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Adventures in Japan

Been a while since I blogged… sorry….


HOOOLLLIDDAAAYYYY sing its name from the rooftops HOOOLLIDDAAYYY oh blessed state, oh bastion of wonder, oh holiday!

As has been covered in this blog, I have perhaps recently been burning the candles at both ends.  Basically since the moment that RADA turned round to its students and reminded us that ten minutes early was already five minutes too late; Saturdays were for finishing glazing the floor and to leave before 10 p.m. was to let your team down.  Also that doing unpaid labour over your summer holidays was really good for your CV, which may have been true at the time but is arguably also the problem with theatre.  Ah RADA, you were generally awesome, with a couple of strong caveats.

Since then I’ve had odd flourishes of vacation in 3 or 4 day bursts, as well as a lovely meet-the-family adventure to America.  There have also been numerous adventures to incredible places in the name of books.  Oh, the pastel de natas in Porto!  Headread in Tallinn; the feast in Aviles; sneaky ice cream in Berlin; lounging in the sun by the banks of the Vistula – it’s been incredible.  I am nothing but breathtakingly grateful and honoured by every international event I’ve been invited to.  Is it a holiday?  Perhaps not.  It’s still THE BEST.

Or perhaps: nearly THE BEST.

Because the best, it turns out, is holiday, and 2018 was the year when I finally ticked Japan off my bucket-list.

I’ve wanted to go to Japan for over a decade, but never felt financially capable nor as though there’s been space in my calendar to do it justice.  2018 was the year to change that.

First things first: never fly Air China.

It was the most uncomfortable flight I’ve ever been on; the 1-hour connection they sell you in Beijing to make your Osaka flight is almost physically impossible (we arrived with 15 seconds to spare at the gate, after SPRINTING through the goddamn airport and three passport checks), and on the way to Japan they lost our luggage; mine in Beijing, and my partner’s in Heathrow, and then again Beijing during the delayed transit.  Try to call their London office to complain, and you will get stuck in an automatic loop that asks you to choose between either English or Mandarin communication… forever.  DO NOT FLY AIR CHINA.

Despite this, we did in fact make it to Japan.  We arrived in Osaka in time for a heatwave so intense the government declared it a national disaster; but that was ok.  The hurricane in Tokyo helped take the edge off, and while it was irrefutably very hot indeed – particularly without any clean clothes to change into oh Air China – Japan has got the art of the air conditioned cake shop down.

We chose to land in Osaka in order to follow an itinerary largely dictated by fireworks.  The Japanese have seasonal festivals nailed, and at this time Osaka was hosting Tenjin Matsuri – a Shinto festival in which a man dressed as a goblin rides on a horse in front of a sacred bull, while hundreds of dancers, drummers and musicians parade through the streets, before finishing up with a parade of boats down the river and a firework display lasting several hours.  To watch this display, you can either pay… or as we did, slowly march with several hundred thousand people through the boiling evening streets of Osaka at a snail’s pace until you reach the bridge with a decent view of both launch points, where you can try to linger for a few moments of astonishment and mutual wonder before being herded on by the police.

If crowds are not your thing, then this is not.  As it is, I love crowds and I love fireworks, and the atmosphere of hundreds of thousands of people out to celebrate and eat delicious street food on sticks, set my world on a roar.

Osaka is far from Japan’s most famous city, but that doesn’t stop it from having many of the traits that we would learn to recognise.  Shinto shrines nestle in between giant towerblocks.  Huge avenues of belching traffic weave up and round sluggish waterways, while silent, almost empty residential streets criss-cross between north and south.  The castle in its moat offers kimono experiences and macha ice cream.  Vending machines are everywhere; water fountains are not.  In the the southern shopping district, lanterns hang along the canal, international brands abound, and in a backstreet behind Starbucks and H&M you can find a mossy Buddha in a corner where traditionally the sex workers of the area would throw water for good luck for the evening’s work.

