A Triple City Adventure on the Japanese Railway
Where: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara. Japan, Asia.
When: May 2013
What: Skytree Tower, Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Tower, Bamboo Grove,
Geisha spotting, Golden Temple, Cat Café, Shibuya Crossing, Shinjuku Station, Nara Deer Park, Todai-Ji Temple, Ryozen Kannon Buddha.
How: Plane, Bullet train, Local train, River ferry, Taxi, Walk, Monorail.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Fending off aggressive deer in Nara - they really didn't care if they got a little bit of your finger along with the biscuit.
Stereotypically speaking Japan to the Western mind is a collection of events and icons which can be easily placed at two extremes. On the one hand there's Hiroshima, Tenko, the near Fukoshima nuclear meltdown, SARS outbreaks, tsunamis and earthquakes. On the other, karaoke, tamagochi e-pets, sushi, Manga, crazy TV quiz shows where contestants undertake humiliating challenges, and cartoon creations like Pokémon. In fact, all of these things reveal some of the essence of Japan but, on actually experiencing the country first hand, it becomes clear that the real heart of Japan is to be found in the everyday and in the subtle. Take time to register the small things and Japan will, slowly but surely, open its petals to you.
Among the first things you'll notice when you step foot into Japan is the height of the people - they are petite to put it tactfully. Older generations appear to be particularly small. Next are the paper masks people wear strapped around their ears and over their mouths and noses as if suggesting you are a diseased specimen whose germs need to be repelled: the sight has a science fiction quality to it. Is there a plague I don't know about or something? And this reveals another, more pleasing side, to Japanese culture: the quest for hospital-style cleanliness - everywhere. Bottles of bacteria-killing hand gel await you at entrances to restaurants and hotels, as does a disinfectant spray in your hotel room. Some Japanese take it one step further by wearing white gloves to protect themselves from germs. Moreover, I also suspect that the little trays shops use to funnel money from you to them is a clever rouse to avoid actual physical contact, too. This Japanic war against bacteria makes my paranoia about germs look positively half-hearted. There is not a spot of litter anywhere - and that's without there being any bins present at street level. Smoking is virtually banned outside in the open except in designated smoking boxes made of trees or perspex walls which shield the average healthy Jap from an unhealthy minority with a habit. No graffiti either. Also, look out for the toilets which combine the conventional aspects of a bog with a bidet and blow dry function too - all operational from a control panel at the side of your loo.
Many of these quirky facets endear Japan to the average visitor - none more so than the unsurpassed manners and respect you will be shown by the Japanese themselves. Expect people to bow their heads at you in appreciation, expect a hundred goodbyes before you leave and expect an exemplary level of service wherever you choose to spend your money, expect respect - and lots of it. Whilst Japan is pricey, spending your money here is a far more pleasurable experience than it is back home where buying something is tantamount to an inconvenience to our staff. I love their manners, I love the way the miniature elderly and the disabled are given priority, I love the decorum and tranquillity of the place despite the population density. I also love the way the Japanese successfully combine a consumer culture and progress without being self-centred, smug and greedy. They eat small dishes of food rather than 'going large' and eating more than they need. This partly explains why hardly anyone in Japan is overweight - that, and their love of getting about on 'shopping bicycles' which, might I add, are not tethered to railings by umpteen chains and locks because of a fear of theft. They are propped up on their stands and left - without being nicked. Respect again. I love the way the Japanese can go out socialising without the need to be scraped off the pavement by the authorities a few hours later. Finally, I love their optimistic and slightly humble disposition. Travelling around Japan is a buy one get one free scenario: you learn about Japan and you learn a lot about your own country too. Japan leaves you wondering about all the things you dislike about England by shining a light on our shortcomings. Japan doesn't leave you feeling homesick but, rather, feeling a little bit sick of home. It is the people which make the country irrespective of the sights and history on offer. Never more so is this the case than in Japan.
