Thoughts on leaving Japan 23.05.2015


Roppongi and in the distance Shinjuku

Well, as you’ve read from my blog Japan was a difficult country for me to like and in the end I guess I enjoyed the experience but was never amazed. There are so many non-Japanese who truly love Japan and I was expecting a real wow factor so in the end when I never got it dissappointment was an understatement.

Travelling around Japan logistically was a real pleasure, everything ran like clockwork and the signage was good. Tokyo has a confusing subway network because two different companies control different lines. Once I ended up buying a subway ticket for the Toei network when the line I wanted to use was for the Tokyo Metro.  The gates at subways are open and only close when you insert an invalid ticket. The best website for looking for train times and price is Hyperia. I came close to falling in love with an airport, the first time ever, at the international terminal at Haneda. The monorail linking the airport ran smoothly. I don’t know what it was about Haneda but it was peaceful, no constant flight announcements and endless shops selling the same global tat. It was just so, well, tasteful.

Another surprising thing about Japan is that it is not expensive. Nothing was more expensive that what it is in the Netherlands. Even the bullet trains are cheaper than Dutch trains when you work trips out per kilometre. I once read in a British newspaper that their advice for eating out in Tokyo was to go get free food samples handed out in department store basements as food costs a fortune. Well, that’s not true, everywhere we went to eat was cheaper than Amsterdam, hotels were cheaper, public transport and taxis were cheaper. The expensive Japan of the 1980’s thankfully does not exist anymore.

Japan is not all futuristic and modern. There are run down areas with alot of homeless people and grafitti, but strangely Japan is different from everywhere else. You’ll see really old people, probably centarians, lugging luggage through train stations. Once I stopped and was about to ask an old lady if she needed help but the culture shock was too great and I worried I might cause offence. She was tiny though and the luggage so large but nobody else was batting an eyelid.

Nanzen-ji Kyoto

My favorite temple in Japan just because it was set in woodland and more importantly not overrun with tourists. Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto.

Something else I noticed about Japan was there is nowhere to sit outside. No street furniture like benches to rest while walking through the city. All the way from Harajuku Station to the Meiji Jingu Temple is through a forest and the walk is a good twenty minutes. There was not even one bench in that forest to rest, I thought how inconsiderate of the elderly and disabled. In Japan they have got so advanced in stimulating their own economy that if you want to rest you must go into a cafe. Just wait till the governments in Europe work that one out and the taxes they can rake in.

There are no trash cans anywhere. Again, you would think the Japanese are so advanced that they don’t know what trash is, but no, they are human beings just like the rest of us. It is the authorities which are letting their inhabitants down by not providing amenities, I wonder if it again has something to do with saving money. Less trash cans equals less waste collectors, cheaper for the city councils.

Another myth that the Japanese are all super polite. No they are not, some are downright rude, again they are human beings, not some higher alien life force. They smile and bow alot but this doesn’t say anything. We are polite in Europe too when interacting with strangers.

Japanese kimonos

Kimonos girls were wearing at To-ji in Kyoto

I personally found the temples and shrines underwhelming and difficult to photograph due to the dark wood they use to construct them. They are understated, airbrushed and elegant which will be good for some but I prefer more of a wow factor. Religion is Japan is accessible where you can donate your hard earned Yen 24 hours a day. There was even a electronic conveyor belt at one temple where you can donate gifts for the monks day and night. I wonder if this is why religion in Europe is dying out, churches are closed often while in Japan shrines are all over the place open 24/7.

Again from my blog you would have noticed dining was a problem for me. We don’t all like fish, I haven’t ate it since I was four years old. Some of us are vegetarian and in a metropolis like Tokyo I would expect vegetarian cuisine on every street corner. Now and again you might be lucky and find an Italian place but thankfully the Japanese do Italian cuisine very well.

Harajuku Fashion

Latest fashions in Harajuku, the other look of the moment could only be described as strict Parisian librarian

When I first arrived in Japan I thought all of the cartoon images of teddybears and candyfloss was really childish and didn’t understand why this needed to be plastered over every single wall, stairwell and trash can. It was only later while travelling inside a Dutch train that I glanced up at the grey, minimalist wall that I realised I missed images of pink blobs with laughing eyes advertising the latest electronics. As childish as they are they do cheer you up … somehow.

Mount Fuji is ever elusive, most often than not blanketed by cloud cover. If you are planning a trip to view Mount Fuji you can do what the Japanese do and checkout the many webcam websites. Just because the skies are blue doesn’t mean that Mount Fuji will be visible. One website that I used was GoAndRoam.

