When I was 13 years old I received a particularly bad piece of news. Never one to underreact in those days, my response was to punch the lawn I happened to be standing on as hard as my favourite arm would allow. The resulting broken fifth metacarpal provided short-term, singularly teenage misery though little in the way of long-term complication, but for one thing: using chopsticks hurts.
Japan it is then.
More than any other country I’ve been to, Japan was preceded by opinion. I know people who’ve been there, who have friends who’ve been there, or who’ve heard of it. Each knows best.
You’ll love it. It’ll be too much for you. It’s completely ridiculous. Have you seen Lost in Translation? Don’t for Christ’s sake blow your nose.
The result was to make me assume I’d have strong feelings about Japan, one way or the other. Indeed my two previous trips out east, to Hong Kong and Cambodia, had engendered loathing and love respectively. Could go either way, thinks I.
The plan was to land at a Tokyo airport but immediately forsake the capital for the former capital – Kyoto, of politicians half-heartedly attempting to save the planet in 1997 fame. That went so well they’re letting (a) Clinton run for president again, and dear Christ let’s hope she wins.
Immediately Japan made me despair for my homeland’s attempt to cart folk comfortably from A to B. This is plainly a nation that values public transport. Signs are everywhere, and frequently, ridiculously – because why the bloody hell should they cater for us – in English, including the splendid “No selfie sticks toward overhead line!” Wasn’t planning to, but thanks.
One of this country’s major selling points is its trains, including the famous Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’. If a tiny bit of you likes trains, these things are for you. Sleek, fast, punctual, and brilliantly when they get to the end of a line the seats are all spun around, allowing everyone to face forward for the trip back.
That said, for reasons I’ve subsequently forgotten to look into, every few seconds in every major station, and at various places nowhere near stations, you will hear a two-tone chime, ding dong, that should surely be followed by the words ‘Staff announcement’ but never is. I cannot express how infuriating it is. It became an obsession – I timed the interval at 10.5 seconds and decided that the two notes were the same two notes from the start of the chorus of Good Day Sunshine by the Beatles. I don’t like the Beatles.
Kyoto is pleasantly green, which may be why it was chosen for a climate change conference when somewhere disastrous like Birmingham or Flint might have been more appropriate. It is a standard city of tall buildings interspersed with parks, though its pull for tourists lies mainly in the countless temples scattered about the town.
The temples are pretty if rarely unique. You can go in some, though why you would is unclear. The temple we explored most was at Ginkakuji, where we paid a couple of quid to be funnelled pointlessly around the temple’s garden so that people could take pictures of what was ultimately just a garden. It was at Ginkakuji that I realised people will take photographs of absolutely anything now that carrying film is no longer an issue, including a pathetic waterfall that I myself put to shame later in the week when the raw fish took its toll. The Holy Stone of Clonrichert would not have been out of place.
Fourteen miles we walked around Kyoto on that first day. It is a lovely city and deserves such effort, though at least a few miles were expended dodging left and right to avoid cyclists ploughing at pace down Japan’s evidently dual-use pavements. It makes Amsterdam look like Bodie, California.
Yet despite enjoying Kyoto, the overwhelming feeling was that we could have been anywhere – this could be any large, pleasant city in any developed country, admittedly containing more Japanese people than you find in most. I had the curious sensation that this was America, becalmed.
Indeed, roughly 40% of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines, at least one on nearly every street, had been colonised by one of America’s finest actors. This superstar has diversified into Japanese retail with a dexterity befitting his stellar career, extolling you to buy the various cans of cold tea (milked, not iced), hyperpowered soft drinks and fags within. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.
It’s Tommy Lee Jones.
And clearly he’s thrilled about it.
A couple of days in Kyoto and Japan didn’t seem to have shown its true colours yet, but two day trips revealed different aspects of the country. The first was to Himeji, home of a giant castle I’m familiar with from a computer game I spend too much time buried in. Before you scoff, this game also led us to Angkor Wat, and one day may to Borobudur if politics and longevity allow, and you must allow influences from all quarters to truly live a life. And Himeji Castle is a glorious sight.
