The Contrasts of Japan

Think of Japan, and what comes to mind? The perfect symmetry of Mt Fuji, the controlled calm of a Tea Ceremony, Kimonos, or Sushi? Japan is all that and more. This East meets West paradigm can be a place of extreme contrasts, as we found out not long after settling in to our hotel in Shinjuku, west of Tokyo.

From our hotel, the contrast between concrete jungle and green space of Chuo Park, is obvious

Shinjuku

With 20 tracks and 12 train links, Shinjuku Railway station is the busiest railway station in the world. Each day, up to 3.5 million commuters pass through its gates.

Given the vast metropolis that surrounds them, Japanese are fortunate to have a green oasis Shinjuku Chuo Park, a few steps away.

Chuo Park

This tribute to Zen incorporates gardens, a children’s, playground, waterfall and contrastingly – smoking cabins!

SMOKING cabins and Tai Chi

As I walked through this delightful park, I thought the smoking cabins seemed counter-intuitive to the objective of tranquility and Zen. Yet that did appear to be the objective of not only, the Tai Chi group, but also the gentleman playing the bamboo flute. (Even with the slight off key notes). This is Japan!

Again, we found it hard to believe another world was around the corner. What a contrast.

And if that wasn’t enough of a contrast, for us, we were about to discover the Pachinko phenomenon.

Pachinko MADNESS – What is it?

To the novice, Pachinko parlours are without doubt, a full on assault to the senses, bordering on sensory overload. But if Ikebana and Shinto Shrines are where Zen reaches its ‘zenith,’ Pachinko parlours must represent the flip side as leisure pursuits.

Pachinko parlours are full of loud, colourful and very noisy fantasy games. By day or night, grown men, mostly wearing suits, obsessively shove thousands of tiny beads into the hungry mouths of their electronic fantasy machines. Here is a taster: –

Not familiar with Pachinko? That might be because, to my knowledge, the game is purely a Japanese phenomenon.

As Gambling for cash is restricted to horse racing in Japan, the Japanese play for tiny beads, which can be exchanged for cards or tokens, redeemable at a separate location. At least, I think that is how they play it. To me these grown men were terribly reminiscent of teenage boys addicted to W.O.W or Fortnite! Crrrazzyy…

Thinking it is a harmless pastime of little consequence? Think again. “In 2015, Japan’s Pachinko market generates more gambling revenue than that of Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore combined.”[2]

The Pachinko Parlour at the Shinjuku Washington Hotel operates seven days a week from 10 – 2300, and boasts 500 seats and a SMOKING section!

Note: Smoking in public places in Australia has been banned for many years and to do so immediately relegates one to some back alley or rooftop alcove, usually beside large air-conditioning units, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Pachinko parlour lists the smoking room as one of their assets!

Another contrast for me to ponder about!

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56 thoughts on “The Contrasts of Japan

  1. I have never heard of Pachinko and would never connect this word with Japan. Good to know. Alas, I’d hate being there and witnessing the noise. Luckily there are such beautiful parks too. You balanced this post nicely.

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  2. With a population of nearly 127 million packed into 145,936 square miles (377.973 km) – roughly the size of the U.S. state of California – onto 6,852 islands, Japan is one of the most densely crowded nations on Earth. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have an official language, although Japanese is obviously its national language. It’s similar to the U.S. where English is the predominant – but not official – language. To the untrained ear, Japanese may sound related to other Asian-based languages. But linguists have confirmed it is unlike any other language in the world.

    More curious is that historians and archaeologists don’t know exactly from where the Japanese came. The most obvious sites are mainland China and the Korean Peninsula. But, even though evidence points to a Paleolithic culture on the archipelago some 30,000 years ago, no one is certain from where those people originated. Many Japanese (from what I understand) don’t like the idea that their prehistoric ancestors might have come from either China or Korea. But, unless people had settled in what is now Japan hundreds of thousands of years ago, before a cataclysmic seismic-type event somehow abruptly separated the islands from mainland Asia, from where else would they have come? I believe any of those scenarios (if not all three, or a mix of them) is possible.

    Regardless, Japan has one of the greatest standards of living on Earth, with one of the highest literacy rates and the longest known average life expectancy – about 80 years. It’s a truly fascinating place!

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    1. You are right, Alejandro! Fascinating it is. One of the guides told us about the indigenous population who were driven up North when other Asians came from the mainland in waves up til the third century?? Whether they came by boat or over a prehistoric land bridge, who can say? I am surprised to hear about the language. I studied Japanese at school and love its simplicity and orderliness. The hiragana characters are logical and easy to read, however the Kanji, which is based on Chinese characters is very difficult. It is quite fun to speak and Japanese love it if you do. I never saw any English signage in my travels there in 2004 but by 2018, English is placed alongside most Japanese signs. Although restaurants don’t always have an english menu. Not everyone is able to speak English though. It is especially rare in rural areas. Thanks so much for sharing a little of Japanese facts. You could have written a post about it!! Have you been there?

