A Triple City Adventure on the Japanese Railway
Where: Tokyo, Kyoto & Nara, Japan. Asia.
When: May 2013
What: Skytree Tower - the tallest broadcast tower in the world, Sensoji Temple, Tokyo Tower, Bamboo Grove, Geisha spotting, The Golden Temple, Stroking cats in the Cat Café, Shibuya Crossing, Shinjuku Station - the busiest rail station in the world, Nara Deer Park, Todai-Ji Temple, Kōfukuji Five Storied Pagoda, Ryozen Kannon Buddha, talking to local school kids, travelling on the Shinkansen Bullet train - the fastest train in the world.
How: Plane, Bullet train, Local train, River ferry, Taxi, Walking, Monorail.
Country counter: Country No.46.
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.
Japan to the Westerner is a collection of events and icons which can easily be placed at two extremes. On the one hand there's Hiroshima, the near Fukoshima nuclear meltdown, SARS outbreaks, tsunamis and earthquakes. On the other there is karaoke, tamagochi e-pets, sushi, Manga, wacky television quiz shows where contestants undertake humiliating challenges, and cartoons like Pokémon. In fact, all of these things reveal something 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 notice the small things and Japan will, slowly but surely, open her 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. Indeed, older generations appear to be particularly small. Next are the face masks people wear strapped around their ears and over their mouths and noses. The prevalence of these masks had a somewhat Science Fiction quality. And this reveals another amiable aspect 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. I also suspect that the cute little trays businesses use to convey money between you and them is simply another device to bypass the need for actual physical contact. This Japanese war against bacteria made my rampant germaphobia look positively half-hearted. There is not a spot of litter anywhere - and that's without there being any bins visible at street level. Smoking is virtually banned in the open air being confined, as it is, to designated Perspex boxes which shield other healthy Japs from a minority with a nasty habit. There's no graffiti either. All of this had me thinking that I could quite happily move to Japan to begin a new life.
Such quirky facets go a long way to making Japan completely endearing 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. In short, expect excellence as standard. Whilst Japan is not the cheapest of travel destinations, spending my money here was an infinitely more pleasurable experience than anywhere else I've been. I love the manners, I love the way the elderly and 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 and greedy. This is symbolised no better than by the Lilliputian dishes of food they eat - such a contrast to the "make that large" culture of some Western countries. This partly explains why hardly anyone in Japan appears overweight - that, and their love of getting about on bicycles which, might I add, are not tethered to railings by chains and padlocks for fear of theft. Instead they are propped up on their stands and simply left. And finally, I love the way the Japanese can socialise without the need to be scraped off the pavement by the authorities a few hours later having fallen into a senseless, drunken stupor. Travelling around Japan is, therefore, incredible on two levels: you learn about Japan but you also learn so much about your own country. Japan doesn't leave you feeling homesick but, rather, feeling a little bit sick of home.
Japan is famous for its modern transport system making travelling around the country reliable, clean and efficient. My fears about getting lost because of the language barrier were mostly unfounded as English is widely used on signage here. We travelled around Japan using the famous Japan train network, including the local and Shinkansen bullet train services from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Nara and then back again. The Shinkansen trains were more like aircraft and, while not feeling particularly fast when on-board, they did, however, travel at over 290kmph.
Japan was my 46th country.
