TOKYO & KYOTO

Trip Start Jun 22, 2011
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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Friday, March 30, 2012

There was a time, back in the 1980's, when Japan was the future. The Japanese, with their robots and their work ethics, were poised to rule the world. Yet here we are, 25 years later - living in the future - with a Japan that has failed to fulfil its destiny.

The financial crash that hit Japanese markets in 1990 proved debilitating and resulted in the country being dumped into the economic wilderness for a generation. It took until 2005 for the stock prices to find their floor, a crippling 86% below their 1990 peak.

The Japan of the mid-eighties and the Japan of today are worlds apart. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc. and the modern Godfather of technology, visited Japan in the mid 1980’s and sought inspiration at the technological altar of Sony. Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, gave Steve Jobs one of his first 'Disc-man’ products before it was launched. Jobs took it home, and took it to pieces, in a bid to learn from the masters of technology. Japan lead; others followed.

Contrast that to today: Sony seems to have lost its way, posting financial losses for the last four years in a row, whilst Steve Jobs’ Apple reign supreme. Sony, of course, is just one example, but their story is symptomatic of the wider melee within the Japanese economy.

Given that backdrop the eight-story Sony showroom in upmarket Ginza is predictably disappointing; the best that it can muster, on the showpiece top floor, is a 3D video that would barely have set the pulse racing 25 years ago, let alone in 2012. Such a facility should be able to provide a glimpse into the future. Of course, now we know that in Japan time stood still, and that the future never came.

Despite their economic stumbles, however, there is much to admire about Japan and the Japanese people.

 
JAPANESE PEOPLE

Japanese people are everything that you would expect Japanese people to be – respectful, humble, calm, patient, honourable – a list of character traits that you hope someone somewhere is saying that your children possess.

The people are so neat and tidy. They sit in their coffee shops, with their Apple Mac computers and their good postures, going about their business, quietly, efficiently. When they are finished they dispose of their waste with the minimum of fuss. Everywhere is spotless. Being a cleaner in Japan must be the easiest job in the world, as the people treat public spaces as respectfully as they treat their own homes; as should we all, of course.

Everybody seems to be operating in their own little bubble, heads down, getting on with their own lives. Given the number of people on the Metro it is a mystery how no one bumps into each other. But they don’t. Ever.

When they break out of their bubble and human interaction is required a lot of bowing goes on. Bowing is good; it is a quick, silent form of respect – less invasive than the handshake, more universally understandable than the spoken word. Perhaps we should all bow more, and talk less; the world would be a better place.

One thing that is immediately picked up by the unsuspecting Western eye is the number of people walking around Japan wearing Michael Jackson-esque facemasks. Upon first sight this looks odd. Then you hear the explanation that they are used when the person wearing the mask is ill and doesn’t want to spread illness to others, and suddenly the facemask seems like a good idea. Then, when you hear the justification that it is to help people to cope with their allergies that too makes enormous sense. Such reasoning can be disarming – so often thought of as the accessory of the nutty and the weird, the facemask actually starts to appeal.


KIDS

For a glimpse into the psyche of a people look at their children. There is a perception that the Japanese are repressed and display little emotion but a walk around Tokyo suggests otherwise. Japanese kids are much the same as kids everywhere – skipping along, giggling; falling over, crying; looking up to their parents, for approval; looking up at their parents, with love.

The family scene looks to be a happy one, filled with fun, but notably, judging by their actions, one with which even the youngest of children are beginning to understand the meaning of the word ‘respect’; if only this were the case the world over.


DRESS

In keeping with the image of the neat, tidy, ‘together’ Japanese people it is worth noting how well dressed they are – not in an extravagantly outlandish way, but in an understated stylish way.

It comes as little surprise to hear that a young British designer by the name of Paul Smith visited Japan in 1982. Thirty years and over 240 stores later and Japan is Paul Smith’s largest market. Good taste the Japanese.


CHERRY BLOSSOM

The most spectacular time of year to visit Tokyo is the cherry blossom season. There is a small window of approximately two weeks at the end of March / beginning of April in which the blooming cherry blossom on the trees turns the city into a vibrant work of art.

Cherry blossom can be found dotted throughout Tokyo but there are hotspots around the city, such as Ueno Park, that intensify the experience. The city is big and bustling, the temperatures in March and April are cold, but it is as though the trees have been sprinkled with fairy dust. To stroll through the park in central Tokyo, under the cherry blossom, is to find peace and warmth, which, considering the noise and chill, is something magical.