I must never again complain about dodgy knees or feeling ancient, having followed an old Japanese woman, 70 if she was a day – complete with walking stick – up the distressingly steep steps within Himeji Castle. It’s for you to guess which of us was panting like a mule at the summit. Like any good castle there was also a moat, where a man was feeding lettuce to surprisingly enthusiastic carp.
The other day trip was to Hiroshima.
Everyone knows what happened here – countless thousands incinerated in the blink of an eye, and thousands more left to suffer long-term sorrow and disease. Monuments to the events of 6 August 1945 are relatively low key, understandably, and the dead are remembered well. Focus is on Hiroshima as a city of peace, interested only in the end of nuclear weapons, and there is no attempt at blame save for a single line in one plaque in a memorial hall that bemoans ‘misguided national policy’, a remarkable understatement regardless of which side of the conflict it’s aimed at.
But even here I struggled to muster great emotion. Yes, I felt disgust at humanity intermingled with an inability to truly comprehend what happened at the very spot I’m standing, within the lifetime of my stepfather. It is revolting what this species is capable of. But for reasons I can’t explain I could not connect with it in a way I could so easily, and painfully, with the utter horror of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Perhaps it’s the sheer scale of it. Or perhaps it’s just Japan.
Having taken in the terror as best we could, lunch came in the form of the area’s famous okonomiyaki – a fried pancake made of noodles that proved quite delicious. The hideous J-Pop being piped through tinny speakers was less welcome, though such weird contrasts this close to monuments to unspeakable carnage might not be a bad thing. The rest of the city was much like any other, including one of Japan’s famous every-man-for-himself pedestrian crossings at Hondori Street, and a shop called Womb.
The Kyoto-and-nearby leg of the trip over, we caught a non-bullet train to Kanazawa on the northern coast. This journey, unlike every other before or later, revealed a little countryside – it was nice to spy fields and mountains rather than the bog-standard buildings lining most of the train lines.
Kanazawa is another enjoyable, easy place. It’s also supposedly the Seattle of Japan and it didn’t let us down on that score, washing out an entire afternoon with interminable, into-your-bones rain. We saw some of the town the next day – a castle that had to be rebuilt after the war, many temples and some intriguing alleyways and huts formerly (or perhaps still) home to the famous geishas, which as I understand it are basically curiously painted ladies of the night or thereabouts.
As an aside, etiquette is allegedly a big deal over here and there’s a long list of things you ought not do to avoid local ire, such as eating while walking down the street, talking on phones in trains and blowing your nose in public. Absolute balls; I saw each performed with reckless abandon by Japanese people, the third of them at great length and to the obvious satisfaction of the hooter concerned.
There’s an entire section devoted to chopsticks in the etiquette handbook, and Kanazawa was where my battle with these monstrous implements reached its apogee. Not only do they make me ache, I’m forever one eureka moment away from working out how to hold them correctly, meaning I appreciate a little help from the food itself. My many regrets now include ordering ‘Udon noodles served in the pot’, which is where they were bloody well determined to stay. It involved a boiling pot of soup with noodles and unspecified fish in it, sitting on a gas hob that had the effect of raising my lunch half a foot off the table. A small ladle proved utterly useless for anything but the liquid, leaving me with little option but to use the chopsticks to try to manoeuvre slippery solids the great distance to my small bowl, and perhaps eventually to my mouth. Burnt, scalded, wet and hungry. A crushing manifestation of man’s limitations. And, for no reason, there was a whole egg in it.
By this point I was pinning more than a hope or two on Tokyo. Having assumed this would be the most Japanese place in Japan – in my bright-lights-everywhere mental image of the place – I was expecting Tokyo to jolt me into feeling, well, something more than “this is nice” about the country.
