Illusion of perfection

Getting to Japan is like leaving the present and take a leap into the future, at least technologically (I hope!). Even coming from Korea, which is on the right track to become "the future" soon, the impact is remarkable. Just to think that only two months ago we were cycling across the steppe and the desert of Mongolia feeling that we were centuries back, disembarking in Fukuoka feels as divorced from the present as the Mongolian experience. From the Chinese frantic chaos to the extreme Japanese order, the gap is also radical. At first glance, everything in Japan seems perfect and is dazzling wherever you look at. However, with each passing day, this hyper-ultra developed giant reveals very crude imperfections for anyone who's willing to take a deeper look without getting carried away by all that glitters.

Where everything is perfect

We had only cycled a few miles from the port to Tenjin - the chic district of Fukuoka - trying to absorb absolutely everything around us because all dazzled us, when a simple man in his 50s approached me after seeing me take a picture. He didn't speak English, but was very curious about seeing us riding loaded bikes and me photographing a building. Through signs we understood that he invited us to lunch. We accepted but (coming from the world we come) went with some suspicion, fearing some sort of scam, but there was nothing to fear, nothing could be further from that, the man turned out to be a truly lovely person moved by a genuinely deep curiosity. Right after lunch, he took us to a bakery where he asked us to choose anything we wanted for supplies. Upon leaving, loaded with bags getting ready to take off, he gives me a banknote of 5000 yen (about 50 usd). We could not believe it and never expected a welcome like that. Unfortunately, it was an affectionate, unique and fortuitous encounter far away from happening again.

As an entrance to the Japanese universe, Fukuoka is a magnificent portal. It is a beautiful city, it is neither too large nor too small and it is a perfect window through which we got the first impression of Japanese development. Since a long time ago I had forgotten what it was like to be in a city where everything is so objectively beautiful, a city that makes you feel so at ease while visiting it. In it Japan reveals itself. From a human standpoint, a masterful order, a strict respect for traffic laws, immaculately clean, people coming and going by the thousands without even bumping into each other, quietly, without shouting or showing disrespect, all in perfect harmony. From a material standpoint, stunning architecture, so overwhelming design wise and technology wise that it managed to revive the passion that I once felt for architecture back in my student years, even making me interested again in photographing buildings. Even the simple buildings are well kept, well designed, exquisitely constructed, revealing the hands of a working class that I would call intellectual. It's like being inside an architecture magazine, showing all the sorts of examples that you study while knowing at the same time that you have very little chances to get to build someday - at least in the third world where I come from -.

There is money here, lots of it, the most advanced imaginable technology, labor, qualified to the unspeakable and professionals with a strong identity, rigorous in detail and who understand the urban influence of their works. Japan, unlike catastrophic paradigms such as the Chinese, has managed to masterfully reinterpret its past and pass its DNA intact on to their present cities. In this way, past and present meet but not collide, harmonize..

The construction sites are undetectable. I could not stop hallucinating when passing in front of one. How could it be that there was no noise or dust? I used to hang around for a while to watch workers carrying materials back and forth, using machinery and so on but they made no noise at all! I looked in and there was no dust or sand or anything! Visually, they are covered completely with a fine white mesh that makes them "invisible" at the urban level, workers constantly sweep the sidewalks and water the saplings which lay on the front to not visually affect the neighborhood. If there is any movement of trucks, there are at least 4 people who stand before and behind the action to warn people and show them the safe way without unforeseen danger. My dear architect friends: this is simply AMAZING!

In Tenjin, entering a store that sells any thing is a delight. To begin with, there is no vendor who doesn’t greet you with a warm smile, stores are visually attractive, and a scented air is breathed. Fashion in the streets excels and the contemporary Japanese squander much style. They dress first class with very high quality clothing and design. For the first time throughout the trip we felt like two beggars and out of place. And finally, the world for which Japan is famous: Electronics. Entering the large electronics stores is like getting lost in the future. It is not only the overwhelming amount of things that are sold but the quality and variety of products available. It is too much to be absorbed and you can spend an hour or two inside of them and leaving literally dizzy. They are exacerbated consumption centers. There is nothing which is not available and there is the saying that says that, if you are looking for something and you don't find it in Japan it is simply because it doesn't exist. I am sure now that this is completely true. But we would see the maximum expression of Japanese development in ROBOSQUARE, the center of exhibition and sales of Japanese robots. There you can see all forms of robots being developed in Japan, from a samurai to a robotic arm that execute tasks, up to a dog that can hear our voice and interprets, wagging his tail, dance, gives us the paw, leans to the floor and lift its chest. After leaving there, we began to understand that Japan is in another dimension and the Japanese have the mind set on things that are beyond one's reality. It seems incredible that there is a society that is so apart from the majority of problems that affect the vast majority of people in the rest of the world. 