Three quarters of the Japanese lives in urban centres. Tokyo, whose name translates as 'Eastern Capital', is a true 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 - and there are a few to choose from. The most impressive, and hectic of which, is the Tokyo Skytree - the tallest broadcast tower in the world and the newest, most striking addition to the Tokyo skyline. It was lucky for us that we'd booked our ticket through an online travel agent the week before and were thus able to skip the horrendous queues which would have tore a hole in a the best part of an entire day. Thankfully the skies were clear too, affording us incredible views out across the city. The view was stunning; it was more down to the sheer number, rather than the individual architectural merit, of the buildings themselves. The following day was a reminder of just how lucky we had been, for the Skytree had disappeared, enveloped in the low-lying fog which was now blanketing the city. Not satisfied with just one vertical experience, we also headed to the top of the Mori Tower in the Rippongi district which gave us a superb vantage point of the capital with a clear view the iconic white and red Tokyo Tower. We made it to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in the Shinjuku district at dusk just as neon lights began to twinkle and the sky dropped into moody blue hues. Views which justify Tokyo's reputation as a world class megacity were ours for the taking - and the TMG authorities didn't charge us a penny for the privilege. We sauntered back through the Shinjuku district, marvelling at the twin towers of the building we had just been standing on the roof of, and just enjoying being in Shinjuku's thronging city streets. We took a slight detour to make sure we went via Shinjuku Station to experience the world's busiest railway station.
We stayed in the Asakusa district of Tokyo in a characteristically bijoux-sized room given the contradictory name of a 'semi-double'. Space is tight in Japanese cities, and this reality is no more striking than in your hotel room. Asakusa was the perfect location; a brilliant view of the river and the Skytree tower along with some of the strangest buildings I had ever seen. One reason for choosing this district was that Asakusa is home to the wonderful Sensoji Temple and five tier Pagoda - a real slice of traditional Japan in heart of Tokyo's glass modernity. At Sensoji you can walk around small Japanese gardens with Koi carp and miniature trees as well as behold worshippers burning incense sticks, striking bells and tying prayer papers 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 mostly characterised by living in cramped apartments, buying miniature meals "to go" and working slavishly-long hours. For the latter reason, seeing workers fast asleep on the Metro late in the evening was not uncommon. Indeed, the sight of exhausted-looking businessmen, with their briefcases and bloodshot eyes, is an uncomfortable one and a reminder that the Japanese live in a gruelling "success at any cost" culture.
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' desire 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. In fact, pink seemed to be a particularly favourite colour and may not be entirely unrelated to the culturally significant time of cherry blossom season. More Tokyo-based fun can be had by visiting one of the scores of cat cafés. We visited the Calaugh Café in Asakusa where we drank coffee, ate crepes and stroked the majority of the moggies lounging around the café in corners, on chairs and on the tops of shelves.
The scale of the Tokyo throng is no better sampled than on a visit to the world famous Shibuya Crossing - the point at which several large pedestrian crossings meet. This is likely to be the scene featured in any television documentary about megacities. Around 100,000 people swarm across this crossing every hour and the best vantage point from which to witness this spectacle, one of the world's busiest intersections, is from the second floor of a Starbucks Coffee overlooking it. Grab a coffee and people watch like you've never people watched before! Such incredible scenes above ground are mirrored by those below. Underneath you is a bewildering labyrinthine world of Tokyo Metro stations, shopping arcades, cafés and restaurants. Tokyo's subterranean underworld gives one an eerie sense of what an underground city would look like if man had to actually live there permanently in the event of a nuclear disaster. There are two Tokyos therefore: the one above ground, and the one under your feet.
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.
Traditional lanterns outside a restaurant in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace Building in the Chiyoda district of the city.
Tokyo: where technology and tradition live side by side.
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 brought us to Kyoto, considered the cradle of Japanese culture with its plethora 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 neatly dressed in identical white and navy uniforms, skipping along excitedly into their country's past.
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 rudely 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, us included. A quick trip to the top of the viewing deck leaves you feeling rather deflated and depressed: bland apartment buildings of differing grey and beige hues stretch into the distance, uninterrupted only by the odd pagoda or temple complex on the horizon. The thing about Kyoto is that the city centre is only a means to an end: the gems to be seen await you on the city limits in the wider prefecture. Among the most worthy was the Chion-in Temple complex. Expect paper lanterns in abundance and, if you're lucky, you may spot a Geisha or two. An incredible sight is the Ryozen Kannon Buddha statue - a monument erected to commemorate a Japanese soldier killed in World War II. The green hills give the statue's huge white bulk a stunning, contrasting backdrop.
