life on mars: half a year in japan

Leaving Japan was bittersweet.

Yeah, I was excited to go home to New Zealand, to see my family. And maybe I was a little relieved to remove myself, to go somewhere ‘normal’ again.

But I couldn’t help feeling I’d only scratched the surface of this weird and wonderful country. I felt like there was more to see; a real Japan that’s lost underneath the cartoon cats, eyelid glue and frightened schoolgirl porn.

The place I saw was pretty messed up.

Now, most would jump at the chance to check out Japan, but we're talking deep Japan here. We relocated from NZ to a small, industrial city two hours north of the big smoke.

Ota, located in the land-locked Gunma Prefecture, is the place where Subaru vehicles are born. It also has a mall.

There is one park, where residents walk and run around a sprung track, counter-clockwise. You’re not supposed to go the other way.

There are several arcades, with squealing skill-testers stuffed full of plush cartoon characters or sweet treats. The deeper you go, the darker it gets, with grandmas and thin men slumped in front of slot machines.

The sound is deafening at first, but you get used to it.

You can watch a local school team play soccer. You can eat at a cafe.

You can watch TV – there’s a couple of English channels that play re-runs of CSI: Miami, Law and Order and Special Victims Unit. Sometimes they play Ellen.

There’s always Tokyo, though. A train goes from the station in town direct to the edge of the city. Just be sure you get your seat right – fellow passengers will ask you to move if you’re in their spot, even if the rest of the train is empty.

Japan is controlled chaos. Rules are followed for a reason.

Tokyo was not built for spontaneity. You cannot wander in Tokyo.

A city with a population second only to Beijing, Tokyo is just as you might imagine: fast, overwhelming and huge.

If you know where to go and you’re not afraid to spend, you’ll find some of the most amazing restaurants and boutiques in the world. Harajuku/Omotesando became my favourite area after a few visits, with the occasional Harajuku girl sighting, incredible designer window shopping and a welcome change from raw seafood in the form of Bills’ garlic mashed potato.

Earlier visits were far less successful, spending hours in search of food in and around Shibuya Crossing.

Thankfully, the Japanese are, by and large, phenomenally helpful. They will walk hundreds of metres out of their way to show you where to buy train tickets. And then, they turn and continue with their day. Barely expecting thanks.

Unfortunately, the men of Tokyo can leave a little to be desired in the manners department.

There are commuter trains dedicated to the exclusive use of women during rush hour so they may travel without fear of being inappropriately touched.

Yes, it is that much of an issue.

And the women are gorgeous, they should absolutely have their own train carriage to travel in like the queens they are.

Flawless, ageless skin, which they fastidiously protect from the sun, wearing hats, long sleeve shirts and even gloves.

But then they’re always modest. While the average Japanese woman might only wear a kimono on a special occasion, careful attention is paid to every detail of every outfit.

Every piece is perfectly co-ordinated. Every strand of hair is in its place. Every touch of the makeup brush is painstakingly measured, with stunning results.

Powder pink blush creates high cheekbones, while eyelid glue or stickers create a fold most Japanese women are born without. Heavy shadow and liner serve to create the illusion of a wider eye. Coloured contact lenses turn their black eyes blue.

I dabbled. Whipped cleansers, collagen masks and facial steamers. But I could only go so far – packaging, like signs and newspapers, rarely feature anything but symbols. No words to sound out or recognise - just little pictures, as good as hieroglyphics to a temporary visitor like me.

Life in Japan wasn’t what I had expected.

I had pictured myself, draped in a vintage kimono, sipping ceremonial tea, watching kabuki theatre, practicing calligraphy.

The modern Japan doesn’t have a lot of room for tradition. There’s not a lot of room for anything, really.

The people work hard. They live within strict boundaries.

As a westerner, it seems wrong. Or unfair. If they only knew how good life could be, right?

Maybe they’re thinking the same thing about me.

Hannah Keys