essay: Japan 2017

Subject: Japan                                                                                               21/5/17 – 11/6/17

Sorry, but it’s a whopper – bedtime reading for insomniacs. And nothing new for those who know Japan.
The 4th time I’ve begun typing this – the other 3 disappeared into cyberspace, so playing smart this time and sending it by mobile hotspot or on return to Oz if that fails (it did).  Webmail really doesn’t like big emails.
We’ve been in Japan 8 days, mostly in Tokyo,  so here are some first impressions. Of course it’s a tourist perspective – we aren’t here on business.  There’s a lot to like.  The people are almost always friendly, polite and helpful; will often walk up and offer help if you look uncertain or lost.  Everything is efficient and well designed, from maximising use of space in our little hotel room, to the amazing railways.  Our room’s toilet seat is heated (in Summer!) and at the push of a button the toilet converts to a bidet thingy, with a strange little arm appearing down there and sending a powerful jet of water skywards – it hit the ceiling!  There are several buttons so you can pretend you are a pilot.  The Tokyo subway is a vast city underneath a vast city.  The umpteen train lines are colour coded, the stations numbered and plenty of English signage, so thanks Lec – we quickly became adept at navigating, and our rechargeable Plasmo cards make it all so easy.  Of course it’s all about dealing with huge numbers of people in a small country.  The trains are frequent and always on time, and our hotel is close to a station, as is everything else.  Strangely we had our first commuter crush on a little train on a sideline from Kamakura, a hill town where we went for a temple pilgrimmage on a Saturday with hordes of local tourists.  There’s lots of interesting modern urban architecture, like the Tokyo International Forum – a huge boat-shaped structure of glass and steel, housing museums and conference halls- and huge, striking skyscrapers.   Urban sculpture is strong too, mainly figurative, often unadorned females.  Attitudes to nature are different – nice big parks are manicured and paved and often criss-crossed by roads, with lots of keep off the grass signs, and large green areas inaccessible.  The Diet can only be visited on a guided tour (though there was a big noisy demo about some labour issue outside), and the Japanese seem fairly buttoned up – get anxious if one strays from the script – definitely no jay-walking.  The city is unbelievably clean, with armies of street cleaners and their little brush and pan sets, but they are mostly sweeping errant leaves; I don’t think anyone litters.  Our first venture into the subway was two stops to the Ginza, that famous shopping area in central Tokyo with battalions of shoppers crossing at the lights.  There are several such areas, each a city in itself, with slightly different themes – youth culture, night life etc.  The Ometasandro walk near Shibuya is a long tree lined avenue stuffed with all the European brands.  It’s an expensive city, somewhat more than Melbourne, but you can get excellent cheap local meals at the myriad of little eateries everywhere.  It’s said that people are very honest, that nobody would try to cheat you, and that is a nice feeling as you’d be vulnerable in such a different culture. Coin laundries don’t exist and the hotel ones are pricey: $10 for a polo shirt, so our room resembles a Japanese laundry. Many of the women dress very elegantly, with quite a few – young or old – in traditional dress.  It’s an easy walk to Tokyo Bay from our hotel, also to Tokyo Tower, a smaller version of the Eiffel, with great views of Tokyo.  The skyscrapers and apartment blocks go on forever.  The Japanese are great at copying of course, in fact this was national policy when the first modern Emperor, Meiji, cut off his topknot and pulled Japan into the modern age.  So they do good Italian food, and copies of some of Rodin’s great works, including The Thinker and the mighty Gate of Hell.  They are quite religious, Buddhist or Shinto, with all ages praying or just bowing at shrines.  Shinto which is I think an offshoot of Buddhism, is interesting: no prophets, no deity, no book; just a commitment to living a good, reflective life, it seems.   One thing I’m less keen on is the amount of packaging; so fresh fruit is mostly cut up and packaged, and when you can get it whole it is often individually packaged too; seems to be part of national obsession with neatness, or perhaps cleanliness, or both.
We did a very comfortable one day bus tour to Mt Fuji, breathtakingly beautiful when Fuji-San (‘Mr Fuji’) decided to appear from the clouds.  Our excellent guide was an older Japanese woman who told us much about Japan, was good at toilet humour, sang us a childrens’ Fuji song and even gave us a hands-on lesson in origami.  On a visit to the great Buddhist temple complex Senso-Ji in northern Tokyo we were fortunate to find an extensive, gorgeous bonsai competition in the temple grounds.  Most places we have seen are very built up, so even the hills trek at Kamakura to see big Buddhas and temples was largely through suburbs.  Returned by bullet train to Tokyo, after a visit to coastal resort town Hakone gave us a boat trip on lovely Lake Ashi then a cable car up a mountain gave us our best views of Mt Fuji, at last.  Bullet train ride back to Tokyo was our first – so fast, like an aeroplane on rails (and that’s what it looks like), quiet and smooth.  I had a matcha (green tea) green ice cream today; not bad, not great, but clearly very popular here.