Japan has a famously modern transport network making the country easily navigable. My fears about getting lost because of the language barrier were completely unfounded as English is widely used on signage here. Indeed, I found Russia to be far less geared towards English speaking tourists. Japan is also awash with the biggest American brands too, again making life easy if you're pushed for time like we were. Less of a delight was the unwelcome realisation that cash machines for international banks are truly few and far between. On one day in particular we tried at least twelve machines over several kilometres. Our desperation, having not eaten or drunk anything for hours, was compounded by the surprising fact that lots of shops are cash only operations. We were forced to head back into the centre to use an international cash machine. Ravenous beyond belief by this stage I am afraid I may have rather embarrassed myself in a small French-style coffee shop in central Kyoto. Let's say I didn't exactly fly the flag for Britain that afternoon! Be warned: withdraw money that will see you for several days. Having learned the hard way, we still managed to get caught out on two further occasions in just the same way. Carrying large amounts of cash goes against common sense travel advice. However, this is Japan - it's not as if you'll get mugged. You just might lose it, that's all.
We travelled around Japan using the famous, but rather costly, Japan train network using local and Shinkansen 'bullet' train services from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Nara and then back again in six days. Pretty intense. Had we the time, a visit to Hiroshima would have been likely. The Shinkansen were more like aircraft, not feeling particularly fast when on-board, they travel at over 180mph. Below I try to capture some of the essence of Japan as seen across these three locations with a little help from my trusty Blackberry (upon which I write this) and my new Sony camera. This was my forty sixth country. This was my Japan...
Three quarters of the Japanese population live in urban centres. Tokyo, whose name translates as 'Eastern Capital', is a megacity, an immense sprawl which stretches as far as the eye can see. The best way to get a sense of its monstrous size is to take a trip up to one of the capital's viewing towers. The most impressive, and hectic of which, is the Tokyo Skytree - the tallest broadcast tower in the world and the newest and most striking addition to the Tokyo skyline being, as it is, just one year old. Lucky for us we'd booked our ticket through an online travel agent the week before and so were able to skip the dreadful queues which would have tore a hole in an entire day. Also lucky for us the skies were clear because, on our penultimate day, the tower disappeared straight up into the foggy clouds. The view was stunning - more down to the sheer number, rather than the individual architectural merit, of the buildings themselves which make up so much of the city. Also worthy of a mention is to travel to the top of the Mori tower in the Rippongi district which gave us a brilliant vantage point of the capital and the white and red Tokyo Tower. This trip is worthwhile even after the Sky Tree experience because you actually get to go on the roof of the tower itself - views completely unhindered by windows and crowds with gusts of wind thrown in for free and, in this sense, a unique enough experience to warrant your effort and Yen. Finally our final night in Japan we made our way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in the Shinjuku district. We did so at dusk just as neon twinkling lights began to switch on and the sky dropped into a blue, moody hue. Views justifying Tokyo's reputation as an world city are your for the taking - and the TMG authorities don't charge you a penny. Rounding off your sunset visit to the TMG building, itself rather spectacular with its soaring dual turrets reminding me of the iconic building in Kuala Lumpur, is a stroll along the fluttering bright lights of Shinjuku's happening streets. This is Tokyo's Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. We also went via Shinjuku Station to glimpse what is the busiest railway station in the world.
We stayed in the Asakusa district of Tokyo in a characteristically bijoux-sized room christened a 'semi double' room by the hotel industry in Japan. Asakusa was the perfect location - a brilliant view of the river and the Sky Tree tower along with the oddest building I have ever seen: a large black box with a gold wavy slug-like object on the top. One reason for choosing this district was that Asakusa is the home of the Sensoji Temple and five tier Pagoda - a real slice of traditional Japan just a stone throw away from the modern metropolis throng. The five tier Pagoda is the original and ancient precursor to the skyscraper. Here you can walk around small Japanese gardens with Koi carp and miniature trees as well as sample traditional worship practices which include the burning of josticks, the clanging of bells and the tying of paper strips to railings. The majority of Japanese are either Shinto or Buddhist and come to Sensoji to worship before returning to their hectic city-dweller lifestyles of small apartments, slavishly long hours and buying their meals 'to go'. Expect to see a disproportionate number of urban dwellers asleep on the Metro when enjoying the sights on your relaxing holiday. The juxtaposition of fun-seeking tourist alongside knackered salarymen is an uncomfortable one. They look shattered and you can't help but feel a little sorry for them with their briefcases and bloodshot eyes.
