As a Londoner I have always wondered what it must be like to be a tourist in Oxford Circus Underground station, standing with all my bags piled up in the middle of the exits, straight off the train from Heathrow, impossibly in the way and trying to work out what to do with no knowledge of the language or even the alphabet.
Now I know, because this was us, just two hours off a flight from Singapore and delivered with an efficient click of our train’s smooth rolling heels right into the middle of Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku Station, where in one frantic second we had to exchange our pre-bought train vouchers, navigate the spaghetti metro with a crumpled map from Arrivals, work out where we were staying from the very organised airbnb man’s printout and do all that while propping up a tired child. We had been warned about the tangled train lines, lack of English-speakers, chaos of rush hour, and everyone was right. What was great about Japan, we’ve since found out, is that it was all entirely possible.
The build-up of city from Tokyo to Narita Airport extends for miles and miles, with suburbs stretching out just like they do around London, only multiplied several times. Millions of people live in the capital, one third of the entire population of Japan stuffed into one city, so we were told. The same friend told us the sea had been about five miles out of town when he was a boy. Like Singapore, the land has now taken over and the sea is no longer anywhere near.
Our week-long circuitous route would go from Tokyo to Kyoto and Nara then back to Tokyo again, taking in all of Japan’s capital cities in reverse order. We were lucky that we marked the start of our trip by seeing two sets of friends, local families both now relocated back to their hometown of Tokyo. They kindly showed us around, ordered our food, got us our first train tickets and gave us a load of useful info with which to arm ourselves for the next stop. Yes, in effect, we cheated, but so what? I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because that dash of local flavour got our trip off to such a great start. And what a trip.
It ended up having three distinct flavours: Tokyo was London in autumn, a crunch underfoot, metro bustle. Fashions were at once reserved and eclectic. If you weren’t in muted officewear or dark autumn styles you could well be decked out in a blaze of fake schoolgirl attire, stuck forever at 17 with dolly pink rouge and fake freckles, trilby hats, bold pairings of yellow and black, fake pearls and ruffles, all entirely intended and worn so well by hundred of girls around town. I’d not seen a ra-ra skirt for years, yet here they were in abundance, worn with no hint of irony and the whole effect magnified for me by a whiff of that very retro 1980s perfume Anais Anais, tickling my nose with a passing puff on a metro carriage, and giving me such a sharp Mum-pang that I almost dropped my bags. That scent always makes me think of the 1980s, and my cousin Kate, and us two trying on new ra-ra skirts from Camden Market in my bedroom with my Culture Club cassette jamming and de-ribboning as we played and rewound it to learn the words, spritzing each other with that funny floral scent (the first and only one Mum ever wore during my childhood) all around the room. See? That’s what Tokyo does – yanks you back to Nostalgia Town and holds you down while you drink it all in. When people describe something as ‘an assault on the senses’, Tokyo is pretty much what they mean.
The family theme continued with architecture. Kate’s sister Sadie is an architect as was their dad, my late Uncle Jack (also a boatman), and my sister also works with Sadie, and they would all have so loved our funky downtown airbnb rental with its bonkers bath and toilet. The bathroom was in a pod in the kitchen (a proper ‘head’ like on boats), and the toilet was in a pod by the door and the top of the toilet was actually a sink with a tap that ran when you activated the flush, enabling you to wash your hands and fill the cistern at the same time. Awesome! Every bathroom had some element of ‘pod’, which I thought Jack would have liked.
At times I wondered if I was enjoying the city so much because it was so, well, London-like, but then something funky would happen, like a woman in a kimono standing by the bread counter, or one of those ra-ra skirts hopping onto our metro carriage with no irony at all, and I would remember that it wasn’t a bit like my home city at all.
If Tokyo was nostalgia, Kyoto was a pleasing blend of two more of my favourite places, Bruges and Bali. Temples here were gorgeously orange, be-scrolled and towering, vast and wide, with flashes of gold to perfectly complement the red leaves and evening sunsets. Some were smaller, Bali-like, tucked up terraces and dotting side streets. Those temple-builders knew their salt, just like my uncle knew his pods, and to make those old buildings all the more wonderful the town had a romantic canal cut right through it, a perfect dash of old Bruges. That European city, in which Mr PC proposed (to me, of course) was instantly recognisable in the famous old waterway path known as Philosopher’s Walk, where gnarled trees hung over tiny riverside houses all stacked up above the waterway, and cats (real ones, for once, see entry on ‘Cats’) lolled about on benches. Thanks to being proposed at in Bruges, any canal walk reminds me of that wonderful weekend and so I spent the afternoon drizzling along behind the boys with a dreamy smirk while they scampered up ahead.