One sad thing – lots of locals have rickets (bowed arthritic legs) – even young people – or collapsed spines, due to Vitamin D deficiency, so easily and cheaply prevented.
That’s it for now, you’ll be relieved to hear.  I REALLY hope this doesn’t disappear again; I am a bit over webmail.

Change of (email) plan: it seems I can’t send large emails by webmail, so shall send this one longer offering as soon as we return to Oz.

Yesterday (30/5) we traveled north by bullet train (‘shinkansen’) to the World Heritage temple city of Nikko.  They are an extraordinary technology, now 50 years old without an accident (small Buddhist prayer offered now), and of course they began in Japan.  Must read up on how this magnetic tech works (I did, and they run on conventional tracks at present, but Maglev technology is on the way and the new Shinkansen will run at a blistering 313 mph, floating several inches above the guideway when the speed hits 90 mph, and held in place by superconducting magnets.)  It’s telling that after all this time we don’t have them for the vast distances of Oz.  The suburbs of greater Tokyo went on forever; I think the term for such an enormous city is a ‘conurbation’ but ‘supercity’ will do.  There are lots of bicycles in Japan but they all ride on (ie all over) the footpath, never on the road, weaving around pedestrians, and nobody wears a helmet, even the toddlers in their baby seats; you do wonder how many heads get broken.
The temple complex at Nikko was big and colourful and the carving of the temples incredibly detailed; also hugely crowded, even of a Tuesday, as are most special sites – the numbers mostly Japanese and boosted by hordes of children on school excursions.  After marvelling at the temples we struck out for the botanical gardens – for a rest from the hordes – a peaceful spot beside the quite dramatic rapids of the Daiya  River, crossed by one of those gorgeous old red curved bridges.  The maps always make it seem like a stroll, but it was a long walk; again thank goodness for Celebrex!  Our last day in Tokyo – we’ll be back for a few days after 8 days in Kyoto – was spent looking at some classic traditional gardens, very beautifully designed, with lots of giant carp and friendly tortoises; perfect placement of stones and pools and manicured trees to create set-piece views and peaceful meditative settings.  Also visited a nice area of little lanes and tiny shops and old houses, then the renowned Sebu Department Store built onto Ikebukuro railway station; the very large basement food hall has to be seen to be believed, but we struggled to find anywhere to sit and eat our sushi.
After ten days in Tokyo left our nice little modern hotel in Hamamatsucho and caught a 9am bullet train, 2 hrs to Kyoto. Whoosh!  Another nice modern hotel near a station, with a grander foyer but an even smaller room, if that were possible – truly glamping.  But a coin laundry on our floor – very exciting after 10 days of hand washing and drying.  I’ll say it again, the subway stations are like Buddhist temples with their vast numbers of steps (one of the latter had a defibrillator at the top); a wheel fell off our big case so I bought another one in a sale in the Ginza – was joking (and breathing hard) about needing an AED at the top of the steps at Kyoto after lugging the 20kg bag to the top; and sure enough there was one in a shopfront a few doors from the top of the steps.  After moving in we went for a walk in the local area close to the centre of Kyoto; found an enormous series of covered arcades – miles of quite upmarket boutiques, so Rochi is very happy.  It’s an odd holiday, in that Japan seems to me like one gigantic shopping mall with a few temples for variety.  But it’s certainly different!  And wonder upon wonder, our Plasmo cards also work in Kyoto, and will do for lengthy side trips to Nara and Himeji Castle.  Travelling by train here is just brilliant!
Kyoto, an anagram of Tokyo says Rochi, was the capital before Tokyo, and is of course smaller and somewhat quieter and less crowded, and attractive, with many ancient temples and shrines.  Nijo Castle is not too far from our hotel; yet another mighty walled wooden structure with two moats and lovely gardens.  So after that on our first sightseeing day we checked out Kyoto Station, another modern architectural masterpiece, with hundreds and hundreds of steps, the most in any building so far, and escalators too, fortunately.  The Cube is a large attached shopping complex.  Walked from there to Toji temple, with the biggest pagoda in Japan, a giant classic 5-floored shape rebuilt in the 1600’s after burning down several times, as most of them seem to have.  Next the Higashi-Honganji temple, another old whopper, very lovely and reputedly the LARGEST wooden structure in the world; I believe they are all built without nails – just joinery – and the mighty pagodas employ an ancient technology to resist earthquakes.  They go into a sinuous ‘snake dance’, with the forces in the joinery bringing them back to vertical greater than the ones pushing them over – incredible!
