Monday 1 December 2014


Saturday November 1st 2014

Flying into Tokyo in the early morning of our first trip to the far east, the view from the plane window was startlingly different. As the mist rose from rolling hills, Judy said, 'Now I understand the paintings'. And that was how it continued - finally experiencing what you'd only read of, seen or heard, which started a process of realising that despite all appearances, you hadn't actually landed on a different planet.

We're here for two reasons. In July Jasper got a job teaching English in Tokyo. With my travel journalist hat on, I got a semi-paid for gig to write an article on Japan for the Mail on Sunday, organised by Inside Japan Tours. Our itinerary was laid on for us, we just had to follow our instructions. This was a Bentinck Serendipity Tour only inasmuch as we had no idea what to expect.

The route from the airport takes you through a brutal industrial landscape. Gigantic factory buildings for mile after mile, huge windowless boxes with no design criteria at all. Further towards the centre, vast office blocks straddle motorways, threatening at any second to become a Transformer.

This was to become a noticeable theme of our twelve day tour of Japan, the contrast between style-free utilitarian practicality and the subtlety and detail of their historical inheritance, of architecture, design and philosophy.

Checking in early to our luxy room at the Ana Intercontinental in the centre of Tokyo, we met our guide Kaz at midday, but were so jet-lagged we couldn't answer the simplest questions, like "what would you like to do today?" so we set off to look at gardens. On the way I remembered I'd written down details of the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation where I was desperate to see Asimo and other androids strut their stuff. Kaz was slightly miffed as it clearly wasn't part of her plan, but she improvised well.

By chance it was free entry that day and, as we came in, there was Asimo itself doing a show. This was my first introduction to the advantages of being 6'3" in Japan - I stood at the back of the crowd but could see everything. Poor normal sized Judy couldn't, so I videoed it for her, but that too was the first example of what is a national obsession in Japan - photographing absolutely everything.

I remember crowds of Japanese tourists in London in the sixties, diligently snapping everything with Instamatics. In the eighties it was camcorders, now it's smartphones - wherever we went, almost everyone seemed to be filming or taking selfies. On the trains they were either nose to the screen or fast asleep. Rare was the overheard conversation. Mind you, sleeping in Japan is a big thing. Inemuri, or 'sleeping while present', is encouraged, and seen as better than coffee at keeping you concentrating, also long work hours and long commutes turn train journeys into dormitories. 

At first, the Tokyo subway system is a baffling maze, so we were grateful for Kaz, who guided us through it. We bought our Pasmo cards, that work like an Oyster, and exchanged our vouchers for our Japan Rail passes, which give unlimited rail journeys. After a while we realised that the platform signs alternate between Japanese and English, and sometimes the announcements in the carriages are in English too - though crucially not always. We soon got used to it, I was desperate not to be like tourists on the tube, and tried not to stop suddenly for no apparent reason and point at things. After all, if you can negotiate the London tube, any subway system is much the same, it's just that their's is about five times bigger - and the only way to get about.

After the museum, running on empty, Kaz took us to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, a haven of peace in the teeming mass of humanity, and there we strolled in misty isolation and took tea, in a proper teahouse, with our shoes off.

Having explained the proper behaviour for drinking our ground green tea, its bitterness alleviated by the traditional accompanying sweet, Kaz amazed us by saying she had another ten years of tea ceremony study to go before she could talk with any authority on the subject. 

It reminded me of watching the Kodo drummers in London many years ago - those guys spent their lives on an island in monastic isolation, learning to drum. I remember thinking then that the Japanese don't do things by halves and have a liking for turning everything into a martial art.

We were so exhausted by the evening that we had simple western food delivered to the room. It seemed slightly absurd eating burgers in Japan, but we knew that culinary delights awaited and we wanted to be guided in our choices by those in the know.

It was strange to eat a hamburger and look out on this view, and ponder that in 1945 over 50% of Tokyo was destroyed in an American incendiary raid. Now you can't see the houses for skyscrapers, nor the rivers for freeways.

