Neon Nagano

Japan is littered with modernity. Quite literally littered, as when one drives through Japan at night one gets the impression of a land where technology, bright flashes of light and commercialism were merely dropped along the edge of the road with little thought to the world they were creating here. Indeed planning permission would appear to most people to be an alien concept to the Japanese. While the biggest cities are full of impressive architectural accomplishments it’s hard not to feel that Japan’s more rural cities were dragged into the blueprint for a modern Japan as something of an afterthought.

Last weekend, driving from my relatively quiet city, where the centre of town can charitably be said to be rather quiet, I drove along a major Nagano route heading for a neighbouring city where a friend of mine lives. In the daylight I know driving in Nagano to be a breathtaking thing. The countryside appears to endlessly stretch out to a horizon that is so beautiful that from time to time I wonder whether in truth I might be the victim of a Trumanesque hoax, that someone has in fact painted this skyline, a vast and beautiful deception where every winter armies of workers abseil down the face of a giant metal dome in order to paint the mountaintops white.

However, at night it’s a different story entirely. Where once fireflies and the stars were the only thing to light up the night sky, now an endless stream of neon runs alongside the rivers and roads in Nagano’s valleys. All the stores are the same wherever you go along this long stretch of road, Department store followed by McDonald’s, supermarket by pachinko parlour, glasses store (sporting a giant neon pair of spectacles of course) by the same shoe shop you saw 5km earlier. All marked at regular intervals by a Familymart, a Lawson’s or Seven/Eleven.

I’ve said before that Japan has managed to deal with globalization in a fascinating way, picking and choosing what aspects of culture and commerce that set up shop here. But when confronted by this long line of identikit construction and expansion it’s hard not to feel that in some places they let the flood barriers collapse.

While on that road returning home I might have been more saddened by the show of lights were it not for a few things. I had spent part of the previous evening at an open mic music night in a small town. The place was filled with a mix of Japanese and foreigners alike all enjoying the music, whether the lyrics were Japanese or English. My friend and I swiftly followed it up with a few beers in an Indian themed bar where the food was warm and the owners welcoming. Finally finishing our evening by devouring one of the best cheeseburgers I am ever likely to taste at a bar covered in Americana bric-a-brac.

These places were the product of globalization at its best, a place where two cultures can meet and get the best from one another. Do I wish these places were only a short walk from my own apartment? Yes, of course. But then they’d probably build it next to a department store and since you wouldn’t be able to see it behind that behemoth it’d need something bright and colourful so you wouldn’t miss it… maybe a splash of neon would do the trick.


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