Next big walk day was The Philosopher’s Walk, a lovely 5km leafy walk along a canal near the eastern set of the mountains that ring Kyoto, through little hill towns and many old, smaller temples; it was a Saturday, and lots of women and girls out in traditional dress – very lovely. Then a further 5km walk back to our hotel through a vast less manicured park and woodland around the Imperial Palace.
Next day an easy 45′ JR ride to Nara, the old capital before Kyoto, with the OLDEST wooden structures in the world.  A pretty, smaller city (think Geelong?) with a huge temple park full of Sunday local tourists and thousands of tame deer, all being fed biscuits by delighted, super-cute kids.  The big attraction (are you templed out yet?) was Todaji, another enormous old wooden structure housing a massive bronze Buddha (about 17m) and his heavenly attendants; awesome is the appropriate word. Lots of lesser structures, one of which was hosting a traditional wedding and was surrounded by 3000 big old stone lanterns, and many more tourists – weddings are at weekends and often in these old places, and it seems not to worry the bridal couple that they have hundreds  of pic-snapping onlookers.
All our days are big walks.  Yesterday the eastern Gion and Higashiyama districts of Kyoto, the old areas with tiny wooden houses and shops; few of these remained after allied carpet bombing of Japanese cities in WW2 caused massive conflagrations ie not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  At least 100,000 died in Tokyo alone.  Then hooked up at night with a Y1000 walking tour for about 100 min of the western Gion, where most of the Geishas are.  Kyoto is one of the main cities for them, and there are about 200 (in a city of half a million).  Our excellent guide was a young male law student, Yuki, who had lived in Oz and Scotland as a child.  Geishas now called Geikos as the older word is associated with prostitution, now illegal in Japan.  Trainees ( Maikos) aged 15-20 (about 80 out of the 200) have a hard life and are getting harder to recruit.  They are often more traditional rural girls and have to give up conventional education.  They are distinguished from the many women in lovely traditional dress by their white painted faces and more elaborate upswept hairstyle.  Only the nape of the neck is left unpainted as Japanese men find that spot very attractive.  I have been paying close attention to napes since then.  Hmmm. They are not allowed mobile phones and see family and friends in a brief holiday only twice yearly.  Must be less than 165cm and live in a kind of unpaid sisterhood under a house mother.  Basically they are entertainers (drinking games and dancing and playing trad music) for wealthy men in tea-houses, and many end up as wife #1, 2 or 3 (ie mistress) to one of their clients.  Our guide talked a little of the Yakusa, gangsters who do drugs and prostitution, and whose headquarters in Osaka are close to Nintendo’s – the association seems to be an open secret.  Yakusa are heavily tattooed and have part of one finger missing.  I have been watching hands on the train too but none so far.
Today Tue 6/6 we were taken by our mighty Pasmo rail cards south through Osaka for a day trip to the port of Kobe (think the most expensive beef in the world), reminding us once again that the east coast of Japan is a conurbation, pretty much a continuous city, intensely built up, fro Tokyo south to Kyoto, Osaka and beyond.  Kobe is smaller and quieter, but once again with a great subway and JR rail system like the other cities we’ve visited.  It’s very modern, as it was levelled by the Great Hanshin earthquake on my birthday in 1995, with 100,000 buildings and 5000 lives lost.  We has a nice walk about the waterfront and then to a lovely waterfall in the hills behind the city, which is squeezed between mountains and coast – hence some big land creation projects on the port.  Ran out of time to do the cable car ride up Mt Rokko for a reputedly fab view of the inland sea, but may do it later in the week.  Easy rail trip back to Kyoto for another dinner of Okonomiyaki  savoury pancakes – yum!
On our last full day in Kyoto it rained steadily, the second day of rain in this summer holiday; we took the subway north then walked to a classic old Zen temple complex, with a Zen dry garden – small stones raked meticulously into patterns for the uninitiated to interpret; then walked on to the Golden Temple, covered in gold leaf, and set in the usual lovely lakes and gardens, but with hordes of school kids on excursion.  Sick of the rain after that so another long walk from the north-west rim of mountains to a suburban rail line, a sort of light rail with a cute little tram that raced along narrow tracks between the little wooden houses.
