the Imperial Palace (although you could only see the massive moat and stone walls surrounding the palace…entrance inside involves a bunch of annoying bureaucratic hoops to jump through) are reminders of the rich historical heritage threaded throughout the shiny exterior of the city.
I’m juggling a bunch of adjectives around in my head to try and do justice to our culinary adventures in Japan. Transcendent? Nah…somehow not complimentary enough. Divine? Hmm…too spiritual. Orgasmic? Getting closer… I’ll let The Simpsons take the reins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSwS-Ax_pL8 . In short, I’ll never be able to eat sushi, beef, tempura, yakitori or ramen again without feeling a pang of remorse and an urge to turn my nose up smugly and internally scoff while cataloguing all the ways that it pales in comparison (yep, I’m occasionally obnoxious). That night we ate at an Izakaya restaurant, essentially Japanese bar food composed of small dishes, and gorged on Kobe beef, sashimi and other Oriental om-noms. Kobe beef, marbled slabs of waygu meat with incredible tenderness and flavor, is like some Platonic ideal, relegating all other kinds of beef to a lower level on the totem pole. Throughout the rest of the week we ate early morning sashimi at Tsujiki Fish Market (the worlds largest and most hectic fish market), nibbled on yakitori at a restaurant that specializes solely in skewers and gasped as flames danced around steak and shrimp at a Teppanyaki (Hibachi) restaurant in Kyoto. During one particularly memorable night, once again perched amidst the Tokyo skyline, my dad and I had an incredible kaseiki dinner (multiple courses composed of small, artistically designed dishes) before hanging out in the lounge sipping on whiskey and peering out at the faint outline of Mount Fuji in the distance. Doesn’t get much better than that.
The several days we spent in Kyoto felt remote from the soft glow of neon and the manic (yet somehow orderly) energy pulsating in Tokyo. Providing a refreshing dose of antiquity, it works as the cultural yin to the sensory stimulation of Tokyo’s yang. Our trip was definitely a spiritual palate cleanser, from the reflective sheen of the Golden Pavillion projected upon a crystalline lake to the meticulously manicured rock garden at Ryonji Temple. The temples in Japan are very distinct from those in Korea; while in Korea the focus is on monolithic and stunning (though often gaudy), buildings, Japan is about the overall aesthetic. Ponds and trees are strategically placed, bridges serve as visual connective tissue for the landscape and the temples are seamlessly woven into the surrounding environment. The feeling that everything is in its proper place contributes to the vibe of contentment. Zen seems like an appropriate word here. Let’s go with “Zen.”