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Travel Story by Richard Weinbaum and Shana Grummitt

  Where East meets West

A Japanese scene

An incredible 3 weeks were spent travelling in the south of Japan during December and January 2005/06. We have many fond memories of our trip.

We visited Tokyo and it is an amazing city. Imagine being transported to a place where not only can you not speak the language, but the written form is totally incomprehensible to you as well. Where everywhere you go, most of the signs and advertisements are written in 'kanji', the Japanese script adopted from Chinese, and reputedly the most difficult language in the world to learn. Everything is indecipherable – you have no frame of reference – you don’t even know how to pronounce these elaborate scripts in front of you.

Japan is a country steeped in tradition and strange idiosyncrasies, where a false move by a 'Gaijin' (foreigner) could cause the highest offence to the Japanese without you being aware of it. Tokyo is a city so far removed from your previous experiences in the West that you literally feel that you have landed on another planet, where you constantly have to check that you are not salivating deliriously as you stagger around the alien streets, reeling from the cacophony of sound and images that are hammering into your conscious with a staccato persistence.

Imagine also, though, a city and indeed a country, where old and new meet in apparent harmony, where sat next to you on the 'Shinkansen' (bullet train) you find a sumo wrestler in traditional kimono, and where you catch a glimpse of a perfect temple, serene and understated in the midst of a labyrinth of steel girders, skyscrapers, railway lines, subway lines, elevated roads and houses.

Tokyo's streets are highly stylised, 'Blade Runner-esque' with their abundant neon lights and ordered chaos. The social planning to create a city as complex and yet as smooth running as Tokyo must have been immense.

We visited the districts of Akihabara (electric town with a dazzling display of the very latest in consumer electronics at incredibly cheap prices), Roponggi (an entertainment district), and stayed in Shinjuku, home to the busiest train station in the world, and probably almost as big as the city of St Albans in the UK! We also went to Tokyo Disneyland (yes, they have one too), where we were one of the major attractions of the day for the Japanese. We also went halfway up Mt. Fuji, which is worth a visit if you have good weather.

Tokyo was originally named 'Edo', but was not always the capital. Kyoto once held this position, as well as several other cities I believe. Over the centuries, a highly structured, rigid social code was developed, your place on the ladder mostly determined by the rung you were born into – not by how hard you worked, etc. This 'pigeonholing' still pervades Japanese society today. Samurai were the warriors loyal to the Emperor, 'daimyo' the all-powerful landowners, merchants or money makers were seen as 'base' or dirty, yet they enjoyed the highest living standards, and then of course, there were the peasants who formed the majority of the population.

Ancient myth says that the Sun Goddess created Japan, and that the Emperor was in direct ancestral lineage to the Gods. This served to ensure subservience amongst the populace – how could you challenge the Emperor? This myth was taught to children in school until the end of the Second World War, and was used as a lynchpin for the theory that the '8 corners of the world' should be brought under Japanese control. The Japanese saw themselves as the perfect race, highly xenophobic - especially to Koreans and Chinese (though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that early Korean migrations were the precursors to the Japanese population). Nationalistic fervour was intensified by the pre-war political leaders based on these teachings and feelings and helped whip up a frenzy amongst the people. Of course there were trade implications, foreign policy matters and power political issues that all contributed to the war.

Japan's political scene has seen many oligarchies, perhaps indicative of the social structuring in general – the elite few are heavily rewarded, whilst the masses struggle against poverty, famine and disease. Social rigidity and conformity through teachings of filial piety, doing everything for the 'betterment of the group' and knowing ones place all help to keep the social fabric taught and controlled. Yet the totalitarian regimes of the past have been replaced by democracy, but the order still remains in Japanese society today.

Although there may be this undercurrent of superiority in the national conscious, when wandering the streets of Tokyo this is not apparent at all. Whilst it is notoriously difficult, even impossible for Gaijin to truly break through the Japanese 'code' into their society properly, the Japanese are overtly polite, respectful and fun loving. It is the paradox in everything that intrigued me – tradition meets modernism, young and old, social rigidity yet the delights seen in cutting loose for a while, the needs of the individual balanced against the 'good of the group', religion and theology sat right next to cutting edge 'cold' science.

Japan's religion is a mix of Shinto (an ancient animist theology) and Buddhism, imported from India and China. Christianity was banned around the same time that Japan closed its borders to the world for around 200 years (approx 1700-1900 BC), for fear of corruption to the more liberal Western democracies, and encasing the feeling of superiority. Japanese arts are also fascinating - 'haiku' (17 syllable poems only) seem to capture what is quintessential about Japan for me – simplicity and beauty expressed in a complex form. Tea ceremonies, block printing and a whole myriad of other art forms are defined so tightly that they take decades to master.

Japan's world famous cherry blossoms are seen as a metaphor for life by the Japanese; fleetingly beautiful, yet so swift and precarious. These observations of life seem to pervade Japanese philosophy as a subtle undertone, at every corner there is a lesson to be learnt or a saying to be heard.

Here’s an interesting fact about sumo wrestling – the referee had a holster in his belt that was formerly used to carry a knife. If he erred in judgement, he was expected to commit hari-kari (personal disembowelment with the sword) with it. Today it houses a fan – not quite as dangerous! The best time to watch the World Sumo Wrestling Championship is during the second week of January every year.

