Lights, Action, Camera

Japan, Part III

You don’t visit Tokyo for the traditional culture, although there are glimpses of it here and there. You visit it to stand in streets lined with neon lights while reciting Rutger Hauer’s valedictory speech from Blade Runner, beloved of students of science fiction everywhere. The best places for this are Ginza, Shinjuku and Akihabara, and the last has the advantage that it’s Tokyo’s “Electric Town”, crammed full of multiple floors of home electronics, digital cameras, mobile phones, and computers. Most of the time you’re just window shopping, unless you can read kanji keyboards, but some shops boast that “We are the reliable Source of English Computer” (Amstrads? Acorns? ZX80s?), and there are bargain peripherals to be had. I looked longingly at a checkerboard keyboard on the ninth floor of Laox—the keys alternating in colour, black/white/black/white—but I didn’t really need it and knew it would drive me mad. I picked up a couple of things, though, and when I went up to an empty counter a store assistant ran to serve me. I don’t think I’ve seen that happen anywhere else on the planet.

Every other aspect of Tokyo life seems infused with the same spirit of efficiency, not least the metro system. The only inefficient note there is that three different companies run it, and depending what ticket you buy you can end up covered for one leg but not another; but a day pass for the lot is no more expensive than in any big city, and the network is far easier to navigate than any non-Japanese visitor has a right to expect. When you see the metro map you might think otherwise, but the whole thing is signposted in English, and the tangle of lines actually makes it far easier to get from A to B than having to travel halfway round a circle line and double back.

Metro journeys are an event just by themselves. I didn’t get to experience the full rush-hour crush (although Jane did as she made her way to Odaiba each morning), but the people-watching was always fun, as was looking at all the ads around the carriage—dozens of them hanging on temporary posters all the way down the middle. In the very first train we caught, I found myself staring at a picture of a puppet otter spraying a large intestine with a watering can, advertising something called Colac (click on the otter in the lower right-hand corner and hunt around to see a flash clip of their ads). I wondered what the people of the Victorian town of that name would think about that. They should market themselves to Japanese tourists with a childish sense of humour, selling T-shirts that say “I passed through Colac”.

There were plenty of others as good, like the ads for Coolish Cool Ice (so... melted ice?) and Bendy women’s apparel. Not to mention those old favourites of Japanese-snack fans, Pocky, Crunky and Collon. (A pocky collon is treatable with Colac, if you’re feeling a bit bendy.)

Tokyo MetroAnd if you tire of the passengers and the ads, you can always watch the train itself, when they sometimes leave all the doors open from each carriage to the next so that you can see it bend and sway like... like... a string of collons passing through a large intestine. (Damn those otters!)

Every second metro passenger was staring into a mobile phone, typing into it with their thumbs. They’re completely different from European and American models; they look bigger and clunkier at first, until you realise that they have huge screens, making these the phone/PDA hybrids that the rest of us can only dream about. I had lunch recently with an Edinburgh University PhD graduate whose thesis was on Japanese online education, who told me that much of it was aimed at mobiles rather than laptops. Chinese and Japanese scripts are apparently (I’ve heard from another researcher) readable at much smaller font sizes than Roman script, because they represent whole words rather than letters; so the Japanese can presumably fit a lot more words onto a mobile screen than we can, making mobile-phone web browsing far more feasible. In Akihabara I picked up a leaflet on mobile blogging that was about a lot more than just MMSing a photo to Flickr. While I was taking that movie clip of the train carriage, one of the people in it could have been blogging about me doing it.


By the time Kim arrived in Tokyo, it was time to activate our week-long Japan Rail Passes. He was keen to head out of the city on at least one of the days Jane was working, and I was too, if only to get more value out of the pass than the return trip to Kyoto. He was looking at Nagano, a couple of hours away in the mountains (where the Winter Olympics were held), but armed with a guidebook that said that the Japanese have a saying that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Nikko, I convinced him to try that instead.

The first leg of the journey was by Shinkansen, the famous bullet train. Just waiting for it to pull into the platform is exciting; it’s like watching a jumbo land three metres in front of you. The difference is that the Shinkansen arrives on time, pulls away on time, and there’s one every fifteen minutes. If you haven’t remembered to reserve a seat, there are non-reserved carriages; and if you have to stand in the stairwell between carriages (as we did on the way back), the journey is so quick that it doesn’t seem that bad.

