Although Japan is known for its springtime blossom and autumnal leaves, seeing its temples and train tracks dusted with snow has been really memorable. Despite what had been a newsworthy quantity of the stuff only a couple of days previously, as we arrived in Tokyo we were greeted with a picturesque blanketing of the city, already melting beneath the blue skies and sunshine.
It’s strange being here; it’s almost so unique in its brand of east-meets-west-ness that it feels unreal. I think, more so than the other countries we’ve seen on this trip, I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what Japan would be like, presumably from the television and from buildings, food and fashion being presented to us as ‘Japanese style’. Some seem right, some seem wrong. I’m obviously no expert on the country after just a week here but these are a few things that have struck us about Japan since we arrived to give you a flavour of our experience so far. Some are notable in comparison to England but some are more so in the context of this adventure.
Snow on the ground and icy winds were quite the change in climate for us coming from the Philippines. On our first day we bought thermals, coats, and a hat and gloves for me and have been wrapped up snugly for all our many outdoor-based sightseeing days.
Everything just works. There are trains, buses and maps for everywhere, organised systems for absolutely everything and plenty of gadgets to make life easier or more efficient. Almost every junction has traffic lights at which all vehicles and pedestrians obediently wait their turn.
I know it’s all relative and Japan used to be much more prohibitively costly but in terms of our trip it’s 12 very pricey days. To give you some perspective, we upped our daily budget [yes, there is a spreadsheet keeping us on track!] by 50% as we arrived and within the first day had realised that even increasing it by 100% would not really be enough! We’ve decided to just accept it: YOLO as they say!
It can feel like you’re playing a logic puzzle
Menus and maps frequently have no English whatsoever. We’ve already found ourselves a number of times trying to memorise then match up Japanese characters. There’s not much point asking passers-by for help as very few people speak English and obviously our Japanese is non-existent.
It’s clean and feels safe
In particular contrast to our last capital city, Manila, there are no guns, no bag searches, no threatening signage, no litter and no sewer smells. Public toilets are splendidly clean and automated in almost every way imaginable.
Its people are reserved and quiet
Of course I’ve only seen people in public so I can’t comment on how they are at home but I’ve read Japanese people don’t like to be seen to make mistakes or to seem impolite so they play everything very safe and conform to society’s norms. For example, in a week, only 3 people have chosen to talk to us (i.e. it wasn’t their job): a complete contrast to south-east asia. Peaceful though! Most people in the service industry are exceedingly courteous with bows and lengthy greetings and thanks and goodbyes, none of which we can understand. In public, you rarely notice anyone sneeze, cough, eat, drink, laugh or even talk above a low murmur and there’s definitely no burping, spitting, shouting, horn-honking, singing or whistling! Phones are always on silent and I’ve only seen a very small number of people using them for calls.
It’s thoroughly modern
The only sign of traditional dress we’ve seen is couples and friends who dress up and visit a temple to take photographs of each other in the weekend!
As I said, we’ve had a busy week of chilly sight-seeing. Here are a few highlights.
The Tokyo National Museum
My kind of museum with a sensible number of well-lit exhibits spread throughout different rooms of a high ceilinged building, some of which had English descriptions. There were plenty of statues, portraits, artefacts and calligraphy but we particularly enjoyed the 18th century ukiyo-e (woodblock prints/paintings of ‘the floating world’), the samurai swords and the various intricately woven items of traditional clothing – kosodes, furisodes and karaoris.
The first picture is of a picture pairs game painted on shells.
Sorry Jo, more food pictures I’m afraid!
We’ve tried a few street snacks, here are some: a pigeon/duck shaped biscuit; a small cake in the same shape filled with purple soy bean paste; a strawberry flavoured ball of what we think was also soy bean paste.
At home, we love going to Wagamamas but I now realise that, whilst tasty, it’s really not ever so Japanese! All our authentic Japanese meals so far have been ‘experiences’.
One night we ate at Sometaro which was a cosy, low ceilinged, wooden building on several stepped levels. On entering, we were gestured to take off our shoes and put them into plastic bags. We took these over to our square table which had an iron hot plate in the centre, and lowered ourselves onto floor cushions. Fortunately a heater was placed next to us or our location by the front window would have been very chilly.
Unusually, the menu was translated into English so we picked an okonomiyaki. Raw ingredients were brought to the table and a chef showed us how to cook it: pancake-like batter, an egg, pieces of pork, cabbage and bits of tempura batter were mixed in their bowl then dropped onto the fat-smeared hot plate. It took a few minutes to cook on each side, then we put a Worcestershire-type brown sauce on top, served it up and ate it with mayonnaise. Delicious!
Another time we ate dinner at a Kamakura noodle shop which meant we had to select and pay for our food at a vending machine outside the restaurant. It dispensed tickets which we showed to a cook once seated at the long bar inside. Within a few minutes, the food arrived: ramen noodle soup with pork and vegetables plus Dean had a rice dish.
