Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How to see the real Japan

Walker Percy has an interesting essay, "The Loss of the Creature," in which he argues that "it is almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon . . . and see it for what it is . . . "

Unlike Garcia López de Cårdenas who discovered the Grand Canyon—or at least was the first European to discover it—it is says Percy "no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon from the bottom
"As a result of this preformulation," Percy writes, "the the source of the sightseer's pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex." (Italics in original.)

If what the sightseer sees looks like the postcard, the tourist is happy. If not, he/she may feel cheated. Or complain he was not there at the right time. "The highest point, in terms of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex."

I reacted strongly to Percy's argument because I have stood at the South Rim at the Bright Angel Lodge and was impressed, but I was not awestruck because the sight met my expectations.

I also spent sixteen days riding a rubber raft through and camping in the Grand Canyon a few years ago and was awestruck because nothing in my experience—no postcard, book, or video—prepared me for the experience. I was filled with wonder and delight; it was, as promised, the trip of a lifetime.

But Percy's argument applies not only to the Grand Canyon. I have had people say, "I want to see the real Japan." Or standing in a silent temple's precincts say, "This is the real Japan."

I suspect that people who want to see the real Japan mean they want to see temples, shrines, medieval castles, geisha, priests, kabuki, noh, bunraku. All of which exist and all of which can, with some effort, be seen. Japan also has a number of parks to which antique buildings have been moved, something like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, but no one thinks such a reproduction is the real Japan any more than one thinks Sturbridge Village is a colonial town.
The read Japan—Takamatsu on Shikoku
But if the shrines, temples, and all the rest are the real Japan, so are the Lawsons and am/pm convenience stores, the Mister Donut shops, pachinko parlors, kaitenzushi shops (in which plates of sushi ride past you on a little track) underground shopping malls, rivers lined with concrete, and one of the ugliest urban vistas anywhere.

In my experience, all of Japan is the real Japan. Hokkaido is different from Honshu which is different from Kyushu from is different Shikoku. The trick—and I know it's hard, almost impossible—is to go with no expectations. To attempt, as far as possible, to see with fresh eyes. To see what there is as it is without consciously or unconsciously comparing it to what you already know. And to thereby experience the wonder and delight.