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Day 65: São Paulo

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The streets of Liberdade neighbourhood in São Paulo.
Michael Palin - BrazilJun Takaki is a second-generation Brazilian. His grandparents were farmers who came out from Japan to Brazil to look for a better life. Their intention had been to stay for a while and make some money in the rapidly expanding coffee-growing business. But they never went back. Brazil became their home, as it has done for three million other Japanese immigrants. Jun, young, serious and polite, can speak little Japanese, and has never been to the home of his ancestors. But he thinks it important that younger generations of Japanese do not forget their culture, and he runs a coffee shop which tries to keep alive some of the old traditions.

I meet him in the central square of the Liberdade neighbourhood, home to some 10,000 of São Paulo's Japanese population. A statue of Tsuyoshi Mizumoto, the first leader of the Japanese community in São Paulo, his head half taken up by an enormous pair of spectacles, stares out at the constant bustle of people coming and going from the Metro station. Already a very nice old Japanese lady has engaged me in conversation, but it turns out she is a Jehovah's Witness wanting to sell me a copy of Sentinela, the Brazilian equivalent of The Watchtower. At one end of the Praça Liberdade a tent has been erected in which a number of worthies from the Japanese community are gathering to celebrate the start of Hanamatsuri, the annual flower festival. Priests in traditional dress are blessing a tiny figure of the Buddha which rests on a bed of flower petals inside a small palanquin. Serious-looking men in suits are taking their seats in front of it. There's a small gathering of onlookers but it hardly seems to be lighting up the place. Jun explains that this ceremony, with the blessing of the Buddha, is much more for the older traditionalists. He expects more young people to turn out for the festival parade later in the week.

Jun is happy in São Paulo. He has lived in other parts of Brazil, in Florianópolis and Brasília, but São Paulo has 'lots to do, lots of life, lots of culture'. Over the years the strict codes of the Japanese, especially regarding intermarriage with different ethnic groups, have been relaxed.

'Now it's not a problem,' says Jun.

Though he will continue to remind people of their Japanese heritage, he, like thousands of Koreans and Italians and Chinese and Russians, is first and foremost a Paulista.

São Paulo prides itself on being in the vanguard of the Brazilian economic boom, and beneath the veneer of featureless sprawl there are pockets of sophistication, not least of which are some impressive hotels, such as the extraordinary boat-shaped, copper-clad Unique by Ruy Ohtake and João Armentano and the rather more classic Fasano, with its dark leather and wood veneers and its striking slabs of stone and granite. The architect here was Isay Weinfeld, who has a wry, very Jewish take on his adopted city.

'I think it's one of the ugliest cities in the world,' he says cheerfully, as we walk together down a tree-lined street close to where he lives, 'but it's a wonderful city to work in.'
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Jehovah's Witness patrols the Praça Liberdade.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 65: São Paulo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Paulo
  • Book page no: 275

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