Sunday, 23 August 2015

Japan

Murakami. Hokusai. Sushi. Samurai. Ghibli. Kurosawa.

Japan had always been my dream destination. My fascination in the country and culture started in slightly an unusual way - sifting through my Van Gogh print book aged 11, I saw Vincent's Japanese art work, The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) and was rather taken by the image. On further inspection, I learnt of the original by Hiroshige and how Vincent had been influenced by the ukiyo-e prints.

I had no conscious awareness of the why, but I just knew the style ticked a certain box within my sense of order.

As I got older, the more I delved into Japanese culture, the more obsessed I became. I read the Pillow book of Sei Shonagon. I watched all the Kurosawa films I could get on VHS from the library (I've been concocting a whole blog post dedicated to my love affair with Ikuru for months), I bought all the Murakami I could afford (I remember trying to explain to a friend once why I loved his books "He writes what I'm thinking before I've even thought it"). It was a captivation gathering momentum like a bullet train. I apologise to my long suffering friends and family for not shutting up about all things Japan. Ever.

When I finally arrived in Tokyo in May, it was a surreal moment. I had waited for over twenty years to visit. I was expecting to step off the plane and implode in a pool of melted excitement and overly large robotic anime eyes. There I was, bleary eyed and sleep deprived, finally in my island of utopia. And yet all I could think about was my desperate need to redo my eyeliner and put a fresh cardigan on. I was wary of pandering to the cliches and stereotypes that could ruin an experience that I was so hoping would be holistic.

And yet within half an hour of landing, I was baffled and bemused by the technological and language cornucopia of confusion that was  - the Japanese 'western' toilet. Behold, what was this monstrosity of undecipherable instructions and buttons that before me! I regretted my unashamed lack of linguistic ability. It was such a stereotype, but the toilet really was a thing of great wonder and yet baffling eccentricity. And I had been reduced to helpless tourist buffoon (who also then would take a photo of a toilet).

Terrified that I might press an ejector seat button that would shoot me out of the airport terminal and into a prison cell, I luckily heard a yorkshire woman explaining to her daughter in the cubical next to me how to survive the experience. "What ever you do duck, don't press any buttons - thank geoff for auto-flush!" This northern lady was my saviour. I have no idea who Geoff was either but I thanked him too. I gave her a knowing glance at the wash-basin.

Later I would experience the 'non-western 'Japanese toilet. Which would be the complete opposite of these wizardry U-bend contraptions, and pretty much be a hole in the floor.

Exploring Tokyo alone was one of the most beautifully simple and yet touching moments I have ever had. I felt alive. Every cell in my body was in awe. It struck me that in such a vast, mammoth city; one with such a reputation for the eccentric, with such a deliciously bonkers and manic reputation, and as a westerner in a place I did not know, I felt remarkably at home. Much of it actually felt natural - yes it was very different, yes it was often aberrant, but I never felt uncomfortable. From witnessing a real life Mario kart race shooting down the road within minutes, fantastic anime posters, neon signs and lights screaming from the rafters; there were no Godzillas roaming the streets (yet) or robots offering me karaoke on hover-boards in cafes run by badgers.

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Delving deeper into the different neighbourhoods of Tokyo, my senses were on overload. There was so much going on around me. Tokyo is a schmorgasboard of curiosities, a 360 twitter feed of random. It's pulsating and crowded, but I never felt overwhelmed like I have in London or even Cardiff on rugby days. Not even on the packed rush hour trains and stations, where you get to know stranger's armpits a little more than you would probably choose. Or the Takeshita shopping street, with it's endless shops and bizarrely dressed characters (cats, school girls, the infamous Maid cafes); the sound of J-pop blaring out from every speaker-ed orifice. Even at the infamous Shibuya Zebra crossing, made famous by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (yes another one of my obsessions), just a selfie stick away from the biggest profit making Starbucks in the world; where there must have been near thousands of people crossing hourly did it feel that overly crowded. It felt exciting. It felt bustling. From the dancing Elvis in the park to the wedding at a shrine. It just felt right.

