When planning this adventure the only country John was adamant we must visit was Japan. Our two-week tour of western Honshu would take in the iconic cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo.
Flying into Osaka and getting to our hotel, in the entertainment district of Dotonbori, proved easier than expected. A first clue that things in Japan work very efficiently. Unlike India where train delays run into hours (and hours) average train delays in Japan are measured in seconds.
While Japanese hotels are similarly efficient, rooms are famously small. The hotel bathrooms would only be found in caravans back home in the UK. That is to say, they are of the plastic moulded type. Travelling, as we are, with two suitcases and two rucksacks meant a lot of shuffling around obstacles to get to that bathroom. Movement was strictly on a rota basis.
Settled in, we could begin to explore!
Our first stop was an evening at the local launderette. Searching for the wash house we met a German couple (both engineers) from Cologne doing likewise. So, our first encounter was an hour jousting with these nice Germans about the differences between our respective countries.
John typically goes photographing between 6-8am most mornings and that first morning in Osaka he struck gold. As soon as he stepped out of the hotel a group of serious party animals approached on their way home from an all-nighter. Japanese youngsters are often happy to be photographed and these were no exception. The image below was chosen out of respect for the girl who no doubt wouldn’t want to be identifiable in this condition.
Apart from its renowned nightlife in Dotonbori district, Osaka’s biggest attraction is the legendary Osaka Castle. This castle is probably the single most important structure in the history of Japan’s fabled samurai warriors. It was first constructed between 1583-90 by general Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, the Castle was attacked and destroyed by troops of the Tokugawa clan in 1615. Tokugawa Hidetawa rebuilt it in the 1620s only for the main tower to be destroyed by lightning in 1665.
The castle’s central tower was not rebuilt until 1931, when the present concrete replica of the original tower was reconstructed. In 1997 the whole site was given a major facelift creating the modern tourist attraction we see today.
For older fans of writer James Clavell (Shogun), or younger fans of Chris Bradford (Young Samurai series) the castle has near mythical status in the history of Japan.
The exterior of the castle and its grounds were really beautiful with trees in blossom, huge thick walls made of gigantic boulders and massive wooden beams at the gates. It is hard not to imagine hundreds of samurai warriors marching through the gates.
In contrast to the epic splendour of the exterior, the interior of the tower museum was disappointing. The presentation of the history and artefacts of the castle seemed to lack any unifying narrative and so was a bit of a jumble. Interesting, but not a compelling telling of the castle’s history.
As well as reminders of Japan’s military past, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are prominent everywhere. Many are hundreds of years old and cherished by locals who maintain them immaculately and worship at them daily. In Osaka, the most famous Buddhist temples are the Shitennoji temple and Tokokuji. Naturally, both were on our itinerary.
Shitennoji is a complex of temples with a five-storey pagoda. Unfortunately, at the time we visited the site was undergoing a major renovation and some temples were closed off.
Disappointed, we headed for Tokokuji temple nearby. This is a much smaller site but with several spectacular buildings crammed into the space. The entrance is guarded by two giant figures sculpted, in part, using human ashes. Adding to the fabulous timber buildings were some of the best blossom we saw in Japan.
Now we weren’t only here for the highbrow culture. Eating and drinking were also on our agenda. Popping out on the first night to sample a local beverage was a seriously sobering experience. Two half pints in a very basic Dotonbori bar cost £11! This was our introduction to the high price of beer all over Japan. A typical draft local beer averaged £4+ for a 300ml glass. Temperance prevailed all over Japan.
Visiting Osaka’s famed anime district called Shinsekai, we felt like we’d travelled back to the 1960s. Its famous Tsutenkaku Tower was built to resemble the Eiffel Tower. It’s a bit like a walk down the front at Blackpool (UK). Tacky and fascinating in equal parts. Fortunately, it’s packed with places to eat offering high quality food at good prices. John had a great bento box comprising some seriously good sushi and a beer.
Food in Japan is what everyone we spoke to criticised. Raw fish is prominent but, so too is quality beef. Happily, we had no problem with either and snacked on fresh caught raw tuna in fish markets and the famed wagyu beef in restaurants. Eating out is pretty normal for Japanese so there are literally hundreds of casual eateries everywhere you go (each leaning towards fish or beef menus).
From Osaka, we moved to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Travelling by train in Japan is a breeze. Unlike the UK, the private operators provide a super-efficient service on very clean and punctual trains. Kyoto train station is a huge architectural wonder with 9 levels packed with shops and restaurants. Luckily, our hotel was directly across the road.
Kyoto is city of 1.5m people and self-conscious about its history and maintaining Japan’s ancient traditions. Geisha’s are a regular site on the streets. Which are real Giesha and which are tourists in costume is hard to tell. It all adds to a sense of history and spectacle (and makes for great photos).
The best place for blossom photos in Kyoto is the Okazaki canal which is lined with trees creating an avenue of blossom and so attracts many tourists dressed in traditional costumes.
Visiting old places of religious worship in many western European countries is a reminder of how increasingly secularized those countries have become. Not so in Japan, temples are living active places where young and old regularly worship and pay their respects.