As tourists, we could get the Japan Rail Pass, which felt not unlike being God.  (I have always loved a travelcard.)  The trains in Japan are fantastic, though in rural areas you had better check your timetable for the very early last service along the single-line track.  There are also etiquette guides that are perhaps bewildering for someone used to the London Underground; these include not typing too loudly on your laptop, not talking loudly, and not crossing your legs.  For reasons I still don’t entirely understand.  The bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo passes through dead flat land punctuated by ruptures of volcanic rock rising like a blister from the earth.  In some places it’s nothing but urban sprawl clinging to the railways – rows of low, detached houses lining the road between petrol station and paddy field – in others places the tracks curve through sheer valley where nothing but forest creatures dwell.

I was immediately in love with Tokyo.  As a Londoner I already love cities, but Tokyo is a city with a city with a city.  New York has 5th Avenue; London has Hyde Park.  Tokyo has all of these, multiplied.  A casual walk to a museum stumbles into a vast lotus pond of paddling turtles.  A random diversion up a hill brings you to a vast, red-timbered temple.  A diversion for cake carries you round an imperial palace; a bridge sweeps you to a sumo hall by the banker’s skyscraper; the Electric District gives way to a sprawling arcade which leads to a hidden shopping mall framed by quiet, sliding wooden doors.  It is roaring with life in the shopping districts, where women in dubious kitten and maid costumes assail you with offers of goods ranging from the geeky to the far less so.  In the quiet back streets, you can walk in the middle of the road with only the cyclists for occasional company, or stop in at an eight-seat restaurant marked by a single hanging lantern, and hope to hell you’ve got the gist of what it sells right.  By day, the company men in their white shirts and dark trousers are a uniform mass waiting at the huge street corners.  By night they disappear into drinking rooms and karaoke bars, emerging only a few hours later to vomit into the side of the road from the excessive amounts of alcohol quietly consumed, before returning home and to bed by 9 p.m..

From Tokyo, we headed north to Nikko, the burial place of many a Tokugawa Shogun.  Nikko is a town of two halves.  Up a forested hill of stone lanterns, Buddhist and Shinto shrines compete for glory and wonder, their inner sanctums adorned with wood carvings, treasures and history; their outer walls swept with moss and creeping, soft-petalled orchids.  At the bottom of the hill, a long main drag that could have been anywhere from Alabama to Wolverhampton offered beer and restaurants that closed by 9 p.m. to the very few tourists who stayed in the town, rather than catching the last train out.  Only the presence of monkeys rambling across the telegraph lines pinned down its location more specifically.

Away from the temples, and Japan’s natural landscape shines.  In the evenings, clouds of vapour rose from the forests, catching in the light, while the rivers shimmered with thick white mist.  Paths wandered up to hidden, rushing waterfalls tumbling through ancient forest, along winding trails guarded by a hundred red-hatted, ancient Buddhas, protectors of the living and the dead.


From Nikko, the city of Sendai was our next lauching point.  We didn’t fully explore Sendai, which I regret, as it felt like one of the more jazzy places we visited.  However, it served as a stopping-off point from which to visit Yamadera, home of a stunning temple complex up a 1000 winding steps through the forest; and also the Pacific coast, which had been ravaged by the 2011 tsunami.  7 years later, you would not know that anything had befallen it, except for the signs informing you of the nearest evacuation zone.

Heading further north, the temperature thankfully began to drop.  By the time we reached Aomori for the festival of Nebuta, I was sometimes almost reaching for a jumper.  Nebuta was one of the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.  Every night for five nights, giant floats illuminated from within parade through the city streets surrounded by drummers, musicians and dancers.  Each one requires dozens and dozens of people to push and drag it, and on the final night they are all set on barges, sent out into the bay and paraded across the water as the fireworks burst overhead.  Compared to the ritual of Osaka, Aomori was a giant, raucous street party; and a wonderful one at that.

