Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Return to Japan

Itinerant. Inoperative. Idle.

Why has it taken me so long to write this, possibly one of the last blog entries?

Well, three reasons. First, a relocation to Lincolnshire where broadband is still considered a form of magic and is likely to get you a seat on the dunking stool. Second, my brand new Hewlett Packard PC has had the bluescreen of death, the grey screen of death and the black screen of death (red screen next, I think). Finally, idleness. I’m surprised I could even be bothered to finish this final sente…..

My adventure came to an end in Japan……..


Within an hour of arriving in Japan we were lost. Khaosan Hostel, Asakusa was proving elusive, and it was only when we were politely offered assistance by a friendly stranger with a pushbike, who led us right to the door of the hostel, we could begin to unwind.

Already I was being impressed by Japan all over again. When I lived here 3 years ago, I always maintained that this was an amazing country. Only Shane blighted my experience. And once again, and so soon, I was re-acquainting myself with Japanese hospitality and their apparent lack of cynicism.

The room in the hostel was not so much tiny, as scaled down, like someone had selected “View at 75%” from a drop down menu. The doors were out of Alice In Wonderland. The beds from baby bear in Goldilocks.

Similarly, the shared toilet was so cramped the doors had to be opened in a specific order, like a Rubik’s Magic, lest you trap yourself in the room, or completely take out someone innocently shuffling down the corridor.

The toilet itself was ultra hi-tech. I discovered exactly how hi-tech when I accidentally set off the automatic bidet. Whilst my eyes opened in surprise, something else closed quite rapidly

After drying myself down, we were out for something to eat. This really brought it all back to me: gaudy neon captions, mental bikers, the greeting choruses of “irasshimase”, and this time, due to a drop in temperature, facemasks.

As I ate my katsu curry among salarymen and old bearded karate masters slurping noodles, I realised I really was happy to be back.

The first few days in Tokyo passed with relative ease. Highlights included a trip to an Okonomiyaki restaurant, where Japanese pancakes are cooked on a hot plate inches in front you (a really good reason to not put your elbows on the table), and a troll round Akihabara – like Dixons, except the size of a town. Had a blast of nostalgia whilst ogling over Street Fighter 4 which is now nearly photo realistic and fully 3D. The 12 yr old me would have actually cried. Or done a wee. Or both.


We left Tokyo and took the Shinkansen to Kyoto. The Shinkansen is Concorde on rails. It arrives to the millisecond, and pulls up to its marker merely a few thousandths of an inch out, avoiding that typically British mass dash for the misaligned door as it zooms past.

Such is the punctuality ingrained in Japanese society, the train dawdles but for 1 or 2 minutes. Barely have you had chance to take your seat or chuck your coat on the top shelf before it pulls away. There are no flustered late arrivals – young mothers budging their way down the aisles with pushchairs and holdalls, or students with their massive rucksacks.

If Tokyo was neon and speed and technology, Kyoto was temples, geisha, sliding screen doors and ninjas. Maybe not ninjas, then. Our suitably feudal accommodation, Gojo Guesthouse, was sparsely furnished with a small, low table, paper lantern and a futon folded neatly in the corner.

A late night walk in the rain revealed Poncho-dori, an alley so narrow you could touch either side by spreading your arms akimbo. The street was lined with immaculate restaurants restored in pine and festooned with billowing white sheeting emblazoned with Japanese symbols slashed in black ink. If Poncho-dori was the river, the tiny alleys firing off at right angles were the tributaries, even narrower than the main street, and again sometimes lit by red lanterns, sometimes by the blurred colours of a chattering bar and sometimes just melting indistinctly into the dark.

The next day few days were spent touring round the triangular temples, pagodas, bonsai gardens of Nijo-jo, Ryoan-ji, Kinkak-ju and other sure fire Scrabble winners (neatly ignoring the fact that Japanese proper nouns are generally disallowed). These effectively conjured up the myths and legends of samurai, geisha, dishonoured families and waves of arrows raining down on ninjas.

