Not long into my trip to Japan, I gave up trying to slip quietly and unnoticed into a public place, because I knew the staff would not permit it.
No sooner would I cross the threshold of a restaurant, for example, than a chorus of greetings arose, to be carried on into the deepest depths of the kitchen by the most humble dish washer, or so it seemed.
It didn’t matter where I was – a sidestreet restaurant in Kyoto or a gift shop in the brash and gaudy Ginza – the country’s salutation at full throttle was as precisely performed as a piece of traditional theatre. And the chorus of greeting that swelled up when I entered was mirrored by an equally enthusiastic outbreak of goodbyes when I left, sending me off into the night.
Not that Japanese reserve the warm welcome for places where they are doing business. On a train back from Mt Fuji the lady opposite, prim and pert as a former Geisha, handed out chewing gum to me and another perfect stranger next to me. I’m not a gum chewer, but I felt It would have been hurtful, not merely impolite, to refuse.
I made another random rule: do not try to outdo a japanese chauffeur on timekeeping. My tour guide was due to pick me up from the hotel at 9. So that I wouldn’t keep him waiting, I walked into the foyer at five to. The driver, as if anticipating my at least trying to match him in politeness, had been there even earlier. When might I have beaten him in this earliness duel? 8 45? But at what loss of face for him?
The best place to see effortless and awesome time keeping is the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) platform of any large station. My train to Tokyo from Kyoto was due to leave at 08 56. Naturally my driver delivered me to the station in good time.
As I stood on the platform no fewer that four trains to Tokyo glided in and sped away to the appointed second, 1000 tonne monsters moving with balletic precision. Some trains terminated here. The second the last passenger had alighted, the cleaning detail boarded like a military invasion squad.
The Shinkansen, and some are quite venerable by now, became part of Japan’s post-war tourism success story from early on. Imagine if visitors to the UK had our railways automatically included as part of their tourism experience. Just think, if zipping from London to Edinburgh or Exeter or Carlisle was part of what we wanted to boast about. And, as a bonus to our visitors, we always sat them in the right seats for the best views of, say, the Pennines or the Marlborough Downs. (It’s a routine act of welcome for the train people to reserve seats for foreign visitors on the Mount Fuji side, for that fabled view 20 minutes south of Tokyo.)
You don’t have to be a rail buff or follower of fine engineering to appreciate the Shinkansen. They are abundant and go everwhere. They speed down to Kyoto and Osaka, on to Hiroshima, and ending at Kagoshima at the foot of the island. They go north as far as Shin-Aomori. You may think you prefer the comfort of a car even on holiday in Japan, but, believe me, you will be a little mad not to take the train. It’s hard to see how else you would want to take in Japan as a tourist.
While we fret about HS2 here in the UK, the Japanese long ago saw the Bukkt Train as the solution to the conundrum of moving about quickly in their small, densely populated country. It is sleek, and furiouly fast. I used to think it was some kind of prestige service. But the train is included in the unlimited travel you get on Japan Railways for a week, and all for £234.
I found Shinkansen the perfect jet-lag relief. I could relax and doze for three hours as this symbol of Japanese post-war renaissance tore south to Kyoto. ( As many British visitors do, I travelled overnight from London, arriving at breakfast time. I would recommend leaving Tokyo to last. You need to build up to it. The capital could easily overwhelm as the first stop off the plane. )
THE TRIP down the east coast to Kyoto shows Japan in microcosm. Sprawling towns, almost joining up. A jumble of criss-crossing motorways. Huge factories alongside little farms. Yet there is a backdrop of distant, dreamy mountains, with perfect points just as children draw them. Rising out of green foothills, they are the staples of traditional Japanese art.
This was my first visit to Japan, but for a foreign country with a challenging language, it felt strangely familiar. We know all the big brand names – Nissan, Toyota, Sony and Samsung. Madame Butterfly is one of the world’s best loved operas. Japanese gardens, tea houses and sumo wrestlers are familiar features. Japan even plays rugby. And drives on the right.
Arriving in Kyoto there was something else I recognized, the royal traffic jam. I left the station just as the crown prince’s motorcade was arriving. He was travelling back to Tokyo after a three day visit here. The poor driver due to take me to the Hyatt Regency was in a frenzy of apology. They closed parking places around the station and he had to park some distance away. The prince was taking the Shinkansen, of course. We made it to the hotel where the manager suggested acupuncture as a treatment for jet lag.
Kyoto is so rich in history, the entire city has been designated a World Heritage Site. There are so many pagodas and temples and 600 year old pine trees and lakes and bamboo avenues – all inside the city boundaries.
