I once briefly wrote that there were two Japans; one of the night and one of the day. It was a slightly offhanded comment at the time, but as I observed more from different angles, I found myself continually reflecting upon just how much truth it carried. I saw them both, I experienced them both, and to some degree I began to understand them both.
Isazeki mall, this was my stomping ground for the three months I spent in Yokohama. I cycled down that road almost without fail on every day that I had stayed in the city. It’s a long, wide, pedestrian strip that is littered with cheap restaurants, vintage clothes shops, and odd independent stores with their own specialisation (eg the Korean boyband merchandise store). At first I saw and watched that street every day because it lay between my house and the gym, and later every night, as it lay between my apartment and the bar.
During the day and early evening, Isazeki mall had rows of lights that hung above and across it, while some speakers (that I could never find) constantly lulled out this calming music upon the street consisting of smooth and slow tones, devoid of emotion and in tune with this, also of words or lyrics. The music did not only play on the streets, but in every restaurant also. These restaurants were usually catered towards solitary eating; stools surrounding the bars were occupied by those finishing or breaking from work, and tables with multiple chairs were hardly to be found. I instantly recognised the style of music from SEGA video games, perhaps from menu screens, or areas where you explored calm and happy new towns. Before I’d figured it were only the theme music to the odd, usually animal towns of Japanese video games, though after arriving in the country I quickly came to realise that it had instead perhaps served as the theme music to actual Japanese life. The music carried the people down the street quietly and calmly, into the diner in which they silently slurped their soup and ate their rice, before they re-entered the street and were transported by further soft tones to their front door. One hip hop clothes store did however lay in stark contrast and defiance to the serenity. Here gangster rap playing from the front would briefly interrupt the Isazeki mall waltz, and you’d hear characteristic rap lyric signatures such as ‘muthafucka’, ‘nigga’, ‘fuck a bitch’, and ‘fuck a muthafuckin bitch nigga’ fade in and fade out as one passed, something that I’m sure was lost on and barely noticed by the rest of the crowds, and so something that never failed to amuse me. I often wondered if had the words ever been understood, if it would have then been allowed to continue.
Though the more regular interrupt to the calm came from the shouting. The silence of the people was frequently broken by the (if unprepared) startling screams of ‘ilashaimassenn!’ (welcome) that simultaneously were flung your way from all members of staff present in whichever establishment you entered. The words would be delivered with a bow and a smile, and you’d be ushered to take a seat before being provided with that world famous Japanese service. This service extended from prompt placement at restaurants with quick delivery of drinks and food, to the handing over and unwrapping of ‘oshiburo’ (packaged hand wipes), to the front seat operated opening of taxi’s rear doors by the driver. Perhaps it was due to my western upbringing, but I was never too appreciative of such services. It often only had the effect of making me feel retarded, where I was left thinking I could’ve unwrapped that myself, opened that myself, or just generally done that thing myself, and was half expecting that they’d strap a helmet to my head when I tried to leave in case I were to walk into the door (though then again the doors were always automatic, or if not someone would open it for me anyway, so perhaps they felt they had already catered to this risk).
Despite the tranquility and quietness of the stores’ surroundings, the shouting part of the Japanese service however never seemed out of place. Emanating from smiling lips, in unison, it gave the impression of the happy and collective town I’d witnessed in the video games that had played the same songs. And just like the characters manning those fictional towns, I sometimes felt as if the staff too were running under script; bow intensively, smile, speak in formal Japanese, hold yourself in formal body language, serve customer. If you did something that they didn’t expect, you’d cause chaos and have all members of staff at a complete loss of what to do. When I once walked into a cafe/restaurant high up on a building because I wanted to see if there was a good view to film from, the waiter followed me, and though I explained what I was doing, he couldn’t comprehend at all what was happening or the protocol for it. Some other staff joined him and they were all speechless, trying to point to chairs, and staring at me with quivering smiles, the lips shaken by a panic more vividly noticeable in their eyes. I’d done something different, I was a foreigner, I was something different, and people couldn’t or didn’t know how to react. This was the Japan of the day; the calm, quiet and composed town where everyone just silently and efficiently got on with their business, where everything worked, where everyone smiled, where people behaved as expected, where you got what you expected. This was the Japan of the day; this was SEGA town.
And during my first few months I thought I knew SEGA town.
But another world rumbled underneath…
(to be continued)