Sunday November 2nd

There is a great luggage forwarding service in Japan which we used this morning to send the bag we'd brought for Jasper to his apartment, and set off with our two enormous suitcases (we'd brought far too much) for Kamakura, one of Japan's old capitals, on the coast. When we arrived we parked ourselves in a Starbucks just near the station (I know... but we could get a coffee and sit outside), and waited for Jasper to arrive. The last time we'd seen him was saying goodbye at Heathrow four months earlier - the intrepid traveller heading off to the other side of the world for a major adventure,

and here, emerging from the station entrance, in the same shirt, was the experienced English sensei - Master of IKOU! Such a joy to see him, so at ease in this strange environment.

We took a taxi together up to our next adventure. Coming from the luxury of a five-star skyscraper, the Kamakura Prince Hotel was a bit more Blackpool, but the room looked out over the sea, and in the far distance, there was our first view of Mt. Fuji - and as it turned out, almost our last, as the clouds began to gather. Staring at the Pacific Ocean, I found myself calculating our height above sea level, mindful of the recent Tsunami, and figured we'd be ok. I'd ordered a PuPuRu online before we left, and it was waiting for us at the hotel. An ingenious device, it's permanently connected to the 4G phone signal, and is a mobile WiFi, so both our phones were, from then on, always on the net - very useful.

On the way back to the station, the taxi got stuck in a monster jam, so we got out and went to see the great Buddha statue. Took our first Japanese selfies and bought some tourist tat. Learned Kombanwa - Good Evening!

On the subject of Japanese, we got away with twelve days there essentially by smiling, bowing, and saying:
Konichiwa - Hello
Arigato Gazaimasu - Thank you
Sumimasen - Excuse me
Kudasai - Please
Ohayo Gozaimasu - Good morning
Kombanwa - Good evening, and
Sumimasen toire wa doku des-ka? - Excuse me, where's the lavatory?

A little effort goes a long way.

We then took the train with Jasper to Hiratsuka, saw one of his places of work, ended up in an Irish pub (ok, it starts getting properly Japanese after this) where his 'surprise' finally happened. All his friends met us and took us out for a meal - no burgers, no Irish - the full Japanese deal, including rubbery things that thankfully remained nameless, incredibly delicious things that turned out to be chicken's sphincter and really quite a large amount of beer and saki.
So great to see him with a bunch of lovely oddball chums, all of whom were clearly really fond of him, and we were welcomed into their world with open arms.

The jet-lag was still taking its toll, but that night we slept deeply, on a Pacific shore, under the distant gaze of Mt Fuji.

Monday November 3rd

Took the train to Hiratsuka and met up with Jasp who took us out to lunch in a local mall. Starting to notice the over-use of manpower in Japan, lots of old people in uniforms doing jobs that could easily be done by one, by a computer, or don't need doing at all. At the entrance to the mall car park there were two uniformed old boys waving the cars in, and about twenty yards further down the road, two more of them waving the cars out. After lunch Jasper left us to our own devices for an hour while he got ready for his class, and we found ourselves in an enormous budget supermarket. It's strange when the layout is like Tesco, but all the food on offer is unrecognisable - octopus on sale, but Genfiddich cheaper than it would be in Scotland.

On our way back we passed a pretty disturbing talent show - two six year olds dressed up like harlots sashaying to country music as though they were giving the come on to a group of cowboys. If I'd taken a photo, the resulting image would be considered child porn in this country - not in Japan though. Unsettling.

We'd been very kindly invited to watch Jasper teach a class of three women, who were at a fairly advanced stage of English. Hugely impressed at his easy authority, patience and diligence. Very hard questions, and great concentration and correct answers from his class. I was convinced that the woman in the centre of the picture, with white foundation on her face, must have at one time been a geisha. 'I use to be piano teacher', she said. She wasn't fooling me.

We left him after 15 minutes as we were clearly a bit self-conscious-making for all, and went in search of a swimming outfit for Judy, as the next day we were booked into a ryokan, or Japanese inn, where there would be onsen - public baths. We weren't sure if we needed anything to wear but Judy had no costume, so we went to find one. Which was fun. 

