Published: April 14th 2012April 14th 2012
Two weeks holiday for Easter...Jesus I'm not usually a follower but today big man I am very thankful, keep up the good work. I needed a country that I could see a reasonable amount of in just 2 weeks, a country that was completely different to that dreary island of the UK, one that was culturally and traditionally a vast set of metaphorical miles away. I wanted new faces, places, ideas, language, sights and organised chaos, I found it in Japan. It has always been on my list of places to see,the allure of the seeming madness of Tokyo, a place where person is piled upon person, a society of manners and respect, where tradition holds strong and there is an abundance of culture to shake a stick at. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed.
Japan, quite simply, just works. There is a system and an order to everything, the simplest of tasks are carried out with ruthless efficiency. Whether it be the way four people are used just to usher vehicles in and out of car parks, or the pin point accuracy of the train and bus services. They have simple novel solutions to problems that make you nod
Giant Buddha himself
Hard to get a sense of scale, but 16metres high!
your head and admire. All are efficient, concise and as it is meant to be, it's really an OCD dreamworld for someone like me. The Japanese have a routine and way of doing things that makes you stop and think "hey how come we don't do it like that??" It is evident in their immaculate homes that you get a glimpse of, in their neat gardens and even their cemeteries seem to be an experiment in making the best use of small spaces.
The japanese people themselves are fascinating, there is a pride and a loyalty in their nation that I haven't witnessed in any other country, they follow rules without exception and always act in a moral and correct way, to not do so would bring disrespect and shame upon your family and friends. They don't need to be told these things, they just instinctively know how to act and behave. We have struggled to find many bins to place our rubbish, but there is not a trace of litter in the streets. The Japanese wouldn't dream of crossing the road without a green light and jaywalking is out of the question. They are extremely patient, the queues
witnessed at the heaving train stations are like an army drill, perfect uniform lines of without jostling or moaning. The people are unfailingly polite, every hello and goodbye, every subtle nuance is met with a bow, the train conductor will bow to the carriage upon entrance and exit each time. The taxi drivers wear white gloves and hats and would never over charge. Large sections of daily life rely on a trust system, paying for things and taking them without anyone verifying. There is a large emphasis on religion, prayer and family. The crime rate seems non existent, I googled just to check, and in 1989 (most recent stats I could find sorry people!)Japan experienced 1.3 robberies per 100,000 population, compared with 65.8 for Great Britain, and 233.0 for the United States.
This is all down to history, years of Buddhist mantra, samurai codes of conduct and Emporers ruling with iron fists. It is also largely the result of 2 centuries (up to the 1800's) of rule whereby there was absolutely no immigration or emigration. 200 years with not a single person entering or leaving, whereby people had to live by a strict set of rules on how to
live, behave and act. Manners and politeness were paramount, acting in any way that was not deemed 'proper'was punishable by death. The result of all this is today's society; one of respect, manners, loyalty and politeness, there is no arguing and there are no chavs, young people respect elders and there is an expectation to conform. To act in any way other than expected would be to bring dishonour and shame, so people act the correct way. It has struck me that the UK could benefit by being a bit more like Japan, politeness and manners seem a thing of the past and it seems I am destined to soon be the ethnic minority in my own country. Although of course there are always drawbacks, a country this set in it's ways cannot also encourage creativity and individualism, and whilst I understand its views on immigration it is now a country with a population of 127 million and yet the largest ethnic minority group is just 650,000. To be different here is to really stand out. So perhaps the answer lies more in some kind of compromise between Japan and the UK, I'm not too sure and is for much
more intelligent people than me to debate. But here is my experience of Japan so far, I am travelling with my mate Jon, one week in and one week to go... Osaka
After much debate and consideration(i.e. asking some travelling internet geeks in forums) I decided to start my journey in Osaka and end in Tokyo. I am glad I chose this as it meant that Osaka was our first real taste of Japan and it eased us in gently. The pace of life was slightly less hectic than we would encounter later on in Japan, the sights and subways were easier to negotiate and it was definitly a wise move when struggling with a bout of jet-lag but I tried not to let it diminish my thoughts on the place. Our first spot of culture was spent at Osaka-jo, a lovely castle and temple complex which was set apart from the city by a moat and built on raised ground, which afforded lovely views of the city from the top of the castle which was 8 floors up. The castles are all laid out in a similar vein, the roofs being a highlight for me, its all
about the angles and jutting corners, with layer upon layer of roof overlapping, each one ornately decorated and usually brightly coloured. One of the major highlights of Japan in April is that their cherry blossom trees bloom beautifully for a week or two and then hide away again until next year. The Japanese love this fortnight and come out in their droves blissfully happy, enjoying picnics and parties in the parks and snapping pictures like... well like a Japanese person would. All this could be seen when wandering the city and especially from atop the castle which was a nice added touch.
