The thing is, all us post-colonial children of colonised countries, we've always kept our ideas of exotic firmly planted in the West. Exotic is Famous Five, Jane Austen, daffodils even. Exotic is white people doing white people things. Exotic is us in our Decathlon ski jackets posing on the streets of Scotland. Even now when the world has both shrunk and grown larger, a "foreign holiday" is only truly satisfying if it is to London or Paris (or maybe one of the other EU countries. I was at VFS this morning, and you know how they have these little number tokens you get and you can see which country has been super busy? Well, apparently FINLAND is seeing some sort of crazy Indian tourist boom, as is Malta, oddly enough.) (I was in line for Germany, which is always steadfastly popular, right underneath France and Italy. Switzerland, usually a favourite, seems to have dropped to number five on the list, right after Portugal.) But, if you turn your eyes East, as many of us elite English educated type Indians are doing these days, there's all these possibilities. Sure, it's not White Guy exotic, but tell me that running through Vietnam isn't just as foreign as running through France. Even more, because I didn't know a thing about Vietnam before I visited, except for the food and the war.
Anyhow. Japan. I am late to the Japanese party, I have never even been to Japan, but my first taste of Japan came, quite literally, when I was still living in Bombay. There was a Candies not far from my house. Candies, for everyone who isn't familiar, is a large cafe? restaurant? bakery? all of the above? It's hard to classify Candies, but they sell food, often pre-packaged for takeaway, like an English M&S (tossing a little exotica in there for you) and they had, that month, a range of cheap sushi. 100 bucks, give or take, and a whole box of sushi for you to take away. Now I can't comment on the excellence of this sushi, since it might have been my first time eating it, but I remember thinking it was delicious. And this is before I even learned the whole muddle-the-wasabi-in-with-the-soya-sauce Americanism that I do now. After that, I was open, ready to eat all of Japan, just by that one little gateway drug of a box. And then other Japanese restaurants opened and we went to them for sushi, and for a long time I was only eating sushi, and then I discovered yaki udon, and then I discovered other things, and suddenly it was like all of Japan was laid open before me, just through my mouth and my battered copy of Memoirs of a Geisha. (Which is a problematic book, but one that I credit with teaching me the Japanese habit of calling people "chan" or "san" after their names.)
And for a long time, that was it. Until, a month ago, coming across one of those random Buzzfeed listicles, I heard of a show on Netflix called Terrace House.
Okay: Terrace House. How to explain Terrace House? I'm hoping I can come up with a better written description of it than my first raves to my confused friends. To them I said, "It's a Japanese reality show where six strangers go and live in a house together. There is no script. All the producers give them is a car and a house. And we watch what happens." That's pretty much directly cribbed from the opening minutes of Terrace House. There are six commentators, well known figures in Japanese pop culture, all sitting on a sofa. "Kombawa," says one, Japanese for good evening, and I have picked up a lot of Japanese conversational words just by watching this show. "Kombawa," says everyone, they introduce the premise of the show and then they do a quick recap of the week gone by. Except, you then realise, these are not the six strangers. They are, in fact, the Greek chorus, the internet recappers, the you watching the show, and the six young people on Terrace House are as alienly familiar to them as they are to us, the people watching.
The show follows a set format: there are at all times three men and three women. Everyone is single. The goal of the show, which is never articulated, but which you sort of guess at, is for everyone to hook up. Sometimes people don't hook up, and their storylines just dangle there, a bit like they're treading water, but pretty soon they announce to the house that they are done and they're leaving and someone new comes into the house and there's that frisson all over again. But, in between the dating, which is a long and elaborate thing involving several trial runs, people declaring their intentions and so on, there's long moments of nothingness. Like, for example, a boy and a girl will be having a conversation in the living room about something she cooked. "Where's the meat?" the boy will ask, poking around the gravy and the girl will say, "Oh it overcooked so it's part of the gravy now." Then the scene will change and the three girls will be talking to each other about their plans for the next day. Unlike most reality shows, the Terrace House crew is free to come and go as they wish, so each goes to work or to university or just potters around wherever they are. This means the scope of the show expands to include co-workers or waiters in restaurants or ex-boyfriends or, in one case, a double date with two cast members and two of the girl's other friends from the outside.
Here's a great article I found that breaks it down even more. (People in America are so obsessed with Terrace House, that Netflix actually acquired the show and now airs it on all their platforms.) In the article, the writer mentions that after a while, we're just waiting for the commentators to come in again. Instead of being extra to the show, they are why we watch. Every viewer probably has their favourite commentator, and mine is a man who goes by Yamachan on the show. He wears glasses and he usually sits by the Boy Wonder that rotates with each new installment (some sort of pretty boy off Japanese music or cinema who doesn't contribute much but looks nice). Yamachan is mean, but like, the kind of mean you'd encourage to come and sit by you at a party so you could judge everyone else. Among the other panellists, You stands out (no, really, that's her name) an older woman who is always handy with the one liner.
I began my Terrace House career by watching Terrace House: Aloha State, which was set in Oahu, Hawaii, known for its large Japanese population, I guess? It's widely acknowledged as the worst of the Terrace House series, but even at its worst, it was this fascinating gentle twisty story. I genuinely rooted for the virgin, but I also sympathised with the hot girl who turned him down. I cheered when the actor got to kiss the divorcee, and I was avid when one of the women brought drama into the house. (American-born). Terrace House: Aloha State had so many rotating characters that by the end of it there weren't any members left from the original cast and also there were about three "non-performing" members, which meant Japanese people who wanted to come to America to fix their careers or something and decided joining Terrace House was an easy way to start. I'm now watching Terrace House: Boys x Girls In The City, which is much milder than all the American stuff, set in Tokyo, and the current romance I am rooting for is between the model and the hairdresser. (Of course, it's not ALL sunshine and roses. Japan's patriarchy is quite visible: women holding their hands in front of their faces to laugh, men expecting the women to cook, even when they're told off, and my favourite lol of the season, the med student telling the hairdresser how hard it is to be a female doctor and the hairdresser going, "Yeah, it's the same for hairdressers, phew, it's a really tough industry.")
I don't know why I'm so into this show. No, that's not true, I do know. I've been feeling TV fatigue recently, all this pressure to keep up with the latest and greatest, appointment television, HBO specials, blah blah blah and I just wanted a show with no spoiler alerts unless I went looking for them, no crazy fandoms vs people crazy to prove how they were so much cooler for not watching (*coughGameofThronescough*) no thinkpieces everywhere. I just wanted a quiet pleasurable show, not comedy, not drama, just, I guess, six people living their lives on camera for all of us to watch. I don't even need to read internet recaps because Yamachan and the gang do it for me. I love it so much. Please watch and thank me later. (Start with Boys x Girls In The City, that's the first installment after the Japan-only version that Netflix brought to the world.)
And the other day, Anna made Taishi a bento box with fried chicken and nothing would do for me but to eat Japanese fried chicken, and K said, "There's a new Japanese place, shall we go check it out?" and we went and they had a bento box with fried chicken and it was like I was there.