Our last adventure was by express train about 1.5 hours south to Himeji Castle, the largest in Japan, a huge and fabulous old World Heritage property – and of course very well organized for visitors to walk around and climb the 6 floors of the mighty ‘keep’.  These castles and great temples are a big feature, often more than 1000 years old, often built up by shoguns, feudal warlords like the Tokugawas, predating imperial Japan.  Himeji has at least 2 moats, is about 2-3km around the great wall, and is one of the few of Japan’s many wonderful cultural properties that doesn’t have scads of souvenir and snack stalls within the complex, somewhat detracting from the Buddhist calm.  Back to Kyoto for a final meal of noodles, Asahi beer and the wonderful Okonomiyaki pancake, before we pack up tomorrow and catch the bullet train to Tokyo.  Japanese food is great, and may teach me to be content with smaller portions (well, anything is possible), but after 3 weeks we are looking forward to some home cooking.
I’ve done some nice reading this hol: The Wife of Martin Guerre is a tiny little novel, old and tragic and beautifully written.  I think years ago I saw Richard Gere in one of several films that have been made of it.  The Hidden Life of Trees is a wonderful new book by a German forester detailing how trees communicate and live in communities, albeit slowly, in ways not very different from animals, all with good scientific evidence; a great read, and I’ll see trees quite differently from now on.  Today on our last bit of time in Kyoto went to Maruzen, a fine English bookshop and bought what is shaping to be a excellent little history of Japan’s terrible mistake in starting war in the Pacific – the complex reasons that lead them to do it.  Then we did a final temple visit not far from Kyoto station; another fine large and ancient wooden structure with 1001 life-sized gold painted carved wooden female warriors protecting a mighty golden Kannon, a female deity.  Back to Tokyo by bullet train, staying a few stops from the centre at Shimbashi, a really lively part of town, so no trouble in finding a nice noodle restaurant and collapsing back at another tiny hotel room.  And can you believe it, right next door there’s a hole-in-the-wall that does Okonomiyaki (no tables left).  It shall be my war-cry from now on.  Final day in Japan tomorrow before flying home overnight on Sunday, and looking forward to rescuing Alfie.  Rochi at long last found the baggy black pants she has been searching for, so she’s happy too.  I have to add with some little guilt that we have lunched many times on good sandwiches at Starbucks, who are everywhere in Japan.
A gentle day in Tokyo – went to see the Craft Annex of the National Modern Art Museum but it was in prolonged closure mode, so found our way into the great eastern gardens of the Imperial Palace behind another of those big moats and mighty fanned stone walls, near the centre of Tokyo. Vast and lovely, not least because there was lots of lawn for people to actually walk and picnic on.  Headed back through Tokyo Station and did some useful admin, cashing in our fabulous Plasmo cards (and feeling suddenly insecure without them!), and planning our remaining Yen and timings for the rapid train to Narita Airport tomorrow, about 90min distant.  Also ventured into a pachinko parlour, very popular in Japan, for a quick look: multiple long rows of men totally focussed on gaudy vertical pinball machines. Gambling of course, and the air heavy with smoke and a very loud continuous roar like a plane taking off.
On our last morning in Tokyo we walked to a lovely old park on Tokyo Bay, then back to Shimbashi, which is on the edge of the Ginza; so on into the Ginza, with the main drag closed to traffic on a Sunday, so people walking all over the broad avenue.  Reached that famous junction and sat down for lunch in Cafe Doutor, where we started our hol three weeks ago; it’s a great spot and one of the few places anywhere with sidewalk tables; I went upstairs for a pee and as I unzipped at the pissoir, an old Japanese woman came in singing to herself, cleaning the loos; paid no attention to me, which was probably good, in the scheme of things. Rochi did her last ogling of all the European shop windows, and we took an easy JR ride 90 min to Narita Airport.

Final impressions: It’s a sophisticated country, more so than Australia in many ways, especially in the provision of highly efficient, practical services; their brilliant rail system is the most obvious example.  In other ways it’s a bit behind, as in allowing smoking in most places (though smokers have public spots, little fenced areas in big cities like enlarged bus stops, for them to have a smoke – temples are the only spots where smoking is banned); it’s at odds with how health-conscious the Japanese seem to be, as are the obvious effects of widespread Vit D deficiency.  I have my own thoughts about why.  It has been a really good hol, if more intense than any I’ve had before.