Despite the gruelling schedule for many, there is no lack of humour and fun to be had in Tokyo. It is a city increasingly geared towards feeding Tokyoites' lust for Western-style leisure and entertainment but with a Japanese twist: from panda-themed post boxes and buses, to rainbow coloured boats taxiing up and down the river, to bright pink cash machines (they love pink here probably because it's the colour of cherry blossom - a special time of the Japanese year and a culturally pivotal time). More Tokyo-based fun can be had by visiting one of its 'cat cafes'. We visited the Calaugh Cafe in Asakusa where we drank coffee, ate crepes and stroked the majority of the seven moggies lounging around the cafe in corners, on chairs and on tops of shelves! Apparently these cat cafes have sprung out of a need for toiling, stressed city types to relax (a well-known prescription for anyone with depression or stress is to get a pet). Of course, people who love animals but who live in bijoux city apartments aren't able to keep pets - enter stage left, the cat cafe. Some come for a stroke, some relaxing Jazz and food before heading wearily home. Again, you can't help but feel a little sorry for these city toilers.
The scale of the Tokyo throng is no better sampled than on a visit to the famous Shibuya crossing - the point at which several large pedestrian crossings meet and so notable that it featured in the BBC TV series 'Megacities'. Around 100,000 people swarm across this crossing every hour and the best vantage point from which to see them, one of the world's busiest intersections, is from the second floor of Starbucks overlooking it. Grab a coffee and people watch like you've never people watched before! Expect other tourists to be sat in all the available chairs waiting with their cameras and waiting for the little green man to illuminate. The rammed scenes above ground are mirrored by those below. Underneath you is a bewildering labyrinth of Tokyo Metro stations, shopping arcades, cafes and restaurants bathed in eye-glaringly orange light (wear your sunglasses). Under Tokyo's streets you get a real sense of what an underground city would look like if man had to actually live there permanently. There are two Tokyos therefore: the one above, and the one underneath your feet which you have no option but to traverse.
The wonderful Sensoji Temple with its five-tier pagoda in the Asakusa district of Tokyo swarming with worshippers and tourists alike.
Street signage vies for your attention along Cat Street in Harajuku district.
A red and white Tokyo Tower juts up from a busy cityscape. View seen from the roof of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi district of the city.
A two and a half hour train journey on the Shinkansen gets you to Kyoto - considered to be the cradle of Japan's cultural gems with hundreds of shrines and temples. Indeed, Japanese school kids descend on this part of their country in their thousands to learn about their history. You will see them, prim and properly dressed in identical white and navy uniforms, skipping along excitedly. Despite being the one time capital with all of the heritage this implies, Kyoto city doesn't make a very good first impression. Its garish viewing tower juts pathetically into the sky as part of the gargantuan and truly ugly Kyoto main rail station - the point of arrival into the city for many visitors, including us. A quick trip to the top of the viewing deck for 770¥ (£6) leaves you feeling rather depressed: bland apartment buildings of differing grey and beige hues stretch into the distance broken only by the odd pagoda or temple complex. The grey skies didn't help. The thing about Kyoto is that the city centre is only a means to an end as the gems to be seen are way outside the city limits in the wider prefecture, partially unravaged by modernity. Among those most worthy of our time was the Chion-in temple and complex. Expect paper lanterns in abundance and, if you're lucky, you may spot a Geisha or two like we did. An absolutely stunning sight is the 24m tall Ryozen Kannon Buddha statue - a monument to a Japanese soldier killed in WWII. The green hills give the huge white figure a stunning backdrop.
A few kilometres outside of Kyoto's centre is Arashiyama, home to the wonderful Bamboo Grove. We made the wise decision to go early in the morning - avoiding the hordes of tourists. Even though I'm a tourist myself, I dislike others. They get in the way of a good photograph. A cheeky taxi ride allowed us to capture a few photos of the grove completely devoid of people giving the place an added ghostliness. The grove was free but we chose to pay a few hundred Yen to access it through a traditional Japanese garden complete with lake and large Koi Carp gobbling at the water's surface in a large school - all framed by Maple and fir trees. It was a perfect composition to wander through the garden - and then to suddenly happen upon the grove at the end at the turn of a corner. Surprisingly some online reviews discounted the grove calling it a waste of time: travel is a very personal thing of course, but seeing the grove was unlike anything I'd seen before - and thus well worth the trip in my opinion.