Will I ever return to Japan? Well, if I do I would do things differently. Instead of going between major cities I would opt for something more rural. I, then, might have a better chance to meet the Japanese on a more personal level. I would still like to visit Hiroshima, it’s a pity it wasn’t possible on this trip due to time limitations.

Even though Japan has it’s faults it still is culturally a unique country and i’m still grateful I got the chance to experience it. So, for now, sayonara Nippon, and till next time.

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Drifting through the Tokyo underworld.

Shinjuku night

Yaaay…back in Tokyo!

We caught a late afternoon shinkansen back to the capital. The return half of the ticket had been for around 8pm but we just couldn’t wait that long, we just wanted to get back to the excitement of the big city nights. At the shinkansen counter they changed our train ticket without penalties and before we knew it our sleek train was slipping away from boring old Kyoto. Most of the people on the train were businessmen or groups of schoolchildren.  Walking out of Shinjuku Station the rays of neon were as refreshing as feeling sunlight at the end of a thunderstorm. I glanced up at the Alta Studio screen, supposedly the world’s largest t.v. screen and they were showing a news article about the discovery of a teenager’s mutilated body which i’m guessing was the case of the Sasebo schoolgirl murder. Alot of people were looking up at the screen, some had been stopped in their tracks, one man who was watching the screen while waiting at traffic lights sniggered and said something to a companion. I imagine this was the story that was holding the Japanese in it’s grip.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant

We wandered through Kabuki-cho, it was dare I say, refreshing, when groups of African touts approached us to try and get us into some establishment so that they could get their commision. After checking into our hotel we hit the streets, ate Italian at a nice place with the original name of Italian Pizza Cafe on Yasukuni-dori then went to the futuristic show at Robot Restaurant which had mixed reviews, poor food and great entertainment. The Robot show was fun, kind of like a safe go-go poledancing nightclub which would now and again be invaded by huge robots, gigantic bunny rabbits being shot out of cannons, cyborgs fighting with teddybears, girls in bikinis wailing out strange childlike music. Sadly, every quarter of an hour the theatrics would stop so that they could sell drinks. Bizarre, but that is what Japan is like.

Robot restaurant

Robot Restaurant

Our flight back to Europe was leaving from Haneda Airport in the south of the city so for our last two nights in Japan we stayed in Nihonbashi which was closer to Haneda. I had originally planned to stay in Nihonbashi for the whole duration of my stay in Tokyo but I guess the lights of Shinjuku had been too intense to ignore. Still, I had two days to wander around this historical area, the original core, in ancient times known as Edo. One overcast afternoon I crossed the blue, iron arched Eitai Bridge and stopped to peer into the murky brown Sumida River. As I stared across the river bank towards the skyscraper condominiums of Tsukishima a futuristic glass Himiko water bus slid past underneath, it was then I realised I couldn’t help but feel affection for Eitai Bridge. An old, lost relic trying to hold on as it’s surroundings raced on into the future. Once a famous spot where you could see Mount Fuji, the view preserved in the form of Ukiyo-e woodblocks, it seemed now the ninety year old bridge was out of place, almost like an elderly person being exposed to rap music, unable to grasp what it was all supposed to mean. Once the Sumida River had been the heart of the great city, lined with wooden shacks, boatmen would ply their trade, there were animation zones where you could see puppet shows and exotic animals, crude peep shows and all forms of raffish tricksters. Much later in the 18th Century Cherry Blossom trees had been planted ascending the river in the minds of the population. The water was once described as pure enough to make tea. Now the only precious flowers that appear along the river bank are the forgotten moth-eaten homeless, scaveging for food through the trashcans and sleeping under the iron girders.

I realised Eitai Bridge had survived through the horror of the mid 20th Century when the bridge itself had been newly constructed after the Great Kanto Earthquake of ’23. The earthquake occured around midday when people were preparing lunch causing a firestorm which sucked houses and people into the air and turned the river red. One horse was seen running through the streets, maddened by the flames it jumped into the boiling river, as did many people. Men working on the nearby foundations of Edo Castle discovered hitobashira, or Pillar Men, when the foundations had been disturbed due to the earthquake. Pillar men where most often volunteers sacrificed alive within the structures of bridges and buildings thought to give the structures extra strength, sometimes hitobashira were chosen as for example the first man to walk across a bridge wearing a certain form of clothing, so they were not all volunteers. Once a one-eyed woman with a wooden leg had offered to become hitobashira with the condition that her son would be made a samurai. After becoming interred her wish was never granted and she is said to haunt the area at night. It was hard to believe that after all that Nihonbashi was once again reduced to cinders by a swarm of B-29 bombers, the napalm cluster bombs resulting in fatalities on par with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The greatest decimation was in Koto and Chuo (Nihonbashi), a working class area exactly where I was standing. On the night of 9th March 1945, exactly seventy years ago, it’s estimated over 120,000 people were killed in one raid alone. I stood there thinking of the horrors of war and one photo in particular I had seen of the Tokyo firebombing, the charred remains of a woman and baby lying in a street gutter.

