Japan – Travelogue

japan

Whilst Tokyo is perhaps like Hong Kong on a copious amount of illegal drugs, some things have turned out to be truer than others… The (in)famous Star Trek toilets are more the rule than the exception, though I’ve been too scared to experiment with the buttons as one of the symbols looks like what can only be described as a ‘deep probe wash’. Yes, they love their manga and their gadgets, but – alas – no, I’m yet to be groped on the metro (disappointingly… maybe it’s the chicken suit!?). It is also accurate to say that all the men are suited up to the nines – with mirrors and pit-stop barbers in tube stations.

When walking the spotless streets over the past 9 days, it’s been difficult not to compare everything to back in HK – our public transport is certainly cheaper and simpler. Plus, there are few escalators here; instead there are weird static steps you have to climb manually (“stairs”, as I remember). But on pretty much everything else, Japan’s cyber-city capital, probably wins… Beyond the super-busy areas, everywhere seems so much quieter and calmer (often eerily), with clean streets – designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind – and little pollution. English is obviously less prevalent here but when people try to communicate, it is with grace rather than embarrassment. There is a greater sense of service and a feeling of wider social conscience (known as ‘Wa’) – something Singapore attempts to buy with strict enforcement and Hong Kong achieves only through its ‘face loss’ phobia. ‘Same same but different’ might be an appropriate Asian saying.

We have advertisements, car parks, elevators and traffic lights which talk to you back in HK, but they’re another level here, when they start monologing on-and-on and playing light-hearted tunes. You’ll spot them back home, but the ubiquitous vending machines can be found on every street corner of Tokyo – rumour has it there’s a vending machine dispensing machine somewhere. It appears the Japanese have embraced every chance to minimise human contact – there are machines dispensing flowers, books, hot meals, fuel and used women’s underwear (!)

Here, eating and smoking or talking loudly on the phone whilst walking in public are considered faux pas. Meanwhile, in China, it’s perfectly acceptable in some cities to take a shit on the street (some mainland kids have a slit in their pants for this very purpose – not in HK, I might add). Attention to detail and process is a cultural norm in Japan and, from the outset, everyone I’ve dealt with have been helpful, friendly and welcoming to the extreme…

Portly tussles
A day after arriving, I was very lucky to join some hostel buddies and catch some rare sumo action at the Yasakumi Shrine. 200 contenders and 7 hours of sweaty ritualised wrestling, with man boobs flying all over the shop and front row seats where you could literally feel the earth shake as the ancient tradition unfolded. Like much on these islands, it is more about the procedure and presentation with ‘false starts’ being a big part of the ancient sport.

The rikishis taunt each other by stretching, clapping, stomping, squatting, hurling salt around and grunting until finally putting their fists to the floor in unspoken invitation to indicate they’re ready for a ruck. (I imagine the ‘not-knowing-when-it’s-coming’ part is the worse bit.) Then, it’s pretty much no holds barred, as each rushes forward to push the other out of the ring or force the other to the ground. We usually put our Yen on the fattest fella (nicknaming them ‘bulldozer’, ‘earthquake’ etc…), but often the more agile opponent came through.

The crowd went wild for some of the more famous faces – including a couple of token westerners. It took some self-control not to indulge my British instinct to holler some abusive banter in speculation of whom may have consumed ‘all of the pies’ I unwisely left at the entrance.

During the epic showdown, the wind would often blow cherry blossom around the purpose-built arena. I happened to be visiting during the spring Hanami season – the best time of year to tour the Land of the Rising Sun. As the wind blew and snowy pink petals whipped the sweaty buttocks of the chubby wrestlers, it seemed to be the perfect image of Japan (minus Godzilla) – indeed, I almost shed a tear at the fitting beauty of it all (not really though). Just before the grand finale, two wresters treated their captivated fans to a slapstick pantomime routine complete with ‘he’s behind you’ gags. The audience lapped it up.

Diplomacy Now
The venue itself is a very controversial place in Asia as the Yasakumi Shrine honours Japanese war dead, including those who died in WWII. The region has not come to terms with WWII (or the ‘Greater East Asian War’) like Europe has, chiefly because it remains a taboo in Japan, where the state is only slowly beginning to admit responsibility. When the president visits Yasakumi, foreigners – especially in China – become understandably angry – the equivalent in Europe would be Angela Merkel visiting a shrine to Nazi dead.

Videos and photos weren’t allowed in the museum, which seemed innocent enough until you get to the 1940s. It was interesting reading about the kamikaze bombers and seeing one of the huge submarine torpedoes used to take them to their deaths. However, according to the English translatios, the rape of Nanjing allowed its residents to once again ‘live their lives in peace’ whilst Pearl Harbour occurred since the US and Brits had no intention of ‘bringing the war to an end’. Towards the end I learned that the early successes of Japan during the war ‘inspired other Asian nations to demand independence’. Erm, right boys, it’s exactly like that… One has to wonder what the original Japanese text says and what is being taught in schools.

