Japan – Kyoto to Tokyo
Kyoto, Japan’s tourist Mecca! During my research the number of people banging on about the place was mind-boggling. Lots of temples to see apparently, but in my world there is such a thing as too many temples. Fortunately I stumbled across a handy itinerary that took in Kyoto’s main attractions while simultaneously trying to avoid the hoards of tourists. Arashiyama is home to the famous bamboo garden, made to look majestic on Instagram with towering bamboo on either side of a nice garden path, generating a tranquil scene. It’s not like that at all. It’s chaos, full of tourists posing for selfies and generally being annoying. As per usual the sight isn’t actually that great, impressive in a sense yes but, it pretty much is just part of a big garden and I’m sure if you dared venture away from the beaten path there would be great swathes of bamboo forrest with no one around. As with a good old fashioned airbrushed naked lady, Instagram is full of pictures that rarely exist and thus ‘major’ sites like this tend to be a let down. But we had our little itinerary in hand which promised to take us away from the crowds and that it did for within minutes we were walking through some splendid, peaceful gardens which even provided a cup of green tea at the end. I felt we were a week or two early as the trees were just starting to gain their autumnal colours and I can only imagine how magnificent the hillsides would have looked but nevertheless we had an excellent walk. As per usual if one is prepared to put just a minuscule sprinkling of effort into something, one is rewarded handsomely. Whilst on the subject of apps, TripAdvisor can take a bashing as well. Wait, that’s not fair as it is a useful sight but their star ratings at restaurants are almost becoming a reason not to go there. We went to a five star TripAdvisor rated restaurant in Kyoto and ended up queuing with a heap of tourists to get into someones living room and admittedly eat some amazing food. My problem is that we could have gone to any other restaurant on the same street without a TripAdvisor and the food would still have been amazing, cheaper and free of tourists. Why did we go? We all slip up from time to time!
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the other major point of interest in Kyoto and I was determined to get out of bed early and get there before the masses, that and the rain. We succeeded fairly well, arriving around 8am and heading away from the main entrance before things got busy. Again, following an itinerary we had found online it took us up the mountain to the summit from where we got a little lost, digressed completely off the beaten path and finally made it to the actual summit. A better writer would be able to describe the experience with far more oomph and respect but as I am not, all I can say is that you should go and most definitely do the full ‘light hike’ to the summit and enjoy being emersed in the forrest, walking along paths lined with orange arches, past old stone shrines, and taking in some great views of the city below. I had to pay a price for taking Phil on this hike and that was a visit to the Kyoto railway museum! Not quite my cup of tea but not a bad place to visit and besides the heavens opened up and being inside was most definitely the sensible option.
An unexpected night drinking copious amounts in the hostel bar with some fellow rugby fans ensured that we had no desire to do anything eventful in the rain the following day and so we limped to the train station and made our way back into Tokyo for the final leg of our journey. This would be as good a time as ever to discuss hospitality. I got the impression that accommodation in Japan was tiny, limited and expensive. What rubbish! No, cheap options may not be as widely available but we stayed in a picture of hotels and hostels and they were all excellent and not expensive. We splashed out on decent hotels for our rugby weekends but we booked for proximity to the train station and a private bathroom more than anything. The fact is, it didn’t matter where we stayed, the beds were always comfy, everywhere was spotlessly clean and power sockets were always available right next to the bed. There was always a huge selection of toiletries available in the bathroom. The bathroom mirrors were always heated thus you could admire yourself getting out of the shower. Japan is constantly being battered by mini typhoons! The showers are that good with not a single shower being anything less than having storm force give pressure and a temperature range that would keep anyone happy. Out of the taps comes some of the cleanest water in the world. The toilet seats are heated! It’s a masterclass in hospitality. Go outside and there will be a 7eleven serving cheese sandwiches and cold beers or anything else you could possibly want to eat at 3am. This is just through the eyes of self-centred me, what I would deem luxuries that are not usually on offer when travelling three quarters of the globe. Specifically cheese sandwiches and drinkable tap water. This is what makes Japan so great to travel as it is so different yet so familiar and comfortable which is probably why the Americans love it so much. Usually, unique and amazing travel only happens (for me at least) in countries with little infrastructure and no luxuries.
