Tokyo, Japan; November 2015
Why am I so content? Is it the tiny serving of much needed caffeine I had earlier from the “Fast Relax” coffee station at Circle K? Might it be the mild scented incense I watched float and curl up to the heavens at Tokyo’s cherry red accented Senso-ji Temple? Perhaps it’s my fortune from the revered temple, which maintains that, in addition to basically succeeding at every thing I attempt in the near future, I also, “will gradually become famous and peaceful.” Or is it the surprisingly soothing, heated toilet seat at McDonalds?
It could be that I’m on a silent, spotless Tokyo metro heading to a Shinto temple set among ginkgo trees dotted with their gradually goldening split-fan shaped leaves and then on to the ultra hyper Harajuku neighborhood for some shopping, which is another type of worship for me.
No one talks on the metro car — not even my sister, Suzanne, and I. There is only white noise — the humming of subway sounds and the soothing voice of the conductor. Not able to understand, I only halfway tune into his calm Japanese instructions, yet I appreciate his soft, reassuring tone. Between coming and going, the commuters — students, businesspeople, working moms, shoppers and elderly riders — doze, read anime books and text away on their smartphones.
After the metro arrives at our desired stop, Suz and I quickly exit the subterranean hub. Back up in topside Tokyo, it’s busy, buzzing with energy from people, vehicles and hundreds competing neon lights. To clarify, I’m content but now exhilarated from this electric pace.
It’s this same driven pace that inspired the creation of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, in addition to elevators that can rocket you from the Tokyo Skytree’s fourth floor up to floor 350 at a rate of 600 meters per minute. (Total transport time is about 50 seconds). Even sushi restaurants feature conveyor belts revolving at a consistent clip to move the constant parade of plates featuring various raw and tempura-battered fish selections.
Yet the pace in Japan also slows to the rhythm of an onsen’s gurgling hot springs; the traditional, symbolic stages of a tea ceremony; the meditative bow to a statue of Buddha; and the simulated tranquil trickling waterfall sounds coming from the console of, again, a McDonald’s toilet.
The reason for this dual personality pace seems simple. It’s just Japan. That’s why I’m both exhilarated and content. I’m feeling “Japan.”* Indeed. In my estimation, Japan is a state of mind or even a state of being.
Really, Japan is “Fast Relax.”
Actually, the Land of the Rising Sun, itself, suggests this seemingly contradictory way of life — in English. And it’s not just the Circle K coffee station proclaiming Fast Relax. English language travel publications and signs found at train stations, hotels, grocery stores, convenient stores, visitor centers, shopping malls and museums, present the Fast Relax theme in the text of brochures, leaflets, advertisements, posters and banners.
Japanese copywriters, who tout the message of Fast with facts about high-speed trains and elevators along with innovative industries, heavily embellish their text with high-energy, enthusiastic exclamation points. However, the writers also highlight the idea of Relax by characterizing Japan as a place of tradition and serenity by using descriptions and phrases that include “tranquil”, “break”, “satisfying”, “sincere care”, “pleasant”, “nostalgic”, “old time”, “time traveled”, “nurtured” and “enjoy a breather.”
It’s worth saying again: Japan is “Fast Relax.”
Of course, since many travel brochure accounts are really ads, there is a commercial nature in the message. But it never feels hard sell. That would not be relaxing at all. But commands and eager declarations complete with exclamation points are everywhere in Japan’s English text. As I walk around Asakusa, an older section of Tokyo, I’m reminded to be content yet excited (Relax Fast, perhaps) by a large sign displayed on the front side of a local grocery store, “Let’s do your shopping pleasantly!”
I can’t think of a better way to purchase goods.
Even the neighborhood map I’ve been carrying everywhere says: “Thanks for Using this Get Japan Map! Enjoy Asakusa!”
I am ready — let’s hit the pavement!
One brochure from my Ryokan (Japanese inn) tells me: “Let’s find some special souvenirs from Japan!”
Very compelling. You don’t have to tell me twice to shop.
Another enticing suggestion states:
“Let’s enjoy going on an eating binge!”
And why wouldn’t I want to binge when I can have, according to yet another Tokyo visitor brochure: “satisfaction with the juicy and meaty eels along with well-simmered eel sauce!”
Or, apparently, I can gorge with a lot of steak: “You can enjoy the authentic steak with a satisfying volume for 980 yen!”
Man, after walking around Tokyo all day, I’m ready for some volume.
Multiple exclamation points!!!!
Sometimes the English text in brochures and signs features double or multiple exclamation points to encourage complete rapture, euphoria and elation.
Visit this: “Japanese drug store popular in guide books with very cheap pricing!!
