Street Scenes

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Before we went to Japan we thought we knew a lot about it. Glenn had been living in Japan for 27 years, my parents had visited there several times and had maintained friendships with numerous Japanese couples and individuals theyd met through Rotary or various exchange programs, and our daughter had spent 10 days in Ichihara (in Chiba Prefecture) as part of a Sister City student exchange. As a result, we’d been deluged with information about Japanese culture and customs, both from personal reports and in the many clippings that Glenn sent regularly. We owned a liberal stock of Japanese clothing, eating utensils, ornaments, and foodstuffs, plus books on the Japanese language and culture. So we were well prepared for the traditional aspects of Japanese life. I also had a pretty good idea of the modernity of contemporary Japan, but Barney was less prepared for this and consequently constantly being surprised by high-tech innovations, many of which we really liked.

What constantly drew our attention, though, was the way the old and the new coexist side by side. In the middle of a street of modern buildings would be sandwiched a traditional one such as this. And the view from the observation deck of Osaka Castle clearly showed how this pocket of history was tucked into a contemporary environment. In some cases this is intentional: Osaka Castle Park contains many modern facilities, including a baseball field and a gymnasium. The same is true of the Meiji Jingu shrine grounds. And, especially in Kyoto, there seems to be a traditional temple or shrine on every block, its tile roof in striking contrast to the glass-and-metal skyscrapers surrounding it (many of them part of the temple compound).

Although the Japanese use public transportation and bicycles to a greater degree than we are used to (but probably not more than residents of large cities such as New York and Boston), there is no dearth of cars and trucks. Like much else in Japan, though, they are miniaturized. We were intrigued by the many types of cars and vans that seemed to have been truncated in the back. The ultimate, though, was this “Al Capp” car, spotted in the parking lot next to the one where we were boarding one of the convention buses. On our return home, I learned that this was a Smart city-coupé cdi,” made by Mercedes-Benz (now Daimler-Chrysler). It had been renamed the Smart fortwo for the 2004 model year and beyond and would be marketed in Canada in fall 2004 as a 2005 model. Daimler-Chrysler does not want to take any chances with those in the U.S. market; instead, Smart is coming to the United States in 2006 with a small sport-utility vehicle called the Smart “formore.” If this is successful, a “forfour” sedan (already available in the U.K.) may follow.

One of the things we admired in Yokohama was the decoration of the pavement. I regret that I never got around to taking a picture of the ornate manhole covers we saw there and elsewhere, but I did make a point of taking a photo of one of the many large arrays of ornamental sidewalk tiles, each bearing an image of something meaningful to the city. Looking at them more carefully, I suspect they may have been created by students, perhaps winners in a design contest.

Needless to say, given that most of the signage around us was in Japanese, there was much that we could not understand. But one of the signs we found most bewildering purported to be in English: “Free,Love & Dream Computer Solution”? I went to this company’s Web site and was no wiser. I can only imagine that it offers some kind of computer training.

Jeff evidently shared my fascination with the cavalier use of English. In Kyoto he took a photo of the ILL Store, which describes itself as an “Extra Dope Wear Select Shop.”