Published: April 21st 2012April 22nd 2012
Ok so it seems the last blog was a bit of a sweeping epic on my apparent fondness for the Japanese people and way of life, it's only now when reading it back that I realise what a soapbox moment it was! It has struck me that it's only when I sit down to write a blog that I actually collate all my thoughts and finalise my opinions of places. Writing the blogs has shifted from simply informing family and friends of what I am doing, to become a very cathartic process and a neat way to organise the convoluted, contradictory, and corrupted mess that is my head space. Plus you lot get to skip all the boring stuff and look at the pretty pictures. So here is the final part of this particular trip, Japan has been all I had expected and more, I highly recommend a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. Takayama
However, after a great opening week in Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima which passed by in a sushi filled blur, the next few days really dragged by and we hit a lull. Whilst researching Japan I realised that not only did my visit coincide
with the cherry blossom season but that I would also be here for the Takayama festival-which is noted as being one of the top 3 best festivals in Japan. After getting more excited than a man in his late twenties should (sshh) I subsequently organised the entire 16 days around ensuring that I would be in Takayama for this exact date. I crossed other places off the list, re-routed my itinerary and paid extra money for a hotel in a nearby town as everything had sold out months in advance. So after going to that effort-not to mention getting on a train at 7am and completing 5hours worth of travel on the day-only to arrive in Takayama and discover that they had canceled it due to a bit of rain, was a slight kick in the groin. The festival SHOULD have consisted of a procession of floats, some with marionette puppets attached, all replete with vivid colours, lanterns, music and singing. The problem was that the floats are very old and covered in gold leafing etc, so they are reluctant to take them out in even the slightest bit of rain. And it was only slight, Saddam Hussein in his
hidey hole had more moisture than was in the air that day, in fact he's probably still got it where he is now. Instead we had to be satisfied(a loose term)with seeing each float housed individually in its own stable, where we could take a picture and then move on to the next one. Essentially it was us doing a procession to see the floats as opposed to the other way around. Plus it was cold up there, and there were thousands of unhappy people wandering around the tourist trap streets, and it was expensive, and the free shot of sake we got was horrible. Other than that it was a great day. Kanazawa
The re-jig at the planning stage thanks to the 'wonderful' Takayama festival meant an additional day to spend in the Japanese alps area. I decided to visit Kanazawa despite my travelling forum geeks not giving it the best reviews, and was therefore hesitant when heading there. It was a pleasant surprise then to find that it was a nice little place that I enjoyed so it goes to show just how subjective travelling can be, and besides I recently read somewhere that you've got
to beware as you can't believe everything you read... Firstly there were the geisha and samurai districts, which whilst not as spectacular as Gion were still interesting and gave further insight into the traditions. There was also a market and a couple of shrines, but the main draw card was the castle and gardens, the only problem being that it seemed the place was no secret and so we were joined by about half the population. It was a lovely sunny day though, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, the Japanese were out in droves happily eating picnics and snapping pictures, there was traditional music, the scenery was lovely and I even got to drink some green tea sprinkled with gold flakes. This led to some interesting results at toilet time so I am now literally Goldmember, or the man with the Golden gun...or insert your own witty comment in there. Either way it wasn't a bad place to while away a day overall. Matsumoto
Matsumoto is famed for its castle and was pretty much the sole reason for our visit. The castle itself was reminiscent of Osaka-jo and decked out in black and white, sitting amid
a moat and set high atop a large rocky foundation giving it a formidable look over the entire city. It was finished in the 16th century and still has many of its original features, it has 6 levels or tiers in that grand flowing roof style which leads to it being supremely photogenic and is one of Japan's top 3 castles. Although it seems that everything we go and visit is in the top 3 of something or other, but then I suppose that's why we go and visit them. I had originally intended to visit the top one called Himeji-jo but this is under construction until 2020 and I didn't think work would let me have that much time off, bloody slave drivers. All these last 3 places, Takayama, Kanazawa and Matsumoto were pleasant enough to visit, but I would say that none are worthy of bending over backwards to see if on a tight schedule. They were a nice detour but I would suggest maybe seeing one place in the morning and then trying to get to another in the afternoon etc. They were also very quiet at night and there weren't any hostels,so it led to me
and Jon sitting in a hotel for a few nights trying to watch Japanese tv, which is an assault to the eyes and ears of epic proportions. But I'd still rather watch that than the X-factor. Tokyo
And so it was on to the mass of human traffic that is Tokyo. This city is now the largest in the world after spreading and morphing it's way almost as if by osmosis to such an extent that is has now gobbled up parts of the nearby city of Yokohama. The result is a vast colony of a city that has around 35 million people scurrying around it, which just to put in context is nearly 12 times the size of Wales as we only have a puny 3 million people total! Japan would batter us in a fight! The city itself is not overly chaotic, I have seen busier streets and traffic in many other countries in Asia and the grid layout of Tokyo is easy to negotiate. But is is simply the sheer number of people that move through the city daily that defies belief, even when you think it is fairly quiet the buildings and subways just
regurgitate people and a tidal wave of humanity envelopes you. The subways and train stations are organised chaos with Shinjuku station alone having 3million people passing through daily. Regardless of the time or the day, the trains are always busy and stuffed to bursting point. Shibuya in the heart of Tokyo is known as the busiest road crossing in the world, and to sit up on high (by using Starbucks but not buying a drink, take that corporate!)and to look down on this cascading tsunami of people every couple of minutes is almost surreal. But like the rest of Japan it just flows, and the people make it work, and so Tokyo breathes on day after day without self destructing.
