Thursday, January 20, 2011
My First Aomori
Japan’s new Bullet Train (Shinkansen) service to the northern city of Aomori opened on December 4th. To alert the public to this momentous event, the walls of every JR Railway station were plastered with advertisements featuring well-groomed railway employees standing stiffly at attention and smiling tourists happily exploring the sights of Aomori prefecture. Their TV commercial (EDIT: now removed from Youtube....) sums it up pretty well.
I find this campaign hilarious for two reasons. The first is the name: My First Aomori. It sounds pretty normal at first, but the more you hear it, the more ridiculous it sounds. My First Aomori. Not “My First Trip to Aomori” or “My First Aomori Experience,” but just “My First Aomori.” It’s like there’s a subject missing. Are we to assume that the consumer is taking control of Aomori prefecture for the first time? Or does Aomori refer to some type of consumer goods that can be purchased and kept as a memento?
The second reason is the truth that, despite JR’s attempts to convince the public of the contrary, there’s not a whole lot to do in Aomori. There’s a little castle there, a handful of museums in the capital city, and some natural scenery in the rural northeast area where the Shinkansen doesn’t go. And in December, when Aomori is blanketed by a foot of snow, there’s even less to do. Despite northern Japan’s tendency towards inclement weather, I didn’t see a trace of snow in any of the posters or TV commercials. I like to think that some foolhardy tourists traveled all the way to Aomori only to be surprised that it wasn’t some sort of magical summer wonderland where the sun always shone and the grass was always green.
The one part that JR got right was the apples. Aomori is known for its apples, which are actually really good. I didn’t, however, think they were good enough to merit an entire trip to Aomori just to eat them, nor were they good enough to feature as prominently as they do in the shop windows, souvenir snack treats, character advertising, and yes, even the mailboxes.
Everything in Aomori was either about apples or the Shinkansen, which shouted its existence to the public on enormous banners hung from buildings and signs posted along the streets on Aomori city. The whole thing reeked of an elaborate attempt to make this otherwise ordinary section of Japan’s northeast region stand out. The Japanese government spent a lot of public works money on the new Shinkansen service, and I sensed a desperate need to get some of that investment back. Though, in Japan, construction is a way of life, as even the most rural roads are constantly paved with fresh concrete, its rivers dammed, its mountainside roads shielded by high retaining walls, and its tiny islands strung together with expensive new bridges. Perhaps the new bullet train is just another way for a nation heavily invested in the construction industry to spend its money. Or maybe Japan has a deep-seated need to prove to the rest of the world that it’s powerful enough to thrust its mighty Shinkansen as deep into the unspoiled countryside as physically possible.
Because, really, what does this remind you of?