The Japanese are wonderfully polite and respectful. I was astonished to see so many people give up seats for older people on buses and trains. They queue better than the British. And there is a strong respect for cleanliness. The streets are spotless - no chewing gum, no cigarette butts, no sweet wrappers. I have never seen such a clean major city - no rubbish, no trash, little graffiti. And there aren't even bins. It's like trash is the family shame and locked away in the attic like Bertha.

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The Japanese also love their shops. I didn't like shopping before I went to Japan. When I came back from Japan, I did not like shopping. I loved shopping in Japan.

From outlets that seemed to sell every single permutation of matcha-flavoured edible ANYTHING, to 12 storied high shops of endless anime related goods from books to figurines. Need a deodorant specifically for every third Tuesday of the month that smells like Elvis on the moon in the theme of your favourite anime cartoon? You can bet they had it.

The famous Akihabara district is also known as 'electric city'. Here you can walk down a street of electronic shops and pretty much buy all the parts you need to, for example, build an entire computer. Or electronic typewriter, or probably your own helicopter with go faster stripes called Gerald. You name the diode, its there.

And the food. I have long loved sushi - another reason why I was so keen to travel to Japan. But the food was something else. Japanese sushi, from the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market was out of this world - melt in your mouth raw salmon, the freshest fish I have ever eaten. But it was the noodle dishes that wowed me over - the ramen, which I had no idea was so fantastic. The comparison with British food was noticeable. Yes, there are fast food outlets like McDonalds etc. but the lack of cakes, processed breads, (processed foods in general really) cheese and milk and instead: lots of fish, rice, noodle dishes - you can understand why the Japanese are a very healthy country.

You could also buy meals that were made to look like bears. If you so wished. Anything is possible in Japan.

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I also visited the Studio Ghibli museum - an absolute must for any fan of the Ghibli films. It was delightfully strange but beautiful. I adore Ghibli films, and the museum was as charmingly bizarre as the films - that very odd but still very adorable way that only Ghibli seem to master so perfectly.

Tokyo image album

Travelling onto Kyoto, via the beautiful bullet train, it was interesting to see a different major Japanese city. The bullet train, or rather, Shinkansen - was so wonderful it has subsequently ruined all other methods of travel. The trains leave on time to the second. You travel at seemingly 398473947 mph. The *seats turn around*. It must be on par with travelling on the space shuttle.

Kyoto had a alternative feel, the buildings were older, and of a different style. Another vast city, but it wasn't quite so neon and highrise. It was in Kyoto I visited some of the most beautiful shrines and stunning areas of beauty, but it was also here that felt the most touristy and hectic - crowds of tourists swamping the shrines left you feeling (like in many similar areas across the world) that the sacrality of the experience is completely evaporated in a superabundance of selfies. But I very much loved the city.
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What was also interesting in Kyoto was learning about the Geisha (or rather, geiko); a fascinating aspect of Japanese culture. The Geiko historical walk was very insightful - not only to learn the history, but to learn about how our perceived knowledge on the Geiko lifestyle is actually inaccurate, how these histories and 'facts' become warped through time and urban myth. I was also lucky enough to see a couple of Geikos in their daily life.

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I also visited the Kyoto film studios; a huge japanese film fan I was very glad I did too. Whilst a theme park (and I am not normally a fan of theme parks that do not involve Lego - why pay a huge amount of money to stand in queues) this was hugely enjoyable, mostly for the Japanese movie history part, as well as some great samurai history and the chance to walk through film sets that are still used today. And the chance to do some play fighting on the mock rooftop. *kapow*

