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Published: November 5th 2007
Outside Senso-Ji buddhist temple in Asakusa
Zipping down the tracks on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, playing with the reclining buttons on the seats, watching the locals eating from their Bento boxes, tired business men dozing and a chubby young Harajuku girl in her carefully accessorised outfit - bag, socks, necklace, top and massive earphones all with enormous strawberries on them.
'We've finally made it' Alan said, 'from the island of Ireland to the islands of Japan.'
The land mass we've covered over the past seven weeks makes it feel as though we've been on the road for longer than we have - from drizzly Ireland, leaves falling off trees, to nearly two months later, drizzly Japan, leaves turning orange gold and red. We are chasing autumn, and in Japan, with it's abundant forests this was immediately more in evidence than urban China.
At Tokyo in the subway station, I was surprised to see Halloween advertised all over the place, I thought that Halloween was a pagan festival - Oíche Samhain as we say in Irish- trick or treat - and here I am eating a piece of Nori served to me by a lady dressed as a pumpkin?
Culture shock. At every big
The neon lightscape that is Shinjuku
border crossing I wonder if it's going to hit. Sometimes we're surprised when it doesn't - St. Petersburg reminding us of Paris. And then sometimes it is a shock when we don't expect it - China to Japan, similar yet so very different.
Japan is more like the west than China, yet Japan is entirely different from the West in so very many ways.
Sometimes I miss things from home and don't even realise it, and when I'm confronted with the thing I miss, I'm back in Dublin. Take our first meal off the boat - we were pounding the pavements around Osaka, didn't even realise we were hungry. Then we spot a café, a chain, but not one we're familiar with called 'Doutour'. Coffee wafts out and the menu has pictures of coffee, sandwiches and panninis.
We can't help ourselves, we had to have a coffee and a good 'hang sangidge' (ham sandwich...). The coffee tasted amazing, I drank every drop.
You see, all we've been drinking is tea for the past few weeks - lovely tea - Oolong/Green/iced/lemon/jasmine - you name a tea and the Chinese probably invented it - until recently I was
What are these?
It's not clear, but they seem happy
only familiar with Tetleys and Barrys, so uncouth am I in terms of tea. But anyone who knows us will understand that Alan was in tea heaven, and I was learning to adjust.
So a friendly welcoming face and a fresh cup of joe brought me right home to Dublin.
Weirder still that our first meal in Tokyo - Sushi - reminded me of eating Bento boxes at lunchtime in the Docklands and all you can eat in Aya at the back of Brown Thomas'.
Anyway, enough about food - just to say that the food in Japan is surprising - yes there's loads of sushi, tempura and noodles, but there's also an enormous fondness for Italian food. Alongside fancy Japanese rice-biscuits and cutesy cartoon cakes, cheese-cake is also terribly popular, as are donuts - with chains such as 'Mr. Donut' all around. There's a huge café culture and the service is the best we've seen in the world, people falling over themselves to be lovely to you.
Oh - and the other thing is that while it is expensive here, Dublin is far more expensive than Japan. But enough about food!
A shrine in Ueno Park
on the Shinkansen, the legendary (to Alan anyway) white, superfast and ridiculousy aerodynamic intercity trains. Much excitement.
The trains were as cool inside as outside - spacious, comfortable. Japan is such a polite, respectful society, even in their public transport, it is all about consideration for other passengers. No gobbling a breakfast roll whilst talking to your mate 'Steo' on the mobile and spluttering or coughing on your next seat neighbour.
If you make a call on your mobile while on the Shinkansen there is a telephone area at the end of each carriage and if you don't want to crackle in the tunnels there's even a landline in carriage seven. If you'd like a ciggie, well sure, then go to carriage eleven. Food? That's fine, there's a lady who goes up and down the carriage with a smile and whatever you fancy, just be tidy and use the bins provided.
And the trains run on time, precision time, leave and arrive when they are supposed to. The staff are friendly, smile, respectful. The passengers sit in companionable silence. I love it.
Moving swiftly onward (like the train - groan), we arrived in Tokyo and were
Aoife thumbs a lift to the city
excited and bewildered by the labyrintine public transport system, some of which was JR (Japanese Rail) and others which were private lines. Our rail passes came in very handy from word go and we more than got value from them (great investment by the way - thanks to all who gave us such generous wedding gifts, we remembered you along every track!).
We eventually wound our way through neon and lights to our Ryokan, a Japanese inn. We almost didn't find it, camoflaged among greenery, and had to be redirected by kindly locals who saw us flailing about under our enormous bags.
It was a secret haven - peaceful and serene with trickling water streams, wooden bridges and mossy stepping-stones - we almost forgot we were in a heaving city at times.
Our room was traditional with tatami (rice straw mats) carpeting the floor. We made our first cultural faux-pas unwittingly though within minutes of arrival.
In Japan neatness and ritual are brought to another level. And for us this was most evident when it came to the use of slippers:
Irish translation of slipper: implement to adorn foot; possible Christmas gift for parent; item
Our room in the Ryokan
Straw mats on the floor, complementary yukata (groovy robe) and no furniture to speak of
to be chucked at back-side of naughty child; item to be chucked at back of wardrobe by parent after Christmas
Japanese translation of slipper: sacred object
When we arrived the lady told us to take our shoes off and change into the provided slippers when in the Ryokan.