Our final weekend in Japan was all about the Rugby World Cup semi-finals where unbelievably we would get to see England play the All Blacks. Even more unbelievably we would beat the All Blacks. Even more unbelievably my beloved Leicester City would score more goals in a game the night before than the Kiwis did against England. It was a damn good weekend! So good that we even got to see Mt Fuji against an incredible sunset when coming back form the toilets at half time during the rugby match. A wholly unexpected but quite lovely surprise. I would discuss in more detail but there is more to say about Japan before I finally put this trip to rest.
Tokyo is huge but far from intimidating. It’s easy to get around, it’s safe when the ground isn’t shaking and good food is never far away. For Phil at least, the only real issue was crossing the road. Crossing the road in Japan is like no other country. It is disciplined, well-mannered, polite, calm, almost tranquil. People wait patiently at a red light with so much space between each other that you are not entirely sure if everyone is waiting for the crossing. Phil and I would casually walk right through the spacious crowd to the edge of the road where I would usually stop but Phil would keep on walking if there was no traffic, as anyone would elsewhere in the world. Yet the Japanese will patiently wait until the light turns green and then cross the road. A single car may not have passed when on red but they will still wait patiently. There maybe a law prohibiting jaywalking but even still, the fact people don’t rush to cross the road was impressive to me, and it is this one fact that makes Tokyo’s biggest attraction impressive. I will cut to the chase, Shibuya crossing is just a pedestrian crossing! Another lovely picture or video taken at the right angle, height and time but quite simply there are such crossings all over Tokyo. The only way to get ‘the video’ is to queue up in Starbucks for an age, go upstairs, jostle with people to get in front of the window and snap away at people crossing a road! It amazes me what gets people excited. As I touched on, the one thing that makes ‘the video’ as impressive as it looks is the discipline of the Japanese which, happens to be the same at every crossing in the country funnily enough. I wasn’t about to waste my time queuing for a coffee I didn’t want and so we head to the British pub!
Don’t judge me quite so fast! We needed a place to watch South Africa beat Wales in the second rugby semi-final which was only ever going to mean a sports bar or pub of some type. What I learnt is that two guys in their mid thirties should not get on the beer with a group of kids in their early twenties! But even here I have an example of how great Japan is. On arrival at the pub there were perhaps only fifteen people or so. This include two young Japanese girls who were out for a cheeky afternoon drink and a gossip. Glasses empty, they headed to the bar for a refill, leaving their mobile phones on the table completely unattended. I know of nowhere else where you would do such a thing, especially in a capital city and most of all, in a pub!
And so this is Japan. A country with so much technology, yet employs many people to ensure that everyone can get on with their lives as easily as possible. I don’t think this is just because of the rugby world cup. I really believe people are paid to roam the stations waiting to be asked for help all and every day. The rail ticket offices were manned to the rafters with people that could actually do their job to a high standard and more importantly, wanted to do their job to a high standard. Yes there was a queue but it didn’t matter because you knew they would help once you got to the front. Technology today is used as an excuse to cut jobs and thus loose the personal touch. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology for the exact reason that I don’t want to deal with people. But actually that lack of having to deal with people and messing around with cash and the likes is the exact reason why 99.9% of all westerners are suffering from anxiety and depression (based on absolutely no research on my part). I read the other day we can’t even express ourselves through clapping anymore because it’s not inclusive and may cause distress to others. But in Japan technology is there to help everyone along, not replace everyone. I didn’t see any self-service kioks, just people of all ages serving you with efficiency. Much to my surprise everything is in cash which annoyed me at first but you would be amazed at how easy and convenient cash actually is, as I for one had forgotten! And don’t believe any story about it being hard to find an ATM that will accept Visa and MasterCard. Every 7-11 has ATMs for this and there are far more 7-11s filling the streets than banks.
I feel I have written so much yet barely touched the service. Electric toilets never got a look-in never mind sumo wrestling, onsens, ramen, sake, karaoke and, a small boy downing cans of Monster energy. She isn’t perfect with a whaling programme and shark fin soup easily found on menus to mention just a few outdated oddities for such a developed country but no country is perfect. Every one of which is in a battle for survival trying to protect it’s people, environment and culture. One word of warning when you do visit this unique and precious country – slow down before walking through automated doors! They will not open until your face is pressed against them like shoppers waiting to get into a Black Friday sale. Japan, you are most definitely in my top ten.