We arrived in Tokyo revitalised after a breakfast of beef and chicken curry, courtesy of Northwest airlines. We caught the train into central Tokyo from the airport and with the cost of the train tickets being 10 times that of China, we immediately realised what was to be the main difference between the countries... thankfully we had already bought a rail pass! We met Mio at Shinagawa train station near where she works, after she had been frantically asking the station employees if they had seen 2 "foreigners". On walking to Mio's home in Gaienmae, near the "Teen Mecca" of Harajuku, we noticed our 2nd big difference - cars and pedestrians obey The Green Man! Mio's home is a microcosm of all that is Japan - compact, compartmentalised and very stylish. Other examples include the excellently packaged sandwiches (right out of an English afternoon tea spread) and the strawberries, which Mio told us could be purchased as a set of 3 in giftwrap with a bow... fruit is very expensive in Japan! On our first night in Tokyo, Mio took us to a resturant-cum-pub-cum-club where her boyfriend Mark was "mashing" tunes - i.e. DJing! To get there we went via the zebra crossing at Shibuya, a huge pedestrian crossing smack in the middle of downtown Toyko, where they filmed scenes for Lost In Translation (Jamie's favorite film, Susi's 2nd worst after the dreadful Robocop2!).
Due to Susi's gothic obsession, our first stop was to visit a couple of cemeteries... Apparently, the beautiful spring cherry blossoms could be viewed there (just our luck that they had already been blown to the ground after some bad weather!), and also the strange statues of Jizo - the god of travellers and unborn children (see fact). With stomachs grumbling, we stumbled upon an excellent little Japanese style 'greasy spoon café' (actually called a Teishoku-ya) which we ended up bestowing with the title of 'the local'. The food was great... we could only get what they had in pictures on the walls, but we ended up going back there for the same thing again! We wandered around Harajuku, where the streets in the area are very reminiscent of London's Soho, especially Carnaby Street. They're full of t-shirt shops and punk rock attire, including tartan gear. Jamie attempted to purchase a t-shirt and followed what he thought was standard procedure by requesting to try it on first. The staff blankly refused this request by crossing their arms in a "NO" symbol. Apparently this is due to t-shirts getting soiled by make-up - and he only had a little mascara on that day! Later that night Mark & Mio took us to a Korean restaurant where we sampled various Korean delights that we never knew the name of but were all great - especially a pizza type bread stuffed with veg and spices. Not too keen on the seaweed though!
The next day we got a train to Kamakura, a town about an hour outside central Tokyo. As well as the great Hase Kannon (temple) and The Giant Buddha, there was a beach resort there with a German influence (various sausage restaurants) and fully fledged surfers - not what we had expected to see on the outskirts of Tokyo!
We decided to go on a mini tour of Japan, starting with Kyoto, approx 3 hours south-west of Tokyo. Kyoto is the home of The Geisha so we decided that it was only appropriate that Susi dress up as one. This was more traumatic than it looked mainly due to the heavy-handedness of the "make-up artist" and the psychological damage caused to Susi by looking in the mirror and not recognising herself! We had a photo shoot but didn't go public which was probably for the best as later that night we saw four of the Real McCoy being frantically chased whilst on their way to work by a paparazzi of Western tourists. Of course we did the honourable thing and joined the scrum to get some snaps! After taking a walk through some of the older parts of the city, we took a train north of the city to Mount Kurama, where we ascended the steep steps to the top and were rewarded with a beautiful view. Upon descending, we rewarded ourselves a relaxing break in the onsen (very hot bath!) in the picturesque forested surroundings of Kurama (reminiscent of Les Gets without the ski-runs). We ate in an Izakaya (a bar that serves beer and various yummy snack foods, like chicken yakitori) which was great until the owner started becoming a bit strange and hugging us a lot... (Strange Fact: There was a group of Canadian women in there who left pretty swiftly when he started hugging them too, and oddly enough, we bumped into them the next night in an Irish Bar in Hiroshima!).
A further 3 hours down the track it was Hiroshima, which of course needs no introduction (however, it's now well-known for its trendy dance-music scene!) - notably, the city centre buildings are all post-1945. To make use of space, shops, restaurants and bars (including the delightfully named Alcoholiday bar) are located on the various floors of tower blocks. One such bar, The World's End, was run by Meiko (who wore a Kimono) and had a British MOD theme. We were made to feel very welcome and even treated to a proper Karaoke at the end of the evening. Karaoke in Japan is a big event. Unlike in The UK, where you must subject your fellow drinkers in the pub to your tuneless cat's wailing, in Japan the "KTV" establishments are plush, modern rooms which you rent by the hour for you and your friends - you will be brought jugs of beer and snacks at your request, and have books full of thousands of songs to choose from.. they even provide tambourines! An experience not to be missed! The next day we visited the atomic bomb museum. As you would expect this was a very sombre affair where we learnt about the history of the City, the impact of the bomb and the American's justification for using it. One of the most poignant aspects was that it was a beautiful summer's morning that sealed the fate of the town - if the weather had been worse, they wouldn't have released the bomb....
We arrived back in Toyko at midnight and found rush-hour on the metro in full-swing. All the office workers were still in their suits making their way home from work (or from an obligatory drink with the boss - refusal is tantamount to a sackable offense!)... and if they weren't on the metro, they were kipping in the streets! As in China, it is perfectly acceptable to sleep wherever your fancy takes, and this rule applies as much to white collar workers as it does anyone else. Workaholics and alcoholics are quite interchangeable here, especially as the Japanese are known for their inability to process alcohol effectively!