We caught the local JR train back from Arashiyama station into Kyoto but not before we were accosted by four schoolgirls who asked where we were from and then proceeded to quiz us on what we knew about One Direction ("ah, Niall, he cute"). Just like in India, the little Japanese girls wanted a photograph taken with us and we were only happy to oblige. Something you will pick-up on very early on in your trip to Japan is that the kids are totally adorable here - so polite and positive: there's a real innocence to them that the British could only dream of.
Kyoto's highlight, and possibly the highlight of the whole trip, is the Golden Temple. It sits on a small lake surrounded by reeds, Japanese maple and fir trees. The gold temple building reflects beautifully on the waters of the lake which plays host to a number of miniature islands with accompanying trees. The sight is so wonderful not even the rain on the day could spoil it - although the security guard, who kept racing us on because it was closing time, did. My photos of arguably Japan's most stunning sight were a little rushed. A tip: most tourist attractions in Japan (temples and places of historical interest) close around five o' clock so make sure you get there with plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and compose your shots, rather than leaving it to three minutes to five like we did.
The stunning view over the lake out to the Kinkaju-ji also known as the Golden Temple, a zen Buddhist temple. This was a real highlight of my trip to Japan.
Japanese paper lanterns at the Chion-in temple complex.
The 24m tall Ryozen Kannon Buddha statue. The green hills give the huge white figure a stunning backdrop.
The wonderful, and slightly other-worldly, Bamboo Grove.
Nara is in Japan's Kansai prefecture and was once its capital city. We were toying with the idea of travelling to Osaka instead, but am so glad we decided to stick with Nara. Its sights were worth the cost of the whole Japan trip on its own (well, almost). Osaka I had heard of many times before, but Nara I hadn't. This nearly lead to the wrong decision. But Nara is where things got really Japanese. Sometimes traces of old Japan get washed away or muted by modern glass buildings and coffee shops. Nara is traditional Japan distilled into a small place. The piece du resistance of Nara is the huge Buddha statue in the Todai-Ji Temple - flanked by two golden female statues. It is an amazing sight for a Westerner as it speaks so much of the Far East. Considering our abandonment of Osaka in favour of Nara, it was ironic for us that we were accosted by school kids from the Kagata Elementary School in the Osaka prefecture outside the temple itself. They were carrying out a questionnaire on foreign tourists' favourite Japanese things. They were delightfully cute and, as a reward for answering their questions, gave us a home-made pop-up card . I told you Japanese kids were special!
Nara also has a five storey pagoda which surpassed the others I had seen because it was far easier to photograph. It also sits in the grounds of Nara Park home to a large number of tame deer which you can feed biscuits to - with a little bit of help from a petite old lady with a stall selling deer biscuits, and 150 Yen. Think a Japanese version of the Mary Poppins film 'feed the birds, tuppence a bag...', but just swap pigeons for deer and you'll get the idea. I got up real close and personal with these creatures and loved every minute of it! How I didn't lose a finger as four deer nipped at me I'll never know. Nara is an absolute must if you have half a day spare and you are in the Kyoto or Kinsai prefectures: it is a little bit of old Japan you'd find a little harder to trace back in Tokyo. It is Japan without the modern neon zing. Nara is what you come to Japan for.
The Viricona Buddha from the 8th Century sits in the Great Buddha Hall.
Me with school kids from the Kagata Elementary School in Osaka prefecture who quizzed me on foreign tourists' favourite Japanese things.
A Sika deer lays down under a Japanese fir tree after eating too many deer biscuits.
travel tips, links & resources
- Make sure you carry plenty of cash in Japanese Yen as, surprisingly, bank cards from the west are rarely accepted for card payments. Many cash machines do not accept these cards either - no matter how well-known your bank is (HSBC, Barclays). Your best bet to access cash is to take it out from ATMs at large railway stations and airports - don't walk around hungry and tired looking for a cash machine that works like we did!
- Many people will sell you the benefits of the Japan Rail Pass - but check that you will get value for money. If you are only making a few trips on the train network, it will probably work out cheaper to buy tickets individually and on-arrival at the station. Do you maths first!
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