Japan, somewhere I’ve always quietly admired despite freely confessing an understanding of the country that was limited to clichés of high-tech gizmos, Manga, sumo and sushi, invites more curiosity than most places combined. Yet beyond these cultural cornerstones lies a Japan that oozes variety and stirs the imagination. And while a nine day trip affords even the most intrepid traveller a mere snapshot of The Land of the Rising Sun, it takes little convincing to realise that superlatives are no match for describing what has to be one of the very best places on Earth.
Leaving the Korean port city of Busan on a sunny Saturday morning, I arrived in Fukuoka, Japan, three hours later courtesy of the high speed ferry connection that link the two cities. Living in the Far East you naturally come to expect a world of ‘high-speed’ everything from boats, trains, wireless connection to taxi rides. The latter, however, are not always welcome when your cab driver often displays the safety prerequisites of a kamikaze pilot.
For my first night in Japan I was lucky enough to find a great Japanese guy to stay with named Hiroyuki (Hiro) through couchchsurfing.org, and within no time we hit it off and enjoyed a great night exploring Fukuoka together. A city famed for its delicious ramen (Japanese noodles), green spaces, sun kissed beaches, friendly locals and relaxed atmosphere; Fukuoka is widely regarded as one of the World’s most liveable cities and it wasn’t difficult to see why.
Despite its reputation as an expensive destination a cheap night can be found in Japan, as I discovered with the aptly named Bar 280. It was here that I had my first experience with sake and the delicious Japanese cuisine, with each drink/side dish costing 280Yen. With barely a few hours sleep courtesy of 280yen glasses of sake, and a night spent on Fukuoka’s sandy beaches with Hiro and some nice Japanese girls we’d met that evening, I set out for the mega-metropolis of Tokyo on the mighty Shinkansen! Japan’s World famous bullet train.
Hoping for a mellow introduction to the big city, rush hour in Tokyo wasn’t quite the transition I had in mind after enjoying the beach vibes in Fukuoka. And in what is home to the world’s most extensive rapid transport system, I unsurprisingly found the prospect of finding the correct subway line carrying a 20kg pack and wearing old plimsolls something of an uphill task.
Mercifully it quickly became clear that the Japanese public are incredibly friendly and hospitable, even within the gargantuan city limits of Tokyo. Within minutes of what was fast turning into a hopeful wander an old man approached me, who upon hearing my soft English accent, expressed his love for The Beatles by breaking into a cover of ‘Let it Be’ before sending me the right way. On the London underground you’d be more likely to get a punch in the face, and that’s from the station staff.
In a bid to save money and time I opted for the 500yen locker option over a warm and comfy bed on my first night in Tokyo. Putting my backpack into overnight storage I headed straight for Roppongi, Tokyo’s bar scene, looking to get a flavour of the nightlife in the World’s largest city. Here I found a glitzy atmosphere with plush bars and restaurants scattered beneath towering high risers, where a cosmopolitan crowd partied well into the early hours.
The Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji were among some of the places I visited during my short stay in Tokyo, the former being a beautiful forested area away from the frenetic buzz of downtown which had a sort of Central Park (NYC)-esque feel to it. Senso-ji is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city and situated in the Asakusa district, which in itself was a fascinating area with many temples and an old world charm feel.
After seeing a photograph of Mt.Fuji, my next destination, at night time strewn with lights from climbers head lamps, I knew I’d be sharing the experience with a crowd. And while the more serene experience may well have been reaching the summit alone, watching the sun appear on the horizon as it cast first light over the bay around Yokohama and the forested foothills of Mt.Fuji, remained a breathtaking and unforgettable sight.
It’s fair to assume a victory beer on the summit with a couple of guys I met on the way up, a Fin named Valterri and an American named Bryce, didn’t do much for my altitude sickness. Nevertheless enjoying a cold can of Asahi at 12,000ft, while enjoying dream like views over Japan beneath the rolling cloud cover, seemed like the moral thing to do.
My next destination, Kyoto, a city preceded by its reputation as a cultural treasure trove of Japan ignites the imagination and charms the senses. After a night of hard climbing on Mt.Fuj and a difficult descent under the hot morning sun without food or sleep, I took the advice of an old university Professor and headed straight for Kyoto’s mountain district in the north-west.
Staying in near like bliss-like conditions at the Utano Hostel, I found myself in a setting of cheery blossom gardens and stunning ancient temples. Kinkaku-Ji and its famous Golden Pavilion set in the middle of a peaceful lake was within walking distance, as was Ryoan-Ji, an old Zen school, and Ninna-Ji and its five story pagoda.
During my three day visit I was utterly absorbed by Kyoto, with it’s gentle pace and staggering beauty preserved in a way that surpass expectations of modern day Japan. Spotting temples nestled into the greenery on the hills of the Arashiyama district, and passing wandering Geisha performers in the lanes of the beautiful old Gion district only go some way to recreating the atmosphere of Japan’s great store house.
On the morning I left Kyoto I’d almost forgotten that Hiroshima still laid before me on what had already been an incredible eight days exploring Japan’s largest island, Honshu. A city forever etched in my memory as the location of the first ever nuclear bomb attack, Hiroshima understandably had me feeling more than a little curious. I was keen to gauge how the city had rebuilt following World War Two and whether any ill-feeling towards Westerners remained.
As it turned out such contempt did remain. While engrossed in a permanent photography exhibition in the Peace Memorial Park I was accosted by a man, who rather than begin with the entrees and niceties, went straight in for a full blown racially inspired assault on ‘the West’.
After blaming World War Two and the inception of racism on America and Europe, the man then informed me that by having blue eyes and white skin I had the face of the devil. It wasn’t quite my idea of cordial chitchat between strangers. And while not wanting to spend my afternoon discussing eugenics, I thought it necessary to express a tad of indifference to his remarks by offering one or two points of my own on the matter, before bidding him a fond farewell using some well placed Anglo-Saxon.
With its pretty parks, surrounding hills blanketed in tree cover, coastal location and vibrant yet down to earth atmosphere, Hiroshima takes no time in casting shadow over the illusion that it’s a city devoid of any colour and ambience following the horrific events of 1945. Sixty-five years on Hiroshima stands as a lasting legacy that great things can come from terrible adversity.
Sat onboard my boat as I left for Korea, passing through Kyushu’s island studded bay, I recalled stories I’d heard throughout the week describing the unspoilt wilderness of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. These were stories of towering snow-capped mountains, remote natural hot springs and a rugged beauty that is said to stand up to New Zealand’s South Island or the Canadian Rockies. Such tales hinted at what I’d missed, and like a stone skimming the surface of water, I knew I’d have to return one day for a closer look.
In a beautifully crafted dichotomy Japan would surprise most visitors with the way it marries seemingly conflicting ideals. It’s a land that in many ways defines the modern age through its pioneering technologies, while at the same time balancing the value of its culture and heritage. And in a country so committed to free enterprise and competition, their people remain some of the warmest and most virtuous on Earth.
While the loose clichés I once used to define my understanding of Japan around have now been replaced by experience, thoughts of what I may have missed are stirred by the lucid images I collected over my short stay. At a time when I’m free to travel and looking for new and exciting places to stay a while, Japan may well have just made this far from taxing preoccupation a little more interesting.