Autumn here had bluer skies and cooler nights. From the temples and canal we marched down to the city centre packed full of early evening shoppers, a chill settling on the town as the night lights came up, tinny music fluting from lamppost speakers in such a very Christmassy way that I came over all English again and nearly bought a scarf. I could live in Kyoto, I decided. It’s got things like the very trendy and laid-back Manga Museum, where uber-cool staff efficiently found a grisly book for SM that we didn’t even know he knew, occupying him for the entire time while we browsed the weird comic prints. Then there was a beautifully preserved Shogun castle with a wooden floor built to squeak with every single footstep so as to alert occupants of intruders. For once, SM attempted silence, only to find noise with every socked footfall. There’s a winding souvenir street just like somewhere Cornish, possibly Padstow or Penzance; an inky lamplit park just begging for crispy firework nights with a massive temple all lit up in the middle; then a whopping great modern station a la St Pancras, and a winding old abandoned rail track on the outskirts of town. What’s that all like, I ask you? I have no idea but the combination was brilliant.
After the supreme wonderfulness of Kyoto came our last stop, Nara, which was not so much nostalgic as fun. Parts of it looked a bit like Slough but it redeemed itself by having a pretty station plus a packed high street with great shopping, and a huge sprawling park, which was the reason for our visit. The park is notable for being sacred, and full of equally sacred dotty deer biting your bottom for crackers. They’re revered and protected so you can’t bite them back, you just have to do lots of of schoolgirl running and shrieking, which was fun, and when you tire of that you’ve got two arcades stuffed full of deer-related tat to add to what little shopping your bank has allowed so far. There is also an enormous Buddha, worth taking the long park walk and paying the entry fee just to gaze up at His enormous ears. You could have fitted SM from giant wooden lobe to tip.
Various observations made this an extremely different trip to all the others, more action-packed, buoyant, familiar and odd all at once as if we’d gone on a weird travel-hop like Alice, or out through a wardobe into a Narnia land of wonder. I’ve never felt all at once so far away and so close to home and because of this I’ve had to jot down all my ideas in snapshot format. I don’t want to forget a thing, because when we come to leave this bit of the world and I get to adding up what’s left to see, I must be sure to remember that Japan is big and beautiful and full of so much more for us to explore.
I can’t mention enough how precious this was. I’m a heat lover and quite enjoy living in a sultry country full of Haze with no seasons and eternal daytime hours of 7 to 7. That is, I usually enjoy it. This trip reminded me just how enlivening it is to feel autumn on your skin, to get all excited about the changing seasons, to have that weird sense of fun about it getting dark at 5.30pm (how is that ‘fun’ once it gets to February in Britain, I know, yet somehow it just was). Trees turning to red, a run of high blue skies, some soft Cornish rain and a general crunch underfoot all reminded me so much of England as it approaches Christmas. From a practical stance we had forgotten how much further we could walk without humidity: we walked for miles, and couldn’t have done that in Singapore, not at all.
Ever seen My Friend Totoro? Remember the cat bus? The town buses of Kyoto reminded me of these furry, friendly vehicles. Rounded, warm chrome havens, smooth as butter and politely picking up and dropping off inhabitants all around town. A man whispers announcements, and the stops flash up in advance. You pay when you get off, not when you get on, which somehow makes a world of sense. It’s all so easy (and spookily reminiscent of Trumpton).
Taxis come in Lada shapes with chrome emblems bolted on to the roof. Drivers wear gloves and official hats. Don’t shut the doors! They close automatically. Taxis are very clean and rather expensive, so we only went in one. In Kyoto the bolted-on rooftop emblems were often heart-shaped, and some had the letter ‘M’ in neon red dots.
Are everywhere – every-of-the-where – but I don’t mean real ones. They are on bags, dangling from key chains, folded into scarves, drizzled onto coffee-tops, pastried onto airline meal buns, hat-shaped, apron-decorating, stuffed onto the end of pastry rollers, using kitten paws as furniture protectors and tiny bootees for babies, inside and outside shop windows, hanging from menus, whiskering you from billboard ads, all over everything and everywhere. This is cat central. If you don’t like cats, there are a few pandas and some deer. But it’s mainly cats.
I had read online that there were fewer women on the streets than men, and that a lot of men wore black business suits and white shirts, a la Men In Black, and both of those facts turned out to be oddly true. I also noticed fewer children dotted about, possibly due to the Asian trend for having a ton of homework. We found a playpark for smaller tots one day, went to a kids’ fun mall with friends, but other than that most children we saw were tourists. Said friends (four of them all roughly SM’s age) spent the first weekend with us, and to hear about their schooldays and lifestyles was interesting and (apart from those extra hours of tuition), not dissimilar to SM’s. Only once was a man in uniform stern with SM and rightly so, telling him off for using his yo-yo in a public place – when I say ‘using’ I mean swinging wildly sideways in a metre-sized arc. So yes, not such a great idea.
