Japan and I have something in common. We both share an obsessive streak that runs to mania about Alice in Wonderland. It’s an obsession from my childhood that I’d all but forgotten about until I arrived here. But after a few weeks I could hardly fail to see how deeply the story and its remarkable iconography have been assimilated into Japanese popular consciousness. When playing cards and chess pieces, as well as the silhouettes of little girls in full skirts decorate everything from bags to mirrors to knee length socks (which I obviously had to buy), you begin to realise that the simple story has transformed into something goes beyond pop culture. Alice is an institution.
In a country that loves all things cute, the little blonde girl who chases after a rabbit was bound to win fans. Showing the students a picture of me in Alice fancy dress from my friend’s twenty-first birthday, coupled with my hair which has turned blonde since I got here, has earned me the nickname of ‘Alice’ amongst some of my kids, or ‘Arisu’ as they pronounce it. Actually Aoi, one of my English speaking geniuses in 3-F class, refers to me as ‘our Alice’, which breaks my heart whenever she says it. With a large collection of Alice-related stationery in school I have embraced the Alice fixation, and at least in this small corner of Japan, become part of it. So it was with a newly acquired copy of Alice in hand I that I set off for a long weekend visit to Osaka.
I wasn’t long into my journey before the Alice iconography to appear. Japan is indeed obsessed with Carroll’s terribly English little girl. Sitting on the Sonic train I had to take to the Shinkansen station I noticed that it had it’s name, the ‘Wonderland Express’, laid into the laminate flooring. Even the super punctual JR Railway service has been taken in by her charm. I really was being taken on my own journey down the rabbit hole.
The Shinkansen, the world famous Bullet Train, hurtled me into Osaka just as I was reading of Alice’s first meetings with the Duchess, and the pig and the pepper. The residents of Osaka are apparently the fastest walkers in the whole of Japan, as I experienced when I was jostled from the train to join the throngs of people in their own private Caucus race, heading off in every direction to be immersed into the concrete labyrinth.
Going from small town Beppu to Osaka was being transported to another world. Osaka is the image of the country that simply saying the word ‘Japan’ evokes. Buildings tower above your head for twenty stories and more and Shinsaibashi is a maze of bustle and commerce where tourist shops and foreign designer boutiques jostle for your attention alongside traditional crafts and deafening Pachinko parlours. Along the river giant neon signs dominate, garish and mesmerising for unknown products in a language I don’t really understand. Giant faces stare down, tempting you into buying a new camera or TV. I stand to watch a gigantic mechanical crab as it slowly attempts to scale a building. Despite all its best efforts, it doesn’t appear to be getting very far.
In the centre of the chaos stands Osaka castle. A serenity and silence hangs over the castle and its grounds where Buddhist monks stand as rigid and silent as ivory chess pieces around the castle grounds. Despite a highly eventful history the castle is at present not presided over by the tyrannical Queen. Not a single cry of ‘Off with his head!’ was to be heard in the two hours I spent wandering amongst the excited hoards of school children and of middle aged women practising Tai Chi under the trees.
As I sped away from Osaka on the Shinkansen again at the end of my weekend the glaring lights of the city soon reduced to tiny spots in the inky evening light. Over the next couple of hours the cities I passed through grew smaller as I was returned to real life again in my quiet town. While Beppu lacks the grandeur of Osaka’s dreamlike wonderland, it was good to be back home amongst people for whom I am glad to be ‘their Alice’.
Kimberley Long is a former Reader volunteer who is currently teaching English in Japan.