You will find a “Wide variety of popular products such as medicine, cosmetics, snacks, lifestyle goods and more! You will find a lot of things that you want!!
The best, however is: “All of our cheerful staff are very much looking forward to your visit!!”
And I believe that claim since Japanese salespeople do make me feel special, as if I have made their day — especially when they individually wrap ever single one of my items and bow deeply to me when the transaction is complete.
Japanese copywriters are not afraid to emphasize total awesomeness or instill a sense of urgency with capital letters either. And it’s definitely not taken as shouting — the Japanese do not shout. We’re talking about people who won’t even utter a peep if you are in their way when they are barreling full speed down the sidewalk on a cruiser bicycle. While in Japan, I don’t think I ever heard a single beep or honk shrieking from any vehicle either.
The following copy is not at all about shouting at readers. It’s simply detailing how they should approach the exciting opportunity to shop for extraordinary knives.
“And please TRY for yourself the joy of using a top quality Japanese knife. If you want to buy, CONSULT with staff to find the knives and sharpening stones best suited for your needs and budget.”
I am, momentarily, all over this custom knife set. After all, Japan developed the katana, the samurai sword known to slice straight through enemies of the shoguns and emperors during feudal times. And there’s a reason the marketers of the American knife making company, Douglas Quikut, named their handy signature knife, Ginsu, to associate the line with Japan. I remember how those astonishing knives could cut clear through a tin can and then create the thinnest, most delicate slice of tomato that looked as fragile as tissue gift wrap. How can that not be joy and excitement? And that samurai knife-wielding chef in the infomercial was lighting fast with the Ginsus.
Fast = Innovation and Technology
Fast also alludes to innovation and technology — two areas the Japanese know well. Even Febreze fabric freshener sounds full of exciting cutting-edge scientific know-how in this English advertisement in a Japan tour brochure.
The Febreze Antibacterial 370 ml and Febreze Fragrance Free 370 ml have “advanced technology [that] guarantees the solid antibacterial and odor eliminating power.” Febreze is also “safe and credible” with “plant-derived health friendly odor eliminating components.”
In one brochure promoting various regions of Japan, even water, that ancient source of technology, sounds like a new, revolutionary breakthrough.
“Explore the Tohoku region of Japan, a countryside nurtured by beautiful green landscapes and the power of water!”
And how about lots of water — 10,941 tons to be exact. Although I’ve never thought about the attraction of the water itself when visiting an aquarium, I will now. It’s extra impressive that the water of this aquarium is host to creatures from the “Ring Fire Area.”
“The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is the largest aquarium in the world located at the ward of port in Osaka, Japan. The walk through aquarium displays marine life in several habitats. Comprised of 27 tanks in 16 main exhibits, there is a total volume of 10,941 tons of water. The sea creatures which inhabit the aquarium are from the Ring Fire area of the Pacific Ocean. The largest tank is 9 meters deep and holds 5,400 cubic meteres of water which is home to about 620 different kinds of fish and sea creatures.”
When I get tired of water power and volume, there is precision and innovation to be found at Universal Studios Japan.
“USJ is a theme park where you can all experience and enjoy a wide variety of attractions that are represented in exactly the same form as movies by using the top quality technologies.”
Even clothing brands are high tech.
“AVIREX was established in 1975 as the US Air Force’s official contract manufacturer. The military items that are created, by making full use of the technology that has been cultivated over the ages, have superb functionality and design, and are used by many all over the world.”
And authenticity is guaranteed since one clothing brand states it provides “items with elements imported from various street scenes are combined to offer a ‘real girl’s street style.'”
Time to relax with tradition while we innovate.
Japanese wordsmiths have managed to weave the Relax or maybe more of a reassurance theme into the technology rhetoric. It’s okay — we haven’t forgotten our heritage. Advertisers convince us that, at least watchmakers, specifically, will not abandon tradition.
“Seiko has been manufacturing high quality wristwatches for over 100 years, ever since Japan’s first wristwatch, the Laurel, went on sale in 1913. While continuing to protect the tradition of mechanical watches created with the fine craftsmanship of the artisan, Seiko is a developer of innovative products, such as the world’s first quartz watch and the GPS solar watch.”
Again, relax. We’ve got this.
Along with the message of Relax is — “We will take care of you. We’ve got this. And it will be “delightful”, “joyful”, “cheerful”, “time traveled” and “exquisite.”
For example, at one restaurant:
“You can enjoy fresh fish in various kinds of dishes such as Sushi, Sashimi, grilled fish and rice bowls. The eat-in space where you can taste what you purchase is delightful.”
Of course bowling is delightful, but who knew it could be relaxing, too?