However, there’s nothing more likely to bring you out of reverie than scaffolding, safety cordons and orange cones. Clearly, winter was the only time when these relics could be restored, and so the carpenters had crawled out of the woodwork to fix up feudal balustrades and even up dynastic patios. Somewhat of a blow to the temples, actually.

Hiroshima – Osaka – Koya-san

Like a giant stalking thing, the scaffolding followed us 250 miles across the country to Hiroshima. The A-Bomb Dome, the most famous building to survive the blast of the atomic bomb, is a potent symbol of both the power of the nuclear age and the resilience both of the populace and their architecture. It stood the test of time for 60 years, but on the day we went was in danger of falling down. Typical. The result was a dome festooned with the best part of 50 tonnes of metal hammered into the brickwork. Thanks for that.

The day was lightened up, however, by old man waving at us before falling off his bike. We didn’t know him.

From there we doubled back to Osaka. Grim, grey and industrial, it struck me as a faded Tokyo, but I liked it. The highlight was the Umeda Building, a futuristic Arc de Triomphe. Lift up the “left leg” to ascend, take the diagonal escalator across to the topmost crossbeam then another lift to the very top. Incidentally this is all fully rendered in Google Earth complete with those escalators and lifts.

Eager to get out of the cities, the next day we made for the countryside. The destination was Koya-san, a village located atop a misty mountain. Our commuter train left Osaka and rattled out into the countryside through increasingly rural villages, padi rice fields, tumbledown shacks, and run-down temples. Japan’s megacities may be well kempt and regulated, but the gaps in between them - the fields, the sheds, the communities - are very ramshackle.

We decamped at an anonymous Japanese town to begin the climb up the mountain. Here we boarded the funicular - a cross between a cable car and tube train. It was only when we stood staring up at an impossibly steep alpine gradient, and at the “rails” disappearing vertically into a thick pea-soup mist, we realised how remote Koya-san was. I immediately started to get edgy, feeling outside my comfort zone; there was unlikely to be a Mister Donut at the top of here.

After a gravity-defying trundle into the freezing mountain fog, we were ushered into a bus and driven round a series of hairy snaking mist-shrouded bends. I would say the drop either side was huge, but I couldn’t see anything but fog. And I didn’t look too hard anyway.

The town itself was more developed than I expected and whilst it didn’t have a Mister Donut, it did have a decent little cornershop. The hostel, whilst basic, was both immaculate and authentic, complete with batty jamjar-bespectacled husband and wife owners.

From there it was out to Oku-no-in shrine. A mind-bogglingly-large collection of Japanese graves. And the Japanese really go to town on their gravestones. Oh yes. Not content with a slab of masonry, the Japanese are more comfortable with towers of precariously-balanced rock, monolithic totems of age-old granite shaped like this #, and most ostentatious of all, and presumably for the rich families, small moss-covered pyramidal tombs, complete with picket fence and mini-garden. If the creators of The Mummy franchise fancy flogging their already-dead horse some more, this would make a great filming location.

Return To Tokyo

We left the next day for a full days travel back to Tokyo, a long drawn out schlep punctuated only by the magnificence of Mount Fuji - now most definitely on the “to do next time” list.

That night we stayed in a capsule hotel. At the time this was considered to be a “good idea”. However, after 6 hours of (admittedly good quality) train travel it was rapidly beginning to look like a “bad idea”. Really, it was a colossal faff involving chaining up of luggage, the wearing of compulsory robe and slippers and scrabbling around in a baking hot plastic rectangle. Ideal if you’re a businessman who has missed his train. Not good if you’re a tourist with 43 rucksacks. And I had to shower in front of a load of blokes. Louise got her own cubicle. Typical.

We relocated to a posh hotel for our final few days in Tokyo and decided to take a day excursion to Yokohama. Yokohama didn’t make a good first impression. Like an emptier Singapore, cereal-box architecture and sparse city planning rendered the city rather cold. Even the giant ferris wheel couldn’t enliven the view. But that all changed once we had ascended the Landmark Tower to the observation deck. The tallest tower in all of Japan commanded fantastic views over all of Yokohama, taking in Fuji and, on the horizon, Tokyo itself.

As the sun set over the Eastern seaboard, I said goodbye to the finest country on Planet Earth.