Wednesday, 7 January 2009

I am writing this from my friend's living room in the mountains near Nagano, Japan. The ski slopes made famous by the Winter Olympics are barely an hour's drive away. The city I'm staying in, Suzaka, is a satellite of the larger city of Nagano. With a population of just over 50,000 it barely qualifies as a city. It certainly has the feel of a village. The girls I'm staying with, Soleil and Katie, are teaching here as part of the JET program, and after four months out here can hardly go anywhere without recognising someone they know - often their students, kitted out in tight black leather jeans and bouffant hair to make Noel Fielding jealous. The buildings are low, as is the build quality, with no central heating and thin walls. Soleil describes them as 'glorified cardboard boxes'. It makes them exceedingly cold, but there's a fantastic kitschy feel to them that I can't help but love.

Japan so far is almost exactly what I expected. At passport control a woman overstepped the waiting line. When she was called back by the attendant there was exchange of bows, the woman repeatedly covering her face in shame, that reflected the overwhelming mutual crushing embarrassment of the whole situation. In a queue for train tickets I started to sneeze, and the man standing behind me immediately took three steps backwards and gave me the 'Is he contagious?' look. On the train ticket inspectors bowed each time they left the carriage. Among the low houses in Suzaka, off the beaten track for tourists and Western visitors, restaurants are marked imperceptibly Kanji (Japanese character) writing in their windows, and already I've seen children stare when I've walked past. It strikes me as quite an inaccessible place, more so even than China. Even throwing something out is near impossible without an understanding of Japanese, since the bins are assorted into at least five different recycling options, with no way of telling between them.

Still, there's something lovely about this city. It has the impact of a ski village, fresh faced cold and clean air, with snow-peaked mountains on all sides, without the short term triviality of a ski resort. The quiet streets and shut-down feel, during the day and at night, give it a sleepy quality that's very calming. It's a nice change after a series of megacities, and the throbbing nightlife of Phuket.

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