Recently in class I learned about something called ‘Orientalism.’ It’s one of those terms academics give to issues that most people don’t notice or particularly care about. The gist of it is that western writers, particularly travel writers, tend to over simplify the eastern countries and make them appear more exotic than they really are. I’m not going to get into why this is or isn’t an issue, since this isn’t really the place and most of you likely fall into the ‘don’t particularly care’ category. But it is true; travel writers like myself don’t spend much time talking about how similar our cultures are. It’s always about how weird the other country is. With this in mind I’ve spent the past week wracking my brain trying to find something to talk about that didn’t fall into these cliched pitfalls. Then I ran into a giant robot selling beam chopsticks.
Thanks to a missed deadline for a school-trip sign up, I found myself with more money than budgeted. So I decided to take my windfall and do the fiscally responsible thing and immediately spend it. This week’s fund-drainer came in the form of a day trip to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Now if what video games had taught me about artificial islands was true then this island would be elevated several stories in the air and would inevitably collapse into the sea at some point during my visit. Turns out video games are a terrible source of information, as Odaiba looks like a normal island and at no point decided to pull a big-budgeted remake of Atlantes. It also turns out getting there is a pain. Google maps says there’s a JR line from Osaki (a stop conveniently on my commuter pass) that leads to Odaiba. Google maps lies. There’s only two ways onto the island: by car or by private rail. Since I don’t own a car in Japan and taxis require a level of Japanese beyond “watashi wa baka gaijin desu” the train was my only option. Now, I can’t really describe the train without risking my job here due to profanity, but I will say whoever designed the cars had a burning, seething hatred for people who stand on trains, since the seats are nice and big but take up far too much space.
Odaiba is mostly shopping malls, western style shopping malls, or at least trying to be western style shopping malls. One of them was actually two malls fused together like Frankenstein’s monster, connected by bridges that criss-crossed like architectural stitches. One of the Franken-malls definitely stood out from the rest of the pack. The upper levels were all restaurants with a running theme of a cruse ship while the lower levels seemed to exist in the same dimension that TGI Fridays get their decorations. In other words it looked like the aftermath of a flea-market that got hit by a truck carrying movie props. Strange nicknack shops interspersed with nonsensical displays and props. Honestly it reminded me of a farmer’s market in PA, complete with the candy store selling candies no commercial chain would bother with, gimicky stores that sell cheap novelties, and a place dedicated to geodes.
Oh, and they had a Statue of Liberty.
Overall Odaiba wasn’t terribly interesting. Mostly shops. Fairly nice shops with a wide selection of products, but shops none the less. At least that’s what I was thinking about the place until I rounded the corner at the end of the island.
And suddenly I was reminded what country I was in. For those who aren’t familiar with Japanese pop culture; that’s a Gundam, a giant fighting machine from a cartoon series that’s been running in one iteration or another since the 80s. I’d heard that someone built a life-sized model of the original Gundam, but I’d also heard it was damaged and had to be taken down after the earthquake last year. Apparently they put it back up in front of a shopping center. That or built another one. I’m not sure which is crazier. Turns out the crazier option was option C, build another Gundam made of flowers.
From what I could gather the incomplete Flower Gundam was part of city wide flower festival. Now at the time of writing the festival hasn’t started yet, but if the signs are right they plan on having a fully armed and operational Flower Gundam by the start of the festival. And the Gundam madness doesn’t stop there. Directly behind the robot is a Gundam Cafe, selling Gundam chopsticks, Gundam mugs, Gundam bean paste buns, Gundam brand coffee, and other merchandise. Though the strange robot cake goes to the 7-11 which carries, you guessed it, 7-11 Gundam models.
At the time I couldn’t stop giggling at how goofy the whole thing was. There it was, a giant model that someone put a considerable amount of time, effort, and money into the bring to life. Sure it’s the icon of a company that’s built on merchandising, and the statue was probably the result of some marketing scheme. But somewhere in that company there had of have been some madman with a dream, a dream to bring a giant robot to life in Japan. Though in retrospect it kinda makes me sad. Not because it’s unabashed consumerism built around a corporate logo, I’m okay with that (especially since we do it too). No the part that gets me down in a small was is how stereotypical it is. It’s like the Japanese know we think they’re weird and are now just daring us to write about them.