We also visited the aquarium as this was apparently one of the best in the world. It was pretty good, the main tank being the highlight with a huge whale shark and some manta rays and it was interestingly laid out, but to me it was kinda the case of 'seen one aquarium, seen them all' and the fact that I was pretty much falling into the glass at most stages due to tiredness didn't help. We also checked out Osaka at night with the famous area of Dotombori, a neon infused area reminiscent of Bladerunner, full of
flashing signs, restaurants, people and 10 foot plastic crabs. I also tried some of the local specialities such as the sushi and noodles, as well as octopus balls, which I hope are named only for the shape of the batter, otherwise it was a bloody big octopus... Kyoto
Next up was Kyoto (pronounced key-oto) the cultural heartland of Japan, in fact for a long time Kyoto was Japan. It is now a place packed full of 17 Unesco heritage sites, 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines, simply put it is one of the worlds most culturally rich cities like a Paris or Rome and simple deserves to be seen and begs to be explored. I was fascinated by the place and have never been to such a city where a sideways glance up any side street or alley would leave you staring open mouthed at another temple or shrine, tucked away hidden beneath the ever increasing city, nestled in next to a Starbucks or a 7/11. Some of the temple complexes were huge and contained massive main structures as well as many smaller sub-temples, and these were dotted all around Kyoto everywhere you turned. What struck
me most was during a visit to one namedKiyomizu-dera which was built high up on a mountainside affording great views across Kyoto. The temples and shrines really stuck out from on high and it was intriguing to see how the city itself had grown and built around these temples, almost as if it were filling in the gaps as it went or growing by osmosis.The result perfectly matched by preconceived notions of Japan, that being a country that embraces the new, the modern , the technological and the future but firmly holds on to it's past. It takes western ideas like McDonald's, and commerce and technology, says thank you very much, and then proceeds to adopt, adapt and improve on them, whilst still retaining their notion of Japanese culture and ordered way of life.
We spent the best part of 4 days in Kyoto and managed to get around a fair bit of the place, and pretty much managed to tick off all the highlights and then some extras too. I will save the history lessons and gushing rhetoric about each one, suffice to say they were all laid out in traditional Japanese style, grand and sometimes gaudy, full
of flowing roofs and intricate carvings, ornate decor, always colourful and aesthetically pleasing inside and out. The entrance to each temple usually had a large gate to enter through, which in many cases were two stories high and much bigger than the actual temples and therefore more impressive to my simple eye. These were more often that not accompanied by fearsome dragons or warriors carved from wood or cast in bronze. Inside the temples was very plain and simple for those visiting with traditional tatami mat flooring, high beams and large wide open spaces to allow more people in to pray. The altars would be set much further back out of reach but beautifully inlaid with impressive statutes of their deity, usually Buddha, and surrounded by flowers and gifts.The flip side of this was the buddhist aspect with lots of Zen gardens, raked stones, serene settings, insence sticks, bell ringing and praying. It was a heady mix and although admittedly towards the end and after about 20 temples/shrines it got a bit samey, it was always fascinating and easy on the eye.
