Johnny Acton finds that japan is weird, but not that weird and the food is off the planet!
I’m going to do my damnedest to write this piece without reference to Lost in Translation. Oh bugger.
The reason it’s so difficult to refrain from mentioning Sophia Coppola’s movie is that it has entered the collective unconscious as the definitive portrayal of what it’s like for a Westerner to visit Japan. This, we are warned, is a place of man-eating lavatories and homicidal exercise machines, where the locals will bark at you incomprehensibly and everything is bewildering and upside down.
There is some truth in this, but not much. The loos can be challenging – push the wrong button and you run the risk of an intense proctological examination, music blaring out or the seat growing uncomfortably hot – but at least they are free and abundant. And Japanese authority figures do sometimes bark, but only after adopting a special neutralising sing-song tone.
In fact, I was struck by how easy it was to navigate Tokyo, once I got used to eccentricities like the apparent restriction of cycling to the pavement. You don’t, as in Paris, need to know the name of the last tube station on the line to get yourself on the right one, and you stand a decent chance of finding someone who speaks reasonable English.
The main thing that makes jostling about with 36 million other people surprisingly pleasant, however, is the extraordinary level of politeness. Cleaning ladies really do bow at trains as they come into terminals. When you are jammed into a metro carriage by a guard wearing white gloves, the contact feels friendly and respectful. Somewhere along the line, the Japanese seem to have sat down and agreed it would be to everyone’s advantage if people were just nice to each other. The feverish debate about the rights to offend and be offended that currently looms so large in the West wouldn’t resonate in Japan. They simply don’t go there. Cigars are a case in point. I didn’t come across anyone smoking one but the Japanese are so hyper-sensitised to the comfort and convenience of everyone that I suspect there is no need for legislation in this area. They just don’t do it. There are, however, dedicated smoking clubs and you can have a fag just about anywhere, provided it’s indoors. Outside is another matter.
There is doubtless a downside to this relentless pleasantness. The pressure must grow intolerable. But for the casual visitor, the effect is delightful. I don’t speak the language but I’d imagine that every second word is an apology. Such things are profoundly reassuring to an Englishman.
This is how polite the Japanese are: one night, my friend and I were deeply lost in the Shibuya district when an attractive young lady emerged from the shadows. “You want brojob?” she enquired, with admirable directness. We explained that although that sounded lovely, we were late for a rendezvous with an acquaintance. In fact, would she mind telling us where the metro station was? “Ah so”, she said, abandoning her lamp post, walking us to a nearby junction and pointing the way with a couple of bows. It seems unlikely that this experience would be duplicated in the backstreets of Soho.
The main thing that brought me to Tokyo was not, however, the flawless manners of the hookers. It was the food. I first ate Japanese as a thirteen-year-old in Washington DC. Alongside using my un-gloved right hand to make the decisive catch in a New York Times vs Washington Post softball match, an act that astonished and delighted the cricket-shy assemblage, it was the highlight of my trip. The daring novelty of eating raw fish, the sting of the wasabi, the jewel-like morsels of God-knows what, all excited me so much that I had to pop outside to be sick.
If proof were needed that the Japanese take their food and drink seriously, a visit to the Meiji Shrine should do the trick. I spent my first morning there while my microscopic hotel room was prepared. On one side of the approach road to the Shinto monument to the deified spirit of the great modernising emperor is a huge wall made up of sacred sake barrels. On the other is an equally impressive display of holy Bourgogne wine.
The ultimate foodie experience in Tokyo, though, is a visit to Tsukiji fish market. I decided to forgo the dawn tuna auction, in which tourists irritate the traders and torpedo-like Bluefin tuna are sold for up to half a million quid a piece. There was still quite a lot to see though. After all, one in five of the fish consumed by Homo sapiens (you read that correctly) passes through this vast market. From dried bonito with the consistency of wood to giant squid’s eyes, if it comes from the ocean it’s there. I was particularly taken with what appeared to be a prawn and whale stall.