The area of Nihonbashi has been reincarnated as a business district with wide boulevards and traffic clogged intersections. As I watched the smartly dressed workers with their lunches and smartphones rush to the glass and chrome office blocks I couldn’t help but feel admiration for this city and it’s people. It was here that I understood what Tokyo is and was, maybe not the most beautiful city on Earth but one which had refused to give up and had risen again and again to fight another day, a true shooting star across the face of our planet.

Mount Fuji at sunset

Good Karma!! My biggest wish in Japan was to see Mount Fuji and it came true at sunset from the top of Tokyo Tower!!

There were so many things to see and do in Tokyo but rather than rush from location to location we just drifted through the streets and absorbed the city ending up in highend stores with their ubiquitous jazz music, pristine gardens, purikura photo booths, shrines dedicated to foxes, gaming arcades, bars the size of bathtubs and miles and miles of tunnels connecting one metro station to another.

One thing that was on our list was to go to Tokyo Tower, the cities own version of the Eiffel Tower, only painted bright orange to conform with aviation laws, built in the fifties when Japan was going through a French phase (when is Japan not going through a French phase??). A new addition to the Tokyo landmark scene is the Tokyo Skytree, higher than the Tokyo Tower although we heard that the views were not as spectacular. Plus the Tokyo Tower looks like the Eiffel Tower with carotene poisoning while the Skytree is nothing but a big torch stuck upright in a residential neigbourhood. We got to the orange tower at sunset. I had given up ever being able go see Mount Fuji and felt I must have had too much negative karma but from the corner of my eye I noticed a large mountain looming in the distance, I knew it must have been Mount Fuji but asked an attendant and she confirmed it was my beloved mountain. I just stood mesmerized, the sky went from blue to candyfloss pink to an intense crimsom before turning jet black. It was the highlight of my trip to Japan and I grudingly admit that for once in Japan I was truly…impressed.

It’s strange how Japan turned out for me, while I thought modern post-war Tokyo could never have compared to somewhere as ancient as Kyoto in the end I preferred the scarred futuristic capital.

Kyoto and it’s pitfalls.


Kiyomizu-dera Temple

My time is drawing to a close in Kyoto, a place which was for me a total letdown. Sure, the first night wandering the alleys of Higashiyama and admiring traditional architecture was amazing but this soon wore off. Everyday we had to return to downtown Kyoto, an ugly mishmash devoid of beauty. Then there were the hoardes of tourists, I wished for Isfahan again where you hardly see any tourists at the main sights. I expected something far more poetic in Kyoto, ancient, respected but in the end it was nothing but a conveyor belt of tourists queueing to take the same photo over and over. Kyoto though is slightly more aimed a foreign tourists than Tokyo with more English and Chinese signage.

Kiyomizu Kimono

What Japan is though is a nice little country to spend a holiday. I imagine everything you would like for a holiday is there – safe transport and hygienic food, music venues, city landmarks, things to keep the children occupied. I guess this is what the majority of people are looking for although for me I like to live a little bit closer to the edge.

Unfortunately there is no “edge” in Kyoto, hey, I would have been happy with just a sloping hill! It’s all just so darn pretty that for me took quite a while of getting used to.  Days were predictable, planning various walking trails in the hills, which temples of visit and which to avoid and because of an efficient transportation system everything ran like clockwork. It was just a matter of ticking off boxes and moving onto the next place of interest. I kind of just wished some manic, or even deceitful person, had approached us and led us off somewhere else, anything to break the mundane predictability of it all. The temples and museums in Kyoto close at dusk and by 10pm you’ll be tucked up in bed in some claustrophobic hotel room. Keep this in mind when visiting Kyoto….Osaka or Tokyo might be more suited to your needs.

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine

Being a tourist in Kyoto is hard work. My advice would be to get up super early and be at the major landmarks by opening time. When travelling I try to rest and get up late so by the time I got to the big sights they were horrible (and horrible in this occasion is in no way an exaggeration) due to the amount of coaches full of tourists and gangs of Japanese school children ruining the whole experience. Kyoto can’t handle the crowds and by the time I walked up the alleyway to Kiyomizu-dera Temple my patience was frayed due to the crowds. One afternoon I headed to Sanjusangendo Hall to see the 1001 Golden Kannon statues which was mobbed. It is the longest wooden structure in the world and was so packed you literally were brushing against strangers, we also had to take our shoes off and the smell of a thousand socks almost had me vomiting into a flower display.