The Japanese for 'swimming costume' is miming freestyle, breaststroke, making splashing sounds, drying with towel and realising with shock that one is naked and NEEDS SOMETHING TO WEAR! No, not me - lady. Her. Not bikini, one piece. Hold on, I have an App here. Suino isho? - Ah hai, suino isho!! What was so wonderful was that the sales girl was mortified that she wasn't understanding me, that it must be her fault, unlike here, or France, where not speaking the language means you're either stupid, or just trying to cause trouble. Judy ended up with a bri-nylon monstrosity that I think ended up in the bin when we realised that onsen was a proud birthday-suit job.

We met up with Jasp again for a coffee and rather sad goodbyes, because we wouldn't be able to meet up again on our trip, and our time together had been all too short. So very proud of our lovely boy. 

Back at the hotel, we had a surprisingly delicious and beautifully prepared Japanese meal, in a rather lovely dining room overlooking the water. Judy is gluten-intolerant, and they had been painstaking in heeding the requirement, and charming and attentive in their service. I don't think they knew the distinction between intolerant and allergic and were terrified of being sued if she went into anaphylactic shock. Still, better safe than sorry.

Tuesday November 4th

Sent my huge suitcase off to Kyoto, in order to travel a bit lighter and set off by taxi and train to Odawara, and then to Hakone. Suddenly everything was different. Hakone is twinned with a town in Switzerland, and that's what it feels like - cool, clean air up in the mountains and just very slightly less crowded. We dumped our suitcase at the Kai Hakone ryokan and set off on the recommended tour. This involved six different means of transport. 

We started on an old train on the Hakone Tozan line that had been built in the '20s and that day was being feted by a visiting delegation of Swiss, who had built it in the first place. It reminded us of a similar one we'd been on in Tasmania. It can go up an 8% gradient and has three switchbacks to zigzag you up the side of the mountain. 

You then transfer to a funicular system that's pulled up the track by a cable. Then it really is a cable car, except in an astonishingly un-Japanese way, it wasn't working and had a replacement bus service that got stuck in a terrible alpine traffic jam. Finally we emerged to the sulphurous smell and steam of the hot springs and boiling rivers of the volcanic region of Mt Hakone. 

We were very close to Mt Fuji here, but again, the iconic snow-capped volcano reveals itself seldom, and clear views of it are rare. Now we got our aerial ride, down the mountain to a pirate ship! 

Ok, it was really a bog-standard ferry decked out in plastic pirate kit but from the inside I suddenly caught a glimpse of Fuji through the window and the resulting photo, with the reflection of the overhead lights, makes you understand why so many people believe in UFOs!

We then hopped on a bus that took a good hour of winding roads to get back to Hakone itself. The English version of the bus announcements told us to hold on through the 'meandering' sections of the journey. I promise you that bus did not meander, the driver was in training for the World Rally Championships - and I was standing up!

The Kai Hakone. This is where it really got Japanese. We were taken to our room by a charming girl who had been at the same university as me, UEA in Norwich, so we were able to have a conversation about the place in a Norfolk accent. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, dating back to the 17th century. Modern ryokans take the idea and use it in a modern, luxurious building. 

The room is traditional Japanese in style, with tatami mats, and sliding wood and paper doors. An alcove, with hanging and flower, futons on the floor, a terrace looking down on a rushing mountain stream, and a low sofa as a concession to western bums and knees. We changed into our yakuta and instantly began to feel a little different. 

Then we shuffled on wooden sandals down to the onsen or gender-separated communal baths. The procedure is this. You strip off in the ante-room and take a towel. The large hot bath is open on one wall to the outside, the view is of trees and the valley below. On the back wall are a number of showers, slung low on the wall by a mirror, with a wooden stool in front of it. Here you sit and clean yourself with the provided unguents, before rinsing thoroughly and getting into the hot pool. Here you lie, your head on your folded towel, your body floating in pure, warm bliss. This really is the way to end the day. If you want to take it further there is a sauna, and a cold plunge pool. Any residual jet-laggery is expunged at this point.

I am starting to get into the mood and we photograph each other in appropriate poses. Then it's time for dinner. The dining room is divided into individual cubicles. 

Dressed in our yakuta and short black jackets, we sat at our table, with really no idea what to expect. Here are some pictures of what came next. 

Plate after plate of things we had never seen or tasted before, works of art just to view, let alone consume. Sushi, sashimi, tempura, miso soup, raw fish, seaweed, ramen and countless examples of things I simply could not identify. Utterly delicious.