It isn’t just the food. The Japanese have turned nearly everything into an art form. Even the homeless arrange themselves remarkably neatly, lying on immaculate rectangles of cardboard. This talent for ordered solutions to human needs and desires is particularly well expressed in the field of leisure.
Karaoke springs to mind, as do Love Hotels, maid cafés (an echo of geisha culture, in which a nice young woman will innocently play Jenga with you or clean out your ears with a cotton bud) and all manner of animal cafés. I visited a couple in Tokyo’s version of Carnaby Street in Harajuku. Contrary to the advertisement outside, I can’t say I was particularly ‘at ease by owls’ at ‘Japan’s most kawaii (‘cute’) place’. They looked as though they’d far rather be asleep and might suddenly bite your hand off. But I was definitely at ease with the Bengal cats upstairs, even if I got rather hot once five of them had taken up residence on my outstretched legs.
The Karaoke was particularly enjoyable. Counter-intuitively, it struck me as the perfect therapeutic activity for an essentially shy people. You’ve just so got to join in that there’s no point in performance anxiety. At one stage, we were joined by a man who the assembled design crowd proclaimed the coolest in Tokyo. He looked like Bob Marley crossed with Lionel Richie. He took to the mike and sang George Michael’s Faith – appallingly. This only enhanced his credibility. I found the experience overwhelmingly moving somehow and burst into tears while performing a surprise rendition of Someone Like You. For the record, Smells Like Teen Spirit and You’ll Never Walk Alone went down particularly well, The Vapors’ Turning Japanese less so.
The other thing I simply had to do was visit an onsen, or hot spring resort. Accordingly, I took the misleadingly named Romance Train to the spa region of Hakone. Things started off well with the man next to me cracking a bottle of Cava (it was 10 in the morning). He spoke good ‘Singlish’, having lived in Singapore for several years. Unfortunately, he clammed up when I mentioned that my wife’s grandfather had surrendered the island to the Japanese in 1942. It was idiotic of me to bring it up.
Hakone is a gorgeous alpine area seething with volcanic activity, hence the onsen for which the region is famous. It also has a fantastic outdoor sculpture park and black eggs cooked in the sulphurous fumaroles of Owakudani (‘Great Boiling Valley’). I checked into a ryokan – a traditional hotel with paper screens and a bedroll – to sample Hakone’s delights. The place was a bit faded but it was a novel environment in which to watch the third Trump-Clinton debate. Any tattiness was instantly forgiven when the food arrived. This was exquisite kaiseki cuisine, with nine courses for breakfast and more at dinner. I often had no idea what I was eating but it was all excellent. A Japanese proverb says that every time you eat something new you add 75 days to your life, so I left considerably younger than I came in.
The ryokan had some rather prosaic hot water tubs but they dished out free passes to the onsen round the corner. I tottered up there in the wooden slippers provided for the occasion (you spend a lot of time changing from one set of slippers into another in Japan), feeling like an unlikely Geisha girl.
It was a working-class place, not unlike a public swimming bath in Britain, only utterly different. You began by scrubbing yourself in a wet room – it would be an unconscionable faux pas to bring soap into the spa area – and proceeded to the waters themselves, where you squatted alongside some jolly old local men feeling like one of those macaques who warm themselves in hot springs in the chilly north of the country.
I was moved to compose a limerick:
The Japanese think that it’s nonsense,
When they’ve soaped up and hosed
down their Johnsons,
For tourists to waver or even to haver
From shaking them round in
I passed my last night in one of the nation’s fabled capsule hotels. Like many things in Japan, the experience was stimulating and a little bit surreal.
Spending time in the Land of the Rising Sun was like being in a thrilling theme park, the theme being ‘Japaneseness’. No culture on Earth is more sharply itself. This is what makes it such an engrossing place to visit, even if you don’t bump into Scarlett Johansson.