I have the next 3 hours to reflect on Japan so far while Fi has the laptop and the country flies by as we hurtle across it aboard the Shinkansen [bullet train]. Having barely written a note since we arrived in this magnificent country I certainly have some catching up to do.
Let’s start with the places visited so far: Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Sakurajima, Kumamoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Kyoto with a brief side-trip to Kobe. Considering we’ve been here for little over a week it feels like pretty good going. Tokyo will be our base for the remainder of our time in Japan – an exciting prospect for me at least.
We landed in Fukuoka on Thursday 8th of December with more than just a little trepidation given the unfortunate elements we’d endured during our time in China. We needn’t have worried for in many ways Japan is the polar opposite of China, all of which seem to suit me better.
It’s really difficult to encapsulate precisely and succinctly what it is about Japan that’s really struck a chord with me. I think at the core it’s the people and their nature. I believe I’m right in saying that Japanese society is built upon the pillars of honour and respect. Combine that with politeness and what I can only describe as gentlemanly / lady-like conduct [by which I mean always string to ensure that those around you are comfortable] and you have what feels like a country that has surpassed the rest of the world on a social level. Of course these are just subjective opinions based upon the limited observations of one individual over a very short space of time but many of the people we’ve met while travelling through Japan have been similarly impressed by the kindness of the Japanese people and the experiences they’ve had.
I’ll try and give a tiny example. As I sit here in the large legroom seat [allocated to us on a number of our train journeys – unprompted by us – to ensure that we had enough space for our ridiculous baggage] I regularly see the conductors and the catering team moving up and down the train. They quietly make their presence known without engaging you directly – if you want something you can ask but they’re not hawking their wares. Each time one of them reaches the end of the carriage they turn, bow, smile, and quietly say something that I can’t understand but gather is some form of respectful address to the cabin, and then depart. As I scribble this two of the catering ladies met in from of me from opposite directions. One calmly moved her trolley and stepped aside to allow the other to pass, bowing and smiling. The other returned the gesture before setting off elegantly along. To the reader this is probably failing to make sense at the moment, and for that I apologise, but it’s the serenity and grace by which this simple interaction – and indeed the Japanese day-to-day – takes place that never fails to impress.
It’s to the extent that you can’t help but think how horrifying it would be to discover that you’d actually managed to offend anyone.
My love affair with Japan doesn’t end with its people. The places we’ve visited have been similarly impressive. Fukuoka felt vibrant and alive despite the limited exploration we did there. Sakurajima is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and it was having a good ol’ smoke while we sat in an Onsen’s outdoor Rotenburo at its base while the sun came down. Japan is full of Onsen – bath houses that are heated by the hot springs from the myriad of volcanoes dotted throughout the country.
Kumamoto’s castle – particularly the outer buildings and towers – put you right back into the heart of old Japan as you glide across the hardwood floors in yours socks, your shoes in a bag that one of the gentlemen on the door has kindly provided. The carefully considered discreet lighting providing just enough ambient light as you wander the simple rooms and tatami mats separated by paper-screen walls and sliding doors. Chuck me a Kimono and a Samurai Sword and I’d have been lost in the past.
Hiroshima needs no introduction and its A-Bomb dome monument – one of the few structures that retained any semblance of a building amidst the devastation of the worlds first nuclear attack – still stands as a reminder to all of what happened on August 6th 1945 at 8:15am. Yet another tribute to Japan is the diplomatic, balanced and unbiased way in which the Peace Memorial Museum is presented. It provides an open and honest account of the events leading up to the drop and an immense amount of excellently presented information on the day itself and the aftermath. It’s a humbling experience and leaves you with little doubt that such a weapon has no place in warfare of any kind. I cannot conceive of a threat of such magnitude to warrant that level of devastation as a necessary reaction.
Miyajima Island – close to Hiroshima but far enough away to be unaffected – is a beautiful peaceful spot. Its Itsukushima-Jinta shrine sits in a bay with a large Torii Gate further out from the shore making for what is considered to be one of the top three views in Japan. The whole island is covered in Deer who are friendly as you like – particularly if you have food. The simple hike up Mount Misen served as a brutal reminder to me of the lack of exercise I’ve undertaken since we set off. We also made some good mates in the hostel – two of which we’re meeting today in Tokyo for their send-off. Liam and Craig we salute you!
Kyoto was a lovely city and as a former capital is regarded as the cultural centre of Japan. It’s easy to see why – there’s a temple of some sort every 50-or-so yards. We had a great hostel and a number of cool days – we gate-crashed a Geisha photoshoot at the temple of a thousand gates, saw Kinkakuji Temple [the Golden Pavilion] at sunset, visited the Ryoan-Ji Zen garden, the International Manga Museum, the lit-up bamboo forest of Arashiyama and still found time to watch Akira [in Japan man!].
We’re almost in Tokyo so I’ll have to leave it there for now but I should hopefully find a fair bit more time to scribble some more over the coming days. For now though it’s Tokyo, it’s Akihabara, it’s Streetfighter, it’s Ryu, it’s Hadouken and it’s an inevitable ass-kicking for me. But hell, it’s all of the above, and for me that’s awesome.