It’s a rare thing in a traveller’s life when you have high expectations, and not only are they met, they are exceeded exponentially. Japan was roughly the halfway point of my six month round the world trip, and in the time building up to my two weeks there, I definitely felt the self-imposed pressure, not to “f*ck it up”, so to speak. After all it’s a long way away, pretty damn pricey and most likely a once in a lifetime experience. Japan for me has had a mythical allure ever since I started travelling around this little planet and the sense of gravitas and occasion was not lost on me.
The famed Japanese politeness was in evidence straightaway as a Spanish traveller, for some reason pinpointed me, clearly straight off the plane sitting on the metro at Narita Airport with my backpack looking at my subway map as his most likely option for knowing how to get to “Yawata” station. I thought I’d given a relatively solid reply in the circumstances, however most of the Japanese contingent in my carriage evidently disagreed, as they set about firstly explaining in English, then drawing a map, borrowing paper and pens off others on the train to provide the necessary directions.
Day one in Tokyo was epic. I think the main thing with Japan is that every few minutes you notice something and think, “that’s amazing.” For example the orderly nature of the subway where people don’t just pile on but line up at designated points, thus maintaining the efficency of the service. Staggeringly no-one bumps into each other. The cleanliness for a city of 35 million people is also mind boggling, helped by signs, in English reminding you not to put your cigarettes out on the pavements, for example.
Unsurprsingly the Art Section of the National Musuem was stunning. It housed brilliant and ornate examples of calligraphy, scrolls and paintings as well as Samurai warrior armour. The Edo Toyko History Musuem was more like a model village than a museum, again the attention to detail of the model maps and mock up villages and towns was incredible.
Akibhara aka Electric Town is probably what you may think of when you picture Tokyo. If I have even felt like Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation just spending hours walking around gazing in awe at what I would imagine the future to be like, it was then. The neon lighting displays on the skyscrapers are as insane as the frankly slightly seedy number of promotions girls in outfits from school girls to nurses and vampires. I was also pretty taken aback at the sheer volume of Anime products that there are, including video games, books, magazines, dolls and the bizarre anime porn shops.
You could spend a couple of weeks in Tokyo and probably not do everything so sticking to the highlights, I’ll say that a cruise around the nightlife / red light district onf Shinjuku is a must, as is a photograph at the world famous Shibuya crossing. Again I was somewhat blown away by the neverending neon lights, colour, vibrancy and utterly different approach to nightlife and entertainment.
With time limited to two weeks, I did want to get up to Hokkaido the northern Island for a slice of the Japanese countryside. The journey up to Sapporo involving three changes on the outstanding Japanese rail service was very smooth, rapid and the final part in particular that runs parallel to the sea is gloriously scenic. They are called bullet trains for a reason. At speeds touching 400 kmh, on uphill sections, I did actually feel like I was going to take off at some points. Not content with having the best trains in the world, the train conductors bow at the end of each carriage after they have walked through and the information is also in English.
Sapporo is a very cool city, much more chilled out than Tokyo but still buzzing and with plenty to do. The Winter Sports Musuem housed by a ski jump that you can take a cable car to the top, giving great views of the city is worth the easy trip. Given the Japanese attention to detail in all things, the Botanical Gardens were spectacularly ornate and well kept. However the find of the day was Moenema Park, a quintessentially Japanese park with futuristic scupltures, rolling hills, perfectly aligned pine trees and a baseball diamond. On my way back the bus driver even went out of his way to drop me at the right place to get a bus back to the metro station.
In my quest to get out into the countryside I took a day trip to Biei. This is a sleepy town but well worth a visit. I took a country stroll through rolling patchwork fields, pine trees and rice fields, all with snow covered mountains in the background. Only a little bit out of town, the roads were all but deserted. Truly getting away from it all.
Starting at 530am and finishing at 9.45 pm I made the journey from Sapporo right down to Hiroshima on the south-western coast of the south island in one day. It took five train changes, all of which ran on time to the minute.
Hiroshima is obviously known as where the site of the first nuclear bomb was dropped in August 1944. The Museum and Memorial is the city’s major tourist attraction. The most interesting parts being the personal testimonies and survivors stories. It also has a picture and information, stored electronically, on each person who died in the disaster. Einstein’s involvement was interesting, as was finding out why Hiroshima was selected by the Americans. The Manga (animated books) Library is Hiroshima’s next best attraction and I was surprised at its popularity, even among adults. The storylines are truly varied and uniquely Japanese. When I ventured out one night in Hiroshima, I did, as you do in Japanese cities, feel that, for want of a better phrase, there is some pretty seedy stuff going on. But it is very much on a need to know basis and done very discreetly. I did think that given Japanese society holds itself up as virtuous and moral, that there is a slight paradox here.
I wasn’t blown away by Osaka. But I think at this stage I was pretty much awestruck by everything in Japan that a slight come down was inevitable. It is really a gastronomical and going out town, and given the costs of these two activites I didn’t partake as much as I would have liked to. Japan is known as being expensive, and this is certainly fair. Hostels are outstanding in terms of quality and attention to detail but start at $35 a night for a dorm bed. While the food is breathtakingly tasty, portions are small so I found it took three courses at $12 a go to get filled up. Thus fast foods places and SevenEleven ready meals became a good option.
Osaka Castle is certainly worth visiting and I would strongly recommend taking in a baseball game. The standard was quite poor, they basically couldn’t hit the ball, and I left in the seventh innings with the score at just 2-0 but the atmosphere was incredible. The fans do not stop singing for the whole game, even though it was raining, and seemed to have a different song for each game scenario.
Kyoto is one of those places that you just have to visit once. Like London, Paris, Rome or New York it has just got it. It is certainly tourist friendly but this is only due to the vast number of quintessentially Japanese shrines, temples, museums, and pavillions that are available to visit, and it is relaively easy to do a lot in a short time. My personal favourires were the Zen Temples and the simplicity of their decor and tranquility of the gardens. The Bamboo Groves are a must and another iconically Japanese attraction. The Fushimi Inari Shrine and its labyrinth of Orange Arches, each with Japanese writing meandering up and around a mountain will blow your mind.
Nara and its parks makes for perfect for a day trip from Kyoto although be watchful of the dear and to be honest slightly annoying visitor trait of teasing them with food. I even saw one person give a dear a magazine page and watched him eat it. “Congratulations you’ve outwitted an animal you moron,” is what I would have shouted if he had understood. Nara is also home to the immense Big Buddha, which is well, a massive statue of Buddha, but is nonetheless worth marvelling at.
And that was the end of my woefully inadequate two week stay in Japan. A country has never effected me that much that I was welling up when the plane took off. Japan is, for me, an example of what the human race can achieve, as near to a Utopian society as exists. People are almost painfully polite and helpful, so much so, that it is both humbling and at times embarrassing. For example, you will never come close to bumping into someone in the street, they will move out the way when there is no reason, and then apologise. I would classify this as a microcosm of Japanese society, the concept of attainment of perfection. So even if we are just walking down the street, we will do it perfectly. I certainly felt the pressure to behave well and with class and manners that I have never felt anywhere else. This transcends to the business world, and the pressure on children to achieve is now so great that Japan’s populations is ageing rapidly as having children is simply not a priority for young adults. Similarly you can have Indian or Italain food here and I will guarantee it will be among the best you have ever had, such as is the obsession with perfection. All this said it remains a magical, mysterious and phenomenal country to visit.