It’s the day after the storm, the food storm that is; last nights dinner still seems like a strange side effect of an illicit drug binge; we had a surreal experience we still can’t describe but we’re sure it happened. Depressingly clear headed we are into the day after finally braving the complexities of a Japanese toilet. Lets just say that I could possibly get used to gently warm water kisses on my bum, and what’s more exciting is that I know which button that is. Through our apartment building that seems lifted from the pages of a 60’s architecture failure list we descend in the humid elevator at the centre of this building that has little or no ventilation, obviously built for the cold Sapporo winter with little regard for the steamy summer.
And so the trend repeats in Sapporo, strangely enough it’s a bit of an architectural wasteland calling back to a boom time somewhere in the 60’s or 70’s before humanity realised that buildings can look something other than ugly. In a very Japanese way however all is not lost, blooming garden beds burst with colour and impeccable cleanliness greets us at every corner. Just like some US cities Sapporo architecture is from a generation ago and hasn’t moved on but unlike those oppressive US cities the people here definitely have moved on bringing Sapporo to the cusp of possibly an art-deco paradise. Is there such a thing as an art deco paradise? We can’t say that this blocky, straight building style is for us but surrounded by Japanese perfection it’s far from oppressive. It’s not ugly but it’s not beautiful; it’s a kind of minimalist salvation of a possibly bad situation making it a thing of it’s own.One unmissable feature of this city stuck in another time is the technology dripping off every available corner, post and shopfront. Vending machines shoot you out tickets for everything imaginable as robots make their first claim for world domination in Sapporo Japan; And Sapporo is considered a quaint city by Japanese standards. The mind boggles. Oddly enough, the robot obsession doesn’t come across as impersonal, it’s convenience backed up by impeccable human politeness and courtesy. All this technology doesn’t seem to clash or get in the way, it’s just all very; convenient.
What else is rather convenient is the convenience stores, the regular emblem of tautology best avoided if you can help it. But not in Japan. Our first night with Ken and Aki we were introduced to convenience sweets, a ritual of swinging by a convenience store for creme caramels, coffee jelly, cheesecake and a whole range of other goodies on the way home from a night out. To say that going into a convenience store goes against the grain for us is an understatement but since then we’ve had takeaway meals of self esteem supporting quality from right beside the milk fridge. We even bought tickets to the rugby from a convenience store, selecting seating and everything; and you guessed it, from a vending machine.
The time travelling exercise of Sapporo continues on our way to the Sapporo beer museum as we stop by a convenience store for a very convenient lunch eaten on a very conveniently placed bench. Strolling streets that I can only describe as bare and free of clutter, we eventually arrive at the museum standing prominently in red brick before manicured lawns and gardens. Now this is where this era of architecture belongs, with an edge of gritty industrialisation against elegant touches. Inside, all the hints of Sapporo’s mish-mash come colliding gloriously together as minimalist chic meets industrial hipster cool. Oh and the beer tasting menu is outstanding, there’s no shyness to make beer taste like beer instead of bland swill to appease a bland audience here, Sapporo beer lives up to its world class reputation with ease.From the highs of the Sapporo museum to the lows of our heat tube turned into a stack of shoeboxes we stroll the rolling clash of this ugly city made beautiful, or at least something in between. In truth the beauty is not in the streetscapes, it’s in the nooks and crannies, the laneways and elegant spaces behind the discrete facades. Fo much of the year Sapporo is drowned in snow making the locals experts at functional facades and dazzling inner wonderlands. Even in our building, inside the room there’s a level of comfort that’s not easy to achieve for a space this small, but I guess that’s just very Japanese right? From six weeks of Vietnam where the world lives on the streets to Sapporo where the streets are stripped bare for the spaces behind, we’re having to adjust quickly to a new way of perceiving a beautiful world and what spaces in that world are for living.
Beautiful or not, the thing that has been nagging at me all day is this notion of vending machines, robots and self serve convenience in relation to making life better, easier, even happier. It’s the age old question: does technology make us any happier? I often think that it doesn’t. In searching for a simple life of abandoned clutter and distraction I’ve pushed to make my life just that, simple. In just a few days, Sapporo has thrown a spanner in the works with convenience stores that aren’t just cheap crap made expensive and machines that don’t remove humanity, instead giving more time for it. So where to from here for the post modern latte hippie soap box tirade faced with convenience that’s absurdly convenient? Reject modern trappings in favour of a simple life, or allow the trappings to make life simple?