Kyoto Skyline

Kyoto skyline

I feel like i’ve processed all there is to know about Kyoto visually, I have no desire to try and get into hidden Kyoto and the geisha world which I imagine would be just more superficial awkwardness and confusion.

I might return to Kyoto as an elderly garden lover who long ago lost her marbles but not before, until then I will be more careful in choosing the places I want to visit rather than going to places which look good in photos.

Peeling away the layers at To-ji Temple, Kyoto


Gojunoto pagoda at To-ji

Thinking of Japan in general with it’s venerable history how odd to outsiders that there isn’t at least one primary manmade attraction that is known globally. When you think of Japan and things to see I guess most people immediately think of the human crush of Tokyo with it’s girls dressed like spooky Victorian goth dolls heading off for their solitary evenings in coffin-like cubicles while nerds gush over the latest gadgets and manga in Akihabara, in the distance looms a Mount Fuji where it is minutely photographed from every possible angle and further to the south hidden Kyoto before sweeping across the horrors of Hiroshima, where at night the silence is shattered by the sound of sumo wrestlers, their bodies crashing together to the sound of excited cheers. Then further south still, the island of the ancients, Okinawa, where the boketto centarians wrap their legs around their necks while practising yoga against a backdrop of quaint palm lined coves, the Pacific ever present. Mentally the north is just a dark void where you can find monkeys frolicking in volcanic pools as snowflakes flutter around before resting on their noses. That’s just the vague idea of Japan, there are no supericonic structures on scale with the Taj Mahal or Macchu Picchu.

I guess if there was one memorable structure it has to be Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto. The guidebooks told me I should make a beeline for this pavilion clad in gold leaf. Upon reading further I realised this famous structure was nothing but an imposter. A novice monk with a persecution complex had reduced the original to cinders six decades ago, the present structure nothing more than a carbon copy only this time caked in gold leaf and often bathed in the crush of a thousand tourists. So often in Japan the date of historical sites seem obscure, almost as if they are hidden. They’ll proclaim a temple is 8th century but after doing research you realise the sacred ground and for instance a carved monolith are 8th century while the actual buildings are all modern i.e. 16th century reconstructions or younger still.

In Kyoto it took me a while to figure out which locations should get my precious time, in the place nicknamed the city of 1200 temples this is no mean feat. One location that stood out was To-ji, a Buddhist temple complex of the Shingon sect established in 796 and off the beaten track in the low heel Minami district south of Kyoto Station. I chose to visit, a place steeped in history, actually one of the founding temples of Kyoto from the Heian Period and as old as Kyoto itself. Founded beside Rajomon gate, built to protect the city against the villainous trolls attacking the area at that time.

Buddhist Zen monk

After walking across concrete town with its business people you pass underneath the railway tracks of Kyoto Station and suddenly you are in a low rise residential area with its quiet streets, surprising how provincial it could get just metres from the main hub. It’s rare that anything can get me to stop in my tracks but the sight above did, a Buddhist Zen monk chanting outside a shop, I wondered if he was paid by businesses to come by and wish luck or protection for the owners. That moment symbolized Japan so perfectly, neon flashing in the shop window clashing against the old monk and his religious writings.

To-ji Garden


Upon reaching the outer walls of To-ji I was excited, an image of myself in blissful solitute contemplating the Heian Period against a backdrop of Japan’s tallest wooden tower, the five story Gojunoto pagoda. The temple grounds again were perfection, every pebble placed thoughfully to create a serene vista. I scoured the gardens looking for the perfect vantage point to while away the hours and found it in the image above, the green foliage so harmonious against the still pond. On the left just out of shot was a lazy turtle resting on a rock. My moment of bliss was shattered every minute by the high pitched beeping of a pedestrian crossing outside the temple walls, again a perfect example of Japan, history sacrificed in the name of progress.

To-ji lecture hall

To-ji Lecture Hall

I was feeling let down with Kyoto and Japan in general. I was thinking I should have gone to China instead with it’s wow factor, long an inspiration for Japanese culture and art. Over the centuries the Japanese had moved away from Chinese culture perfecting their own calligraphy and preferred allusive otherworldly poetry. To be honest this love of the indirect together with the expressionless wandering lost in their internal, possibly formal, thoughts was becoming too abstract for my liking. I needed human interaction, even just a smile and not the fake smiles I was seeing whenever money was being transacted. I began to think maybe something far greater was going on, with the constant natural disasters and the brutal history of Japan. The parasitic upper classes has abused the poor with a form of taxation and limitations on movement designed to keep them in poverty and the noble class in servitude, the general translation for people as being the “ones held with a dagger against the eye.” Could these be the scars of a thousand years and I was just a simple foreigner passing through not worthy enough to feel their pain? I guess you could say Japan was making me feel sad, not for myself, but for them.

