Every time I travel to Japan my mind boggles. Affluence, at least in TOKYO, is endemic. Japanese women are the world's most stylish -- that is a fact -- and secretaries think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars for a dress.
Prices can be and often are outrageous. Along the Ginza -- Toko's Fifth Avenue -- a pair of good men's shoes sell for $300, a woman's burberry raincoat for $750, and a single apple (handsomely wrapped and three times the size of a Red Delicious) costs $2. Lunch at one of Tokyo's best restaurants costs between $170 and $200 per person. A somewhat less decent but fasionable restaurant costs only $120 each.
Japan's economic miracle notwithstanding, there is talk that the government may go bankrupt in a few years. The country's current debt is $400 billion and growing.
CHRISTMAS IN TOKYO is something else. Although I had read and seen television essays about the phenomenon, I was quite unprepared for how deliciously seriously -- commercially, that is -- Buddhist Japan takes the holiday.
By late November there are Christmas lights and trees, Santa and reindeer, "Merry Christmas" signs and decorations everywhere in the heart of Tokyo.This is especially true of the Ginza. Here, most of the major department stores feature, on their street facades, huge advertisements of Western models in Christmas garb or wrapping.
This year, the Matsuya Ginza department store has gone one step further. It has draped a six-story-high poster of a nude Western model barely wrapped in a red ribbon down the entire interior wall of the store. This tickles many viewers, embarrasses others and, apparently, enrages some Japanese women. They are enraged not because the model is nude, but because -- like almost all models in Japanese adverting -- she is Caucasian.
One Japanese woman explained to a colleague that Japanese women are beginning to resent the ubiquitous use of Western models because Japanese women neither look like nor are built like western women. One sign of the revolt, if one can call it that, is an ad spotted on the subway here showing a smiling Japanese woman who has just x-ed out Western models in bikinis.
PRICES CAN BE cheap, too. For less than $20 per person, one can stay in a "people's inn" and get dinner and breakfast along with a night's lodging. One sleeps on a thin mattress on a bamboo mat, or tatami, and has a small rice-filled pillow. The food is traditional. For example, at the inn I stayed at in Izumi city in Japan's souternmost island, breakfast consisted of a raw egg, grated radish, rice, seaweed consomme, dried seaweed and green tea.
Izumi city is home for several thousand cranes, which migrate annually from China and Siberia. Hundreds of ordinary Japanese, as well as bird-watchers, migrate to Izumi, too, to see these graceful birds whose likeness is embedded in Japanese art and culture.
This year the cranes arrived much earlier than usual, giving rise to speculation that it is colder earlier in Siberia or thre is less food available in Korea, where the birds stop en route to Izumi. There also are more cranes this year than ever, 3,500 already present and another thousand expected.
Thirty-five years ago, at war's end, there were only 300. But help from the farmers brought the decimated flocks back to strength. Now, some of the farmers in Izumi are sorry and want to either get rid of the birds -- now protected by law -- or have the government subsidize the crop losses the farmers suffer from the cranes' eating habits. The battle between preservationists and farmers has been joined, but not resolved. Of course, I am on the side of the birds.
AT THE NEW Otani Hotel in Tokyo, a wake-up call is ordered by dialing a single digit (in this cae the number 5) and then the wake-up time. For an 8 a.m. call, for example, one dials 50800. A lilting computer-driven voice immediately answers in Japanese and English, "Thank you. Good night." At 8 a.m. the phone rings and the first thing heard are several birds chirping, followed by a deliciously melodious "Good morning."
What happens if you take a nap and tell the computer you would like to get up at, way, 6 p.m.? At 6 p.m. the phone rings, birds chirp and the voice says, "Good morning."