Kyoto photos

Travelling onto Hakone was an altogether different experience. Hakone is a town within the area of the volcanically active Mount Fuji, centering around Lake Ashi. The national park area, this was a complete contrast to the city life of Tokyo and Kyoto. Staying in an traditional Japanese Inn, with very basic shared rooms (although probably the most comfortable of any place I have stayed in a long time) I got to experience the onsen bath (hot spring bath). This was a slightly daunting prospect. There are many rules to the Onsen; you must wash carefully before you use it, you must be naked etc. I haven't been so nervous about doing something wrong since learning to drive, only this was worse - this was doing your driving test naked. The sleep and bath left me feeling centred and peaceful, something that I have trouble doing at home. Or perhaps it was the sake tasting night we enjoyed that evening.
Hakone
Unfortunately the weather was bad during my short time in Hakone, not only did this mean I did not get to see much of the mountains and country, but I was not able to do much walking/hiking either. This made me very sad and was probably the biggest disappointment of my time in Japan. But I vowed to return.

Hakone photos

In Osaka, I got to try some very 'Japan' experiences - a capsule hotel, a karaoke booth and samurai sword fighting/role play (and the next morning, possibly the worst hangover of my life thanks to said karaoke experience). Whilst I did not see much of Osaka, it seemed if anything, more party crazy than Tokyo. It was even more neon neon neon and party party party. The city equivalent of the duracel bunny.

The capsule hotel is probably not somewhere I would choose to stay again, but I am glad to have tried it. This hotel had more room than you would imagine for your space, obviously all shared wash facilities which were fine; however there were no locks on doors (well, shutters), you could hear the ant 100 yards away bottom burping, and it did all feel....well...a little odd. Like sleeping in a dormitory of small sheds mocked up like the inside of a very budget airline. However, I have stayed in worse hotels (mostly in London).

The karaoke was drunken and potty - it was like any other karaoke night I have had in the UK, the main difference being was the fact it lasted about a gazillion hours and there was all you can drink alcohol. The Japanese really love their karaoke.

I was keen to learn Samurai sword fighting. The Seven Samurai was another one of my Japanese and film obsessions since a teenager. And who hasn't fancied themselves as a bit of a samurai legend with a walking stick in front of the mirror when no one is looking. It was great fun, but I did realise I needed to learn more Japanese; taking instructions became arbitrary. However I learnt some of the basic moves - like many of these things, it looks a lot easier than it actually is. Also I found wearing a traditional kimono was akin to having a python of thick curtains suffocating your body. I have a new found respect for Japanese ladies.  There is video footage of the role play I took part in, watching back made me realise why the peak of my acting career ended with me pretending to be Mrs Overall reading alan bennett at Aberystwyth University theatre school.

Osaka photos

For all the incredible fun I was having in Japan, and I really was loving every single second of it - it was more than living up to my high expectations, my eyes were bulging with all the sights, my ears were tingling with all the sounds, my mouth was delirious with so much great food and I was meeting so many great people. There was however (unconscious to me but at the same time it was nagging) a need for something a little bit more consequential to my experience of Japan.

Then there was Hiroshima.

I had wanted to visit Hiroshima a great deal, and I had read a lot about the city, about what had happened there since history class in school. But even still, I don't think anything could have prepared me for the impact visiting the city would have on me.

Hiroshima is a lovely city and I liked it instantly. Different again to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, it had its own personality and character. There were trams. It felt a little more slower paced for such a big city.
I spent my first day in Hiroshima visiting the world renown Itsukushima Shrine (it is known as the floating gate) and the rest of the island Itsukushima which is a stunning area of natural beauty. The weather was stifling hot. It was busy with tourists, although unlike Kyoto it did not feel oppressive. The tori gate was beautiful and I got to see not only beautiful beaches and landscapes but also a Japanese Noh theatre stage and take the fabulous cable car to see incredible views of Hiroshima, the ocean and the blue skies around. It was idyllic. You never think of Japan as being a place to have such beautiful sandy beaches.

O-torii gate, miyajama Island (Hiroshima)

What a wonderful day it had been. Back in Hiroshima after dinner and wandering back to the hotel at night, I found myself suddenly upon a rather innocuous little monument on a dark alleyway near where I was staying. It was then that the history of Hiroshima smacked me in the face - for this monument that I was standing next to was marking the very epi-centre of the world's first atomic bomb.

