Category: Japan

Thoughts on Japan

Thoughts on Japan

We are sad to be leaving Japan; 15 days here was simply not long enough.

It’s a first world country that’s so different to ours. So an easy place to be a traveller, but also authentic, quirky and compelling. Here are some observations we are taking away….

Past and future
Japan was our gateway to the futuristic world (Korea and China are to come), but it’s also a country that cherishes a past of civility and manners.

It’s this perfect combination that makes the place so lovely to be in. When we were young, we read and saw films about a 21st century where technology and machines, coupled with a new human kindness, created an enviable lifestyle for all. Is Japan the closest we have come to it?

French tourists
We queried why so many French visitors come to Japan, with a French language exchange student; “It’s because of animation” she told us. We queried further, so she explained that the French and Japanese share a love of animation and from an early age French school children see anime/manga, a massive cultural export, and become intrigued by Japan and its way of life.

Face masks
A significant number of Japanese wear face masks. We were unsure if this was to protect the individual from inhaling smog or catching a disease, say at exam time, or possibly to protect others from any cold/flu that the wearer had. However, our helpful Hong Kong student (the one who told us about Japanese toilets) said that teenagers also wear these masks to cover up acne and other issues with their faces.

2020 is coming
Everywhere, buildings and temples, such as the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto which was covered in scaffolding, are being buffed up for the 2020 Olympics that Japan will host, and there’s a real push to get the country tourist-friendly. No doubt, the country will put on a great show, and all the hard work will be worth it. But, because of the heat, we don’t envy the marathon runners.

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The Olympic Flag takes pride of place in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices

Old houses not valued
We were surprised to learn there is no market for old houses; purchasers inevitably knock down the existing house and build afresh. Also, Homebase and B&Q wouldn’t do well here, as there is little appetite for home improvements that will never pay back. Back in 2008, this meant there were no toxic loans or housing bubble to burst.

Regretfully, this thinking has also applied historically to public buildings, most of Japan’s famous castles were demolished in the 1880s, leaving just a handful for the millions of tourists.

Avoiding the hills
As we travelled the length of Honshu by train, we noticed that the housing is squashed into the valleys, whilst huge areas of forested hills, that in other countries would be prime real estate, have no buildings.

Our Japanese expert Sophie tells us it’s because of two things: the threat of earth tremors which happen on an almost daily basis and the fact that the Shinto religion, adhered to by 80% of Japanese, believes that hills are sacred places.

Happy jingles
Travel by public transport and you constantly hear little jingles reminiscent of happy, childish ditties. Used ahead of public announcements, each route or company seems to have their own version, a kind of audio branding.

Whilst places in the UK and elsewhere take pride in being “announcement free”, Japan simply loves all forms of public address, either pre-recorded multi-lingual on the bullet trains or personalised by the conductor on the buses.

Keeping Japan tidy
Japan is spotless. You could sit down and eat your lunch off the streets, anywhere. (Which we sometimes did). In local parks there is no litter, tramps, dogs or general squalor. There must be thousands of people involved in keeping Japan so clean, but we saw few of them, and ironically finding a rubbish bin is near impossible. Perhaps it’s simply because the Japanese don’t create the mess in the first place.

Deceptive ages
When asking some women how old they are, we’ve been stunned by the answers. Women with no wrinkles, who look to be mid twenties, are actually in their forties or fifties. And girls that appear to be 13 year olds are often much older. What creams do they use?

By contrast, Japanese men seem to age before their time. Roger spent an hour talking with a Japanese father who looked about 65, and was surprised to discover he was only 52. Maybe, in this gender-unequal society, there is far too much pressure on the men to be the sole breadwinner.

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This Japanese lady told us she was 50. And by the way, don’t the Japanese men look smart
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Miyajima and the Gate

Miyajima and the Gate

For our last full day in Japan, we went to see the Itsukushima Shrine on the island of Miyajima. From Hiroshima, it’s a streetcar and short ferry trip, so an easy day-trip.

Oh dear. Around midday, when we arrived, the weekend crowds were intense, the souvenir shops intrusive and the famous O-Torii Gate we had come to photograph was stranded at low tide in thick mud.

But six hours later, after a stroll around the island, welcome reading time and a delicious authentic meal, all had changed. Now, this felt like a World Heritage Site, and the keen photographers, the ones with their tripods, were clicking away.

