Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Hopelessly devoted to doughnuts?

Saturday 20 March

Throughout the previous week, morning television - for which I have changed channels since my earlier Invisible Touch post - has been engaging in blatant product placement for the launch of a Krispy Kreme doughnuts ‘restaurant’ (if that’s what it is), the first from this chain to open outside Tokyo. It is located in Nagoya JR railway station. Conveniently, the presenters have some of their sickly, calorific products in the studio. They go through the routine motions of live-on-air tasting (cue more predictable “oishii”s) and sledgehammer home to the waking masses the news of the imminent opening with drawn-out references to the event, as clearly and recurrently as if it were a tsunami warning.

Not that Krispy Kreme needs any more publicity by the Saturday, when I travel to Nagoya, from where Snow and I will take the train together to the Shinto shrines of Ise. The sweet-toothed, fad-seeking masses are queueing around the block and beyond.

(I see all of this having been waiting at the silver (‘gin’) clock, at the wrong end of the station. In fact, Snow had asked me to wait at the gold (‘kin’) clock on the opposite side. Moral of the story: know your きんs from your ぎんs, with the certainty of a Japanese Olympic figure skater.)

I later read reports estimating their waiting time at four hours, which means they could have travelled by shinkansen to Tokyo, where there is already a Krispy Kreme, and back, just as quickly. Could it be that the thrill is to be found in being among the first to sample this particular brand here in Nagoya?

Donald Richie ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Richie ) once likened the pachinko parlour experience to Zen meditation. I wonder: is there a ritualistic quality to this pilgrimage too? They could always elect to put off their visit until the queues disappear. But, no, there is a new shrine in town and this is about more than eating. All it takes it patience.

The failure of so many to find something better to do on a Saturday strikes me as shallow, yet harmless. (I am aware that many would hold the same opinion about my afternoons at Arsenal Football Club, where I still hold a season ticket.) I’d understand better if they were queueing for something which is here for a limited time only - a Boy Band book signing, an audience with a Great Leader (etc etc) – but this fastfood is going nowhere and will, once the novelty has faded, live up to that label. Members of a church congregation could no doubt expect to hear this kind of activity denounced as symptomatic of some underlying emptiness or spiritual malaise in modern life.

Which reminds me of a comment I read on two fellow Yamasa students’ blog the other day. Both are members of a reasonably large group of American Christian missionaries studying in Okazaki, learning Japanese whilst setting up a church in Nagoya and, like me, fairly new to the country. To quote them ( http://thefareastforus.wordpress.com/ ), admittedly before explaining the context, “hope is dismal in this place”.

Which place?” I am inclined to ask.

The post takes national suicide statistics – unarguably a cause for some serious soul-searching among Japanese - as the exclusive barometer of hopelessness.

- “..2009 is the 12th consecutive year in which more than 30,000 people have taken their own lives.”

- “Every day nearly 100 people take their own lives, at a rate of almost one every 15 minutes.”

- “in today’s Japan one is roughly five times as likely to die by one’s own hand as to be killed in a traffic accident.”

We have come a long way from the Krispy Kreme queue, for now, but that’s quite a weighty conclusion to reach based on such a limited measure. One can associate Japan with a number of depressing phenomena (think http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori ) but ... hopeless? It doesn’t feel that way.

There are possible alternative gauges of ‘hopelessness’ which, when applied, put a different complexion on things. Take size of prison populations, for example. America's is the largest in the world: 7.3 million Americans - that’s one in every 31, and one in 11 African, adults - are either in jail or prison or on parole or probation ( http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1529685/us_prison_population_is_the_largest.html ). Or drug addiction figures, which go hand in hand with those stats. As to the barometer used in the post, even if five times as many - that’s 30,000 - Japanese die predictably at their own hand as on their country’s roads, what does the fact that even more (40,000) Americans – around six or seven times as many as in Japan - die unpredictably in crashes every year tell us? ( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,146212,00.html - I even get to link Fox News!). A little pessimism can be a positive force too. And the higher incidence of a particular cause of death in any given country may result from a range of cultural factors; to explain it as symptomatic of ‘the status of hope’ there is easy, or convenient. It may just be that the Japanese are realists, less prone to delusion (as Dawkins might say). Yet they can approach life with optimism: notwithstanding the shocking suicide rate, they have the highest life expectancy of any country in the world (take your pick of sources). And don’t most of us hope for health and longevity?