Wandering through To-ji I gazed on the 17th century Kondo (main hall) a National Treasure and stepped inside to view the Yakushi Nyorsi triad and then to the 16th century Kodo (lecture hall) containing Kukai’s original statues carved in the 8th and 9th centuries, the dusty air very sweet from the incense.

Toji lecture hall

Kodo (Lecture Hall)

Near the Lecture Hall was a stall handing out free cups of plum tea sprinkled with gold leaf. If you liked it you could by a pack. What can I say, it was impossible to drink, just like a salt mouth wash, I managed to discreetly pour it down a drain. Later I came to a tea house and noticed Matcha (green tea) on the menu so tried a cup. On a summer’s day when the grass has been cut their is always a distinct smell, well that is how matcha tastes, for me undrinkable. Unfortunately for me there was no handy drain nearby so had to leave the teahouse quickly, eyes cast.

Toji Minami Kyoto

It wasn’t until leaving To-ji that I noticed a walled area away from the main section. This seemed to be the shrines for the Kyotoites, seperate from the paid tourist area. It was here that I felt something real, monks were chanting within the oldest building in the complex, the Mieido (1380), gongs were being hit while a cloud of incense hung in the air. At last I was experiencing something exciting, I was on cloud nine but only for a moment, to be hit by lightning, the glare of an old woman rolling her eyes as we were near a stone statue of a turtle which I guess she was walking towards to pray.

It was there I realised Japan was just “nice” but very fake. Even after being snubbed by people in Tokyo when lost and asking for directions, even when being ignored when asking a teenage girl how to used a photobooth, even when a two faced waitress had laughed behind my back then smiled to my face when we paid the bill I had still saw the best in the Japanese people. The old battle axe in the temple was the last straw. Don’t believe the myth that politeness pervades in Japan, they bow and smile sure but it’s generally just for show.

Japan is crashing towards the heap of the discarded countries, places that for me were never quite up to scratch. There is still time for this country to redeem itself, tomorrow is a new day and i’m endlessly forgiving.

The Blood Moon above Kyoto.

Flowers in Kyoto

In Kyoto

Oh Kyoto Higashiyama how pretty you really are! I know, a complete contradiction from my last post. Once you walk out of the downtown area which is a ordinary mishmash of uninviting apartment buildings and nondescript office blocks then photogenic Kyoto reveals it’s most refined self. A range of green hills appear, neighbourhoods are labyrinths of winding whispering alleyways walled by old timbered houses, shadows kneel behind sliding wooden doors that try to enclose clipped string music and thoughtful laughter, wooden geta sandals click against stone moss pathways, through delicate manicured gardens and around dancing fountains, hanging snake like tree branches falling into rushing streams their flower petals a silent riot of color, street posters of the Kyoto stars of our era the Geisha advertising earthly vices, strange deserted temples with bronze pigs on altars of painted eggs, granite noble fox statues dressed in red cloth while paper lanterns sway in the breeze, the zigzag of orange the koi and their black eyes peering from murky watery worlds. The ancient Japan that you imagine. It seems that every branch and every twig on every tree has been twisted and straightened over centuries to reach this zenith of perfection. Higashiyama, the hilly neighbourhood has some of the most enchanting and encaptivating streets I have ever had the honour to walk along. We decided to walk through the famous entertainment hanamachi of Gion trying to glimpse a Geisha but it was eerily quiet. Geisha are very difficult to spot as their art form is in decline but I would have been happy with one of the fake Geisha that a secret organisation pay to walk around and let tourists photograph them. Little did we realise we were about to witness something far more incredible than geisha or falling cherry blossoms.

Geisha poster

Geisha poster on a wall in Higashiyama

It happened while we were walking uphill, I didn’t realise what was going on but people were standing in doorways, cameras and phones clutched in their hands, some people were whispering, I even heard a frightened woman gasp which was very out of character for the Japanese. An old smartly dressed man came bowing over to us his quavering fingers pointed to the sky and in a heavy accent said “Look!”. It was at this moment I realised how lucky we were, we were not only witnessing a spectacular lunar eclipse but the Kyotoites themselves and their love for the natural world.

Moon eclipse Kyoto 2014

The Blood Moon above Yasaka Pagoda

By the time we had walked across Gion we were in the hills and standing under the incredibly majestic 15th Century Yasaka Pagoda, the ivory moon in the clear night had turned a martian red rust, known as a bad omen of things to come. No one was talking, just staring at the moon, it was almost as if you could hear a pin drop.