Having been to almost every other country in the region, seen the Death Railway and learnt just how hated the Japanese continue to be, even in Hong Kong – reading such silly propaganda and seeing the gleaming train retrieved from Burma parked up front left a bad taste in the mouth. Suffice to say, I had me a bit of a rant in the guestbook and was disappointed to see that most of the few other English speaking visitors accepted what they saw hook, line and sinker. One Italian, however, had sarcastically scrawled “glory to Japan army!!” I suggested that it’d be good PR, particularly if Japan expects to host the Olympics, if a more diplomatic and reconciliatory tone was adopted. To add to the unseemly nature of the place, visitors are charged an entry fee and are even greeted with a cheery gift shop at the end.

Adrift in Translation
As night fell, I ventured into the heart of the city. After Bill Murray’s ‘Lost in Translation’, Tokyo’s most iconic spot is probably the Shibuya scramble crossing where a great mass of humanity cross a huge intersection in synchronised, organised chaos. I was quite easy to spot in my rooster get-up and wandered around the neon-lit, busy streets. Just to the side of Shibuya Crossing is a statue of Hachik?, an Akita dog who in the 1920s would wait for his master at the station, and continued to come and wait 10 years after his owner’s death. I think there is a dog monument to a similar story in Edinburgh, showing perhaps that some things can capture the imagination anywhere.

‘Maid cafés’ are certainly something that has captured the imagination of local geeks (or ‘otakus’) in Electric City, Akihabara. Reminiscent of the geisha phenomena, the cafes are an example of life imitating manga – not feeling entirely comfortable with the idea, I bit the bullet with a hostel buddy and braved a visit. Personally, I don’t quite ‘get’ the whole maid and school-girl thing. It was odd that many of the shops in the area were half kid’s toys and then suddenly descended into wacky manga porn. Why would folks want cartoon porn when the real thing is available? Presumably because ‘anything is possible’ in anime, including multiple sea-creature tentacle rape, which is apparently quite big now.

Feeling somewhat dodgy and nervous, we found ourselves in a lift with a mother and son, also visiting the maid café. There’s nothing especially sleazy about the set-up (otherwise I wouldn’t go!), and the couples and families present went some way to reassuring us that it wasn’t too unwholesome – but there were certainly weird power dynamics going on. The women, in full neo-Victorian garb, were utterly submissive and referred to their customers as ‘master’ – they meekly presented a menu and skipped around the room. Delicately and purposefully, they poured the coffee, nattered passively in Japanese and constantly seemed on the verge of tears. This feeling that we’d caused upset made us feel guilty and strange, but it was clear some of the guys on nearby tables were loving it.

One very nervous and introverted looking teenager was sat opposite and looked as if he hadn’t seen daylight in months. An obvious regular, he was hunched over his PSP when not being tended to by his assigned maid. When food was presented, the maids invited their guests to make a heart shape (a la ‘Lost in Translation’ again) and asked what picture they would like drawn in ketchup.

Much more giggling, whimpering, doe-eyed posing and borderline sobbing ensued – although our maid seemed positively ecstatic when I stated I would indeed like a full sugar in my coffee. Frankly, I wanted it to be over and hadn’t felt so guilty since Catholic school – just let me stir it myself for Pete’s sake! Feminists in Europe would have a field day were one of these things to open up shop back home. I’m not sure what kind of Japanese traits the maid charade indulges, but when our capacity for ‘weird’ had gone supernova and we could take no more, we asked for the bill (we lasted 10minutes).

Just as we left, a Western-looking maid appeared – she was Brazilian and had spotted my world flag backpack. We sparked up a completely normal conversation and she seemed totally down to Earth and too good for her current profession. Then again, I’m sure it pays handsomely and at least it’s not hostessing, or – God forbid – English teaching, which are amongst the few employment options for young foreigners.

We were relieved to be back amongst relative normality outside. Whilst we didn’t get to visit this time, those who feel awkward with the whole maid/butler thing could volunteer to have themselves thrown in a cell and fed in metal bowls at the Alcatraz ER restaurant!

In Search of Weird Shit
I spent much of the next morning locked in a loop of three similarly named metro stations (Asakusa, Asakusabashi and Akihabara). I managed to break out of it, after studying the insanely cryptic map, and headed to the Parasitological Museum as part of my mission to boldly seek out weird shit. ‘Weird’ can indeed be found in abundance in Japan, and I wasn’t disappointed with the huge tape worm retrieved from an unsuspecting 40-year-old. There were few English translations, but I feel the general gist of the collection was ‘look-at-this-scary-stuff-you-could-have-inside-you.’

Suitably grossed out, I hotfooted it back onto the underground maze and had a stroll around Japan’s equivalent of Oxford Street, Ginza. The Sony Building showroom was teeming with fellow geeks checking out the new pre-release prototypes and gadgetry. The highlight was seeing the Sony Rolly in action. It would’ve been difficult for any guy not to get slightly aroused by some of the shiny new hardware on interactive display.