From Aomori, we swept back south on the bullet train, to Kyoto.  If there is a Disneyland of Japan, it is Kyoto.  On the east side of the river, beneath forested hills of hidden temples and swabbling rooks, are streets of wooden houses and sliding doors that have nailed both an old-worldy charm, and the art of selling bespoke chopsticks and paper fans to the gabbling, gawking tourists.  Pagodas leap out of no where, and visitors strain to catch sight of a white-faced Maiko scurrying to her night’s work.

On the west side, a much quieter, functional city takes over.  Signs in the laundrettes and apartment blocks remind people that Kyoto is ‘graceful’ and ‘quiet’, although the taxi drivers aren’t necessarily inclined to agree, and large detours have to be taken on your way to the station to get round the sprawling temple complexes and high-walled gardens that sit on pretty much every corner.

Some random notes:

  • The food is universally great.  Even the scummy McDonalds-equivalent of Japan is pretty great, and it’s not hard to find reasonably priced deliciousness.  Having the bare minimum of Chinese helped; not for speaking, where I failed miserably, but in being able to at least vaguely identify that this shop sold alcohol, and this specialised in fish.  Combined with an unlimited-data SIM card and a translation app, we did alright at finding delicious, tasty treats.  Personal highlight was the dipping noodles in Tokyo, and the apple spring rolls in Aomori.  The waigu beef you hear about was by far and away our most expensive meal, which we ate only once in a tiny restaurant round the corner from our flat in Kyoto, and it was genuinely very, very good.  I could eat Japanese food forever.
  • AirBnB was recommended to us as the solution to all Japanese travel.  Unfortunately two weeks after we made all our bookings, the law changed and suddenly AirBnB essentially stopped working.  We did use one accomodation via its system, in Kyoto, and it was very good; although the number of listings which have a cut-and-paste identical brief with only the names of the hosts changed should perhaps be cause for an eyebrow raise.  Otherwise, we used Agoda, and worked hard to find hotels which both had non-smoking rooms (a surprising challenge) and double-beds that weren’t in fact a single.  We managed to avoid using one of Japan’s largest hotel chains – APA – after my partner discovered that the chain was peddling dubious propaganda written by the owner which attempted to re-write Japanese history, especially that of World War Two, in a way which is Not Groovy.
  • DEAR GOD NO ONE JAYWALKS IN JAPAN it makes me so tense.  Japan, Poland, Germany… I swear to God, if no car is visible for 5 miles in either direction, and you can’t hear the sound of single engine, and you’re not drunk, and the skies are clear… just cross the goddamn road.  Aaaaaaaaaggggghhhh.
  • Japan is famously polite.  At its best this is an incredible and generous gift to both society and illiterate, grateful travellers.  However it is worth noting that if you’re trying to get a refund from Air China for your missing baggage, and you do finally get through to someone, that politeness becomes a blunt weapon when it simply refuses to engage with the problem.  MOREOVER I would urge you not to have a heart attack in Japan, as emergency vehicles travel at barely a mile above the speed limit, and pause at corners for a man on a loud speaker to very politely request pedestrians and other vehicles to let him through if that’s ok, thank you, before apologising for the inconvenience.  Which… probably does not aid responce time.
  • Turns out citronella works against bugs.  For three weeks we lathered up, and were fine.  On one night in Kyoto we forgot, and were bitten to shit.  Just saying.
  • Pokemon-Go.  Imagine the scene; you’re walking through one of Japan’s curated pedestrian shopping malls.  It’s a once-was busy street over which a long, glass arch has been stretched for nearly a mile, open at both ends, with cross-streets for traffic still running through it.  There are trees, “British pubs”, arcades, karaoke bars, hidden shrines to good fortune, shops selling toothbrushes and miso soup.  There are also 300 or so people lining the sides of this street, silently playing Pokemon.  They do not look up.  They do not speak.  Their fingers fly, and all is still.
  • Fun fact – putting out PVC bottles of water around your small, beautifully tended patches of greenery will not, in fact, stop the cats peeing.  According to the internet, this was a myth that was perpetuated by a 1980s soap drama; yet it still persists to this day.