Blood Moon

 The last sliver of the silver moon

I can’t ever remember seeing a lunar eclipse as beautiful as this one, it had something to do with the red hue of the moon, Asia, the architecture, and the way it had stopped the inhabitants of a city in their paths. What a welcome to Kyoto, something that will stay with me forever.

The Japanese Bullet Train. October 2014.

Nozomi Shinkansen

I almost can’t contain my excitement that i’m travelling to Kyoto today which was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Kyoto was at the head of the atomic bomb target list but an American general had spent his honeymoon there found it so beautiful that he managed to get it delisted. I have high expectations for Kyoto.

The last few years when I have been travelling my biggest wish has been to see certain ever elusive (cloud cover) mountains, not any old mountains either but very beautiful ones. One year I HAD to see Kilimanjaro, and the other year Mount Damavand, the highest mountain in the Middle East. My trips would never be complete without them. I actually saw a clear Kilimanjaro twice and once Mount Damavand while driving into Tehran. Those years I must have been good as my wishes came true. Now i’m in Japan and I MUST see Mount Fuji, notorious for almost always being blanketed by clouds. If I don’t Japan will never be complete and I will look back on the past year as a time of personal failure. I know this is bordering on superstition but for me it really matters.  It just happens that the train to Kyoto almost touches the lower slopes of Mount Fuji!

We got up at 6am, had breakfast in the hotel and then walked through the old Yakuza (Japanese mafia) area of Golden Gai and across Hanazono Shrine towards the subway station. Golden Gai is interesting because it’s a snapshot of how Tokyo looked before the war, low two story buildings seperated by narrow alleyways. While we were walking a short, plump salary man in a dirty suit was staggering drunk infront of us. The zipper of his laptop bag was wide open, the bag was empty except for a few pieces of paper. I just thought God, what happened to him, has he been mugged or something?

We got to the subway station just in time for the rush hour, I had visions of us being pushed into the carriage, sardine style, by attendants like you imagine the Tokyo rush hour but everything was orderly and on time. It didn’t even seem that busy and we were on the Maranouchi Line, one of the main arteries. We got to Tokyo Train Station, the Bullet Train’s terminal on the other side of the city near Ginza, the former downtown area, and bought tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen, the fastest Bullet Train in the country.

I’ve travelled on the Thalys, Eurostar, ICE and the TGV but I was expecting alot from the Nozomi, not only because Japan is famous for being technologically advanced but because Japan is the birth place of the high speed train. We got to the platform where our train was waiting and before we knew it were were passing through Shinagawa, Kawasaki and Yokohama. First impressions of the Nozomi, it wasn’t spotless like high speed trains in Europe but looked slightly worn, the chairs were comfortable and there was alot of space. Plus power points to recharge. The conductors bow everytime they enter and leave the carriage, how cool is that?

Japan is a very beautiful country. Once we left the Tokyo conurbation mountains appeared on the right side, and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean on the left. I kept an eye on the horizon for Mount Fuji.  While I imagined Japan to be more focused on agriculture there was alot more industrial factories that you would imagine. Paradoxically it was how I imagined it, little almost cardboard box looking houses and small towns crammed between the mountains and the sea, their streets lined with bulky almost toy like cars, now and then a little allotment for vegetables. I realised as we were approaching Nagoya that my chance of seeing Mount Fuji was over, there had been too much cloud cover. I felt my heart sink and although it was hard to accept, this year I had negative karma.

Honschu Island

Please go away clouds….I must see Mount Fuji!

I think i’m beginning to like Japan. I appreciate their transport system, their politeness, their cleanliness, even the conductor on the train burst into a smile and became almost extroverted when he saw us. Or, is this how Japan Rail employees are taught to interact with foreigners and he was just following the manual?

Kyoto tower

First impressions of Kyoto

Our train pulled into Kyoto, often described as Japan’s most beautiful city but I wasn’t feeling it. As the Bullet Train pulled away the conductor waved to us enthusiastically from an open window.  We walked through futuristic Kyoto Station and into the streets. Alot of countries have their historical city, Italy has Rome, Peru Cusco, Iran Isfahan, Belgium Bruges. While Isfahan and Bruges are beautiful as soon as you arrive and very characteristic Kyoto is not. It is huge, concrete, modern and not what you expected. I noticed immediately though it was alot quieter than Tokyo.

It’s now make or break time for Japan, let’s see why all those travellers keep gushing about you.

Observing Tokyo. October 2014.

Nishi Shinjuku

 Walking in the darker part of Shinjuku.