Thus bathed, fed and clothed, and with a certain amount of beer and sake emboldening me, back in our room I give Judy a demonstration of what I was sorry we would be missing - Japanese horseback Archery. You may accuse me of taking this 'I'm an Archer' thing too seriously, but after reading Conn Iggulden's series of books about Genghis Khan and his descendants, I had ordered a Mongolian War Bow from China, and have been honing my skills, because I really want to do that!

Wednesday November 5th
Here's breakfast:

As we left the next day, the girl who'd taken our bags to the car bowed to the waist for as long as our taxi was still in view. The bowing is extraordinary - baggage handlers bow to the airport coach as it arrives, and bow again as it leaves, the trolley service girl on the Shinkansen bows to the carriage as she enters it, and on leaving, turns and bows again before the door closes. White-gloved train drivers, on changing shift, salute each other, bow, hand over the train keys with both hands, bow again, salute, and then start chatting. A consensus of mutual respect. So different.

Ah yes, the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train. Introduced in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics, it's been going at 200mph for decades. Even now the French TGV and German ICE have only just started going that fast, and our Pendolino still only goes around 125. It's tempting to think of them as thoroughbreds, few and far between, but we passed a siding with about 30 of them lined up next to each other. When one of them comes through a station at full speed, it's like being buzzed by an impossibly low-flying supersonic bomber.

Our destination was Kyoto, former capital of Japan, famed for its temples and Geishas. The view from the train on the journey there was remarkable. The 'Golden Route' from Tokyo. I had been anticipating our first view of the Japanese countryside, but for nearly two hours at 200mph the view on both sides, for as far as you could see, was of houses, back to back, on top of each other, then factories, or shops, or baseball grounds, and very, very occasionally a small field. I'm told it's completely different in the north but to a British eye the density of population is overwhelming.

We dropped our bags off at the Hyatt Regency and got in a taxi to the Geisha show that had been booked for us. I'm still reeling from this, a theatrical experience like no other, a glimpse of the past unlike anything we'd ever experienced. Before entering the auditorium, you pass through a side room where you are served tea and a sweet, by a Geisha. I exaggerate slightly, the Geisha are up on a small stage pouring out the tea, while it is actually served by lesser minions. You're given a bowl of tea, a saucer, a sweet and a sheet of paper. When we went to hand back the bowl and saucer, we were told to keep the saucer and sheet of paper. I have yet to discover what we were meant to do with them, so they're now in the kitchen.

I have no pictures of what happened next as photography was strictly forbidden, but you can see something similar here:

The performance started with a curtain to our left rising to reveal six seated women, three players of the Sanshin - the three-stringed Japanese lute, and three singers. Now, I play guitar and banjo and as the musicians started playing I was convinced firstly that their instruments were out of tune, and also that they'd never played them before. The plectrum was like a paint-scraper and the notes an a-rhythmic, a-tonal seemingly random choice. When the singers started a banshee howl, I was seriously wondering how I was going to endure the next ninety minutes. Then the main curtain rose and the Geisha came on. In stockinged feet and knees bent, they seemed to glide across the stage. The expressionless white mask of make-up with the reddest of lips, the train of gown flowing behind them, with gesture and mime, telling stories a thousand years old, made sense of the music, while hidden behind screens at the side of the stage, percussion and cries came from men, adding to the sense that this was a private display, for the eyes of the privileged only. This is not a career for feminists, and is redolent of service and subjugation to western eyes, but fascinating, riveting and beautiful.

We walked back to our hotel in the rain. Up until now we'd been following a fairly tight itinerary so it was good to just wander the streets at random. 
In the evening we headed into the town centre and somehow ended up eating an Italian meal in Kyoto Station. That sounds like we had a meal on the platform - no, Kyoto Station is a gigantic underground shopping mall, but I admit, Italian was a bit of a cop-out.
Back at the hotel, jet-lag was still demanding early nights. The bathroom worked on the same principle as the onsen, in that you sat on a stool to wash, then soaked in the deep bath. The bed was wider than it was long - we lost sight of each other until the morning.

