It is fascinating to watch as Japan struggles to merge its thousands of years of tradition with its present and future. So far, it has been able to do so with some mystery intact. The language barrier has helped, although that’s slowly dissolving with bilingual signs and Japanese students learning English. For a while at least, the language, like Japan itself, will remain an intriguing challenge for visitors.
At Tokyo station, waiting for the bullet train (shinkansen), we watched as everyone bought boxed lunches (bento). So we bought one, too. It was inviting: The map on the cover suggested each of the foods inside had been harvested in a different part of Japan—white radishes from the far west, salmon roe from the far northeast, eel from the south coast. We saw it as the “Japan Sampler.”
Later, we began to think of the box as a metaphor for Japan itself: It had the same sense of order—each food in its own little compartment, carefully thought out and arranged.
It was also standardized, like the “salarymen” in their dark suits—yet, like their splashy ties, it had a container of sauce to spice things up. It was wrapped—everything in Japan gets wrapped. It even had a moist towelette—almost every restaurant gives you one. It was fairly expensive, too, which Japan can be.
The boxed lunch did not, of course, come with a state-of-the-art smartphone and a miniature camera. It did not open to a karaoke tune. It offered no hint of the passion for ice cream or mayonnaise, for the trendiest fashions, for manga, pachinko and cigarettes. And although its packaging reflected modern design, it said nothing about the bold, exciting architecture that is slowly changing the face of Japan.
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