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      1. No, I’ve never been to Japan. The furthest west I’ve been from my current home is Ixtapa, México in September 1991.

        The purportedly indigenous people of Japan are called the Ainu who reside primarily on Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island), the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island. The Kurils stretch from Hokkaido to the Kamchatka Peninsula and have been the subject of a lengthy dispute between Japan and Russia. Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island off the nation’s eastern coast in the Sea of Okhotsk and is technically part of the Kurils. The exact number of Ainu is unknown, but they have a long history in both Northern Japan and Eastern Russia. They have also apparently been subjected to isolation and discrimination in Japan.

        Many historians believe the Ainu are direct descendants of Japan’s first documented culture, the Jomon, which goes back as far as 10,000 BCE. Because they have a Russian connection, some scientists believe the Ainu are actually Caucasian, which might explain some of the discrimination that mainstream Japanese have imposed upon them.

        I view them somewhat in the same way as the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Scientists and archaeologists have pretty much confirmed Native Americans are the region’s original inhabitants. But when their forebears first arrived here has been put into question. The prevailing theory has been about 25,000 years ago. Now a growing body of archeological evidence suggests arrival may have been thousands of years earlier. And the standard hypothesis that prehistoric peoples crossed the once-frozen Bering Strait (known as Beringia) has also been called into question. As with Japan, it’s quite possible humans arrived in the Americas from many different locations around the globe and at different points in the distant past. We modern humans often underestimate the intellectual and ambitious capacity of our ancestors.

        https://www.tofugu.com/japan/ainu-japan/

        On a side note, the Japanese have a specific word for a collection of unread books: “tsundoku”. That certainly describes me! I have nearly 500 books; most of which I’ve read. I hope to get to the rest before my time on Earth is over!

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        1. I can tell you are very well read, Alejandro! Such vast general knowledge. Yes I do remember hearing that ‘Ainu’ name now. And you are right, the ancient peoples were extremely smart. They were inventive and worked things it without the aid of written material. They could not have survived of they weren’t wileful and analytical. I had heard that the Bering strait hypotheses had been debunked. Such an interesting story, though. It is the same with the Australian Aboriginals in that they now believe the culture is at least 80 000 years older than first thought. They originated from the Indo caucasus regions. They survived in an extremely tough and unforgiving climate for all that time. We judge them harshly.

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        1. I think that is the most beautiful time to visit and the weather is mild. A bit rainy in the mountains. If you can visit Tsumago and Magome – post towns where you can see the old world of Japan. I will write about that shortly.

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  3. A fascinating country and culture. I had a good English friend who married a Japanese girl. They ended up living in Japan, After a few years they left and even though he liked Japan, he found it to be strictly conventional. Forever having to give gifts and a politeness bordering on the ridiculous. Of course the English like being unconventional and often are eccentric. A clash between conforming and being yourself is what he seemed to have found living in Japan.
    A very good post.

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    1. Thank you, Gerard. It is very interesting to hear of your friend’s experience. I did wonder how a westerner would cope with the Japanese rules and rigidity. I wonder if resistance to conform to Japanese standards leads to becoming a social paraiah. I sense a certain pressure in their society. Maybe that is why it is a kind of orderly chaos instead of just chaos. Possibly also why some Japanese prefer to live elsewhere?

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    1. Similar to the obsession some people have with poker machines, I can’t see the appeal. Especially when a person knows that they are rigged to win after a set number of goes. Where is the element of fun in that? You just keep playing until you win, but you never win enough as the machine is designed to make a profit. Seems pretty stupid to me. Not entertainment and no real skill or even element of chance. Do they exist in Singapore, Ju-Lyn?

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        1. You are fortunate not to have them around. Although it seems fairly harmless if it is not directly for money – it is time that is wasted that could be spent on more constructive activities.

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  4. What a great observation, Amanda. I think to Westerners, Japan is even more puzzling. It’s wealthy and technologically advanced, but it also has such a different culture than the Western world where culture (speaking in very broad terms) is so similar. I think it’s kind of sad that the men spend so much time in those video game parlors, among other things.. I have an impression that Japanese adults lead quite stressful lives and don’t have a good work-life balance.

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        1. Not casinos but Pachinkos, Daniel. Gambling for money is banned in Japan, apart from horse racing where it is allowed Pachinkos are not gambling for money but tiny beads which are then exchanged for gifts. There is an initial charge to play.

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  5. What a fun post! Thank you for sharing! Recently in the news, Japan has been working to allow casino building in its country. Since I’m from Las Vegas, this has been of particular interest to me. In step with their tradition, each casino would be themed according to its location. As to whether gambling for money would be included, I’m not sure.

    Also, if you feel up to it, please give my blog a peep!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. I wonder if they will change their laws to allow gambling for money. To find the answer, I guess one would have to ask why it wasn’t allowed in the first place.

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