Thursday November 6th
Temples. There are a lot of temples in Kyoto, and today, with our personal guide, Sumie, we saw most of them. Well five, but after five you're a bit templed out.

The first was probably the most impressive, Sanjūsangen-dō. 1001 statues of the Buddha, known as kannon and one massive Buddha in the middle. The statues date from the 12th century and are made of Japanese cedar painted gold.

On the terrace along the side of the temple, archery contests have been held for centuries. It is called the Toshiya and there are various competitions. The Ōyakasu is the best known. On April 26, 1686, Wasa Daihachiro from Kishū successfully shot 8,133 out of 13,053 arrows averaging 544 arrows an hour, or 9 arrows a minute, and became the record holder.

The contests continue today. I really want to do this, but it seems I need to be a Japanese girl!

Our guide spoke excellent English. I asked her where she had learned it, and she said 'Guiding', which became apparent the moment we asked any questions - she was very good at saying what she knew but her comprehension was severely limited. So when she asked us in the morning what we wanted to see, and I mentioned that I hated crowds and didn't really like being a tourist, we immediately joined massive hordes of trippers and school parties touring temples for the rest of the day. When I posted the following pics on Facebook, my sister Anna said, 'Beauty and calm - lovely pics'.

But the reality was this...

The temples were impressive though, the Kinkaku Golden Pavilion rising out of a lake like a gigantic house of cards...

And the amazing 'Nightingale Floor' of the Nijo Castle, that sings like a nightingale to warn of intruders.

We'd been walking all day, so this evening we just stopped in a mini-mart and bought ourselves some supper. Random pointing at things steaming in dishes produced our first Japanese take-away which we tucked into in our five star suite - surprisingly tasty!

Friday November 7th

Day trip to Nara.
Termed, 'the birthplace of Japanese civilisation', this is one of the few ancient sites to have escaped most of the ravages of war, both ancient and modern (the extent of the US bombing in WWII is beyond comprehension, most major cities were almost totally destroyed by incendiaries, as all houses were built from wood and paper). In the third and fourth centuries, Nara was where the first emperors of Japan had the seat of their power. During this period, in accordance with Shinto beliefs, the capital was moved with the death of each successive emperor. In 794 the capital was moved to Kyoto, but Nara's Buddhist temples remained powerful through the Heian period, and beyond.

The town is famed for making calligraphy brushes from animal hair, and one of the activities on offer was 'Brush-making at Narafude Tanaka - have a go at making your own Nara ink brush'. Irresistible. Well off the beaten track, the owner seemed deeply confused at first at our request, but once she'd cottoned on, she was delightfully welcoming, and this is what happened:

Thus armed with 'The Brush That Judy Made' we set off to find somewhere to eat. Passing an Australian couple in their fifties who, in true Aussie style were bicycling around the entire country, they recommended the seedy dive that they had just patronised. This was precisely the kind of place we had so far not had the courage to enter, since words like 'I hate tofu' and 'my wife is gluten-intolerant' were never going to get communicated. However, encouraged by the antipodeans, we breezed in and with a lot of bowing and arigato gazaimas-ing were basically presented with what everyone else was eating. The deal seems to be that if you don't like it, don't eat it - no-one seems to mind, or if they do they wait till you're gone to rail at the terrible manners of the gaijin.

More temples and a deer park full of rather folorn-looking, tame deer that you were meant to feed with crackers; the National Museum with such long queues that we avoided it; our first view of a man-powered rickshaw; buying some more brushes and ink, and a cheap suitcase as we'd started to bulge; then on the train back to our hotel.

For supper tonight, another take-away (yup, got this omnivore business down to a tee) and our first real non jet-lagged full night's sleep.

Saturday November 8th
We went to Hiroshima today. Even writing that sounds weird - being there was even more strange. There's something about the very word itself - 'Hiroshima' sounds a bit like 'Horror-shima' and that word has always represented the most terrifying thing that man has yet done in one blow. The Mongols killed millions, the Nazis too, the Soviets weren't angels, the Japanese themselves peculiarly cruel. We destroyed Dresden in a night. Man has always been able to find ways of justifying death and destruction on a grand scale, but an atomic bomb does it in seconds, and there's something supremely scary about that.