The timber constructions of the massive Higashi Hongangi and Hinishi Hongangi somehow anchors them to nature – as befits Buddhist and Shinto religion. The latter claims to be the largest timber building in the world.
Perhaps the most famous – certainly most photographed – shrine in Japan is Fushima Inari. The red timber arches recede almost endlessly up a mountain side. It was as beautiful as we’d hoped. This shrine is in the Higashiyama-ku district where many other famous temples are to be found.
One of the standard places to visit in Kyoto is Nijo castle. Built by the same Toyotomi Hideyoshi who re-built Osaka castle, this ‘castle’ has no fortifications or garrison and was more a summer residence and administrative centre for the Shogun. However, it was our lunch in the local Nishiki marketplace that was the highlight of that day. A local fishmonger also did food and his sushi and grilled fish were fantastic. Not overly fancy, but chunky and tasty.
While Shanghai claims to be the largest city in the world – according to the ‘city proper’ definition meaning an area under a single administrative authority – everyone knows the world’s largest mega city is Tokyo. It has a population of over 35m people in its endlessly sprawling conurbation. Thankfully, it has one of the best public transport systems in the world as we found out after our two-hour Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train ride from Kyoto.
Our first night was rain soaked but still had a great reminder of how kind and polite Japanese people are. As we struggled down a side street in the pouring rain – in what we later learned was red-light central – a man rushed up to us and thrust an umbrella into our hands and hugged us both. He then rushed off to disappear into a bar with his wife (at least we assumed it was his wife).
John’s style of photography is usually referred to as ‘street’ photography. It has a particular aesthetic first established by Paris in the 1930s-1960s, New York in the 1960s-1970s and more recently Tokyo based photographer’s like the world-famous Daido Moriyama and Araki. You bet he was excited to get the chance to visit Tokyo’s famed Shinjuku and Shibuya districts (‘street photography’ central as far as Tokyo is concerned.)
Shinjuku has the world’s busiest railway station (4m passengers daily) and Shibuya the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. The lights at the latter’s eight crossing points change every 60 seconds allowing 2000 people to cross each time. That makes for around 2m people crossing here each day. No wonder these locations attract photographers – and exhibitionists it turned out!
In the side streets of Shinjuku are many tiny Ikayaza (little bars/restaurants just big enough for a few people sat at the bar). Keen to try out their tapas style food we piled in only to be presented with various grilled ‘things’ that we thought were offal but couldn’t be sure. Probably the priciest meal we had in all Japan in value terms.
Tokyo has a very famous fish market called Tsukiji where huge tuna are landed every day. So popular is it with tourists – by the bus loads – that they are now barred from entering before 10am while the main auction business is conducted. This didn’t deter us from a 6am sortie on the metro.
We did manage to see the market after 10am and sample some fresh caught tuna. While we waited to get in, breakfast in a nearby café proved entertaining as the waitress was a huge classical music buff. She treated us to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons while she bought yet more pirated CDs from her dealer and we scoffed our egg on toast.
From the fish market, we visited the nearby Tokyo council building to take in the views of the city from its famous skydeck. The building actually comprises two towers each with a skydeck. Lucky for us, we managed to get a guided personal tour by a knowledgeable volunteer who took us into the council chamber and some other less public parts of the building.
Seeing Tokyo sprawled before us was fantastic. But the nearest tall building happened to be the Park Hyatt Hotel where the movie Lost in Translation was filmed and Lady Gaga, so impressed by the the place, did an impromptu set in the same hotel bar.
The council building has a large semi-circular public space from which the Tokyo marathon starts each year. So oversubscribed is the event that they use a lottery system to allocate places.
Apart from photographing on Tokyo’s busy streets, John wanted to capture the blossom in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. As it turned out, there were so many other photographer’s doing likewise that he instead turned to their seemingly odd behavior. As usual, he ended up chatting to local photographer’s and one gent in particular who’d been photographing in the park for over 60 years and was still using the same Fuji 6×9 camera 37 years after he purchased it.
Before we left on this adventure, a friend had asked where we were most looking forward to visiting. We couldn’t choose one place. She suggested we’d probably visit some place and just fall in love with it. She was right: it was Japan.
There are many reasons. It is easily the safest place we have ever been. Everyone was so polite and kind. Everything about the place worked very well. Super-efficient and impeccable service everywhere we went.
There is a sense of ancient history being very much alive all over Japan. Having said that Japan today faces many challenges. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, we remember Japan as the great Asian economic miracle whose cars, motorbikes, consumer electronics and household appliances displaced so many of our own domestic manufactures.
Nowadays, Japan’s economic strength is in relative decline. It is still the world’s third biggest but, it is stagnating in the face of competition from low wage Asian neighbours (China and Vietnam for instance). As a result, the government is challenged to meet the needs of the world’s oldest population from its declining tax revenues. For every working tax payer, there are three retirees in Japan (compared with the average of 1-2 in most developed countries). Japan urgently needs a baby boom. You’d still have to say any child born into this society would be very lucky indeed.
We are now due a rest so next destination is a beach on the Phillipine island of Boracay.
J & K