Central tokyo is so large it can be broken up into about eight different areas, and is almost a living soap opera, each section being its own character with a unique personality and identity. We had 5 days here and did our best to visit them all, we brushed shoulders with the rich folk in Ginza, saw the comic book geeks and the goth freaks in Harajuku, visited the downtown offices to see the hordes of business suited men
and women. We watched the madness of Shibuya, and saw tradition holding strong in Asakusa. We got drunk in the Golden Gai district of Shinjuku, were over charged horrendously by an english guy running a British pub in Ueno, and refused many an offer(look at me growing) in the even seedier and red lit Roppongi. Just to top it off we then decided to get naked in an onsen with lots of Japanese men. This was a bizarre experience as it was strange to see the usually repressed and emotionless men of Japan suddenly so free and...umm dangly. I was surprised to see them so relaxed and at peace sitting spread eagled in a bath, or cutting their toe nails with a leg above their head. I did realise that a move to Japan would be of benefit as I've never been a big fish in a small pond anywhere before..
It's a fascinating city though jam packed full of intriguing characters with something to see at every turn, be it the people being rushed along by the current, or the neon lit facade outside each building offering floor after floor of things to purchase that are as diverse
as the streets below. It's a great place to explore as each little back alley reveals some hidden gem, or more likely it will reveal some backpacker staring in wide eyed wonder and awe as though they have just stepped out of the Narnia wardrobe. Not to mention the fact that it's location and size make it a good base to go off and explore other sites as day trips... Kamakura
We visited here as a sort of half hearted gesture, mainly to use up the remainder of the JR rail pass that was due to expire plus we were fairly templed out after Kyoto. It looked nice enough but each temple/shrine wanted an admission price that we were reluctant to pay and the weather made us pay a price for being reluctant to take an umbrella. For it must be said that the weather has played quite a large part in this trip. There was rain of biblical proportions when we visited the Buddha in Nara which ruined the aesthetic appeal somewhat, and on this trip to see another large Buddha it rained again, which has made me think that there is some sort of Buddhist conspiracy
going on. I blame Buddha himself, him and his chunky pot bellied mate Budai look far too content and smug for my liking. Either way the rain makes for a bad tourist partner, as you trudge around getting soaked and leaves you less reluctant to stand and stare in awe at things and utter joyous phrases like "Ooh isn't that fabulous" and such, especially when Mr. Buddha is outside as at Kamakura, but it was impressive all the same. Mt. Fuji
Predictably the weather beat us again at Japan's most iconic attraction (slight side point, the Japanese are crap at weather predictions, it is always only 20% chance of rain but the weather always wins and proceeds to pi*s it down). For after making a journey that took up the best part of 3 hours to see the wonder that is Mt.Fuji, we realised that the only wonder was when the bloody clouds would move out of the way so that we could actually see it. This never happened and was particularly painful when you bear in mind that one of the main reasons for a visit to Japan for me was to climb Fuji. But in planning
the trip I discovered that it is only open in July and August to climb due to the snow. Not to be disheartened I contented myself with at least being able to see it up close and personal in all it's snowy wonderment. And then I realised that the weather had won, again. Those pretty, fluffy, innocent looking clouds had spoiled what should have been the crowning climax of my Japan trip. I reckon Buddha had a word, what a vindictive bastard. So I can't tell you how magnificent Mt.Fuji was but the bottom 80% or so was truly stunning rocky mountain stuff at its best. Damn you weather, and I hope you caught pneumonia Mr.Buddha. Back to Tokyo for sumo and basebal
Anyway to round Tokyo off on the final day we then went to watch some fat men in nappies make smaller versions of themselves cry, and then watched the Japanese attempt at an American past-time. First up I must point you towards yet another facet of this and any other trip, that as the geriatric Mick and his somehow still alive Rolling Stones sing "You can't always get what you want." Because as good as
