When rankings go rank


One symptom of a society addicted to quick information is the popularity of lists.

For these days, a short platter of numbers followed by pithy comments make for painless digestion — as opposed to any meal of well-thought-out analysis. “Keep it simple, stupid” has become more than just a punch line for speech makers. Rather it is the gotta-have-it demand of the modern-day information junkie.

Quite a few of whom live in Japan. One retail chain — ranKing ranQueen — takes advantage of this listing inclination and ranks all store products as to sales. Junkies can thus merge their love of lists with their pursuit of brand goods and march happily away, knowing they are guzzling the nation’s top soft drink or smearing their lips with a balm that is No. 1 in Tokyo, if not Gilead.

Japanese culture, meanwhile, is listless. That is, there are no posted rankings on all the places, experiences, foods and otherwise unique nuances that constitute life in Japan.

Not that such a list is necessary. For each visitor arrives with a built-in inventory of expectations for everything — from raw fish to public baths to sardine-packed rail cars and onward — that they either intend to skip or would not miss for the entire world.

Either way, the following quick-fix list is meant to tweak those expectations. From my nigh 30 years in Japan, there is a whole lot to this nation that is either vastly overrated or underrated. Like what? Well, like this . . .

Overrated: tea ceremony

Yes, I know that the tea ceremony is a miniature lesson in Japanese-Buddhist ascetics. It’s just that my kneecaps have little interest in ascetics. Neither do my taste buds. True, the only person who really minds that I wimp out on the sitting position is me. But I bet I am not the only one who would like to trade the green tea for a Frappuccino.

Underrated: nature

Nobody comes here for the mountains. They come for the shrines of Kyoto or the bargains of Akihabara Electric Town or the photo ops of kimono-clad girls. Mountains, they reason, can be found almost anywhere. But you will not find Japanese mountains elsewhere, and scenes of bamboo forests, terraced rice paddies and steaming hot springs can make you forget the hectic hustle Japan’s urban sprawl. A drive through Kyushu’s volcanic Aso National Park, for example, is well worth a week in any Japanese city.

Overrated: Japan’s four seasons

If I had 10 yen for each time a Japanese person touted the matchless beauty of Japan’s four seasons, I would have two things. First, a mass of people who need to know Japan is not the only land with four distinct seasons. Second, enough yen to spend winter in Okinawa.

Underrated: film

Japanese acting is often so wooden that many films here should be sent straight to the sawmill. Yet if you can follow the lingo, Japanese comedy will often bring a grin. Check out Yoichi Sai’s “Keimusho no Naka” or Koki Mitani’s “Rajio no Jikan” or Juzo Itami’s anything. Japanese horror, meanwhile, is now gaining the highest of compliments: Hollywood is copying it left and right. The bright days of Akira Kurosawa might be gone, but so too, it seems, are the dark days of giant rubber monsters.

Overrated: submissive women

Somewhere in the mind of most Western men lives the romantic image of a yearning-to-please Japanese girl with silky black hair and skin like milk. Think Koyuki in “The Last Samurai.” Tom Cruise skewers her husband, but she gradually puts that minor problem aside and falls in love anyway, because . . . well, because that just the way Japanese women are. They can’t wait to be submissive. For Western men wishing a dose of reality, I suggest actually marrying a Japanese girl, although I would refrain from killing her husband first. What you will discover is that Japanese women are about as demure as dynamite — especially after marriage. In the end, you’ll just have to be satisfied with the hair and skin.

Underrated: medicine

The last time I wrote about Japanese medicine, so many readers e-mailed horror stories about Japanese doctors and hospitals that a Hollywood scriptwriter begged me to let him copy it all into a movie. So I know Japan needs more patient-friendly health care and that some Japanese doctors might do the world better service dressed as giant rubber monsters. Yet there are excellent Japanese doctors as well. And should I mention costs? Once in Illinois, I got sick in a small town where the only option was to visit the local hospital emergency room. The doctor saw me for 10 minutes, told me I had the flu and gave me Tylenol. And then handed me a bill for 150 bucks. Japanese medicine may lag behind the States in facilities and bedside manner, but when it comes to cost efficiency, it owns a healthy lead.

Overrated: sumo

I enjoy sumo. I like seeing fat guys smash into each other and then fall on top of spectators. I also know those fat guys are pretty limber and have some tricky moves. But it seems few of Japan’s top young athletes are bursting for a career in sumo. The sport isn’t as competitive as it used to be, and while the pageantry is nice, the price of a ticket isn’t. Why, a ringside seat might cost an entire Tylenol. And who cares that the price includes a box lunch? For the same price you can get about a million Happy Meals at MacDonald’s and see some fat people too.

Underrated: pears

Enough with the raw fish. Forget the “natto.” Say so long to the noodles and kiss the tofu good bye. This nation’s true taste treat is its pear — the humble “nashi.” A good reason all by itself, I might argue, to stay here another 30 years.

The list could go on. And, perhaps, in some future column, it will.