Let’s face it, boredom gets the better of ten-year-olds after one temple too many. If yours are old enough to manhandle a big camera give them the responsibility of taking all of the official temple shots. This means they’ll be hanging back to snap every two seconds but who’s in a rush? We’re still waiting to edit ours.
Not all toilets in Japan are flashy. You’ve got your bog-standard flushers, your holes in the floor, and your zooty Shinkansen-type shiny ones with all the buttons and levers. The latter must be tried out at least once. Well, more than once. We’ve never been so clean. Let’s just leave it at that.
The food here is good, and it’s not all cold fish and rice balls. There’s lots to explore but be sure to set off with level expectations. Expect not to find food easily. Expect not to be understood. Be brave and point and ask, otherwise you might end up with something you really don’t want. If you get it right, you could just be in gourmet heaven, as we usually were. Here’s where walking comes in. Know that you will often end up walking miles to find something that you want. Take a few tips off the internet and try to make some advance bookings. Pointing really will get you a long way, as will being polite and knowing how to say please and thank you in Japanese at the very least. Hand-wipes should be mentioned here: they are given out at the start of a meal, just as they are elsewhere in the world, but don’t wait until the end of the meal to use them. The idea is that you wipe before you eat. Makes sense, no? You can still use them again at the end.
We liked Yakkitori sticks, Japanese curry, and noodles, while SM particularly enjoyed one huge teppenyaki steak (expensive tastes, that one). Our top spots:
• Hakata Ippodo Ramen, Kyoto for perfect gyoza dumplings and bowls of steaming ramen. This was an online recommendation. In all the best places you will have to queue, as with this place, but our queue moved fast and there was a bench to sit on. The website is in Japanese, sorry about that, but here’s a map. I have NO idea how we eventually stumbled upon the place (in fact I think that IS how) but how about printing out the link in advance and showing it to your hotel’s desk staff? It will be worth it.
• M&C Café, Oazo Building, Maranouchi. Friends took us to this upmarket Tokyo cafe for plates of Japan’s famed hushed beef curry. This queue is inside the English section of a bookshop. Once at the top of the queue, ask (OK, gesture) for a windowseat that looks out over Tokyo’s train tracks, so you can watch the activity while you eat.
Don’t drag your bag across the tatami mats in a ryokan. There are designated places for your luggage, ensuring the mats stay undamaged and your room stays orderly.
Everywhere we stayed – hotel, apartment, ryokan – had pod-like bathrooms. Pod-crazy, I tell you.
Japan is crushingly expensive, on a par with Singapore, London and Norway. I couldn’t buy proper presents, just small bits. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a kimono, tea set, lacquered tray, wall-hanging, any of those things I’d thought about bringing back. We tried to have street snacks instead of real meals but found ourselves hungry again at meal times. Just spend the money and eat, why don’t you – the food is so yummy you’ll forget you’re spending your pension, and you’ll walk it all off finding the next restaurant.
Notes themselves are predictably pretty. At shop counters money is given and returned via little plastic trays. No coin-dropping, no hesitation about who gives what and into which hand. There is a five-yen coin with a hole in the middle that is so olde-worlde that I wanted to keep them all, and the one-yen coins are so light they reminded me of plastic sweet shop money.
You know those film clips of people bracing under the flight paths of planes taking off for a buzz? Go and stand in the middle of Tokyo or Shinjuku metro stations at rush hour. Add a massive suitcase each, plus shoulder bag, plus ten-year-old. This is Japan, crazybusy just as promised, but eerily ordered. As with most city underground systems you will likely only get bumped into if you’re in the way, so don’t get in the way and you should be OK. There are methods of getting through: rights and lefts on escalators and stairways, arrows and signposts, colour-coded lines with numbered stations so it’s just a case of joining the dots, plus arrows on either side of station names (that are in English as well as Japanese) pointing out the stations before and after. Keep your wits about you and you can get through the crush. If you’ve been brought up on the Underground, you really have no excuse not to give it a go. By the end of our week we were cruising the tunnels with ease, at one point rousing SM from a lying-down-and-reading position. Totally at home.
The iconic shape of Mount Fuji is one of the big images of Japan, along with Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ and geisha hair. When you go past that peak on a train travelling at 240 mph, you can see why. Fuji looms above the mountain range from afar, then comes up surprisingly close (at least on our Kyoto line, anyway) and hovers suspended between overhead cables for a good ten minutes. It is colossal and stately and truly, utterly beautiful. A friend had climbed it the week before – I can’t say that’s on my wishlist but when I saw it from my window I could quite appreciate her excitement.