Hiroshima today is just like any other large city - skyscrapers, trams, shopping malls, the lot. Except for the A-Bomb Dome - the ruin of one of the few buildings to remain upright after the explosion, untouched save for some shoring up since August 6th 1945. The bomb exploded about 150 yards to the left of this photo, 2,000 feet up.

The Peace Memorial Park is just across the river. Once the busiest part of the city, it was totally flattened by the bomb and is now an open park where we found the Children's Peace Monument, and rang the bell under the statue of a child holding up a paper crane. It's based on the story of a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, who died of radiation after the blast. She believed that if she made 1,000 paper cranes, she would survive. Today children from around the world send paper cranes to the park, and they are displayed near the statue.

The Peace Memorial Museum is in itself pretty distressing. A long, low, Soviet style concrete monstrosity, it is architecturally completely out of place. The least indigenous building you could imagine, it was designed in 1955 by Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, a modernist who was influenced by Le Corbusier. Sadly the building exudes Corbusier's idea of a building as a machine, and in a city famous for its devastating loss of life, the memorial structure is entirely devoid of any humanity.

Inside, it doesn't pull any punches. Life-size models of children with their skin melting, a diorama of the remains of the city just after the explosion, with a red ball hovering above, where the explosion happened. Poignant relics like a burned child's tricycle and a watch, stopped at the moment of detonation. 

As we sat drinking coffee by the river bank watching two young girls playing guitar and singing, the contrast between then and now could not have been greater. We talked about it, and the question arose, 'What kind of madness caused them to attack Pearl Harbour?' Well that's a very big question, and the answer is pretty complicated, but essentially they just got a bit carried away, and paid a terrible price. 


We headed back to the station on a tram, and caught the train to Miyajima-Guchi, and thence the ferry to Miyajima Island, a famous spot for its mountains, forests, and 'floating' Torii Gate of Itsukushima. On the ferry I was relieved to find there was an Emergency Escape Mouth - handy for talking your way out of a sticky situation.


We took a taxi from the ferry to our next destination. Mizuhasu Inn is hard to describe. It looks like a cafe with some rooms above, but the food is sensational and the rooms are modern, small versions of the ryokan of tradition. In my twenties I'd often find myself crashing in squats or student digs - a mattress on the floor and no room to put anything. This was a bit like that, especially coming from the high class accommodation we'd become used to. There was a loo and basin but you had to book the bathroom. As it turned out that was ok since the bathroom was this...

and the food was like this...

and they provided these...

and this was breakfast...

Sunday November 9th

so then we went for a walk...

and went up the cablecar...

It was a bit cloudy, so I took a picture of what it's like in fine weather

then I suggested we should take take the long route back...
which, if anyone can translate this, is the way we were going...

...which was up. It turned out we were climbing the mountain we had just taken the cable car up and down on, 

so the intrepid explorers turned round. We'd done a good 30 minutes straight up though.

... and then we walked another two miles on the long way round. 

which is why that bath was SO good.

That evening we ate at Yamachi Bekkan, another ryokan, near the ferry terminal. As recommended by our highly efficient tour operator, James Mundy at Inside Japan Tours. We sent his warm regards to the proprietress, Shinko-san, and we ate like royalty, courtesy of her almost horizontally laid-back son, Hiro, who, after some mutual exchanges of language, declared me his sensei and expressed his desperation to watch rugby at Twickenham. This in the land of atomic bombs, tsunami, earthquakes and nuclear meltdown. A little later, sitting quite literally on the dock of the bay, it couldn't be a quieter, calmer, healthier place. 

For now.

As we walked back to the hotel, the strange thing about the waterfront though was the total absence of nightlife. In Europe an idyllic shore like this would be awash with cafes and clubs. Not one. The odd restaurant or hotel bar with a few people inside, but that was it. Maybe it's a temple thing. Slight guilt that we didn't do the temple thing but the crowds... and all the shops are tourist tat... I need to research this further.

Monday November 10th

Back to Tokyo by taxi, ferry, train, Shinansen and taxi again to the SIX star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. This is 'Lost In Translation' but the 2014 version. Reception is on the 38th floor, and check-in is done in your room, with a complimentary this ...

this is the room...

and this is the view...

