Monday, September 20, 2010

The Cold Hard North

The problem with Osorezan is Mutsu. Poised at the base of the Shimokita-hanto axe-head, it is the gateway to & from the peninsula and, as such, an unavoidable hurdle for anyone who wishes to visit the holy Mount Dread.

Though Mutsu suffers from the same sluggardly pace and surfeit of empty storefronts common to much of northern Japan, it immediately differentiates itself by its North American-style sprawl. Most Japanese cities conform to the global standard of socio-economic topography, wherein wealth & power are concentrated at an urban core and fade the farther they're stretched out towards shoddy suburban estate housing. But Mutsu fits the classic (if inching-towards-obsolescence) North American mold: the decaying husk of a downtown nucleus is ringed by prefab strip malls, car dealerships, and chain restaurants which give it a curiously nostalgic, pre-globalization anonymity. Standing outside the Mutsu train station, surveying the McDonald's, the Exxon service station, the D.I.Y. home furnishing warehouse, this could be Brandon, MB; Decatur, IL; Surrey, BC; anywhere really. Only the garish facade of the pachinko parlor insists on the place's specificity.

Suburban sprawl is only the start of Mutsu's strangeness. At the tourist info office, they handed us glossy-print maps that highlight Mutsu's "nightlife & eatery hotspot" in pink, a colour that in Japan carries connotations far more sinister than girlish innocence. But in a town of barely 60,000 residents, we were sort of stuck for options, so off we went with hopes of finding a foreigner-friendly pub. Sure enough, the "nightlife & eatery hotspot" was solid square kilometer of snack bars, stucco-shedding windowless shoeboxes of iniquity with asphyxiating neon signs that crackled with all the hostility of an electric fence. The only things on the street in fewer numbers than working streetlights were women. Everyone we passed was some leather-necked man in ratty sweatpants.

We eventually found one izakaya with some guileless students stood out front, so it seemed like a safe bet. That didn't stop the young waitstaff inside from being struck speechless by the sight of two foreigners. After a panicked exchange, they hauled the head chef - apparently the only one with any English ability - out from the kitchen to seat us. Once we'd shown that, yes, we did speak some Japanese, the evening proceeded without problem and we enjoyed some grilled chicken before retreating to our hotel.

The next night, I thought steal a few snapshots of this roughneck warren, given that it's the kind of place few foreigners ever visit, even by accident. Except for the photo above, I came away empty-handed. It took little more than two minutes before I realized how obnoxiously I stood out, a lanky John Lennon lookalike armed with a camera in a backwoods red-light district. Gaggles of half-drunk fishermen and farmhands felt silent as I passed, sizing me up and finding me their physical inferior. Nowhere else in Japan have I ever felt such intense, ambient hostility. I remembered how distinctly unwelcome some friends had felt when they'd visited Tokyo's oldest adult-entertainment area. The key differences, however, were that the locals of Yoshiwara are used to seeing foreigners; my friends were traveling as a pair, not alone as I was that night; and they had a pronounced height advantage over any potential adversaries, which I did not. If any belligerent goon wanted to test his mettle by jumping the gaijin, I would've been sausage stuffing. I was one rude gesture away from starring in a Japanese remake of Easy Rider.

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