There might have been nothing older than 1945. Kyoto was a possible candidate for an A bomb, until a US offical pointed out how much history it had. Nagasaki became the second target instead of Kyoto.
We set off with the scarcely achievable challenge of visiting all 17 sites. In the end we had to be selective. My driver, a university graduate, who had settled for a career in driving for the forseeable future for want of anything else, tried his best. He kept diving into very tight parking spaces, aided by reverse-pointing cemera that “docked” him like the pod in the film 2001 once he’d lined himself up. In a solid day’s parking and visiting I think we saw seven temples, scattered across Kyoto.
Each, its ancient wood restored to a high order, was a beautifully restored testament to Japan’s complex war lord-dominated history. And each left me with a memory to distinguish it, such as a grove of ancient cherry trees, or a temple’s golden reflection in a lake on a perfect autumn morning.
But nothing so gloriously bizarre as the floor in Nijo Castle. The wooden floorboards were set to creak through a network of nails so that any intruder creeping in at dead of night would set off a sound like the song of nightingales.
We finished off in the city centre food market, one long corridor under a high roof crossing six streets. It is one of those authentic places where they make no compromise for the tourist. There is not a single sign in English over the endless shelves of fish, vegetables and pastries. This is mysterious, mainstream Japan.
In quieter streets around here I came across the baffling exhibitionism of Japanese tourists, who pay $70 to dress up in kimonos, then stand in the street and let themselves be photographed, for nothing I assumed, by other tourists.
Next day the concierge helped me plan an easy and unintimidating half day trip to Nara by train. The journey took about 40 minutes. Nara was the imperial capital before Kyoto was, and before Tokyo took up the mantle.
It was a sunny late October day, fluffy clouds in a deep blue sky. You step out of the railway station in the town centre onto a long, straight street containing the town’s main historical attractions, heading uphill. I lingered at four substantial wooden temples of various vintages (the youngest was built in 1860).
At the top of the hill more temples, an ornamental lake and park with a herd of deer genetically linked to animals that have browsed here since the Middle Ages. I suspect, though, that the shoguns, assorted warlords and samurai would not have had the patience in all their warring and ritual for anything to do with “Middle”. They struck me as a very beginning and end people.
I walked back down the hill, pausing at some of the most tasteful gift shops I’ve seen in an out and out tourist area. Contributing modestly to the local economy, I left one with an exquisite painted card.
Back in Kyoto, I walked into the city centre to the new cartoon museum, dodging cyclists on the pavements. If this was lawbreaking, it was the most respectable kind. Smart office ladies, men in suits, venerable grannies – they all went wobbling past.
On such a high risk transport corridor, something was bound to go wrong. I saw a lady office worker knock down another lady, just like herself, and from behind. They both collapsed in a heap. Seeing that nobody was hurt, I left them to their apologies and courteous recriminations.
That night I ate to a small sushi restaurant, where, after the overture of ritual greetings, I sat at a counter in front of the chefs, drank endless cups of Japanese tea (beer and wine are expensive – typically £6-£7 a glass) and watched them prepare my succession of tiny dishes. Edible origami. I decided not to ask whether the fish was sustainably sourced.
NEXT DAY on to Tokyo. This megalopolis is beyond big. Think of it as a series of smaller cities, linked around their own business and retail areas without a gap, each with a station five times the size of a London terminus such as Euston Station. My guide Hiro was waiting exactly where my carriage stopped on the Shinkansen platform. We set off for an eight hour tour of the highlights, Hiro leading me easily through the city’s vast train and underground network.
Imagine a highlights tour of London, but covering four times the distance. Tokyo even has its version of South Kensington, Ueno in the Taito district. Five museums include the National Museum of Western Art. That’s is a neat symmetry, when you consider the V&A is our museum of Oriental Art. It has an original Rodin’s Thinker. The National Science Museum, the Tokyo National Museum and the Archaeological Museum complete the cultural abundance.
Since my visit they’ve opened the city’s newest highlight, the 300 feet high Tokyo Sky Tree. At 634m, the tower is one of the world’s tallest. The observation deck, at 450 metres, gives the highest view (by far) in Tokyo.
Our trip ended with retail, on a massive scale. The Ginza shopping district is 5th Avenue, Regent Street and Times Square mixed into one, only bigger and higher, with electronic shops, the head showroom of Nissan, the five-storey Sony Tower and a giant redwood forest of neon lights, which were now pulsing and sparkling at full wattage.
Hiro must have thought I was flagging. He had a treat in store. In one of the biggest of the department stores he led me to a $50,000 massage chair. It maps the shape of your back, then proceeds to pummel and pound you according to a 20 minute personalised program it has devised. It went straight to my list of extravagant unobtainables.