No problem there. Shoes removed, holey socks for all to see, we had a look at the slippers and it was clear that there were two kinds:
Slipper One: grand-dad-esque slippers with a nice full toe
Slipper Two: croc-like slippers, bit groovy really
We both opted for slipper number two, stomped up the stairs and dumped our bags. Then one of us needed to go to the toilet and reported back
'It's gas - there are even special toilet slippers for you to put on when you go into the toilet'
Then we read the Rough Guide to Slipper Etiquette and learned that slippers are pretty big in Japan.
And then we fell asleep.
Somewhere in the night, a kind Ryokan spirit, sympathetic to the two slipper-naive Irish came up to our room and discreetly swapped our slippers. Next morning we awoke and
A cushion on the tatami (rice-straw mats)
were surprised to see the slippers were not the ones we had put outside the door, instead the grand-dad slippers were in their place.
Strange we thought. But later we deduced that in fact slipper wearing etiquette meant the following in the Ryokan:
1. Croc-like slippers to be worn on the shared grounds of the Ryokan
2. Grandad-like slippers to replace Croc-like slippers when you walk from the general lobby areas into the bedroom areas
3. take grandad-like slippers off before entering your bedroom in your socks
4. put on grandad-like slippers whilst walking from bedroom door to bathroom door, then take them off again and replace them with toilet slippers when using said facilities.
Tidiness is mandatory here - everyone is so neatly dressed, not a hair out of place that after a few days I found I was feeling a bit messy as a back-packer, not that I could do much about that! In the cafés everyone tidies up after themselves, putting their trays away and making sure the table is clean. It makes a lot of sense too, when you're here, and the environment is really pleasant as a result.
Alan gets traditional in the ryokan. He loves Qoo.
adore cartoons here - everyone does - on trains you see men and women of all ages reading comic books (Alan wants to move here naturally), and likewise people of all ages have little teddies and cartoon character totems attached to their mobiles and bags. There's even a bank 'Softbank' (? imagine that being your sales pitch as a bank 'bank with us, because we're fluffy') who have Hello Kitty advertising their services. Naturally I want to bank there.
Tokyo fashion is not just limited to slippers, cleanliness and cartoons though. These people are seriously groovy in how they dress.
In Shinjuku we shrunk into the background watching men with big hair, make-up and glamour the likes that has only been seen in the George, strut their stuff, competing with the neon lights of the sky-scrapers. In Harajuku, we saw an alternative Camden. The crowds in Shibuya were amazing, and we had our own Lost in Translation moment wandering across the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.
For such an enormous city, 12.8 million residents or thereabouts, there are many tranquil spots to be found - in Ueno park on a Sunday we drifted away from the
The mysterious yet peaceful courtyard of the ryokan. Wonky trees and mossy shinto shrines abound
crowds and festivities to quiet shrines, and crossed the pond by pedal-boat in the afternoon sun. The temple of Meiji-jingu near Harajuku was serene and solemn in stark comparison with the exotic outfits of the areas younger residents.
And for all the modernity, many men, women and children dress in traditional clothes.
Every evening we would make our way back to the Ryokan and the slippers. And things that we had found strange on arrival - such as the massage chairs in the communal space, we began to avail of gratefully. It's easy to settle into Japanese life, we had none of the language and yet the lady in the café across the road had a smile for us when she gave us toast in the morning, and the old woman in the cake shop around the corner even gave us a free Madeline cake one day.
Japan is such a friendly country - on the day we arrived in Osaka I was very forgetful and we stopped for a coffee, where I left the guidebook behind. A man came after us with it. An hour later a keep-sake fell off my bag in Kinko's Copyshop where
Aoife finally gets to try one of her favourite foods in its native land. She was very happy indeed.
we were checking directions to our hotel and another man chased down the street after us with it.
Instinctively I caught myself bowing away on our first day here - and that's the thing, I remember months ago reading that people bow here all the time, and just didn't get it, but when you're here it makes perfect sense as a mark of respect. Of course my bows are probably not of the proper depth, apparently when you train to be a secretary there's a whole load of time spent making sure you get the depth of the bow right according to who you're bowing to.
We met up with Adie and Stewart (who we travelled to Lake Baikal with on the trans-siberian) on our last night in Tokyo - they're travelling from Scotland - and it was great to compare field notes on the countries we had all visited since we last met - they had travelled on to Vladivostok and Korea - North and South. So they had been to the DMZ - which sounded fascinating, and is now on our places we want to visit list - and we had seen some of Mongolia and
Cheer up, love
Here - try some delicious raw squid tentacle wrapped in seaweed...
China. We were like old strangers meeting, until someone pointed out that it had just been three weeks ago since we'd last met. Time gets very stretchy on the road!
After a few days, with our reasonably limited time in the country, we decided to venture further up the island for a while, but it didn't take us long to decide that we could fit a few more days in Tokyo before we head back down the island to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Himeji, as we had barely scratched the surface.
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