I will list some of the places visited with a brief explanation (bear in mind brevity is
not my strong suit) so that any future travellers know what was worth seeing and missing in my humble opinion. Our hostel stared directly (honestly its that kind of place)at a temple named higashi hingan-ji which was one of the largest structures we saw and beautifully laid out inside, we also witnessed a mass(not sure what they call it) which was interesting to see. We next visited daitoku-ji which was noted as a top choice in kyoto, all very serene and full of zen gardens etc, they were always worlds within worlds, often only a few metres away from a busy street or intersection, but as soon as you entered the gates or walls the sound disappeared and the outside world was non existent. It was easy to see how people can give their lives to something which affords such piece of mind and stress free living: eat, sleep and pray were the orders of the day. Who needs flipping facebook or twitter. Kiyomizu-dera was impressive, a large temple replete with colourful gate entrances, cherry blossoms and a waterfall offering health and longevity. Chion-in was feted as a highlight but was being rebuilt and under a mound of scaffolding which
slightly ruined the aesthetic appeal. Shoren-in and Honen-in were small but pretty and we achieved Nirvana without Mr. Cobain on the path of enlightenment which was a pleasant stroll. Ginkaku-ji was serene and worth a visit as was kodai-ji for its stone Buddha. The main highlights for me were Nanzen-Ji due to its massive gate entrance and equally large temple. Kinkaju-Ji was like the flashy cousin vying for attention, a temple set in nice surroundings and then covered in layers of gold leafing which glinted blindingly in the sun. Arashiyama bamboo grove is a must, I had never realised before how tall and straight and green bamboo grows.The walkway through the forest meant they lapped overhead in an arch and this produced a wonderfully atmospheric wander to visit another shrine. Finally the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine was just so different to any of the others that it stood out, a 4km walk up a mountainside through thousands of large red torri gates with a good view of Kyoto at the top. Gion
A definite winner was a trip to the theatre to watch a Geisha show. Sadly you were not allowed to take photos (and even when I tried
Explanation speaks for itself
Just one of the many telling pictures I could have added
sneakily my camera died, think that's karma or something?) so I can't show you how stunning it looked. It was real authentic Japanese culture, the geisha dancers looked amazing, painted white faces hidden behind fans, stunning kimono's and flowing graceful movements. They told a story through dance, song and music that hasn't changed for centuries, and their use of the stage and setting was especially sublime. It was enthralling even for someone who didn't understand a single word of any song and who's knowledge of effective flute playing is somewhat limited. For any future visitors you simply must go and see one. Nara
Last up in Kyoto was Nara, a 5km walk through a park complex that housed many temples and shrines, not to mention thousands of wild deer. I must say that the guidebooks give you a half day walking route but most of it is average and certainly an anticlimax after the Todai-ji. The Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world, which is handy because it houses the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world, and I mean both of there's things are massive, I was possibly even more impressed by the building than
the Buddha. The great Buddha itself is 16 metres high, and the pictures won't do it justice but trust me that up close and personal that is kinda big. It weighs 437 tonnes and has 130kg of gold on it, and when set amid a beautiful building, surrounded by equally huge wooden warriors and smaller but no less stunning bronze deities it is an impressive sight to behold indeed. Their is a game in the corner of the building where people can try and squeeze through a hole that is exactly the same size as one of his nostrils, I didn't try this for fear of being laughed at by a bunch of school children but the fact you can attempt it suggests the statue itself is rather large. Hiroshima
The final section this week was a train ride down south to visit Hiroshima, a place that I was most looking forward to on the entire trip. Some may find it morbid, but as with somewhere like cambodia I find it truly fascinating to be able to visit places which left such an indelible mark on the worlds history in recent times, As with that place the blog
isn't easy to write and contains some startling facts, and if you don't want a boring history lesson or to shed a tear then maybe skip this section and pat yourself on the back, this blog is done for you!
For those of you sticking with me I will start with the obvious, Hiroshima is the place where the worlds first ever atomic bomb was used on mankind. The population of Hiroshima stood at around 350,000, but on August 6th, 1945 at 8:15am the city was just waking and going about its usual business, when without warning the U.S dropped the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen. It killed 140,000 people-mainly innocent civilians, and destroyed 90% of the buildings in the city. It exploded 600 metres above the ground for maximum effect, a huge fireball like the sun burning in the sky, which at its centre was 1 million degrees Celsius, the heat rays and blast shot out at 280 metres per second giving nobody a chance, the thermal rays caused first degrees burns 3.5 km away from the epicentre. And of course the ultimate cruel kicker, that the bomb was nuclear so those that it didn't
kill instantly it most certainly affected for years to come causing cases of leukaemia and cancer, and even affecting unborn babies in their mothers wombs. Birth defects are still evident today that are attributed to that day over 60 years ago. And if this wasn't enough, they decided to drop another one on Nagasaki shortly afterwards just to really show that the first one wasn't a fluke.Walking around the peace park in Hiroshima was therefore a somber affair, with lots of monuments, an eternal flame and remnants of that day all beautifully laid out. They have left standing one of the few building to survive the impact-mainly because the bomb exploded directly above it-that they call the A-bomb dome,a skeletal figure now left as a grim reminder when set against the backdrop of new sky scrapers and a bustling modern city. There were two museums, one set up to tell the victims stories and the other telling the whole story of the war, the reasons for it, the events of that day and the aftermath. The victims museum was of course very harrowing and moving, lots of testimonials and even belongings, such as melted lunch boxes and coin purses found
long after the event which are now the only remnants of what used to be a human being, fragments of a life lost in a second.