In this district of golden retail pavements, there is still room for high and inexpensive taste. In an art and craft shop I found a little decorated box made from paper for holding business cards. It was obviously, and beautifully, hand made. Yet it cost less that £10. They gift-wrapped it most meticulously. And I didn’t have to ask.
We ended up in a restaurant next to a party of 20 office workers on a – I suspect – compulsory corporate bonding outing. It looked as if they were going to be there for some time. These bonding workers seemed to be enjoying themselves, particularly when they joined on a procession of clashing chanting musicians from the country, who progress through the restaurant twice every evening.
Outside we plunged into an ocean of impeccably dressed commuters in full returning-home mode, all wearing jackets and carrying briefcases, although it was 20° C. It was 8pm, but not particularly late for them. On the train back to my hotel, and that’s a 30 minute trip inside the city, Hiro explained the commuting travails of the city worker, and how standing passengers would judge how soon a sitting commuter was likely to stand for his stop, by how deeply he was sleeping. When I left Hiro he too had another hour to go before he reached home, just like the many thousands around us.
MY LAST CALL was Mt Fuji. I joined a coach tour, for many tourists the only way to reach big out of town attractions. However by the time we had picked up clients from other hotels, and been stuck in traffic jams, there wasn’t so much time to spend at our destination, Station 5, 2400 m up, just about the treeline, two thirds of the way up.
It’s natural that you would want to visit Fuji, but I almost regret that I did so. My close up view was disappointing. The slope above us was bare, black and bleak. it was late autumn and last winter’s snow had retreated to quite some distance above us. It would not be replenished for another month. Snow can carry on until April, which is when the promotional photographs are taken.
My revolutionary travel tip would be to hire a boat and set out to sea about 10 miles off the coast. Look back, and you would be roughly where the artist Hokusai depicted the emblematic beaking crest (with Mt Fuji under it) in his The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The idea came to me back in London when I saw a version of the painting in the British Museum.
You can actually get quite close to Station 5 for nothing with your rail card, and much more quickly than the coach. I know this because 20 minutes down the mountain we passed through a small town where I noticed a station. I assumed a link back to Tokyo. The coach party was going on to a boat trip on the lake and a ride on a cable car. I preferred the city, and asked the tour leader if I could head back on my own.
After some mild consternation she was full cooperation. She helpfully told me times, where to change and how long it would take me. It is on the first train, occasionally glimpsing the sacred mountain above a patchwork of valleys and small fields in a rare green corner of built-up Japan, where I met the lady with the chewing gum.
With one quick change I was back in the city, about three hours before the coach.
I was staying in the Park Hyatt, where they filmed “Lost in Translation”. It was too good a hotel to waste. The exciting thing that night was an unmistakable tremor. I felt it in my 41st floor room, just before I went to dinner. It lasted for about three or four seconds, and felt like hailstones rattling on the windows. The hotel’s PR lady, who joined me at dinner, described it as a .3 earthquake. Happens all the time, she said, although guests can become quite agitated.
I have felt tremors in Turkey, and was less concerned than I might otherwise have been. This hotel is on safer ground, literally. Massive weights, built into the superstructure about half way up, absorb the force and keep the structure stable.
Dinner was on the 52nd floor, in the New York Grill. While my hostess dealt with business calls, I stole a glance at the constant torrent of traffic far below on the snaking freeway built for the Tokyo Olympics.
The next morning, on the train out to Narita International Airport, (Virgin Atlantic were very kindly upgrading me to Upper Class for the flight back to London) I compiled a little list.
There is so much to like about Japan. Its sensible practical and considerate solutions, its neat touches. I used to think people wearing face masks were fussily avoiding other people’s germs. It turns out many are just as keen not to pass their cold on to others by sneezing all over them.
That taking off your shoes in a restaurant. Doesn’t that keep the place so much cleaner? And those windows made of rice paper? Such a good idea. They keep out the glare of the sun, yet let in the light. Then there is wasabi, widely used in cooking. Not just a hot taste, it has anti-food poisoning properties.
There are endearing touches. An anti-graffiti sign, in a “beautification enforcement area” is translated as: “no scribbling here”. And I remember a man tenderly tending flowers planted around a tree in a city centre street.
Other things still perplex me. I’ve always felt the country’s defence of whaling is wrong, as is its continuing exploitation of blue fin tuna. But, as the wise manager of the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto told me, we need to keep travelling and keep talking.
The writer’s trip was organized by Japan specialists Bales, www.balesworldwide.com. He flew with Virgin Atlantic, www.virgin-atlantic.com, and stayed at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and the Park Hyatt Tokyo, www.hyatt.com.
More details: www.seejapan.co.uk