Tokyo, or should I say it’s entertainment district Kabukicho really lives up to it’s nickname Sleepless Town. I got out of bed last night to get something to drink and glanced out of the window. It was almost 5am and across the street on the eighth floor was a woman sitting in a chair getting her hair styled! Who on earth goes to the hairdressers at 5am, or even more importantly where else would you find hairdressers even open at that time? The street ten floors below was filled with cars stuck in a traffic jam, drunk people staggering along the street, someone lay unconscious in a doorway and what’s even more compelling it was only a Monday night. Even the birds in Kabukicho don’t have a chance to sleep as here the sky never gets dark, the blaze of neon lights up the sky, the land of the never fading sun.

It was around noon when our Lost in Translation drama started. One thing that is very odd about this mega metropolis on level with London and New York is that unlike those cities you can’t even get a sandwich to eat. All the food displays in the windows are just plates of rice or noodles with a bit of meat on top. We also noticed on many dishes they just can’t resist adding the piece de resistance, a shrivelled shrimp, which became an in-joke between my boyfriend and I “…look over there, there’s another shrimp!!!”.

My heart sank as this was nothing but bad news for me. I went to restaurant after restaurant pointing to the menu and saying in Japanese “i’m a vegetarian” and they would always apologize and say they weren’t a vegetarian restaurant. This was so frustrating because I was asking them if they have any vegetarian dishes and everytime they assumed I was asking if they were a restaurant for vegetarians. How more lost in translation can it get? My patience cracked when someone produced a map and drew a circle on the other side of Tokyo and told me there was one vegetarian restaurant there. Eventually we found a buffet place. They had margherita pizza but the rest of the dishes had meat or more argh!…..shrimps.  More madness in the buffet place you could only get one slice of pizza at a time. I burst out laughing when my boyfriend took the whole pizza section out of the buffet area and we had the whole pizza to ourselves. Some Japanese people were glancing over but who cares, if you don’t get it and refuse to become a world metropolis catering to foreigners then food terrorism like this will continue!

Japanese cuisine

I’m not asking for much, just a ciabatta mozarella pesto and a cup of tea… Spot the shrimp!!

After lunch we met an old Japanese friend who we knew from Amsterdam. I was excited, now was our chance to slip below the surface of Tokyo into the hidden world of Japan which few foreigners would ever see. He took us through the streets of Kabukicho to…….an Irish bar? I knew he thought we might be dazed by Japan and decided to take us somewhere familiar but we didn’t travel across eight time zones to go Irish. After drinks we said our goodbyes and decided to go it alone, we were tired of being lost in translation.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu In Yoyogi Park…all to ourselves!

We just wandered through Shinjuku feeling completely isolated as if we were aliens peering into a strange abstract world. We made our way towards Shibuya and through evergreen Yoyogi Park and as I noticed mosquito bites on my arm I tried to work out if it was this park or another park that was experiencing the dengue fever outbreak. We noticed two massive torii gates and walked through the trees until at dusk we came to Meiji Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Tokyo. I guess we got there at the right time as it was almost deserted, just they way I want holy places. It was really nice but in the back of my mind I wasn’t as impressed as seeing the temples in India or S.E. Asia, after all Meiji Jingu was built in 1913 then rebuilt in concrete post WWII.  What impresses me the most is the date of iconic structures, the older the better. Even though the shrine is precious to the Japanese people it is still an infant within the greater picture.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu Tokyo

Back in Shinjuku what I imagine were fortune sellers set up little lonely stalls lit by candle. On a street corner was a tall, skinny transvestite with auburn cropped hair wobbling about on a pair of 12 inch high heels while handing out flyers. A foreign couple, maybe European or Australian started snogging at traffic lights which caused a commotion Japanese style, i.e. quiet, expressionless, side glances. Illuminated trucks with huge billboards drove past advertising scantily clad girls. All the while the most suffocating, crushing feeling of impersonal formality pervaded to a backdrop of mass consumerism. A man in a uniform rushed over with a little silver tin and told my boyfriend to extinguish his cigarette in it and pointed along the street to a designated smoking zone. How ironic is that, a place where every restaurant is full of toxic cigarette smoke and you can’t smoke outside?

Anyway, even though we’ve just gone through one of the most ironic days of our lives I think i’m going to like Japan. It’s not like India or Iran where curious people rush over and invite you to their homes or just want to talk in general. The Japanese are not accessible and this could ruin my stay in this country, only time will tell.

Tokyo’s Terrible Typhoon. October 2014

“Cabin crew resume your duties but please be careful!!”. The plane had been thrown around like a ragdoll for the past twenty minutes and the pilot was obviously concerned. I had even been amazed that our flight had taken off from Dubai as planned, Typhoon Phanfone was scheduled to hit Tokyo around the time we were due to land.

Hindu Kush

The Hindu Kush through Emirates grubby windows…just before the blinds were snapped shut!!