Finally, there are the parks, true urban oasis where to reconnect with nature after so much electronic madness. For good reason

Japanese gardens are famous all over the world; it is a delight to stroll through a park in Japan and in our case, in order to maintain our low travel budget, it is the perfect place in which to pitch our tent at night, because in Japan, it is allowed to spend the night in the public parks.

In them, we have not only a beautiful place to sleep but they are all equipped with spotless bathrooms, stocked with soap, toilet paper and provided with the essential masterpiece that Japan produces: the toilet, but I will devote them an entire entry later.

After sleeping in a central park in Fukuoka we left for Nagasaki, in southern Kyushu. We left the city along the coast, passing through residential neighborhoods, which are no less impressive. Architecture, whether traditional or modern, remains exemplary. The rich people in Japan not only seem to have good taste, but they seem not to be ostentatious. A rich person's house here is not as flashy and shiny as it is usually the case with the aberrations that most rich people with the uttermost bad taste build in the rest of the world. 

It is a pleasure to cycle on the roads. All vehicles are driven at speeds that would turn psychotic the average driver in my country and so many others. 50 - 60 km/h on the road and I think that it might be probably less. You feel safe, so safe that I think if I am hit or run over by a car here it will not hurt me. But that doesn't seem even feasible because they never stick behind us and overtake our bikes with plenty of space. Horns, I suspect they don't exist, even came to ask myself if cars continue to have it. The coastal road to Nagasaki is very nice, with moments beside the sea and moments through beautiful forests.

Even with forests and coastal roads, people are present without exceptions. Travelling through Japan clearly reveals its enormous population in such small geographical area. Everything is a large, uninterrupted urban continuum where there is virtually no space without people. Any place is the antithesis of a remote location. Everything is populated, and still, the order prevails and nothing feels overwhelming, whether it is traffic or people. Getting out of the cities takes us back to the more traditional Japan and is incredible how a country can be so futuristic and, at the same time, so traditional: because inside traditional Japanese houses, with their up-turned eaves'roofs and traditional ceramic shingles, sliding rice paper doors and delicious perfectly cared gardens, restore the harmony compensating for so much futurism.

As well as the gardens, temples serve as oasis, a necessary retreat from the frenetic world of technology in this country, a space that invites reflection and spiritual reunion. In Japan, everything seems to find its opposite to bring back the harmony. The temples, being Buddhist or Shinto, provide a magical space, a place where you go and in which you would like to stay a long time. They are beautiful, simply beautiful and, fortunately, there are many of them.

X-ray of widespread dementia

Nagasaki is a worldwide famous place and I believe that it is not necessary to explain why. Already nearly 70 years have passed since the tragedy and you can still perceive that Nagasaki and its people have suffered a lot. Despite being a developed city like any other, it is not a particularly beautiful city and in the faces of its inhabitants, you will notice the difference, at least with the people of Fukuoka. They don't seem to be happy even though the city did its best to change the mood with extravagances such as a giant Ferris wheel mounted on the deck of the 11th floor of a Shopping Center.

Human duty in the city is not to visit such Ferris wheel but the Atomic Bomb Museum. It is impossible to describe the sensation over the visit to this Museum, I think that it is only comparable to the visit of Auschwitz, Tuol Sleung, or the ESMA, and although what happened in these last is something of another nature, the remnant feeling is what prevails. It is a feeling of deep fear and anxiety, a sense of hopelessness by having seen what a certain part of the world's population can make when losing all possible humanity. The images show the events that led two nations (in this specific case) to a state that can only be defined as generalized dementia to get to what I imagine is the end of the world. The tour is an objective look at a portion of individuals, regardless of their nationality, that at this moment of history, seemed to have lost the part of the brain associated with empathy, that quality that connects us with other human beings and makes us recognize ourselves in the other. It is devastating and requires too much internal strength to tolerate the images. 74,000 people dead on the spot, hundreds of thousands of injured who have lost absolutely everything and were devoid of any type of infrastructure to cope with the time that would follow, a generation affected by radiation whose effects are still evident in the births of the present and much more... It is horrifying and fills the soul with fear, because that's the only thing I felt, with a permanent lump in my throat, upset stomach and a feeling that all is lost. I am not very optimistic either, since the current state of the world is governed by an economic system that kills more people every day than a few dozen atomic bombs together and it makes it happen slowly through agony, psychological torture. Local schools classes abound in the Museum as mean of instruction to not repeat the past, but from there I took with me the feeling that empathy did not exist at that time nor is a predominant value in the times we live. There is a correlation between that time and today, which does not seem to have been interrupted.

The visit drained our energy and from Nagasaki, we continued cycling across Kyushu through Kumamoto and Oita. We went through the mountains which were already taking the colors of autumn, the archipelagos with bays of turquoise waters, we saw the first castles, one traditional village after another, until reaching the port and embarking to the island of Shikoku.