 
BULLET TRAIN

The Bullet train is surely the coolest sounding train of them all. Like all the trains in Japan the ‘Shinkansen’ is excellent – clean, roomy, always on time, and despite what you may have heard, easy for non-Japanese speakers to understand and navigate. That said, the odd quirk does exist, such as the ritual that occurs whenever a conductor leaves a carriage: the conductor will turn and bow respectfully to the passengers; no one reciprocates.

Despite its super slick, aggressive look the bullet train itself doesn’t actually feel particularly ‘bullety’ – although it still manages to zip from Tokyo to Kyoto in under two and a half hours, whizzing passed Mount Fuji as it goes.


TAXIS

The same space-shuttle-slickness that defines the Bullet train is sadly absent in the typical Japanese taxi, which looks basic and boxy at best. The interior is equally as "1950’s" as the exterior with the surprising use of elaborate doilies as seat covers.

The taxi drivers, proud men in driving gloves, take great satisfaction in deploying the automatic rear-door-opening device that allows them to usher their customers in and out of the taxi; and woe betide anyone who tries to open the door manually themselves.

Tipping is equally frowned upon, it would seem. For reasons known only to them taxi drivers are prone to issue an impromptu Japanese tongue-lashing to anyone bold enough to try to leave a tip. Taxi drivers the world over are an erratic bunch.


TOKYO

Every hour is rush hour in Tokyo; it is a big and complex city made up of many little districts, all of which offer something different…

Ginza is one of the main top-end shopping areas and is home not only to the Sony building and the Apple store, but also to the Japanese institution that is the ‘Wako’ department store. Walk around the wide streets of Ginza for an hour or so, taking in the nearby Imperial Palace, and it is easy to understand why the area is often referred to as the ‘Mayfair of Tokyo’.

The Tsukiji fish market, on the edge of Ginza, has a life force all of its own and is a sight to behold. Best seen in the early hours of the morning when the market is at its bustling best this hive of industry is an eye-opener.

After an hour’s walk around the market, breathing in the fish fumes, visitors are left in no doubt as to the effort and endeavour going on around them as fish of all shapes and sizes are bought and sold, sliced and diced, packed and shipped: the sheer scale of the operation is mind-boggling; the logistics, a nightmare; and the sense of the importance of the place, tangible. It is the fish market, not the temples or the technology, that is the heartbeat of Tokyo.

Shibuya is an area of West Tokyo that has something for everyone from shops and cinemas, to restaurants and clubs. Shibuya Crossing, outside the Metro station, is one of the busiest intersections in the world and has a certain mesmerising people-watching quality about it. But of considerably more charm is the nearby statue of a dog.

Hachiko, so the story goes, used to go down to the station every day to meet his Master after work. In 1925, the Master died, but Hachiko continued to go to the station every day in the hope of seeing him, until his own death ten years later. The Japanese, by way of honouring the faithfulness of this little dog, built the statue and it has become Tokyo’s most famous meeting spot. Sentimental fools.

Akihabara, the electronics district, is an area of Tokyo that is a technological Aladdin’s cave, with every nook and cranny stuffed with techno-tat. What fascinates most about Akihabara, however, is the fact that it is home to the original ‘Maid’s Café’. A maid’s café is a café in the traditional sense only in that they serve food and drink, but that is where any semblance of normality ends.

Ultimately any attempt to explain a Maid’s Café to the uninitiated will prove futile. Entering a Maid’s Café is like entering a real life doll’s house, with real life dolls buzzing around in a hyperactive whirl of giggling and screeching which simply adds to the all out assault on your senses. The experience is as uncomfortable as it is charming, as confusing as it is uplifting. If you are compiling a list of top ten weirdest things to do in your life, go and visit a Maid’s Café in Tokyo; its a high scorer.

Harajuku, sandwiched between Shibuya and Shinjuku on the west side of Tokyo, is the place to visit on a Sunday. Swarming with all sorts of odd-bods in fancy dress and street performers hustling a living, Harajuku is another fascinating people-watching place. Yoyogi Park, next to the train station, provides a welcome antidote to the heaving streets beyond, where the shopping, all the way up to Omotesando, is renowned.

Shinjuku is home to some of the most spectacular architecture that Tokyo has to offer, all of which can be seen, for free, from the top of the Metropolitan government building. Tokyo Tower has dominated the skyline in recent years but is now joined by ‘Tokyo Sky Tree’ which, when completed in mid-2012, will become the second tallest structure in the world, behind Dubai’s ‘Burj Khalifa’.