The flight from Dubai had been weird. We left DXB around 3am although I had planned it that way as I wanted to watch the sunrise above the Hindu Kush where we would be flying over. What was weird was the way the cabin crew treated us. As the sun rose a steward had demanded that all of the blinds be shut. I, for one, would not close the blinds, I wanted to see the peaks of the Hindu Kush, one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world. Another passenger started arguing with the steward and refused to close the blinds, other people came to the passengers defence. I can now see why cabin crew act like this, it’s not to help passengers sleep (they all have free eyemasks handed out with the Emirates night kit), it is just to make the plane seem dark so that passengers will sleep and in doing so give the cabin crew less work. For me it would be the last time I would ever book a flight with Emirates.

Once we were allowed to open the blinds we were above northern China, the landscape seemed a scarred rust yellow. Last time I had flown over China it was the southern regions on my way to Hong Kong (and ironically also into the path of a typhoon) and all I can remember were endless green mountains. Just before reaching Japan we had an amazing view over Seoul and parts of North Korea.  It was when we reached the islands of Japan that things changed, we could see nothing with low visibility and white fog, it would remain like this until a few seconds before landing when runway lights appeared. My first impressions of Japan at Narita airport: dark and depressing, super polite airport staff. Narita was also a surprise, the arrivals area where we were funnelled through to passport control and customs seemed very basic and dated, I had imagined a sleek Tokyo, especially at Narita!

We took the Narita Express train to Shinjuku, translated as New Town, an area that had become the new center of Tokyo after WWII leaving Ginza in it’s shadow. After the tsunami of 2011 the Japanese government has been trying to attract foreign visitors, we felt the benefits straight away, flash your foreign passport and you get the N’Ex (Narita Express Train) into town for half price. It was on the N’Ex that I noticed the futuristic Japan, on an electronic LED display in the carriage was a timeline of our journey and was showing our exact point plus connecting lines. A woman came through the carriage with a cart selling snacks, I was amazed at her voice which my boyfriend and I nicknamed “baby voice”. Baby Voice was to follow us all over Japan.

By the time we got to Shinjuku Station the streets were literally flooding with the torrential rain. We walked through the train station and got a taxi to our hotel. I read so many times about the maze that is Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest travel point, and how many a traveller had gone into it’s labyrinth never to be seen again. Nowadays with Google Maps I just followed the yellow signs to the East Exit, no big deal really.

We had decided to stay in an area called Kabukicho, nicknamed as Sleepless Town it is Tokyo’s red light district. Why? Well I had this nagging perception that with Tokyo you have to be careful where you base yourself, I imagined some areas like Asakusa and Ikebukuro to be a bit deserted at night and as I thrive on chaos and noise it could only be Kabukicho for me.

Yasukuni Dori

Sleepless Town

The taxi driver drove us along Yasukuni Dori, a long famous boulevard surrounded by a sea of flashing neon. As I stared out onto the deserted soaked streets I tried to remember what I knew about Japan and realised it was very little. I had tried to read about Japanese history, religion and culture but it just didn’t click with me, there was ofcourse geisha, sumo and Monkey Magic a seventies t.v. show I used to love. I sat through Japanese cinema and most times turned the movie off half way through bored to tears, all except one movie called Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. What a contrast with my trip to Iran and my obsessions with Iranian New Wave Cinema and everything else that comes with Persian culture. I had wanted to fly to Osaka and stay in Kyoto, Japan’s historical city but it was my boyfriend who decided we must stay in fashionable Tokyo. I was not expecting much as this city had been practically reduced to rubble with the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and then again with the fire bombings in the war. I imagined Tokyo as a larger version of Hamburg and Rotterdam, only clad in neon, exciting yes but sadly lacking in historical sights.

Our first evening was uneventful apart from a pair of my shoes falling apart while walking through the ankle deep flooded streets, it was too soon after the scorching sand dunes of Oman for them to survive. While we were fighting against the elements I nudged my boyfriend and told him to look at a woman infront of us who was dressed in high heels, a mini skirt and knee length stockings….she was basically naked and we were in the middle of a typhoon! We popped into a smoke filled cafe and sat there, a teenager of about 13 years old was bent over unconscious on a chair, other people looked about expressionless avoiding eye contact or staring into smartphones. Why would someone just fall asleep in here, where are his parents? Maybe there were travel delays due to the typhoon that we didn’t know about. So that was that, our journey to Japan…oh and I forgot to mention the terrifying sirens at 10am the next morning when we took a direct hit from Typhoon Phanfone, the sirens were scary enough but it was the shouting through a loud speaker that made it all so freaky.

I recorded this from our hotel room, the shouting on loud speakers freaked me out!

Half an hour after Phanfone hit blue skies appeared and it was the end of our depressing Japan, from now on it would be incredible!