We ate on the pavement terrace of a nearby Italian bistro that hadn't got the concept of serving you at the same time, so I was still hankering for the rarity of a post-prandial cigarette well before Judy's chicken had made it to the table. When we got back, the turn-down service had adjusted the feng shui of the binoculars next to the bed, and laid out our yakuta and soft white judo kit style pyjamas. Thus un-dressed, as 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' came on, we looked out at the skyscrapers and traffic. Like London really but so very, very much bigger.

You control the curtains from the side of the bed, which is the most comfortable bed ever made in the history of beds, and has the softest, smoothest sheets in the entire world, and when you turn the lights off they dim first, and Suntory Single Malt is awfully nice and.......

Tuesday November 11th

Twitter had put me in touch with an Archers fan who lives and works in Tokyo, so we met him for breakfast. Matthew Salter works for Asia Pacific, has lived here for 20 years, has a Japanese family, speaks and can read the language, and is an all round interesting and helpful chap. Offered his advice for Jasper if ever in a bother with red tape. Top man. Big up Ambridge.

After so much first class everything, we really needed to see the seamier side of things so took the subway to Shinjuku, which, it has to be said, was exactly what we expected. Like Soho/Chinatown on acid - road after road, alley after alley. We were there in daytime, but it's just miles of this...

We toured round a department store that was selling a rival milliner's hats and ended up buying yukata for me and Will. It's amazing how easy it actually is conducting such transactions without a single word of the language other than yukata and arigato gazaimasu and bowing a lot.

We'd been invited to meet the hotel manager, Tony Costa. He surprised us by being Glaswegian. A charming and well-read man, he was fascinating on the subject of the Japanese character and later had a book sent to my room, as a gift. 'In Praise of Shadows' by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki is a short essay, written in Japanese in 1933 and translated into English in 1977. It encapsulates a huge amount of what it is to be Japanese, best summed up by its title, regretting the advent of western inventions, represented by the electric light, that eradicates the shadows of a room that is expressly designed for shadow, and by implication intrudes upon their character, which is never black and white, but always shades of grey.

We flew back over Siberia

When I got back, I had to go up to Birmingham for the Archers within two days. There, Eleanor Bron lent me two wonderful books on Japan, 'Japanese Homes and their Surroundings' 1972 and 'The Book of Tea' 1956, - tea as an analogy for life. Can't wait to read them.

Of course it's impossible to sum up a country after just twelve days, but there are some major cultural differences that stand out. Our first impressions were of a homogeneity, both of people and of places. This might well be an observation of any culture that's different to one's own, but I don't think I ever saw anyone dressed very differently, or behaving very differently, or speaking very differently. It seemed like all the houses were the same, all the roads, all the trees, all the trains. The consensual nature of the society, the mutual respect, the tacit agreement to conform and behave, the lack of litter, beggars, dirt, other races, open spaces. 

I'm sure mine is the superficial eye of the tourist, and apart from Africa and Russia, I'd never before been outside a westernised state, certainly not the East, so these really are first impressions - I'm sure variety and subtlety exists where I can't see it. Jasper tells me that we were only seeing people in their work gear in the daytime, and I know the country is awash with crazy fashion styles

I shall read the books with great interest and post again on this blog, as I'm now intrigued, fascinated and curious.

Maybe I'm.....



Kerry Shale said...

Fantastic blog, Tim. Not sure about the breakfasts, but everything else looks stunning.

musicjgt said...

brilliant the look of those gelatinous pinky see through things on the supper table...

Unknown said...

Lots of information, amusing, light but also serious. Good balance. Certainly gotl a feel for what you had seen and felt whilst there, Japan became much more real.1

Unknown said...

Lots of information, amusing, light but also serious. Good balance. Certainly gotl a feel for what you had seen and felt whilst there, Japan became much more real.1

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Amazing post! I initially found your blog a week or so ago, and I want to subscribe to your RSS feed.
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Anonymous said...

A wonderful blog from a very multi talented blogger. I've always been intrigued by Japan and this has made me want to visit even more.

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Ale Rossi said...

Thank you for sharing such a great post. It’ll help people, looking for the best places to visit in Japan.