Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Old Mixed With the New

Thousand year-old shrines and temples mixed with cyber cafes and high-speed trains is one of my favorite aspects of Japan (and many other countries). In my fairly modern neighborhood their are tiny makeshift shinto shrines on street corners and urban coves next to 7-11s and ATM machines.

Japanese people fit in perfectly by grasping firmly to their traditional culture: Shuji (Japanese calligraphy)is compulsory in school, most women study at least one traditional art form from tea ceremony, flower arranging to kimono dressing and traditional dance. Most families still go to a shrine or temple at midnight of January first together, and a stream of other traditions that will surely never die because they have been carefully preserved for hundreds or even some for thousands of years.

On the other hand, Japan is a first world country. Six year-olds have cell phones, grandmothers text message people on the train, mothers drive their kids around in luxury cars and teenagers hang out in cyber cafes, watch movies and TV on the train and streets via PSP and other portable devices; Sixty year-old business execs walk the streets listening to their iPods. But then, they all go home, serve rice and sake to their ancestral shrine, burn incense, teach piano in their homes and drink green tea often on the floor.

Last night I ate dinner at my Japanese grandparents' house like I do every Monday night. They are the manifestation of the ambiguous modern traditionalists. Junko teaches piano in her home, wears only pink and blushes if you mention snoring (that's so personal, she says). Ken (retired stock broker) teaches shuji, paints beautiful architectural pieces that have been featured in major galleries in Japan, and studies obscure Japanese kanji no longer in use.

My Japanese grandmother hates cooking, but her traditional side is forced to hide this fact. She always buys prepared food and serves it on beautiful plates and tells people that she cooked it. Last night my grandfather made an amazing stew. Then my grandmother put frozen pizzas in the oven. I came in to help her as she was cutting pizza slices with scissors--scissors! I laughed and brought the pizzas out. When I came back in to carry more, she had a bowl of macaroni salad that she had obviously dumped into the serving bowl from a plastic store container. She insisted that she had made it in even as I pointed to the mayonnaise-lined container on the top of the garbage can. She shrugged and laughed.

In any culture, old traditions are usually hard to bury. But in Japan, the stark contrast between long-standing customs and modern lifestyles and technology is unique.

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