One lunchtime, Dean tried some sushi – tuna, prawn, bonito and a load of others I can’t remember – accompanied by green tea, miso soup and some fishy custardy stuff. I just took photos 🙂
Studio Ghibli Museum
This (alongside the National Museum) was a wedding present from Katie and Phil Staley which we’d been really looking forward to. We weren’t disappointed! Studio Ghibli makes Japanese anime cartoons. There was a season of them being shown on British TV earlier last year so we’ve watched several recently.
Inside was a wonderland though sadly photos weren’t allowed. The building itself was whimsically wonderful with stained glass pictures in the windows and the three storey high ceiling, walkways, little passageways and a tight spiral staircase.
The exhibits, celebrating the art and technology behind animation, were magical. Our first stop was a fairly dark room but all around the edge were illuminated boxes and cabinets displaying multilayered and 3D scenes from animations, 2D and 3D spinning zoetropes and a series of film projectors showing all the cogs and levers. Next we visited a mock up of an animation studio which showed the process from initial sketches to storyboards to background painting and filming. These rooms were bursting with inspirational clutter and artist’s materials too so there was lots to look at.
After this we visited the rooftop garden where there’s a huge statue from one of the films.
We also took our turn to enter the Saturn Theatre to see an exclusive animation called The Sumo Wrestler’s Tail about an old couple who feed up a group of mice living in their house to enable them to beat the rat sumo wrestlers at the nightly tournaments!
We now have rather too many Studio Ghibli souvenirs to compensate for the lack of photographs!
We opted to use our wedding present from Carolyne Parker to take a day trip to a place called Kamakura which was once Japan’s capital. First we visited Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, the largest Shinto shrine in otherwise almost completely Buddhist Kamakura. It had a steep bridge, covered in snow and originally reserved for use only by the shogun, before a wide road leading up to the main gate. Beyond that was the temple complex.
When pilgrims arrive at the temple, they first visit a water trough where they pour water on both hands then put a little in their mouth and spit to purify themselves. As they approach the shrine, they stand a foot or so behind a slatted wooden box and toss in a coin, and wish for good luck. Eyes closed, they then seem to do a combination of bows and claps before stepping aside. Some also purchase and light incense sticks, the smoke from which, they waft into their faces.
I’m not sure what the bottom picture is of but I think the top one might be wishes/prayers.
They might then go to draw a fortune. The one we tried (in Tokyo the next day) had a hexagonal prism-shaped metal box with a hole in one end containing 100 numbered sticks. You shake the box, tip out a stick then find the little wooden drawer with the corresponding number. Inside is a fortune: bad, medium, small, the final small and possibly some other types. I think if it’s bad you fold it and tie it to a nearby rope in the hope that the wind will blow away the bad luck.
Next we walked up a hill to Kenchoji, one of Kamakura’s five Zen Buddhist temples. The grounds were snow covered but being cleared by two old men whilst two others, wrapped up against the cold, painted the temple.
Next we headed for Kōtokuin, home of the famous Great Buddha, a bronze statue of Amida that at 13.35 meters is the second largest in Japan. Thought to be cast in 1252, the statue was originally housed in a giant temple hall, but the building was washed away in a tsunami. We paid ¥20 (about 15p) to go inside the statue’s belly.
With a pigeon and some people’s heads to give you some perspective!
Our final destination was Hasedera temple which was really lovely. It was all on different levels including a high viewpoint over the city, all enhanced by the hint of blossoms beginning to bloom on the trees and the receding snow blanket on the floor. There was also a pond, a massive wooden Buddha and hundreds of little statues.
In case this is confusing, it’s a reflection of a tree and part of the temple roof plus some blossom on the surface and some carp under the water!
Tsukiji Fish Market
You can go at 5am to see the famous tuna auction but we decided not to. It was busy and interesting enough at 10am even though things were starting to wind down. The place is massive and initially looks like a sea of white polystyrene. On closer inspection you can see they’re ice-filled boxes of fish and seafood of all shapes and sizes, in every state between dead and alive, and sold ranging from whole to great chunks to thin slices to innards!
As you wander round and take photographs, you have to try not to get in the way of the grumpier fishmongers and the countless electric ride-on trolleys which whizz about.
Surprisingly it didn’t smell! For anyone familiar with my squeamish aversion to all things fishy, you’ll understand how far I’ve come during this trip when I say that I didn’t have to cover my eyes, nose or mouth once during this visit!
Tokyo By Night
The view from the Metropolitan Government Building’s observation deck and a busy shopping street.
We’d had a couple of failed/hazy attempts to get a view of Mount Fuji so I was super delighted that our flight to Kyoto gave us this amazing view!
Phew! There’s so much more we’ve done that I couldn’t fit in but this is already a super-long post so I’ll stop. We’re now enjoying Kyoto until Thursday when we fly back to the sunshine in LA!