For our last supper in Tokyo, Mio treated us to a meal in a traditional Japanese restaurant (sadly, the Shabu-Shabu was not available!). We felt slightly embarrassed and let down by our research when the table talk turned to that of 'Love Hotels'. Unbeknown to us this is a Japanese concept that entails blissfully in love couples (e.g. boss and secretary) renting a room for a couple of hours (or a whole night) so that they can declare their undying love for each other in the privacy of the sexily themed rooms with vending machines full of "toys" - we were very sorry to have missed out on this! We washed down the meal (carefully selected by Mark, using a touch-screen interactive menu via a monitor on our table!) with a tipple in a tiny Piano bar in the city's aptly named 'Drunkard's Lane' where for one brief moment we were entertained by Morgan Fisher of 70s band Mott The Hoople fame (sadly Mark's famous friend had left by the time we made it down the steep and narrow staircase!). Japan was definitely the safest and cleanest (no rubbish or graffiti anywhere!) place we have visited so far - there's lots to see and do there and a return trip is certainly on the horizon... despite the distinctly British weather!
A big ARIGATO to Mio for letting us stay in her "hotel", and many apologies for drinking all your breakfast tea and eating all the lovely (individually wrapped!) biscuits :-) xx
Jizo: "Along many country roads in Japan, you may come across small stone statues of a gently smiling bodhisattva (bosatsu in Japanese: a figure of compassion in Buddhism. A bodhisattva delays reaching Nirvana, despite being able to do so, due to feelings of compassion for other beings who are suffering). Often the statue is wearing a red bib and sometimes a bonnet. It may be standing in a little hut or standing free. These statues are also found in temples. This is Jizo, or more politely, Ojizo-san. It is as the guardian of the souls of deceased children that Jizo is most associated nowadays. Another name for Jizo is Ko-sodate Jizo, which translates as 'the Jizo who raises children'. The souls of departed children are said to go to the banks of the Sanzu River. There they play by the river, but the children are sometimes disturbed by devils. Jizo arrives to protect the children, who are said to hide in the folds of his cloak." First heard about this in Mo Hayder's "Tokyo" - an excellent, if gory, read - note that this was also where the Nanjing Massacre was brought up... who says fiction isn't educational?!
Almost the most populated city in the world: "Tokyo - approx. 8,021,943 - Japan's capital and largest city is a crowded, bustling metropolis of just over 8 million. While ranked only 8th as Tokyo proper, the metropolitan conglomeration of Tokyo-Yokohama is the largest urban area in the world."
Swastika: It keeps turning up everywhere, so finally - here's a fact!! "The swastika is an archetypal, universal human religious symbol. It appears on every continent and is as old as humankind. A marker of the sun's travels, it can be seen on Pictish rock carvings, adorning ancient Greek pottery, and on ancient Norse weapons and implements. It was scratched on cave walls in France seven thousand years ago. A swastika marks the beginning of many Buddhist scriptures, and is often inciused on the soles of the feet of the Buddha in statuary. In the Jain religion, it is a symbol of the seventh Jina (Saint), the Tirthankara Suparsva. To Native Americans, the swastika is a symbol of the sun, the four directions, and the four seasons. The swastika is a type of solar cross, with arms bent at right angles, suggesting a whirling or turning motion. Long before the symbol was co-opted as an emblem of Hitler's Nazi party, it was a sacred symbol to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religions, as well as in Norse, Basque, Baltic, and Celtic Paganism."
Geisha: "The Japanese character for gei means "of the arts" and sha means "person". Literally translated, geisha means "a person of the arts". A geisha is a performer skilled in many traditional Japanese arts including nihon-buyoh, Japanese-dance, traditional singing accompanied by a three stringed instrument called the shamisen, sadoh, the tea ceremony, shodoh, calligraphy, poetry, the art of the kimono, as well etiquette, conversation and social graces. The latter of these were most important when geisha performed at tea houses. They also perform at parties and banquets. Geisha dress in traditional kimonos and wear geta, wooden clogs. Their hair is worn up and adorned with ornaments exposing the neckline which is considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of a woman. Geisha use a white foundation make-up and paint their lips bright red. Long ago geisha were traditionally trained from young childhood. Young girls were sometimes bought from poor families by geisha houses who took responsibility for raising and training them. Of course that practice has long been discontinued and women voluntarily become geisha at an older age, however there is still a lengthy training process in place. In the 1920's there were as many as 80,000 geisha. In all Japan, Kyoto still has the most geisha. But as more ladies retire and are not replaced, their numbers continue to fall: today there are probably around 100 geisha, and 80 maiko (apprentice geisha) left in the city." Now they make their money from dressing up tourists!
Love Hotels: "A hotel type that you will see all over Japan is the notorious love hotel. As the name infers they are a place for people to go for private (and often) secret rendezvous. Most Japanese people live in small houses or apartments with their families, and it is hard for young single and married people to find a discreet place to meet. The love hotel is the Japanese solution. Many places feature exotic themes and facilities that allow guests to indulge in their wildest fantasies. Love hotels can often be identified by their gaudy exteriors and many are located near entertainment areas or along major highways. Nonetheless, for budget travelers, or those needing a quick place to stop, they can offer a cheap alternative for a night's stay. Love hotels have nightly or hourly rates, which you will see posted near the front door."
Okonomiyaki: "Okonomiyaki is a mixture between pancake and pizza. "Okonomi" means "as you like". Depending on the region of Japan, okonomiyaki is prepared in various different styles. In Hiroshima, which is especially well known for its Okonomiyaki, it is served with or on top of Yakisoba (fried noodles)."
Teishoku-ya: "Teishoku-ya are restaurants that sell teishoku (set menus). A set menu usually consists of a main dish such as a fried fish, a bowl of cooked rice and small side dishes. Teishoku-ya are especially numerous in business areas and popular during lunch time."