Tokyo is carved up into districts in much the same way as London or New York. The usual pedestrian expeditions revealed rich areas, old areas, gaudy areas and a bit where all the embassies seem to congregate, including an Australian embassy that looks like a military base. There are parks aplenty, and obviously a zoo – everywhere has a zoo, with the requisite giraffes running around tiny enclosures, presumably driven to insanity by their imprisonment.
Thankfully there are also a couple of areas where human madness happens.
Shinjuku is a hotspot for night-life, and day life I suppose. That image you have of Japan with enormous electronic screens blaring out diabolical J-Pop, huge adverts for camera, phone, games companies and everything brighter and more colourful than a puffin’s pecker – that’s Shinjuku. As a spectacle it’s something to behold, and a bit of a ‘phew’ moment for me personally, proving I’d not invented everything I thought I knew about Japan from 80s cartoons where all the characters’ eyes are frighteningly large. There’s also an area here containing tiny bars, seemingly made from the remnants of tiny houses, in which they serve beers that are mercifully less tiny than elsewhere.
Yes, beer. Dear Japan – you appear to be under the misapprehension that drinkers enjoy a nice foaming head on the top of their lager, to the extent that you have two taps per pint: one for the liquid and another especially to fill the glass with a substance that evaporates within a couple of minutes. No. Fill our bloody glasses. Yours, the British people.
The other area of particular interest to me in Tokyo was Akihabara, aka Geek Town. It’s here that people come to buy their electronic goods, games, comics and anything that outs them as a future ruler of the world, given who we’ve now established will inherit the Earth. There are more massive buildings covered with advertising and branding here, but with a particular focus on games companies. Walking down the main street in Akihabara, looking at the determined pleasure on the faces of Japan’s geek class, made me happy because, exciting as HMV in Exeter was, if I’d walked down a street at their age and seen a massive CLUB SEGA, I would have utterly lost my mind.
A thoroughly Japanese sight greeted us at the Yoyogi National Stadium, where thousands of teenage girls were queuing excitedly for something called Sexy Zone, which turns out to be a Boy Band, whose varied back catalogue includes the albums ‘One Sexy Zone’, ‘Sexy Second’ and ‘Sexy Power3’. Forcing our way through a sea of long socks and pigtails, I spied a stranded, lone Englishman, eyes wide in horror, and managed to direct him towards freedom from this sinister throng. It’s always good to save a life.
And I can say without hesitation that the Tokyo subway is magnificent, and simple to use for even the most myopic tourist. Stations everywhere, loads of lines, an easy map. As a lover of London’s Underground, I found myself gazing enviously at the way everything just seemed to work for the benefit of all, though I can’t deny I still prefer the rickety old beast beneath my city. What’s a commute without a little danger and confusion?
Even the toilets give you a helping hand. No, not like that. They are frequently electronic, with buttons to press for different flushes and a computerised bidet that almost blinded me when I tried to investigate with two blue eyes rather than one brown one. In the Tokyo hotel, the lid opened automatically when you opened the toilet door. Convenience for convenience sake it seemed to me, particularly in the dead of night when it would also light up and frighten the bejesus out of a half-asleep old man with oversized prostate.
As with everything else in Japan, it was just easy. And maybe that’s the problem. Could go either way, thought I, but it never did. Japan is a quiet, calm place that tolerates tourists with a lovely ease. As a foreigner you are greeted with the simple humanity of a gracious and friendly people who want you to like their homeland, and it’s very hard not to acquiesce.
But strong feeling towards the country never materialised. With the benefit of a fortnight’s hindsight, I can say I’ve never been to a country that makes everything so easy for the visitor. It turns out I appreciate a bit of the unknown, and this is not a place for that. Calm, polite, beautiful, safe, easy and enjoyable. And that’s all, but if that’s not enough, I guess it’s my fault, not Japan’s.