The most iconic bar in Tokyo is the ‘New York Bar’ on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel in Shinjuku, made famous in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. Having trekked through the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel, visitors are greeted with a bar of truly international standing: the elegant décor, the subtle lighting, the comprehensive drinks offering, the calibre of the service, the seductive atmosphere, the faultless live music and, the piece de resistance, the stunning, panoramic cityscape of one of the world’s most interesting cities stretching out as far as the eye can see. The ‘New York Bar’ is ‘a must’ for anyone who appreciates the finer things in life.

Roppongi, on the other hand, billed as being the ‘most Western’ part of town, is at the other end of the spectrum. Roppongi high street is littered with surly Nigerian oafs trying to harass passers-by to go into their cheap shot bars and seedy strip clubs. There are hidden gems, however, such as ‘R2’ – a classy jazz bar – that attracts a consistently cool and eclectic multi-cultural crowd and can single-handedly make the trip to Roppongi worthwhile.

At the southern end of Roppongi is Roppongi Hills, an area that has been redeveloped and includes a wonderful mix of restaurants, bars, shops, cafes and residential apartments, all centred around the exceptional Grand Hyatt hotel. Dinner at the exquisite Japanese restaurant ‘Roku Roku’ at the Grand Hyatt, followed by a drink in the nearby ‘Oak Door Bar’, before making the five minute walk to finish off at the jazz bar ‘R2’ makes for a wonderful evening.

 
KYOTO

Kyoto is the old capital city of Japan and, in the main, seems to operate in the past, thereby suggesting that the decision to move the capital city status to Tokyo was a sensible one. The extraordinary train station apart, the centre of Kyoto is run down and stuck in the 1980’s. Much of the rest of Kyoto is stuck even further back in the 1600’s, littered, as it is, with historical points of interest from shrines and temples, to palaces and parks.

Visitors are well advised to hire a local guide for a day in order to seek out the hidden treasures that can be found sprinkled in and around the city. The Kinkaku Temple – Golden Pavilion – is dazzling, whilst the Ryoanji Temple with its Zen garden and the Imperial Palace should also top any visitors’ hit list.

Kyoto is also the place to keep all eyes peeled for a citing of the Geisha girls, who totter daintily around the streets, looking like delicate porcelain figurines from another world.


TEA CEREMONY

Another of the hidden treasures is the tea ceremony. Steeped in tradition and riddled with unspoken gestures of respect a typical tea ceremony for tourists lasts about an hour. The host makes the group a pot of green tea, whilst explaining all the rituals and the nuances of the ‘ceremony’. All the while the non-yoga experts wriggle around trying to avoid getting pins and needles, sitting, as you are, on the floor.

FOOD

More often than not plastic models of food can be found in the window of Japanese restaurants as they advertise their menus visually. This habit seems odd at first; tacky. But considering some of the oddities on offer sometimes it is no bad thing to have a mock-up dish with which to refer.

It has been known for a dish to be served and for a Western guest not to have a clue what they have been served, nor where to start. Raw eggs are just such a red herring; what on earth is one to do?! When presented with their own little campfire, on which to cook their assorted ingredients, unprepared guests have been known to just walk away.

But when they get it right Japanese cuisine is up amongst the finest, most delicious in the world, and Roku Roku, at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Roppongi Hills, must surely be amongst the finest places anywhere in which to enjoy it.

PACHINKO
 
The one thing that unites all of Japan is Pachinko. Pachinko, a national obsession, is a game that is played on what looks like a cross between a slot and a pinball machine. Pachinko parlours are everywhere, and inside they consist of row upon row of these mesmerising machines that are blindingly bright and oppressively loud. Grown men sit, often for hours, feeding ball bearings into the machines.

Pachinko is played for money, although gambling, strictly speaking, is illegal in Japan. Such is its popularity, however, it seems that an exception is made for Pachinko; a loophole is exploited; a loophole which, given that it is a whopping US$ 378 billion-a-year industry, is unlikely to be closed anytime soon. The game itself, maybe even to those playing it, remains a complete and utter mystery.

 
SUMMARY

When things go wrong in Japan, they have a tendency to go seriously haywire – devastating earthquakes, destructive tsunamis, tragic nuclear disasters, crippling financial crises – Japan has experienced them all.

It is perhaps little wonder then that Japan does not rule the world as was so widely predicted back in the 1980’s. In fact it seems that the Japanese, far from trying to rule the world, have actually created another world, a parallel universe, in which the unusual is usual: toilets that squirt and play music; beer and cigarette vending machines on the street; ‘cat cafes’ which people can visit to have a drink…and stroke cats…

It is for these reasons, not simply the language, that Japan seems so foreign; but, equally, it is these reasons that make it so appealing. Japan’s foreignness is its charm.

The Japanese people are unique…just like everybody else.


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