We hired a car equipped with GSM navigation for two weeks for travelling outside Tokyo. It had one major disadvantage – it only understood data that was input in Japanese! To resolve the problem, I told Japanese people where we wanted to go and they were very helpful in inputting the information on GSM to ensure that we took the correct route to reach our destination.

Kyoto was on our itinerary; it is full of ancient buildings and Geisha girls and is a beautiful place. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868, when it was transferred to Edo (later renamed Tokyo).

Kyoto is famous for it's beautiful temples, and we spent 5 days visiting them. We visited numerous temples, the highlight being the Chion-in temple – this has the largest San-mon gate in Japan. Another temple we visited was the Nanzen-ji temple, which belongs to the Zen school of buddhist philosophy. Zen is renowned for it's emphasis on simplicity, and there were some typical Japanese gardens here that we looked around. These are immaculately laid out, with raked gravel gardens and rock formations, symbolic of one buddhist principle or another.

The architecture of the temples was heavily influenced by the Ming dynasty in China – you know the type – sharply angled roof apexes blending in to a shallow curve. They were an interesting alternative to the 'block' appearance (tower & apartment blocks) of most Japanese cities, and a reminder of its ancient past.

We stayed in the Gion district, a much more heavily populated and commercial district. Here, we walked along the Path of Philosophy, renowned in cherry blossom season for it's beauty and serenity, as well as the hordes of tourists. Another street we walked down was Ishibei-koji, described as the most beautiful street in Japan with its cobbled roads and simple, wooden fronted shops with sliding doors.

When we arrived in Kyoto we finally felt that we were in a different city - the urbanisation is so extreme that it seemed like one continuous city from Tokyo to Kyoto. 70% of Japan is rugged mountainous terrain, and virtually all land that is flat is built on.

From Kyoto we took a day trip to Hiroshima using the Shinkansen (bullet train). The journey took 2.5 hours each way, which is quick when you compare it with the 6 hours it takes to do the same journey by car! The train we travelled on looked like something from the future and had computer controlled tilting for speedier cornering. But the return fare costs £110 per person – we were gob smacked!

Hiroshima, of course is infamous for being the first city to have the atomic bomb dropped on it on 6th August 1945. Today it is a very pleasant place, situated on a beautiful harbour and very picturesque.

We walked around Peace Park, saw the hypocentre of the bomb blast and went to the Atomic Bomb Museum – a very sobering day and read war stories from the Japanese perspective. Of course, I could bang on about world peace and describe many of the emotions that went through us, but I will just mention 3 things:

1) Immediately following the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 75,000 people were killed, in each location. As a result of the radiation after-effects, it has been estimated that at least a further 75,000 people have died, again, in each city. This is a total of 300,000 deaths from 2 bombs.

2) In 1961, Russia detonated a nuclear weapon that was 3,300 times more powerful than those detonated over Japan.

3) The most poignant symbol of the devastation, for us, was a tricycle that had belonged to a 3 year old boy who was playing on the bike at the time of the explosion. It had melted from the heat, and the boy had died later that day from his injuries. The pictures of carbonated bodies frozen in place from the power of the bomb were awful.

Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima are doing everything they can to rid the world of such impersonal weapons of mass destruction, yet the arms race continues and weapons are still tested and developed today.

After Kyoto we drove to Nagano, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. A pleasant day was spent at the open-air monkey park where you can see the snow monkeys. This type of monkey can sleep and swim in a hot spa pool!

Members of the Deaf community in Tokyo shared New Year’s Eve with us – it was different but a good experience. There was no party! And no drinks either! They spent the evening at the temple and prayed for good spirits. When it reached midnight, there were no celebrations, no hugs or kisses. They just bowed to each other with a nice smile on their faces! It is probably the dullest New Year’s celebration I have ever seen.

On the whole, the food was excellent and the people are amazingly polite. For example, the sandwich sellers on the trains stop before leaving a carriage, turn around and bow to everyone – EVERY time they come through. There are even small graphics of women bowing to you when you use a phone or an ATM, and we were always treated with the utmost respect and courtesy. The Japanese even wear facemasks when they have a cold so that they do not spread their germs! In some toilets, the loos have a button that you can press which emits a sound that imitates a flushing toilet in order to drown out any embarrassing noises! We could do with one of these at home!

We stayed at a traditional Japanese inn, called a Ryokan near Mount Fuji. The rooms have tatami mats on the floor, sliding paper doors and low-level tables for serving Japanese tea. We took our communal baths wearing Fukata – Japanese bathing robes, remembering to wear the left side over the right (the opposite way is used for dressing the dead!). The heated toilet seats went down very well!

Summary: -

We recommend that you visit Japan if you are interested in their culture, i.e. food, people and buildings. If you want to see the old traditional Japan, then you must visit Kyoto otherwise all you will see are modern cities with an American business influence rather like mini Las Vegas’s!

Japan is not that expensive – it depends what you are looking for. You can eat cheaply and stay in budget accommodation such as the Toyoko Inns, which are similar to the Travel Inns in the UK. Road tolls are expensive if you want to hire a car and so are train tickets. So if you want to travel Japan by train, then it is worth buying your Japan Rail Pass at home as it will save you a substantial amount of money compared to the price you would pay out there.

If you are fussy about your food then you may struggle!

Japan, where East meets West, is a rich cultural experience and is definitely worth visiting if you get the opportunity.

Click on photo to enlarge

Shinkansen (bullet train)  Golden temple, Kyoto  A-dome, Hiroshima

Date Submitted: 04 Oct 2006

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