  • For a country with a declining population, the number of men employed to either a) guard an open grating in the road with orange batons or b) mow the lawn, is astonishing.  I understand how it might be handy to have one guy standing over the taped-off, clearly-marked, cone-encased open drain to warn travellers.  But three?
  • It was very hot.  Did I mention it was very hot?  Which made the large number of women wearing detachable sleeves, gloves, masks, huge hats and heavy coats quite peculiar.  Turns out that tanning is a big, big no-no amongst large swathes of female society.  Because… well, if we can screw ourselves over with a complicated sense of societally enforced self-image and shame, why the hell not?
  • In the northern part of Honshu, we saw people holding hands and the sexes mingling freely, which was lovely.  In the southern reaches of Japan, we received distinct looks for holding hands in the street.  I mean, we are already foreigners and thus pretty damn ignorant despite our soppiness.  But if you think we got looks, you should have seen the gasps of horror and incredulity that enused when a Japanese couple in Osaka were found walking down the street together, with a man’s hand resting on a woman’s back.  It’s a whole thing.
  • Japan has nailed cake and gelato.  Both were astonishingly good and remarkably prevelant.  Found a waterfall buried in a mountainside?  Pretty good bet that you’re still no more than ten minutes from gelato and a public toilet.  Heading to the station in a small town in the morning?  Boulangerie dead ahead!  One of the lovely side-effects of this is occassionally dubious French and Italian.  And for that matter occassionally dubious English, usually manifesting on t-shirts.  Can we complain?  HELL NO.
  • Hello Kitty.  It is everywhere.  Hello Kitty carparks.  Hello Kitty travelcards.  Hello Kitty bicycles.  Hello Kitty offerings to venerable ancestors.  Hello… Kitty.  Miao.
  • Shinto vs Buddhism.  So I naturally want to like Buddhism.  At its best, I really appreciate a religion where the Head Honcho urges you to question everything he says, and finds the idea of God a bit counter-productive.  I’m down with meditation as a tool for getting over your own internal narratives, and with the value of recognising what is around us, rather than just what we think there is based on the endless stories we tell in a quest for self-identity.  I’m game.  And in Japan, you really can’t avoid these two religions.  They spring out of every corner, jutting head-to-head.  My personal highlight was the very smiley Buddhist priest begging for alms next to the Shinto gift-shop outside the Meiji Shrine; a man, I felt, who had the entangled nature of many things entirely nailed.  So yes, I prefered the Buddhist vibe to the Shinto vibe, not least because Buddhism has benches.  In a Shinto shrine – beautifully rebuilt every twenty years since time immemorial – there were wonders to behold, and time honoured-culture to learn about and understand.  But in a 40 degree heatwave it can be harder to fully appreciate while a man on a bicycle is shouting at you not to rest on the stairs, or drink a sip of water.  Which is entirely fair and his preogative – tourists should pehaps be more careful about visiting a Shinto shrine, so as not to dishonour the truth of what that religion is.  But blimey, it was nice that the Buddhists have benches, and occassionally even cooling patches of thinly sprayed water to keep you sober in the heat.  I mean, unleash humans on a perfectly decent idea and you’ll probably still wind up in trouble.  Jesus had a few things going for him with the whole love for your fellow man malarcky, and that’s still definitely a work in progress.  Likewise, for all the Buddha’s talk of dodging superstition, there are a lot of lucky laughing Buddha statues whose bellies you can rub for good fortune and imminent pregnancy.  But generally speaking, the temple-gazing in Japan was inspiring, interesting, and frequently offered a patch of shade. Quite what the story was with the giant-scrotumed racoon-dogs you find in numerous shrines across the country though, is still a mystery I’m working on.

So… to conclude… it was incredible.  It was simply one of the best trips of my life.  We bumbled around trying our very best not to be ignorant foreigners, and probably failed, and it was astonishingly awesome.

And I wouldn’t mind being on holiday more.  Just… more, lots.