Scenes nice from far but far from nice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 12:00am

There are aspects of life in Japan that suffer from what I call the Mount Fuji syndrome - noteworthy from afar but up close they are a monumental letdown.

Mount Fuji, for instance, is a rubbish dump, probably the most picturesque rubbish dump ever to grace a calendar, but a dump none the less. It is a national symbol littered with discarded paper and plastic tokens of human indifference.

The kudos Japan gets for its low crime rate must be qualified by the fact that gangsters openly run certain city areas. The quaintness of police cycling around is to make sure they cannot catch the yakuzas in their imported, tint-windowed German cars.

This is a society that can efficiently organise its crime, but not a taskforce to clean up a littered national symbol.

Image is king in Japan, substance the court jester.

Even weddings, events of substance in most countries, do not stand up to closer scrutiny. Weddings should be one of those areas in life that can be safely stored in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get file. However, my wife and I have discovered that this is not the case in Japan.

The Japanese are surprisingly spontaneous, given their reputation for demure behaviour. Recently my wife bumped into a woman at the supermarket and coincidentally met her again the following day, when she invited us to her daughter's wedding the next weekend.

All this by the vegetable section. If they had met by the fine wines we would probably be sharing their home. We both turned up at the venue on the due date, were ushered to our seats and then the music began.

The 'priest' entered to the rousing soundtrack of a Hollywood boxing film. Then the bride appeared, to background music from another Hollywood epic, this one about a ship sinking after hitting an iceberg (surely not a good omen). This was followed by music from a film about a bodyguard. We were in serious need of a DJ.

The congregation stood up, sat down, stood up again, and then the priest uttered something and dashed out as if he'd forgotten to pay the parking meter and the happy couple kissed and everyone cheered. We were whisked inside to a restaurant (the wedding had been in a garden). The restaurant is renowned, apparently, for its crepes, Kobe beef, strudel and weddings.

This is a make-believe, mix-and-match type of society: Christian on Christmas Day, Buddhist on New Year's Eve and Shintoist on New Year's Day.

About one per cent of the population is Christian but about 60 per cent of the weddings are 'Christian theme weddings'.

My wife and I escaped the wedding as discreetly as possible and were in sore need of an authentic Japanese experience to regain our cultural balance.

We did not have to travel far before we came upon Kobayashi's Diner serving 'genuine Japanese curry' and gracing the front cover of the menu was a picture of a pristine Mount Fuji.