My knowledge and impressions of this country had been painted as a child, watching World War II films and then later when transfixed by the TV series, ‘Shogun.’ Having made many Japanese friends in Bangkok, I knew that without exception, they were honourable, friendly people with a set of social standards that I respected but didn’t pretend to understand. Their national cuisine was even more challenging to me than my growing Thai repertoire, so I was looking forward to being tested! Visiting Japan had been a lifelong dream, and because of distance one I thought I’d never fulfil, but as good fortune placed me in Bangkok, once distant lands became close neighbours.
I’m here at the end of a two week flying visit, now in my hotel room on the final day; so, was it as I’d expected? People often compare countries… “Austria is similar to Switzerland,” “Cambodia is a bit like Myanmar,” but Japan is like no other country I have been to! Having been cut off for centuries in self-imposed seclusion until about 150 years ago, it developed in its unique way to become what we see today, an ultra-modern society still cemented by deep traditional and cultural values.
First, I noticed that everything here works, it’s so organised and efficient, so clean and safe, dare I say, a bit like England once was? I saw many a school empty out and very young children setting off for home, not an adult in sight, a happening of the past now in my own country where everyone is afraid their child might just disappear one day! I did see a policeman once, but this is a self-policing society where the public know what behaviour is acceptable and tend not to go off-piste.
In England it is completely acceptable to be drunk in public, so it’s a common occurrence and some city centres resemble war zones on the weekend with police stretched to their limits. Here, it’s not acceptable, so it’s something you rarely see and when you do, it’s just ‘silly’ drunk, not ‘violent’ drunk. Doesn’t that make things a bit, well, robotic? Not at all, it makes it very Japanese, and though I’m not sure how it works, it does.
As in most parts of Asia, you get massive society bonus points as you get older, so at 66 maybe I just sensed that and felt very at ease here. The food had to be the number one thing I wasn’t looking forward to, coming from a very sheltered background where everything was wrapped in pastry, I had no idea I was even eating part of an animal until the age of twelve. Thailand had been a good training ground, and I soon found I could eat most things as long as it’s glazed dead eyes weren’t staring from the plate. Having pointed that out in one small hotel, they had great fun making sure there were no eyes involved in any of my meals, with alternatives, such as sliced pork in place of baby squid.
The things that stand out most in any country you visit are those that differ most from your own, so forgive me when I dedicate space to this subject. Toilets! Around the world they have their own designs, the more you travel, the more surprises there are, from the 3 bucket system in Zimbabwe to the standup toilets of France. A world league table, however, would see Japan sitting firmly on top with international demand for their Rolls Royce of small rooms always on the increase. As you open the cubical door, the toilet lid rises to a single chime, as if to salute, then blue/white light floods the bowl as a fragrant mist hisses in, sanitising the immediate area.
That came as a shock first time, as I was reluctant to sit on any electrical mechanical device hovering too close, but you soon develop trust as you’re touched by the warm welcoming seat. As the sensors locate you, the water flushes gently to remove any possible trace of the last person, and that’s when I noticed the ‘control panel.’ So that nobody outside could hear my ‘toilet sounds’ I could press to make a rumbling wind/water noise, like a small aircraft quietly ditching into the sea at distance. When the main performance had passed another button allowed warm water to wash, pulsating, before being gently blow-dried; an awesome experience, if like me, you had never used a hi-tech bidet.
This was not a 5 star hotel exception but a magic delight installed even in public toilets, and if I ever return to my own ‘cubical challenged’ country, I’ll source immediately! The bullet trains travelling at over 200 miles per hour (320km/h) are impressive to most, but as a train enthusiast, I was in heaven. Make sure you get a ‘Japan Rail Pass,’ only available from your own country before you travel, as this can be used on not only most trains but also on buses and other forms of transport nationwide, saving you a lot of money. Sixteen carriages of luxury, soundproofed, always on time, travelling through the countryside and numerous mountain tunnels at speeds normally associated with flying machines; I was spellbound.
Even photographing one passing through a station, you had to be very prepared, because as soon as it came into view, whoosh, it was already too late! Cities are cities wherever you go, and that’s the same in Japan, plenty of interesting stuff but finding your way around, not easy! We did our best, but you could spend a week in every one and still not do them justice. In general, the smaller the town, the better things were, if only because the smaller places here hadn’t been completely wiped out during the war, so they had far more history/buildings standing.
Yes, visit a castle or two, a few geisha houses and some shrines, all synonymous with Japan, but unless you have a particular interest in these, you’ll soon become “castled and shrined out.” Spend time travelling through the different areas, meet the people and visit the markets of today, and you’ll begin to know this wonderful country. Get involved in the culture, take part in a ‘tea ceremony,’ try/hire a kimono or hoari, learn some basics of the language before you go, stay in a ryokan and bathe at an onsen; soak in Japan.
We travelled from Tokyo in the east as far as Hiroshima in the west, zigzagging on the super-efficient transport system, staying in large cities, smaller towns and mountain villages. If you go to any of the ‘top places to visit’ there’s the inevitable ocean of tourists, and sometimes you’ll just have to go with that, but it’s better to wander off the track a bit to feel the spirit in your bones of this beautiful, unique country. It’s expensive, far more so than Thailand, more on a level with Australia and the USA but you can keep costs down if you research for the best hotel offers and book tickets for tourist attractions in advance.
Hiroshima had to be the highlight of our visit, not only because of the terrible thing that happened on that dark day in 1945 but also to witness the beautiful city that has risen from those ashes. It was an extraordinary feeling standing at ground zero where so many died back then, and so many more in the years that followed. People looked knowingly at each other, there was no need to speak, it was the strangest of experiences, as if there were souls all around observing us.
Hiroshima now stands as a world monument for peace and a hope that no other population will ever have to face that experience again, and we can only hope! I’d like to return one day, for longer next time and perhaps take in some of the areas we weren’t able to visit. For now, I leave at least knowing that I know Japan. She’s no longer a mystery across the seas that I’ll never be lucky enough to visit, I’ve kissed her on the cheek, and she’ll stay deep in my heart forever.