It’s amazing that it’s now 42 years old and still faster than anything here in Britain. Sure, Britain had Concorde, but how many people got to fly on that? And France had Concorde and still has the TGV. It’s hard to go back to clickety-clack, clickety-clack after a week of whoooosh.

The second leg was clickety-clack, though, as we travelled on a small local train up into the hills, past rice paddies and tea plantations to Nikko. It had been raining all morning, and the thickly forested hills were all but obscured by mist.

Nikko is a World Heritage site, but from the main town centre you wouldn’t know it. It’s a half-hour walk uphill until you reach the edge of the woodland that holds its treasures. With a somewhat vague map to go by, we struck into the woods on the wrong path, and walked around quiet residential streets and a primary school before we reached anything that looked big enough to be the main attraction. I entertained myself along the way by shooting movie clips on my camera of rain rushing through stormwater drains.

The Toshogu Mausoleum is the main attraction: a complex of elaborate gates and temples housing the remains of the first Tokugawa shogun, who died in 1616. The walls are covered in carvings of animals, people, and spirits, and here and there a colourful demon guards an entrance. It’s a fantastic sight, even in the rain, which continued to pour on us and hundreds of schoolchildren as we explored; the grounds were a sea of umbrellas. I almost welcomed having to take my shoes off every twenty yards to pad around the interiors.

Toshogu is part of a complex of temples and mausoleums. Nearby we visited Futurasan shrine, where a plastic cartoon frog sat incongruously in the grounds, and after that found our favourite of them all, the Taiyu-In Mausoleum. This houses the third shogun; it’s similar to Toshogu but more spectacularly located, with steep stone stairways that hide the buildings from view until you near the top. The schoolkids were all gone by now, so we had this one almost to ourselves.

All-in-all, it was a very satisfying visit; that is, until I read in the guidebook on the way home that Nikko’s big annual festival, in which a thousand participants dress up as 17th-century samurai and priests, was held the day before. The day before! We could have gone to Nikko and done the Odaiba museums on Friday instead! Gahhh! On the other hand, we had other things planned in the evenings that made Friday the best day to go; and we might not have seen as much of the buildings themselves if it was full of processions; and the rain was just as bad on Thursday as Friday... but that wasn’t much consolation. A thousand samurai in the rain! The Seven Samurai times a hundred—and all the Yojimbos and Zatoichis thrown in!

Meanwhile, the rain had steadily soaked through my daypack and left all the contents wet, and had given me a cold. I wrapped what was still dry in plastic bags to protect it, while a guy nearby kept rocking back and forth in his seat, muttering to himself while hitting his head with the heels of his palms.

Never mind. Kim and I agreed that Nikko was excellent, and that the old Japanese saying wasn’t far off the mark. And it did yield one of the best scores of all. In a bakery/coffee shop on our way up the hill where we stopped for a bite to eat, I found some small boxes of chocolate with the best brand-name ever: Morinaga’s strawberry-mocha chocolates called... Asse.

Honest to God. Could you resist that? I bought two boxes, one for our immediate Asse needs, and one for later. With careful rationing, their 36 squares lasted a fortnight. That was two whole weeks of “care for some Asse?” and “here, have some Asse” and “this tastes like Asse!” Ahhhh, blisse.


Oh, whoops: I almost forgot the whole point of this entry and yesterday’s, which was to introduce the first gallery of Japan photos. They’ve been ready to go for two weeks, so I guess you might as well see them.

Tokyo & Nikko

And that’s not the asse-end of it, by a long shot...

9 July 2006 · Travel

It's been fun reading about your Japan jaunt - brought back some awesome memories for me too. Nikko was definitely one of my highlights (though there were a great many highlights).

Not wanting to rub lemony salt into the wound, but my absolute highlight was the annual festival that we went to in Takayama, which wouldn't have been the same event as the Nikko festival, but would have been bound to be pretty spectacular.

You are right though, the place would have been a totally different beast that day. We had the benefit of being in Takayama on both festival day and the day after, and it was great to be able to see both sides of the relatively small village.

Looking forward to reading the rest of your Japanese stuff (yes, I'm behind).

Added by Nic on 17 July 2006.

I’m behind too, Nic—still have three (-ish) chunks to write.

Added by Rory on 17 July 2006.

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