Even allowing for different notions of ‘hope’ (essentially a question of belief), is it possible, or reasonable, to reach such a conclusion about a country knowing – i.e. having experienced - so little of it and its people? For now, we are little more than tourists. I'd like to think that we’re here less for what we bring than for what we hope to discover.

And if ‘the Japanese’ – sorry, that generalisation again - don’t have ‘faith’ as most would understand it, must we assume that they don't have ‘hope’? Depends on what one is hoping for, I suppose. But if there is no hope, why do over half of households have butsudan shrines in their homes, where they say prayers and leave offerings? Why do over two million go to Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo, and countless more to other shrines such as Ise, to see in each New Year? And for the Buddhist festival of Obon, held in summer, why do families unite in remembrance of their ancestors, visit and clean their graves? Does it matter that they’re expecting nothing in return? No, I’d say it makes their traditions more special. (No Pascalian wagers here.) I don’t feel much of this in my country. They are hoping to keep something alive.

Sunday 21 March

So here we are today at Ise, the most important shrines in Shinto ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/beliefs/religion.shtml ), rebuilt and - along with their spirits - renewed every twenty years. They are visited by six million Japanese every year.

In Shinto, there are no official sacred scriptures, no specific moral commandments. Arguably it’s not really a religion at all, yet it carries weight. (“Shinto has reverted to its more traditional position as a folk religion which is culturally ingrained, rather than enforced. In any case, Shinto and its values continue to be an impor)tant component of the Japanese cultural mindset.” ( http://www.search.com/reference/Shinto )) Most Japanese observe Buddhist rituals too - again, arguably, not a religion. Consequently, at many other sites, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can be found side-by-side, and visits to them are unlikely to be considered separate experiences.

The English-language pamphlet given to me by the Tourist Information people describes how “since ancient times, the Japanese people have lived in accordance with nature. All over Japan, there are consecrated rocks and evergreen trees in which kami (deity) reside, as well as sanctuaries (generally called jinja) in which kami are enshrined [..]. Kami are worshipped in matsuri which include ceremonial occasions as well as festivals in [sic] the local life”. I suspect that few Japanese would claim to believe literally in the presence of such spirits, if asked. Few even would ask themselves that question. Yet they feel a connection at these places.

(Three days later, I will visit Hida No Sato folk village in Takayama, in which a number of traditional wooden houses, some rescued from the site of a dam construction project, are preserved. At the entrance, there is a plaque with similar wording: “…. Japan’s economy has caused us to think too little about the more important spiritual side of life. We now realise that we should pay more attention to the cultural heritage our ancestors have built up…the quiet atmosphere of this place gives you a restful and peaceful feeling. Here, all things are harmonised well with nature”.)

Shinto has many shrines: over 100,000. Yet at Ise, where the crowds are big and the queues long, one cannot even enter the most important ones, which remain hidden behind walls. In some religions, this would defeat the object but here the act of visiting seems to matter most.

Snow buys omamori lucky charms ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omamori) for her parents and sister - and, it turns out later, for me too. Just like the shrines, and the spirits which inhabit them, there are different charms for different things. Inquisitive though she may be about what the future holds, she probably just wants to bring some more colour to the experience, as well as show her family that here she has remembered them, on her return. She doesn’t take it too seriously, no more than the fortune cards we buy from a vending machine later, and it’s the thought that matters.

We reach the great shrine of Naiku, where a large crowd forms a wide slow-moving queue up the steps ahead of us. Many are dressed in suits, the equivalent of ‘Sunday best’. At an Indian temple or an English football match, one might fear a crush or stampede. But not here. And no red baton men, where - for once - you might think they’d be needed. Restraint and forebearance, values of Shinto, very much in evidence. The joining and participating. Here, waiting for the spectacle is a part of the spectacle.

Without the crowds, I doubt it would be the same. Just as one might say at Nagoya Station.

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