How the weather in Tokyo is.
Our sojourn back home after Part 1 of our travels included a christening and two funerals - such is life. It was nice to catch up with friends and family and appreciate our own house and surroundings again.
The next stage in the sabbatical was to be Japan. I had been to a conference in Yokohama several years ago and found the experience fascinating. There, I had met some lovely Japanese people including Yugo, a neurologist from the middle of Honshu Island, several hours south of Tokyo. His daughter, Yoko, a nurse, came to visit the hospice in Dorchester the year afterwards and Yugo and his wife came to our house last year. We were keen to take up their invitation to see them again in Japan.
On the flight with Virgin Atlantic to Tokyo, the plane was less than a third full - possibly somthing to do with us arriving in Japan on Friday 13th? The crew were mainly Japanese so we had an early introduction to their great hospitality and politeness. Flight food was either European or Japanese and was a good opportunity to become accustomed to things like seaweed soup for breakfast. It doesn’t sound very appetising at that time of the day but is really quite nice.
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
We had booked a hotel in Tokyo recommended by our friends from Switzerland who we had visited in Part 1 (see "Sins") - Richard, Hildegard & Madeleine Evans. They had been in Japan for a week already and it was great to see them again and get tips from their path-finding experiences. They also had some friends from near Tokyo, Denis and another Yoko, who showed us around the city which was a great bonus as it can be bewildering if you are on your own. We particularly appreciated their guidance across the maize which is the Tokyo underground, with multilevel anonymous passageways connecting the different track systems, thronged with people. Not the place to be if you are agoraphobic unless you were looking for a kill-or-cure experience.
Tokyo, like the rest of Japan, is a place of huge contrasts. Symbols of the past such as shrines and temples are everywhere, usually dwarfed by the sights and sounds of modern Japan. We saw the madness of Electronic City with its thousands of shops selling cheap electronics and state-of-the-art devices which are tested on the home market before going worldwide. The bright lights, blaring music and touting shop-keepers provide a sensory overload which would probably drive you mad if you were there for more than a few hours, but in small doses, it provides a wide-eyed experience which is rare elsewhere. Parts of the city look like futuristic scenes from a sci-fi movie with overhead railways and flyovers criss-crossing over the streets below against a backdrop of multicoloured neon signs and advertisements.
There is only one place to be in Tokyo on a Saturday night and that is in a kayoke establishment. Unlike back home, these consist of a whole block of small rooms for individuals or groups to hire and expose their musical talents in private. Our room was on the second floor overlooking a busy traffic intersection. Richard (Evans) revealed his hithertoo-hidden singing talent but despite show-boating to the crowds below with his rendition of Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, nobody seemed to take any notice and no traffic jams resulted. They had probably seen it all before.
The other traditional thing to do in Tokyo is to have a group photograph taken in one of the many photo-booth establishments on every street. These are a far cry from the passport photo booths in post offices back home with the option of adorning your print electronically with any number of backdrops, emoticons or special effects. By holding up your mobile phone next to where the print pops out, the digital version is emailed direct to your phone as wallpaper. If this carries on, soon they will be emailing virtual sushi the same way.
The next day couldn’t have been more different. By huge good fortune, it happened to be the festival of Shichi-go-san or “Seven-five-three”. This is where girls of seven and three and boys of five dress up in traditional Japanese costume and are taken to their local temple to be blessed with a healthy and prosperous life. We went to a beautiful park where families were gathering to enjoy the sunshine and occasion. Everyone was pleased to pose for photos in the land where cameras are ubiquitous. In addition to this, several weddings were taking place in the temple with the demure brides dressed in spectacular white robes with hoods being led through the grounds by monks in procession.
Japan manages to retain its strong traditional and spiritual core despite all the surrounding commercialism and capitalism. This must be quite rare in westernised countries where increasing materialism generally seems to go along with less importance given to religious or spiritual beliefs.
Traditional Japanese culture emphasises the importance of society and group loyalty as opposed to individualism but in Tokyo and elsewhere, younger people, but also some of more advanced years, break free from the conformity and dress up in bizarre ways to promenade around the streets attracting attention. Many of the outfits emulate characters from the cartoon comics to which many Japanese are addicted. The craze has developed into a money-making art in the form of “Maid Cafes” where, in a modern version of the elaborate traditional tea ceremony, you are served infantile food and drinks such as jelly and cakes with orange juice by deferent mini-skirted maids who, kneeling next to the table, get you to perform a “magic” ritual with them over the food to make it taste nicer. Very odd, and slightly uncomfortable if I have to be honest. Certainly different from your average Costa Coffee.
Just before we left Tokyo, I got up early in the morning to visit the famous fish market on the south side of the city. Every morning, thousands of tons of fish imported from all over the world to satisfy the huge Japanese appetite are auctioned in a huge aging dockland area with an almost Dickensian feel. Once bought, vendors display and sell their wares from small stalls packed in under several warehouses. At the back of the stalls are small “offices” where (usually) women are busy book-keeping all the transactions going on. An archaic ice-crusher machine, which would be unlikely to pass UK Health & Safety standards, keeps vendors supplied with ice to keep the fish fresh. Tuna is big business and everywhere there are whole fish and the decapitated remains of frozen ones that have been sliced up by band-saw. Electric trucks hurtle through the narrow passageways between stalls supplying vendors and buyers but, despite the crowded space, and lots of visiting tourists, everyone miraculously seems to avoid colliding with everyone else.
Well hello, sailor
Lost in translation ?
After an exhilirating few days in the capital city, it was time to head to the south on the bullet train to the more sober venue of Hiroshima ...