Friday, 30 November 2018

Japan: a country of contradictions

Japan is a place where robots brush shoulders with geishas, ancient Shinto shrines stand in the shadows of skyscrapers and quaint tea ceremonies follow neon-lit shopping sprees. It's chaotic but rigorously ordered. Hyper-modern but strictly traditional.

It's also a land of perfectionists, with unrivalled attention to detail. From squeaky clean streets to heated toilet seats and from trains running on time to a near absence of crime. Kaizen is the relentless pursuit of improvement, and it influences every aspect of Japanese life from factory assembly lines to sushi chefs.

There are a thousand reasons to visit Japan. The temples, the mountains, the food. The people, the hot springs, the history. You'll arrive eager and curious, and leave even more curious still.

The snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji making a brief appearance through the clouds.
Incense burning at a temple in Nikko.
The bamboo groves of Kyoto.

Geisha culture is still mainstream in Kyoto.
To be honest, when choosing a travel destination the colour of its foliage is not usually on my list of priorities. However, having now witnessed a Japanese autumn in all its fiery glory I can see what the fuss is about.

Catching 'peak colour' in every location in a three week trip is logistically impossible. But it didn't stop us trying. Our route through Japan was designed to follow the gradual creep of autumn, maximising our exposure to the brilliant reds and oranges. This essentially meant we traveled from north to south, and generally visited high-altitude areas first. More or less.

Autumn colours around a pond in Nikko.

Autumn colours in a Japanese garden in Nikko.

Autumn colours around Lake Chuzenji.
Before I meander off in all directions, and in a genuine attempt at being helpful, here are five practical tips for a trip to Japan:

1) Invest in a Japan Rail Pass and use the HyperDia app to plan journeys.

2) Get a Japanese sim card so you can use the internet for maps and translations on the go.

3) If you're going in autumn use Japan Guide's online autumn colour reports to plan your itinerary.

4) Don't assume you can use your card everywhere. Surprisingly, lots of places are cash-only.

5) Practice with chopsticks before you go.

Most important though is to be open-minded and embrace the weirdness. You'll find cultural quirks around every corner that will fascinate, bewilder and amuse. Often all at once. And nowhere is that more true than the food.

The food

Choosing something to eat is a daunting prospect, and the choice of vocabulary doesn't help. Thanks to overly literal translations the words 'guts' and 'innards' are scattered liberally across most menus. Squid guts and soy beans, anyone? How about some skewered chicken innards?

But trust me. If you can get past the initial shock (and gag reflex), you're guaranteed to find something delicious. It'll be somewhere between the pig rectum and cod semen.

The best place to sample skewered chicken innards is in Tokyo's Yakitori Lane - a cramped alleyway stuffed with tiny eateries - also known as Piss Alley. During prohibition it was home to many illegal drinking dens, all lacking toilet facilities. Hence the unfortunate nickname.

Japanese pubs, or Izakaya, are a great place to start. Identifiable by paper lanterns hanging at their often unassuming entryways, they are essentially Japanese tapas bars. And because they serve small portions you can be experimental without the risk of being too wasteful. Just in case some of it proves too offensive to your delicate Western palette.

An absolute must for meat-eaters is a trip to Kobe to sample its world famous beef. A Kobe cow, whilst alive, is massaged daily and fed beer to stimulate appetite. Eye-wateringly expensive but mouth-wateringly tasty, the result is simply the finest steak in the world. And when accompanied with a bottle of red, eating Grade A5 Kobe beef is nothing short of a religious experience.

And who in their right mind would visit Japan without gorging on sushi? Or slurping up a bowl of ramen at one of Tokyo's 6,000+ ramen houses? (Just remember, the louder you slurp the higher the compliment to the chef.)

Tsukiji Market is a good place to start if you're looking for fresh sushi.

For uncooked and living animals go and meet the troop of 170 wild Japanese macaque monkeys in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
If you're lucky there will be babies.

The fun

The fact Japan is the birthplace of embarrassing oneself with a microphone tells you all you need to know. Karaoke is the epitome of Japanese enjoyment. In other words, looking a little bit silly is all part of the fun. Like the couples in matching clothes carrying their favourite cuddly toy, or the fully-grown adults reading Manga comics on the train, or the businessmen in suits playing Pokemon in one of the many videogame arcades.

This sense of silliness climaxes at Halloween. Combining a love of dressing up with a fondness of commercial hype, October 31st has become a big deal. Trick-or-treating hasn't taken off - thanks to an ingrained cultural reluctance to burden one's neighbours - but that hasn't stopped the Japanese embracing this American celebration with enthusiasm.

And nowhere is Halloween more enthusiastically embraced than the infamous street party of Shibuya, in the heart of Tokyo's downtown. Hoards of fancy-dress-clad Tokyoites gather to drink saké from paper cups and compare costumes in a sea of selfie sticks.

Probably my favourite.

The feds

Keeping a watchful eye on the rowdiness in Shibuya were Tokyo police, the largest metropolitan police force in the world. But their main focus seemed to be castigating revellers for playing music through portable speakers. You can have fun, but no music! 

Invariably, the guilty DJs cut the music. After all, coupled with the Japanese devotion to flawlessness is an uncompromising respect for law and order. Discipline and obedience are culturally enshrined. And as a result, Japanese society not only calls for clean streets and punctual trains, it demands a zero tolerance to crime. And if that means no music, it means no music.

A plethora of nanny-state rules are rigorously followed, without question and without fail. Don't cross the road unless the man is green; take your litter home with you; no smoking on the street. Japan is certainly not a place for rebels.

Japan is not a place for rebels... unless you're a sacred wild deer in Nara.

The deer in Nara are well loved by tourists (and well fed), but some locals are not so enamoured.
Due to agricultural damage the government are planning a cull to manage numbers. To fight this decision some residents have set-up the delightfully named 'Let’s Make the Deer Population More Sustainable and Enjoy Nara Again Friendship Association'. Or the LMTDPMSAENAFA for short.

Wild deer also roam the island of Miyajima, just off the coast near Hiroshima. 

Thanks mostly to the general obedience of the population, Tokyo has the lowest crime rate of any major city in the world. Which leaves the largest police force in the world with very little to do. Not surprisingly then, petty crimes are being treated with increasing forensic rigour.

Just ask the 71 year-old man who was arrested in Tokyo for scribbling a Hitler moustache on a poster. Or the group of friends arrested for running an illegal taxi because they shared the cost of a hire car. No wonder there are dissenting Japanese voices accusing their country of becoming a police state.

Far from crime: a Japanese garden in Tokyo.

Tokyo at night.
The pursuit of perfection may have had detrimental effects on personal freedoms, but it has to be said: for the average traveler, the feeling of safety is tangible.

So roam the backstreets at night and loosen your grip on your camera strap. Embrace all the glorious oddities of Japan safe in the knowledge there's probably a policeman around the next corner, bored out of his mind, who's got your back.