We headed a few kilometres outside of Kyoto's centre to Arashiyama, home to the wonderful and iconic Bamboo Grove. We made the wise decision to set off early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Even though I'm a often tourist myself, I dislike others; they get in the way of a good photograph. A short taxi ride allowed us to capture a few photos of the grove completely devoid of people, giving the place an added ghostliness. Entrance to the grove was free but we chose to pay a few hundred Yen to walk through a traditional Japanese garden which came complete with a lake inhabited by large Koi Carp gobbling at the water's surface - all perfectly framed by Maple and fir trees. It was a magical composition to wander through the garden only to suddenly happen upon the Grove at the turn of a corner. 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 the band One Direction ("ah, Niall, he cute"). Just as in India, the little Japanese girls wanted a photograph taken with us and we were only happy to oblige. Something you will notice early on in your visit to Japan is that the kids are totally adorable, their politeness exceeded only by their unwavering positivity and optimism. It's completely infectious.
Kyoto's highlight, and possibly the highlight of the entire trip to Japan, was the Golden Temple. It sits in the middle of a small lake surrounded by reeds, Japanese maple and fir trees, with the building's gold reflecting beautifully in the lake's placid waters, one populated by a number of miniature islands with trees growing in satisfyingly-sculptural shapes. The sight is so wonderful not even the rain on the day we visited could have spoilt it.
Setting off on the famous Shinkansen Bullet Train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
The depressing banality of Downtown Kyoto.
The stunning view over the lake out to the zen Buddhist Kinkaju-ji also known as the Golden Temple.
Japanese paper lanterns at the Chion-in temple complex.
The 24 metre-tall Ryozen Kannon Buddha statue. The green hills give the huge white figure a stunning backdrop.
Japanese schoolkids wander through 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. Osaka I had heard of many times before, but Nara? Nothing. Nara is where things became 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 incredible sight for a Westerner like me as it speaks so much of the culture I came to see. Japan's modern face, with its flashing lights and skyscrapers, goes a long way to obscuring - even deleting - the traditional Japan which lies beneath. But Nara is a slice of old Japan with very little of the soul-sucking modernity of the city to spoil it. Nara has the Kōfukuji Five Storied Pagoda which surpassed the others I had seen simply because it was far easier to photograph. It sits in the grounds of Nara Park, home to a large number of tame Sika Deer to which you can feed biscuits - with a little bit of help from a petite old lady with a stall selling the kind of biscuits only deer could love. Think a Japanese version of the Mary Poppins film, "the birds, tuppence a bag...", but swap pigeons for deer and you'll get close to how I experienced this place. This was a chance to get close with these beautiful creatures. How I didn't lose a finger as four deer nipped at me simultaneously I'll never know.
Considering our abandonment of Osaka in favour of Nara, it was ironic that we were accosted by school kids from the Kagata Elementary School in Osaka prefecture outside the temple in Nara . They were undertaking 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!
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.
The awesome Kōfukuji Five Storied Pagoda.
travel tips, links & resources
- 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 your maths first!
- Japan is also awash with the biggest American brands too, again making life easy if you're pushed for time.
- 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. it is worth withdrawing money that will last 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.
- As with many tourist attractions, it is best to book your tickets for the Tokyo Skytree to avoid the very worst of the queues.
- For a less crowded experience you can head to the top of the Mori tower in the Rippongi district of the city. This trip is worthwhile even after the Sky Tree experience because you actually get to go on the roof of the tower itself, with views completely unhindered by windows and crowds.
- For awesome views of the Japanese capital with no price tag or entry fee you can try the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in the Shinjuku district. We did so at dusk just as neon lights began to twinkle and the sky dropped into a moody blue hues.
- For the best view of the Shibuya crossing, one of the world's busiest intersections, head to the second floor of Starbucks. 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 for the little green man to illuminate.
- Many 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.
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