If that museum was meant to tug at the heart strings then the second one had the effect of making the blood boil. I must say that the museum was in no way one sided, unlike one I had visited in Vietnam which was hugely anti-American and blatant propaganda, this was very even handed. The Japanese pulled no punches in admitting that they entered the war on their own account and for their own gains, and having some interest in history and war I know that their conduct during the war was questionable at best. They can be cruel, hard people and they were certainly no angels during the war, their bombing of pearl harbour without warning was merciless and they mistreated prisoners of war. But the bombings of Hiroshima was aimed at the civilian population and non combatants. The museum showed lots of official U.S. documents which showed the cold hearted planning that went into the attack. For example the fact that Hiroshima was long targeted for the attack, so that all
before the camera died!
throughout the war not a single air raid took place on the city, so that just when the war was nearing it's end and the inhabitants must have thought themselves safe along came the bomb. The stark letters also showed that they didn't want any attacks on this city so that it was in perfect condition, so that when they eventually dropped the atomic bomb they could better monitor it's devastating impact. Another maddening part for me was the timing and the why behind the bomb being dropped because the war as coming to an end and Japan was in retreat and negotiating terms for surrender. But letters showed that the U.S were worried that they had spent $2billion (and that is at 1945 rate!) developing the bomb and so basically wanted to use it to justify the expense. Plus Russia and Stalin were about to turn against Japan and claim the spoils, so the Americans quickly dropped the bomb to end it before he could claim any victory. So essentially the bomb was dropped whilst Japan negotiated terms, simply to justify the expense and to hinder Stalin, and for this 140,000 innocent civilians had to die. They then dropped
the second bomb on Nagasaki on the day Russia officially turned on Japan in a futile attempt to race him to victory. It just showed me the role that people in high office who sit behind desks, miles away from any danger themselves, have in determining how may lives are lost and for what disgusting reasons.
"You that fasten all the trigger for others to fire, then you set back and watch when the death count gets higher, You hide in your mansion as young people's blood flows,out of their bodies and is buried in the mud." Bob Dylan-Masters of war.
The city of Hiroshima has now been rebuilt and reborn, in fact the japanese actions after the bomb summed up their capabilities. They had electricity and street cars up and running again 2-3 days after the event, just 48 hours after a nuclear explosion! Their spirit and ingenuity was evident even then and continues now. Hiroshima today is a peaceful and beautiful city, it is nicely laid out with trams traversing and rivers flowing serenely past. The city has a relaxed friendly vibe, and especially on the sunny days that we visited and it did indeed turn
out to be my favourite city so far for these reasons and more. I think that much like Cambodia the people here are happy and enjoy each day because they know what happened in the past and what can occur in blink of an eye. Perhaps the most startling part of the entire park and museums, more so than the testimonials, pictures of burn victims, of the shadow left when a person was pretty much vaporised, the survivors tales, the picture of a devastated city etc. What struck me most was that they are still building such bombs, and the final sections centred on which countries held what arms and the results were scary. It was galling to realise that with all that evidence in front of me of the devastation the A-bomb caused, they have now built hydrogen bombs that are 1000 times more powerful than that which destroyed Hiroshima. Einstein himself had a part to play in the arms race, and I guess if even clever guys like him can make a mistake then we are all fallible. But I agree with his vision of the future if the world keeps going as it is:
Mounds represent wealth and prosperity
Or a pair or boobs
not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Albert Einstein.
The last part of this week was spent visiting Myajima island near Hiroshima, a pleasant area of temples and shrines. Again this one was a little different which makes it stand out, as it was cleverly built in the mud flats of the island so that at high tide it appears as though it is floating on the sea. We also got to witness a wedding in the temple, I did of course try to talk the groom it of it from making a terrible mistake but it was a traditional wedding and they had a large orange dragon doing some kind of dance with a large sword so I left him to his fate. Personally I'd rather face a dragon than a wedding.
Anyway clearly I have banged on for long enough now, I am off to perfect my Japanese. I am now a dab hand at saying hello and thank you, being laughed at when using chopsticks, ordering Santory whiskey when I meant to order coke, and sitting down when weeing(honestly people
heated toilet seats by remote control is the only way to roll). Next week brings a festival and procession, some more temples, a castle and then the omnipotent Tokyo, along with trips to Mt.Fuji, another giant Buddha, some Japanese sport and getting naked with old Japanese guys in an onsen. Sure beats work.
P.S. Any travellers reading this and want help on accommodation or transport etc then feel free to email as I know it's not an oft travelled/blogged country.
There are more photos below