I could see what was known as the A-dome from my hotel room. The A-dome is the famously burnt out building that somehow 'survived' the devastation. Images of immediately after the bomb show carnage, yet there is the carcass of a building, standing there like a gaunt spectre.

The A-dome looked eerily beautiful at night - lit up and derelict, like a beautiful skeleton of a building overlooking the river amongst the trees and modern buildings. And here I was. Stood at the point of the atomic bomb. If I had been there in August 1945, I would be dead. The heat being hotter than the sun. It is not even something my small brain could comprehend.
Wandering back over to the peace park and A-dome, I felt a strange cloud creep over my skin. It was a sensation I could not quite comprehend and even now struggle to decipher. How could this place, this city, this street, this area, have seen such devastation? How could this be the same place as those horrific images of carnage, of unrecognisable twisted wreckage of destruction? The images of the bomb aftermath looked like images of hell; other worldly. How could anything recover from that? And yet this was this place I was in now. Buildings were standing. Cars were driving past. Trams were pootling along. I thought a lot suddenly about my family and friends back home and how lucky I was to have so many people in my life whom made just...being a lot more enjoyably fulfilling.
Peace park, Hiroshima
The next day I visited the peace park properly and saw the A-dome in the daylight. The peace park is beautifully put together - a quiet and (although feels a little naff to say so, but it really is) humbling place to walk around. A strong emphasis on remembrance of course, but also a strong sense of looking forward - promoting peace. The eternal flame burns until there are no more nuclear weaponry - a cleverly ironic and yet tragic symbol. There is something rather heartening in the fact the city is now again, a city. That the strength and the character of the place and its people saw such resolve to recover. The capacity for humankind to move on and rebuild should never be underestimated.

The A-dome itself yearned at me like there was something aching in within. I am fascinated with, and have been for a long time, the very existence of derelict buildings anyway, and I could not take my eyes off it. I felt drawn to it like a magnet. How could this building have survived the blast when all else had failed? I adore architecture and buildings, but for me I think the interest is in the history they hold - their story, their tale to tell. Few buildings in the world have a story quite like the A-dome.

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 I did not want to leave the A-dome, and I felt sad leaving Hiroshima. I still feel that indescribable random ache when I think about it, as if my own mind is still digesting the whole experience. Maybe the fact this was an act by the allies in WWII was causing conflict in my moral compass. Maybe I never will make sense of it, as if the horror of this history is too great for one average brain to fathom.

Hiroshima photos

I returned to the wonderful Tokyo for the remainder of my trip. More exploring of what was becoming my favourite city in the world. Aside from the earthquake that occurred, it was all wonderful and full on. This time staying in a different area of the city, in Shinjuku. I even saw Godzilla in the street - albeit not walking around but he was still there. The last day saw a visit to the robot restaurant which was a stereotypically insane Japanese affair that is like having your eyes and ears rinsed through a washing machine full of bling robots. It is an outrageous robot show with sharks and lasers and dancing ladies...I can honestly say I have never seen or heard anything as random, and I once saw the Krankies walking down the street in Australia.
Robot restaurant
Japan had spoilt me rotten. Like a overwhelmingly kind rich old relative, it had stuffed me full of treats and delights, and yet had taught me some important life lessons and teachings. It had exceeded my expectations. It had tickled my humour and yet showed me a different culture. I did not want to leave the country. I felt as if I had just glimpsed the tip of the iceberg and that Japan had much more to share - and I was greedy for it.

It is a cliche, but I felt Japan had changed me, it had given me more pieces to the jigsaw, it made me think and see things at home a little altered. Far from feeling lost in translation, I had felt oddly at home. It made me realise that I sometimes felt more alone in my home city of Cardiff amongst friends or family than I did completely alone amongst strangers in a foreign country. It had been my dream trip, and every second was a dream.

Japan is a country that gives so much. Beyond the stereotypes it is fascinating. It is beautiful. It is where I will return.

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