April has been in terms of cherry blossoms and festivals, there is always a downside as I couldn't climb/see Fuji, and sports like sumo and football were scheduled to be on days when we weren't here, such is life. So when I discovered that the sumo wrestlers would be in town in all their podgy nappy wearing glory, I jumped at the chance like one of the chunkers being offered the last slice of pie. This was one of those crazy only in Japan type experiences that has you shaking the head and saying 'they would never get away with that in the UK'. Basically it was 2 sumo wrestlers holding a baby each in a contest, they had to shake and scare the baby until it cried, and the winning baby was the one who cried the most and it went through to the next round. They even had 4 celebrity judges who would jump in after a minute or so if neither baby had cried and try to scare them with masks and weird glasses. Admittedly the sumo wrestlers were junior ones, I wondered if it was a rite of passage to becoming a proper sumo or if
they had just run out of ideas on The Japanese Apprentice. But only in Japan can you see fat men in nappies cheered on to make a baby cry, but then again we put our kids through watching Peppa Pig. The baseball was another interesting window into Japan as it was nice to see the people be expressive, singing and dancing and cheering on their team to victory. It was a curious mix of America and japan too, one person eating hotdogs whilst another ate noodles, talking in Japanese but chanting 'let's go Swallows' etc in English, cheerleaders and chopsticks, only in Japan.
I think I summed up my impressions of the country and it's people in the last rambling blog but just to conclude, I like it a lot! There is an order to everything here that simply works epitomised by Tokyo, a city crammed full of 35million that by rights should not operate effectively. It should be a manic mess of people and noise and arguments much like Hanoi or Bangkok, but instead it functions smoothly and effortlessly with patience, respect, manners and minimal fuss. The japanese are polite, courteous and helpful, especially to lost foreigners or
'gaijin' like us. And yet to me the country is the land that has things oh so nearly right. Not to be too critical, but the people are designed to be so polite and intent on following rules that it has made them overly introverted in my eyes. To be anything even slighty different here is to stand out alarmingly, I suspect that this is why this repressed society needs to unleash its craziness in mad game shows and singing karaoke. But these hints of being outgoing along with the basbeall and onsens maybe suggest that they just believe in keeping their heads down and working hard until they are free to enjoy themselves. Their laws on immigration are to be admired but again I think perhaps they have gone too far the other way on that one as there are hardly any ethnic minorities at all. They have great rules on no litter or smoking at all outside which makes for lovely settings, yet you are allowed to pollute the restaurants and cafes with as much cigarette fumes as your damaged lungs wish. It even shows in the mundane, they have the best toilets in the world-sitting on their
heated seats and spraying water at yourself from all kinds of angles, depths and speed is a uninhibited joy-sitting down to take a wee has become mandatory. And yet they then leave you to pull a flush like a regular joe and have toilet paper so thin its non existant. Ultimately, I think that the UK would benefit hugely by being more like Japan and its people, but then it can also be stated that a little bit of vice versa wouldn't go amiss either. For future travellers
I would highly recommend a visit as it is another world. The language is a barrier (and perhaps if I spoke it I would discover that all japanese are extroverts and comedians?) but it is not insurmountable, learn the basics and you will be fine. I would say that 2 weeks was a slight rush and 3 weeks would be about right for me to see the highlights. Travelling around is easy, they have a very efficient train system that has plenty of English signage, and you can use sites such as hyperdia.com to plan your entire route, trains and platforms. The JR rail pass(needs to be purchased from outside
Japan) saves a ton of money and is superb for ease of use. Hostels are clean and the staff amazingly helpful as they go to extraordinary lengths for you, especially the K's house chain. And of course the food is different and more importantly lovely, I have eaten lots of sushi, octopus, beef tongue, something called guts curry(what guts it was I never found out!)okonomiyaki, and as ever the food from the street vendors is often better than the stuff in restaurants. Jon recommends McDonald's, Subway and Burger King but in fairness to him he did live on the edge once or twice. We have both enjoyed this brief trip to a diverse country of temples, shrines and religion,which has wide open spaces of countryside and mountains, plus the human choked streets and cities. Arigato gozaimasu Japan.
There are more photos below