First built in 593 and remodelled in 1168, the Itsukushima Shrine sits on boardwalks above the rising tide. Approaching by boat, through the 16.6 m high, camphor and cedar wood O-Torii Gate, must have been an incredible, visual experience. As the sun broke through the low clouds, we obtained a dramatic shot that could only be Japan.

If you plan to do this It’s all about being there at high tide, and hopefully it will tie-in with the sunset. So plan your day around the tidal charts.

Vending machines in Japan

Vending machines in Japan

As we’ve staggered around dehydrated in hot temperatures, we’ve often been very grateful to see a vending machine.

Vending machines are ubiquitous here, on streets, in stations, by crossroads in the country, even at the top of Mount Fuji. In fact, Japan has the highest usage per person of vending machine anywhere in the world. This is most likely due to the law abiding nature of its citizens resulting in a total lack of vandalism, and the Japanese’s love of automation, they always work and even give change!

In addition to chilled drinks, they dispense a wide variety of snacks, fresh sandwiches and sweets.

Vending machines are such a part of the Japanese psyche that one marketing director used them as a spoof for selling a new line of made-to-measure bras. They weren’t really supplied by vending machines, but it got everyone talking about the bra’s brand on social media.

Hiroshima: Remembering the atomic bomb

Hiroshima: Remembering the atomic bomb

We have mixed views about the two atomic bomb attacks on Japan. Both our Fathers were caught-up in the Pacific War and arguably would not have survived during a prolonged invasion of Japan.

And in defence of the decision to use the bombs, it needs to be remembered that 1945 was already a time of mass slaughter. In March, 100,000 died in a single Tokyo bombing raid. And the Battle of Okinama was ritualised killing with some 240,000 soldiers and civilians slain.

But going round the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, reading the text, the inference was clearly made that America, having developed the bomb at great expense (the Manhattan Project), and fearing the Soviet Union’s global expansion, wanted to detonate it for a bit of “shock and awe” and so delayed offering Japan acceptable surrender terms until after August 6th and August 9th.

Surely, it’s more than ironic that a weapon today justified by its deterrent factor, was launched into the world with no warning and no ultimatum. 140,000 people in Hiroshima died horrendously within four months, whilst armchair generals wrote congratulatory memos.

The vision of the museum is to call for a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons, as proposed by the July 7th United Nations motion signed by 122 countries, but not the existing nuclear powers, including of course North Korea.

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In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a watch stopped at the time of the explosion, 8.15am
Japanese high-speed trains

Japanese high-speed trains

Our Skinkansen left Okayama at 9.17am.

Travelling on these sleek bullet trains has been a real highlight of our time in Japan. Comfortable, smooth and relaxing, they are time machines, shrinking the country. We’ll go home thinking Japan is a lot smaller than it really is.

Here, there’s a pride in the railways, probably like nowhere else on earth. The timetable is guaranteed, people still queue on the platform, it’s plain-sailing to reserve seats, the conductors bow when they enter a carriage, everyone is quiet and respectful, and litter is taken home not dumped on the seats. Also, getting around is easy; all announcements and signage are in Japanese and English.

First introduced in 1964, and travelling along dedicated lines, the service has been regularly updated and the latest trains (N700 series) travel up to 320kph (200mph). There are five types of service, two of them excluded from our rail pass. Although from Tokyo to Kyoto we got onto a banned super-fast Nozomi service by mistake, and the conductor very politely asked us to leave the train at the next station, Nogoya. Not to worry, another Skinkansen, one we could travel on, came along five minutes later.

And being in Japan we can appreciate the difference these high-speed trains make to an urban population essentially living in a linear line from Fukuoka to Tokyo.

The train from Okayama pulled into Hiroshima at 9.56am, 160 km later.

Day out in Naoshima

Day out in Naoshima

A 20 minute ferry crossing took us to Naoshima, a small island that’s been transformed, in the past 25 years, from depopulated backwater to serious art colony, full of restaurants and guest houses.

We hired bikes for a ridiculously cheap sum, (£3 each, no deposit needed), bought some takeaway food from the ever present 7-11, and planned a circle of the island to visit both Honmura and the southern area. It felt good cycling along small lanes, through rural settlements, past lovely secluded lakes, and we would later say this was the highlight of the day.

However, we had some contemporary art to see.

In Honmura’s Art House Project, five previously empty houses and an old Shinto shrine, have been turned into art installations by six artists. Two stood out for us, Tatsuo Miyajima’s Kadoya house, and James Turrell (remember him from our Canberra blog) for his breathtaking Minamidera lightwork.

