What’s Japan, what makes this huge little country stand so boldly on the world stage? Surely that question posed to ten different people would draw ten distinct answers, as distinct as the many facets of what makes this nation the character that it is. For many of our generation the romantic seed of Japan was planted with the Shinkansen, the revolutionary bullet train in 1964. On a huge loan from the world bank that still wasn’t enough, the team developing the project earned themselves the moniker of ‘the crazy gang’ such was the Shinkansen’s ambition. originally called the Yumi no Chottokyu which literally means the super-express of dreams, the Shinkansen was to the world a window into what a high tech future might be, in 1964 that first bullet train reached top speeds of over 320km/h and in doing so forged a new pathway into history yet written and vindicated the crazy gang for dreaming big.
Japan has a checkered history of ruthless imperialism but that was a long time ago for those of our generation. It also has a dubiously honourable recent war history but again that all happened before Charlie or I came to this world. For people of our generation, our consciousness beyond clinical history books began with this nation that launched into a sophisticated high tech world that we couldn’t believe, this mysterious place where dreams were possible and the amazing happened regularly. We’re now boarding the first wave of ‘Brand Japan’ to flow across the oceans from the post war Japan we grew up with, the Shinkansen.
We’re not train spotters, we see them lining the tracks to take photos of the super express of dreams, but we’re excited none the less. On a childhood infused with superhuman Samurai, Shogun and Ninja, anime cartoons, techy gadgets and robots, mysterious Geisha, brash Sumo, Imperious Mt Fuji, cool hairstyles, futons and Zen Gardens; Japan was more than just the Shinkansen, it was a land of imagination and wild dreams for our childhoods. From the massive list of influences that stamped our formative years this is tick-box number one, the Shinkansen surges us forward to the neon lights of Tokyo and a whole hearted dive into the land of dreams, the land that shaped my childhood imagination like no other.To the second, the Shinkansen pulls up on time into Tokyo station and we do the mad dash across the platform to our city train blinking excitedly at the buzzing world around us. Stepping out of Shinjuku station past the guard that delivers a formal bow and a passing hand ushering us through the gate we’re immediately thrust into the blinking crazy world of Tokyo that defines this populous city. Tight streets extend at haphazard angles decked with more twinkling lights than a gaudy Christmas tree while a world bustles beneath a tall skyline as endless as the sky it reaches for. People bustle along these heaving streets as only Japanese can, with restrained deference to order that doesn’t feel like bustling at all.
We find our apartment remarkably easy but I guess this is Japan, the wild chaotic world we often seek out has not visited these shores for centuries, there’s street signs and everything in a nice twist of convenience. Bags dumped we face up to, and tick off ideal after ideal from this nation of imagination; Tokyo pocket bars are a must, and the next box to be ticked on this list a lifetime in the making. Walking past laneways choked with mysterious doors leading to bars for no more than five or ten people we eventually launch into a tiny space with chairs for just six and order a beer. A lone girl shells pistachios beside us while a wise looking old man with a white beard waits patiently behind a bar cluttered with animation drawings, baseball memorabilia and vintage beer ad’s sunk into the shadows that occupy this little room in large slices.
We order two beers and soak up this broom closet that is this famous style quirk of Japan; Tokyo, we have arrived. In no time the girl is doing her very best friendly hustler impersonation and we’re on guard for the possible scam. No pistachio’s thanks, no I can pour my own beer, no we’re not buying you a drink. As the not so smooth hustler changes persona to her very best naughty Japanese school girl it all becomes clear; she’s not a hustler at all, just barking up the most wrong tree in the forest. Short skirt pulled up high, straight legs push out a perky bum as she leans in expectantly to Charlie with a pistachio clenched between teeth of a too innocent smile. It appears this naughty schoolgirl needs a spanking; I presume. To say that she didn’t get the reaction she was after is an understatement as she leaves in a rush to bark up less inappropriate wood.We were downing our beer to make a swift exit but with the evacuation of the Japanese Chrissy Amphlett we’re soon joined by another couple of tourists and there’s two tables of Japanese chess going. The reserved man who looks like a more Japanese version of Mr Miagi from the Karate Kid movie takes a seat to teach us the game and in no time it’s five friends in the best man-cave bar on earth. Scratchy Beatles songs backdrop glowing orange light from spaceship style retro lamps as we slip through another glorious Japanese beer in a space that these tiny bars are world famous for. A lifetime of ornamentation from Mr Miagi surrounds us, this is his life, his anime characters, his baseball team, his music, his world drawn to this tiny room and tonight we’re his exclusive guests.
Beyond the torrent of influences Japan produced to tint our youth, we have an adult world of temples, architecture, hot springs, crazy game shows, mountains, gardens, cuisine, sake and so much more to taste, feel and explore in just the remaining few weeks of this great adventure. On the super express of dreams we rocketed from, through and into a world exploding with influences and style too big for a lifetime to dream of, let alone experience. The Shinkansen, the bright lights of Tokyo, pocket bars and even a brush with the wildly permissible kinky Japanese sexuality fill this day, a handful of world renowned icons in a few hours. Welcome to Tokyo. As fast as we can think of icons distinctly Japanese, more endlessly form up behind those we can name. Japan is a land of icons but more, it’s a land that exists for adults and children alike in the rarified air of imagination.
The super express of dreams surely could only come from Japan, the nation of super dreams. So what is it for you; computer games, photo happy tourists, powerful industry, feng shui design, haiku poetry, cherry blossoms and box hedges? Keep dreaming up iconic markers because things people have barely dreamed of fall from the sky like rain in this dream with no waking moment, the moment we’re just calling Japan for now.