Tokyo – Japan.
What has Japan done to be able to cast off such a wicked past and earn the respect of every person to have ever travelled to it’s beautiful shores? My home (at least when I’m there), the United Kingdom appears to be forever carrying the burden and guilt of empire but Japan appears to have done the opposite and powered forward to create something quite spectacular. Maybe they do carry that burden, maybe they are constantly given grief for their colonial past and it’s just my focus lies elsewhere, maybe I am naive? Either way Japan today is an extraordinary country with the most wonderful people. It’s not often I get so excited about a developed country, even less so when spending so much time in cities but this is Japan and as with a Macbook you will never understand how truly great it is until you get one. And, like any Macbook owner or someone who has ever visited Japan the following is going to be no less than an outpouring of love and affection so, make a cup of tea and be amazed at my lack of usual grumpiness and my newfound abundance of awe.
Of all the places to give solo travelling a go, Japan didn’t feel like the wisest of choices. I am a self confessed adventure tour junkie, driven by laziness and my absolute hatred towards researching, planning and executing a vacation. Organised group tours that lean towards adventure, activeness and remoteness are my safe my place. Contrary to popular belief, I am a busy man, a man who wants to do as much as possible in the short time he has wherever he may be. I also like to visit countries that don’t tend to offer reliable and regular public transport, if any at all. Of course anyone can travel to anywhere with very little help but that most certainly takes time and patience. I have neither. My trip to Japan was going to change everything. A country everyone raves about but one I expected to visit one day when I had completed my never-ending list of other places to visit first. Japan was suddenly thrown to the top of the pile thanks to two Rugby World Cup semi-final tickets and one of the best mates anyone could ask for! A group tour was out of the question, the prices were ludicrous and the dates would not fit with our rugby scheduling and so independent travel it would have to be. As per usual I have very little idea of what I want and what there is to see when planning to visit a country and so I stole several itineraries from tour companies and started to crunch the arithmetic – train times, distances, expensive beef, hostels, hotels, price of a pint, fat man wrestling, etc. After months of planning and not booking anything, I got mad, booked a load of hotels in varying cities that appeared to be on a route that made sense and Phil booked the JR rail pass (more later). I made a few notes of places that looked good to visit, typed up a simple day by day itinerary and hoped for the best!
It started very well. Although, upon entering the arrivals terminal at Narita international airport I almost had to double check that we hadn’t in fact walked into a retirement home or, 1981! This was something we would get used to over the coming weeks. Japan is renowned for its technology yet everywhere you go it looks and feels like there was a technological boom several decades ago and then they decided that was enough. Almost as though they have been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. For example, the rear doors on taxis automatically open and close, God forbid the passenger should have to open it themselves. Yet the taxis look like the very first cars to have rolled off the Toyota production line. They are in immaculate condition, driven by drivers in suits and white gloves who are almost as old as their cars. Going back to the airport, I was expecting a cup of Horlicks and a Werthers Original at any moment. However, as you may have guessed the terminal functioned just fine. Right in front of passport control, people were hurried through mobile finger print scanning machines and then pushed onto the immigration officer who did the official act of pretending to care looking at his computer monitor and looking serious before stamping the passport and smiling you through. It was terribly efficient with airport staff everywhere pushing people onwards, border line impatiently but never rudely. It was the same when we got to the train station downstairs both waiting in the ticket office and on the platform. There was always staff available to help. It didn’t matter if they spoke English or not, they would get stuff done on your behalf. The British pride themselves on a queue but I tell you now we are also pathetic at that these days. The Japanese are the un-sung heroes of the mighty queue and once they’ve queued patiently within the colourful lines painted on the floor, all orderly and without a fuss, they are rewarded with trains that arrive regulary and on time that whisk you to anywhere in Japan at a leisurely 180mph. If not trains, then tickets, food, busses, anything you should wish to queue for, it will be done orderly and with direction from paint, signs and actual helpful people. Our first taste of queuing in Japan was to get our JR pass activated. Again, surprisingly un-technological but it’s worth every yen. Issued only to foreigners there are several passes available. The JR pass we got was valid for 14 days, cost around £350 and gave us unlimited travel across Japan. A return trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs around the same if I remember rightly. In short, a JR pass is a bargain and what makes it even more awesome is that it’s a chunk of laminated cardboard which has to be shown to an actual person every time you enter or leave a train station. There is no app, no automatic gate, just good old card and people power.
I had no idea where we were going from the airport which ordinarily wouldn’t be wise heading into the largest city in the world, Tokyo, but I felt strangely confident, armed with train instructions and a map from the friendly ticketing staff, and also super fast wifi sitting in my pocket thanks to a router we had picked up only minutes before. Leaving the sanctuary of the train we began to roam the streets of Tokyo in search of our hostel. That’s right, a hostel! 34 years old and I still felt the need to mix it up with hostels and hotels. I hate hostels. When travelling alone I find it difficult to get into the cliques that you find there but when with a friend, especially someone who will talk to literally anyone, a hostel will always be better should one wish a few cheeky beers on the odd occasion. As for finding the hostel at 9pm at night, in general you can walk around any city in Japan including Tokyo, and go down any dark street Google maps wishes to torture you with at any time of day or night and you will feel safer than walking through your own living room with Jeremey kyle on repeat on the tele. The streets are that quiet, that clean and tidy, that well maintained, it’s impossible not to feel warm and fluffy inside as far as cities go.
It only took 24 hours before I had discovered I had screwed up. Japan had been battered by a mega typhoon only days before our arrival. You would never have noticed upon looking around thus we blissfully made our way down to Hakone where we would spend a few days exploring the Mt Fuji and lakes region. On arrival to the train station we were told all the sights were closed due to landslides, it was also raining and so we were unlikely to see anything such as famous volcanoes. But, we had our plan and we stuck to it and headed to our hostel thinking we could wonder around the town and have an easy day. It was closed. Upon checking my email I discovered the hostel had in fact tried to tell me this days ago but not being one to read emails too often this escaped my attention not withstanding the fact that Booking.com put their newest emails at the bottom of a thread thus all I saw was a ‘2 days to go’ email instead of a ‘you’re screwed’ email. That’s my excuse anyhow. I was a little gutted by this mishap but we certainly weren’t screwed as the pocket wifi came well and truly into its own. I hate smart phones and wifi when travelling solely because they have such a negative effect on socialising and we are all guilty, including me. However, independent travelling with the pair is like having a little tour leader in your pocket (only less efficient). It’s reassuring and on this occasion it got us out of a wee pickle. Hakone was wet and deserted, standing outside a quaint cafe we had to make a decision. Scrolling through the apps we learnt we couldn’t extend our stay in Hiroshima where we would be staying the following night because there was no availability. Other places to stay looked a bit ‘meh’ or were full and so I started to look at places to stay in Kobe. I know Kobe only for two things, a huge earthquake and super expensive beef but it was on our route to Hiroshima and not too far from where we were at that moment in time. A few taps and the hostel was booked, a bus back to the train station, a piece of card waved at a ticket man and on the train to Kobe we went. Simple. The buses are worth a quick mention! You can pay using a travel pass akin to the Oyster card in London or, more conveniently cash. There is a catch which is you need to pay with the exact change. But of course there is a solution to change strapped passengers as they can get change from a little box which is part of the ticket machine. Observe. 1 – put cash note into machine, machine provides coins. 2 – using the coins, put the exact amount of change into another part of the machine. 3 – bus driver smiles and you depart. The ticket booths in the train stations are the more conventional all-in-one system of put money in, select ticket and retrieve ticket and change. I love this place!
To be continued……