“You can enjoy playing bowls with drinks!! Sun Bowl with the history of 50 years in Osaka Minami area is now renewed! You can sit and relax with drinks on the sofa seats and have a joyful time with your friends. It will definitely be your favorite spot.”
Perhaps going back in time will make visitors to Japan feel even more content — either that or a free replica of a Kobe beef certificate could make someone’s day.
“Cheerful staff will welcome you at the restaurant where you will feel like time traveled by being surrounded with the décor that resembled the old time Osaka streets. The atmosphere is almost like a theme park. You can taste carefully selected high quality Kuroge Wagyu beef and Kobe beef. Free gift of a Kobe beef certificate replica to the customers who ordered Kobe beer.”
Most certainly, visitors should take the road less traveled and the one that is not as wide.
“When you step down this narrow road, you enter a tranquil space of purely Japanese buildings and a garden. Relax at this restaurant and enjoy kaiseki banquate (sic) cuisine.”
Sometimes, the relax theme inspires contemplative or even meditative and measurable qualities of Japanese culture.
[In Houzenjiyokocho] “The street is 80 meters long and 3 meters in width, consisting of old restaurants, bars, Okonomiyaki restaurants. Kushikatsu restaurants and more. You will hear people’s foot steps walking on the stone pavement, creating a nostalgic atmosphere.”
Furthermore, sometimes, it’s just nice to know that you will be nurtured along the way.
“We have been succeeding our craftsmanship while always valuing the importance of pure ingredients. We make our pastries including the Castella with the sincere care to our customers just as parents care what they give to their children.”
And if you are not directly nurtured, many establishments still create their products in a sensitive, artful and harmonious way. This message is reassuring, indeed, which ultimately leads to relaxation and enjoyment. Take, for example, this pastry:
“The moistly textured cake, Karafuru-potato: An exquisite combination of sweet potato and bean paste wrapped in chewy dough. A masterpiece of Imogashi. A harmony of sweet bean paste and potato.”
Soy sauce is also be a masterful product:
“Locally-produced soy sauce called Hatsukari soy sauce, which is made from Kawgoe-produced soy beans. The aroma is exquisite and both its sweetness and unami are deep.”
It should go without saying that the process of making sake is like uncovering a hidden and magnificent gem.
“A rare daiginjo sake put together drop by drop in a unique brewing method. You can call it the brewery’s crown jewel.”
Transcending “Fast Relax” to “Human” and Beyond.
A few messages went beyond the mere idea of Fast Relax. In some cases, it’s more than just feeling Japan. Reminders popped up in unexpected places with the message that we are all in this together; we are the same species, which, of course, can be quite reassuring and relaxing to keep in mind.
At one Tokyo department store I found myself in the “Human Woman” department. Then, back at the Tokyo Skytree, although the über speedy elevators are technological marvels, they are also “Human Friendly.”
While these themes reinforced my homosapienism, there was one ominous message that left me somewhat perplexed, and I’ll admit, feeling a bit anxious. In front of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace compound, a large banner proclaimed:
“Now Life is Living You.”
Yikes! Aren’t I supposed to be living life? How can life live me? Apparently, we are reminded that we’re never really in control. It must be because we are all human.
However, there are always awaiting messages to be read, bringing us back to the comforting theme of FAST RELAX. Here was one that summed up my wonderful stay in a country to which I want to return and experience feeling Japan again.
“Ultimately, a trip is an adventure in which you can enjoy delving into your interests. Check out the tour site to find the best travel plans for you!!
*I can’t take total credit for referring to a place as an actual state of mind. I give credit to Sound Garden and the lyrics of “Outshined” (“I’m looking California, and feeling Minnesota).
“The reason for this dual personality pace seems simple. It’s just Japan. That’s why I’m both exhilarated and content. I’m feeling “Japan.”* Indeed. In my estimation, Japan is a state of mind or even a state of being.”
I cant agree with you more. The feeling of calmness and excitements at the same time is hard to describe. For me, it’s more excitement than I would like because I want to appreciate the culture rather than getting hyped up every time. We had a great time and definitely would want to come back again. Hopefully we’ll have more time to savour the moment.
Nicely written article by the way. I love the first part and your point on ‘Fast-Relax’ culture. Seeing familiar names popping up definitely brought back fond memory. Thank you for sharing!
P/s: the heated toilet seat definitely helps!
Thank you so much for your comment, Tri. Yes, you are so right that the feeling in Japan is hard to describe. I definitely want to go back again, because as you pointed out, the excitement is somewhat overwhelming and can distract from appreciating Japanese culture. I have a feeling Japan is a country that one could travel to endlessly and still encounter new experiences. Glad that reading “Fast Relax” brought back memories for you. Thanks again for your insights on Japan! Cheers