I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. Who wouldn’t want to visit the country that bought us sushi, samurai and Squirtle? I’d pencilled in my visit for later in life, when I plan to be rolling in so much cash that I can have sashimi on tap. But seeing as I was ‘almost’ there (in China) and my boyfriend was interning in Tokyo for two months, I decided to take the metaphorical plunge and ignore the gaping black hole draining my bank account.
Japan ain’t cheap, so not exactly backpacker country. But then again, I’ve done the ‘backpacker thing’ in Asia (yes I had a Gap Yah), and it was nice to be somewhere so clean, where the trains and buses actually run on time, and you can stumble around blind drunk in the middle of the night safe in the knowledge that you won’t get mugged.
The Japanese are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The Other Half and I would be only have to wave our guidebooks and look lost (which we did unintentionally numerous times) for a complete stranger to come over and offer us help. A middle-aged businessman introduced himself when we were sat next to him at one of those sushi conveyor belt restaurants, and next thing we know we were bedding down in a booth at a karaoke bar, a bottle of sake, a bottle of sochu, several glasses of wine and beer later, not to mention the countless snacks. When 5am and the first train rolled around, the businessman took himself off downstairs to pay the bill (and presumably to go home to his wife and four daughters…), and was even polite enough to ask if we were okay on Facebook the next day.
Monkey after a hot spring dip
Japan is also one of the most unique and contradictory places that I’ve ever been to. In Nikko, a misty mountain town with World Heritage-listed shrines (a fact the town trumpets on every street corner), we struggled to find a restaurant open past 8 o’clock. Our guesthouse, down a dark country lane, with traditional sliding-door tatami rooms and a river rushing by outside, could have come out of an 80s horror film. Meanwhile, in Tokyo neon lights and J-pop blare all night long, and the biggest electronics store I’ve ever seen has eleven floors, each the size of an M&S.
In Nagano (home of the 1998 Winter Olympics for all you trivia fans) we got up at 5.30am to watch Buddhist monks chant the morning service at the Zenko-ji temple, while hundreds of devotees came to kneel and pray with them. Yet a few hours away in Tokyo, there are millions of Japanese for whom the only shrines seem to be shops. Lots and lots of shops.
And my Western/feminist/prudish [delete as applicable] sensibilities were pretty darn shocked by the sex shop we ventured into. Every product aimed at heterosexual men essentially used paedophilia to sell it – yes the girls on the packaging are Manga characters, and yes it’s fantasy not reality, but I personally wouldn’t want to go out with someone who gets their kicks from cartoon schoolgirls. Yet violent crime, let alone sexual violence, is apparently very low in Japan, and I felt perfectly safe wherever we went (apart from maybe in those dark country lanes).
Japan’s geography, lying on faultlines that mean that it’s a hotbed of seismic and volcanic activity, also makes for some experiences that you don’t really find elsewhere. In Hakone we ate boiled eggs with blackened shells that had been cooked in a steaming sulphur pool. We also made a habit of going to onsen, scalding hot spring baths that are usually segregrated by sex, the nicest of which was also the strangest as, being a prudish Brit, I had never seen so many wobbly, naked bodies in my life.
Hello Kitty loves volcano-baked eggs!
The biggest letdown was probably the weather, as instead of clear blue skies as far as the eye can see to Mount Fuji, there was only haze. After being dragged struggling and sweating up a muddy mountain by my enthusiastic, we-need-to-do-real-hike boyfriend, all I wanted, other than a cold drink and never to walk uphill again, was a great view. And the view was amazing. But it would have been infinitely more so if it had included super-sharp views of the elusive volcano.
I am nitpicking here – I did actually see Mount Fuji. On the plane ride out of Japan, yes, but Fuji-san looked extra-awesome from a bird’s eye vantage point. And I got to go to Japan. A real, living and breathing place, with a lot more pretty countryside towns and beautiful mountains than I’d imagined. But in Tokyo you do get the feeling that you’re in that crazy, giant, neon theme park that you’ve always dreamed about visiting.
A bird’s eye view of Mount Fuji