Are everywhere. All over the place. Big and grandiose, in silver, gold, orange and dark wood. Stacked behind one another down tiny town alleys, stuffed full of people cramming perilously onto its hillside wooden platform as with Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple (see picture below), high up on mountains, and right in the middle of the cities. Some you can visit, some you can’t. The rules are the same as with most: Always take off your shoes. Always maintain order and quiet. You can ring the bell at the entrance if you like and sometimes you can light an incense stick. Some have views outside, some are awesome on the inside. Nara’s Tōdai-ji Temple contained the big Buddha, the biggest covered one in the world, stuffed under its roof. As I said before, you could fit our ten-year-old lying flat out on His outstretched hand. Behind the Buddha was a wooden pillar, at the bottom of which was a hole at floor level through which small children were invited to wriggle through to seek yet more enlightenment. Hoards of schoolkids were lining up to have a go, some getting scarily stuck halfway. The porkier ones who made it through looked relieved rather than enlightened, in particular one especially big kid who wobbled off having been coaxed through with great cheers and frantic tugs. SM, who could have slipped through like a matchstick, declined.
Local behaviour in temples varies. An entire coachload of screaming schoolchildren trod all over our feet through one temple, pushing past us to get to Buddha. In Nara’s Gangō-ji Temple, a senior group knelt quietly on tatami mats and answered questions from their host – I wished I had understood, because that tour looked a lot more fun.
The beautiful graveyard of Gangō-ji gave me another missing-Mum-moment, because she would have so loved the little stone lines with tiny figurines dotted about the grass, sculptural, serene and ordered, against the stunning backdrop of one of those autumn days. She gets around, does Mum.
Hauling up the platform steps at Tokyo to get to the Shinkansen, we saw a side door open at foot level and out scuttled about 12 women in pink uniforms, who then dashed on ahead as in some Pixel kids’ film, and spread out down the platform, waiting for the train just where the doors would open. We’d been told about them the night before by our friend – they are the Shinkansen train-cleaners, and they have just 7 minutes to get on board, clean the train, and get out again before you all pile on. On completion they pause at the door, make a three-cornered temple-style salute, then get off, head for the stairs and vanish back down the hole. Pure Disney. Or Alice. Or Narnia.
And boy do those Shinkansens move. The fastest, Nozomo, was’t covered by our tourist rail pass but the second-fastest Hikari spat us down to Kyoto in half the time it would have usually taken. As we whizzed smoothly through the countryside (with English announcements en route from a disembodied Hitchhiker’s Guide voice that sounded like that Julie Peasgood from 1990s voiceover advert fame (and don’t ask me how I remember her), we took slow-mo filmettes and speeded up clips that looked nonsensically quick when played back. “It’s actually not that fast,” proffered SM in a lofty attempt at indiffierence, but he only said it because he couldn’t feel the judder like you would do on normal trains anywhere else in the world (apart form Norway, whose trains are equally awesome in my book).
Train carriages are clearly marked, so there’s no dashing to the end of Platform 9 where you THINK carriage 4 is only to find it is carriage 18, then cursing as you lug your suitcase all the way back down the rocking corridors to carriage no 4. If it says carriage 4 on your ticket, simply stand at the appropriate place on the platform and you will magically enter the train straight into the right carriage. Splendid.
Finally: the art of folding. So much of Japan is to do with folding, it translates into everything, including train travel. You know when you buy a takeout coffee and pick up a paper cuff to hold it? When you buy a rail ticket the vendor passes you the little paper slips and you can then pick up a small paper folder from a stack on the counter and tuck your tickets inside. I loved this. Even inside train carriages the skill is apparent. We saw a woman get on, put her hand on the metal backrest of a double-seat, and shove it forward with a clang, so that the whole seating format magically changed for her from being a big double area to a compact twin-set facing the other way.
‘You know,’ said my friend as we waited on the platform on Day One, ‘we really don’t go on trains that often, and there is a word for people who love them.’ We worked out it probably translated as ‘train-spotter’. If that’s the case then I’ll gladly become one.
Women wearing yukatas, or kimonos, are everywhere. Not to be confused with geishas (the women with chalk-white faces), these ladies are simply going about their daily business wearing kimonos. It took me a good three days to stop gawking every time one stood at a bus stop or glided onto the escalator in front of us. An entire table of matching kimono women sat beside us in a café one night. When I asked our friend if this was normal, she frowned slightly, and said: ‘well, yes’ – so I stopped taking so many pics. All the same: wow.
So what did we not do? Lots: didn’t have an onsen bath or a tea ceremony, didn’t walk down Gion or have any ninja training, didn’t see a geisha, never climbed Mount Fuji (OK so it might be on the list, a little bit), and didn’t have eel. I won’t be going back for that one, though.
*TITLE NOTE: Well, I had to get it somewhere, didn’t I? And after eating our way around Japan it’s apt.