IMG_7581Later we queued to get into the Chichu Art Museum. Designed by Tadao Ando, this is largely underground, yet most rooms are lit by natural light. Here was art curation at its most extreme. The entire museum featured five late-period Claude Monets, an installation by Walter de Maria, and three lightworks by that man again, James Turrell. Hilary thought the place was disappointing, whilst Roger loved it.

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Plastic Japanese fake food

Plastic Japanese fake food

At the stunning new Aeon shopping mall in central Okayama, the sixth and seventh floors are a delight for foodies. Creating their own separate world, isolated from the hubbub around them, concept restaurants offer every variety of Asian food.

But it’s the way their food is merchandised that grabbed our eyes. Outside every restaurant, the menu is presented on plates, its texture reminding us of Lenin lying in his subterranean Red Square tomb, and for a few moments we did wonder if this was actually real food embalmed. But no. Somewhere in Japan there must be a factory where chefs can send their dishes to be converted into plastic fake food.

We went online for more facts and discovered that fake food called sampuru, which originated in 1926, is a multi-million Yen business; restaurants pay a lot to have their dishes faithfully reproduced. First, silicon is poured over the food to create a mould, this is then filled with plastic and the whole thing cooked in an oven, followed by intricate detailing and painting, and a few secret techniques.

It’s interesting that whilst this food promotion is standard in Japan, where people want to taste with their eyes, we haven’t seen it (yet) in any other country. A quirky example of how modern Japanese culture delightfully surprises and may always remain an enigma. To our British eyes, fake food seems just too shiny and plasticky to be appealing.

Japan’s artistic manhole covers

Japan’s artistic manhole covers

Japan is a country full of amazing art, and not all of it’s in art galleries. In every town, we have delighted in finding unique manhole covers, composed of beautiful ironwork, some painted, some not. They really brighten up dull pavements.

Apparently, this phenomenon started in 1985, when a high ranking bureaucrat in the construction industry came up with the idea of allowing municipalities to design their own manhole covers. Soon the obsession took off and municipalities were competing with each other to create the best design.

According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers (yes, such a thing does exist), there are almost 6,000 artistic manhole covers throughout Japan today.

Tottori Sand Museum

Tottori Sand Museum

A rare day apart, whilst Hilary leisurely explored Okayama, (trying to re-charge her batteries), Roger headed to the north coast city of Tottori.

Whilst we were in Australia, the New York Times website featured a picture of Japanese sand dunes, and wrote about the latest show at the world’s foremost sand sculpturing museum. I immediately said to Hilary “I want to go there”.

So, three weeks later, I’m making my way into the hanger-like exhibition space. The theme is the United States of America; there’s the Statue of Liberty, there’s Mount Rushmore, there’s Neil Armstrong. And yes wonderfully, compared to my childhood sand castles, or our kid’s dams, these are industrially gigantic.

Under the creative leadership of Katsuhiko Chaen, 19 leading sand sculptors from all around the world have produced tableaux that are both visually stunning and technically excellent. Apparently, the secrets are to compact the sand and water mix thoroughly, not to make the chins too deep that the heads fall off, and then to “get the shadows right”.

Afterwards, I went for a stroll nearby on the largest sand dunes in Japan. From the highest point, there was an impressive view of the Sea of Japan. And a couple of children were making their own castles in the sand.

If you plan to do this Off the standard tourist trail, Tottori is actually easy to reach by day trip from Okayama. Arriving in Tottori mid-morning by train, Roger had plenty of time to see the Sand Museum, walk on the dunes and have a bite to eat, before getting the late afternoon return.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

More climbing today. Up the Main Keep of Himeji Castle, to the very top. A wonderful but slightly claustrophobic experience due to the narrow, steep stairways, the ever reducing size of the floors, and vast number of tourists.

Although the Main Keep appears to have just five floors, it actually has a seven floor configuration made of six floors and one basement. Two massive wooden pillars, almost one metre across, hold up the whole structure.

Dating from 1609, Himeji Castle is the pre-eminent Japanese Castle, built to project feudal authority and power. In the 19th century it was earmarked for demolition, along with many other Japanese castles, before being reprieved. In World War II it survived the US air raids, that reduced the rest of the town to ashes. And today, after a six year restoration it’s gleaming white; well maybe not gleaming when we saw it on a dull and drizzly day.

Himeji Castle is known as the “White Heron Castle” because it is thought to resemble a white heron taking off. Some readers will recognise it from the James Bond film: You Only Live Twice.