Talking of aroused, I’d heard about ‘love hotel hill’ where couples – or indeed single men – elope to a special themed room for an evening of wantonness, but was surprised to stumble upon the busy male hostess district in Shinjuku. What looked like advertisements for cheesy boy bands were actually promoting eligible bachelors for hire. Women pay for an evening of conversation and company (apparently nothing more) – perhaps the product of Japan’s workaholic, time-poor lifestyle. It was odd to see a role-reversal of immaculately presented men chasing and hassling women down the street. Equally odd was how all of the men looked almost identical in attire, hair and effeminate appearance – it is as if there is a very set idea of what was attractive.

After a quick visit to the world’s biggest Hello Kitty, and after photos at the Ban Dai HQ with Doreamon and Ultraman (all for the kids back in HK!), I headed back to my coffin-esque hostel bed. Though each bed was fully enclosed in a wooden box, this wasn’t a capsule sleeper – I had a night at quite a retro example of a capsule hotel later in the week. A claustrophobic’s nightmare, capsule hotels were actually invented in the 70s as a cheap sleep option for travelling businessmen. The Asakusa Riverside Capsule Hotel is almost fully automated, in that you pay a machine upon entry – and each capsule includes a TV and various other gadgets.

You can recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home by simply renting a coffin and decorating it with a portable telly, clock radio and fairy lights. Cheap and easy.

I wrapped things up in Tokyo with an early morning tour of the fish market and tuna auction, a whip around the National Museum (great for all you broken pottery freaks) and I hung out briefly in Harajuku with fellow fruitloops, eccentrics and fashion victims. Yes, the cyber-punks, cosplay kids, goths and cute-style ‘Kawaii’ boppers you’ve all heard about were all welcoming of the odd chickenman. Sadly, I was unable to coax a gaggle of Harajuku girls to be my groupies back in HK (Gwen Stefani style) – now that would’ve been cool!

In Kyoto Agreement
It was time to move on… I couldn’t justify the Shinkansen bullet train twice (£70 for a single) but booked a return journey and upgraded to a luxury overnight bus for the trip down to the cultural capital of Kyoto. The city lived up to its reputation as the Asia’s most beautiful city (not that the competition is exactly fierce) and was achingly gorgeous at night. Exploring the blossoming parks, mysterious backstreets, shrines and temples by bicycle has to be one of the world’s best travel experiences.

Two days on a rented bike hopping between sights and coffee shops was worth the anal ache, and I was only nearly run over once. The hostel kept tabs on the spring festival with its ‘blossom updates’ – showing where in the city was in ‘100% bloom’ each day. Though there was nothing philosophical about the hoards of package tourists with the same idea (the Chinese can only visit in tour groups), a stroll down the Path of Philosophy, in the perfect warm sun, made for a splendid afternoon.

I wasn’t so comfortable joining other tourists in late-night ‘geisha hunting’ around Kyoto’s picturesque, lantern-lit backstreets. Whilst there may be just under a thousand geisha left in Japan, waiting around dark alleys to spot one had a whiff of ‘human zoo tourism’ about it. So instead, I paid to see a show – only running at this time of year – at a local theatre. I’m usually very moved by cultural dance (shows in Bali and much of SE Asia are awesome), but, in honesty, I found the geisha performance, like Cantonese opera, to be quite odd and tedious…

Sat on cushions high up in the theatre, my Japanese neighbours were absorbed in it, but I was left baffled. At one point, I gathered that one blue and one white geisha were laughing and joking in the garden until a green geisha comes out of the cabin and kicks off. Then blue geisha leaves on a boat. The end. The punch line could’ve been achieved much quicker were it not for the long-winded medley of repeated bowing, fan flicking, shuffling and confused-cat-like head tilting. Man, they loved the head tilt…

I think it is the idea of subservience I have problems with and find hard to understand. Since American GIs began referring to prostitutes in similar make-up as geishas, their image and complicated role has been confused, even by Japanese themselves. They do not sell sex, but businessmen – happily married – will pay over US$500 for a couple of hours of banter, food and intricate tea ceremonies.

Before heading back to Tokyo, I spent a rainy day in Nara – one of the old capitals. When I was told I might see some deer, I thought I’d be lucky to spot one – but, in fact, the whole town was teeming with tame deer. They come right up to you and bow their heads to request food – how Japanese is that!? After squeezing in a few more temples and the stunning Bamboo Forest, I finally boarded the Shinkansen.

Bullet points
I always thought there was just one bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that it was a recent invention. In fact, the granddaddy of all high-speed rail travel began in 1964, it is the world’s fastest, reaching speeds up to 361mph and Japan has a fleet of over 250. Though it felt more like boarding a plane, than a train, the experience wasn’t so different to any other rail journey – though I was slightly disappointed there wasn’t a display showing how ridiculously fast we were going. What took 8 hours by bus, took a little over 2 hours by bullet train – it went by so fast, I missed Mount Fuji whiz by.

Whilst a week’s spending here is equal to a month’s backpacking in southern Asia, no-one I’ve met has been disappointed with Nippon’s eclectic, eccentric and exquisite offerings. Although I’m not sure I’m ready to swap my grittier, more outward-looking corner of Asia for Japan just yet, my short time here has been a great taster for a new adventure.

Tom.