Swirling mist circled the Buddhist monastery, high up on Mount Koya. Exploring Japan had led me here. The icy air an easy victory for the paper walls. Yes actual paper walls! The paper door has a ferocious tiger print on it, in the grrr pose, similar to those old-school tattoos. Just the paper tiger blocking me from the outside world. A kimono lay neatly folded, waiting for me to brave the ice-air. I’d had a demo in the art of kimono-wearing. Absolutely no cleavage, but the neck (the sexiest part of a woman’s body in Japan) revealed. Screw that! Absolutely nothing should be revealed in the fear of hypothermia.
Evening meditation was led by a monk who I later learned could head-spin. I have a feeling he wasn’t in this for the long-haul. A born performer with a cheeky grin. Perhaps, this was just a chapter in his book. A wooden stick lay in front of me, ready for me to write my wishes of fortune on, ready to be burnt in the 6am Buddhist ceremony.
We sat kimono-clad and cross-legged on the floor of the monastery, ready for the evening meal. The traditional Japanese food was served. Conga eel and gluten, devil’s tongue, reassuring Miso soup and noodles. Washed down with green tea of course. I would be surprised if some people have green tea on tap in Japan, like we have water. It’s served at every meal. Bath time is communal. For such a private nation, there’s never any hesitation about getting naked with one another. There’s always a chance you could get turned away if you have tattoos, they’re apparently linked to the Japanese mafia.
I didn’t start my Japan journey in the Shingon Buddhist settlement of Kyosan, but this was the Japan I was looking for. Exploring Japan seems to mean something different to nearly everyone. A guy I met on my travels was after the neon lights of Tokyo, that was his Japan. Everyone who travels to Japan seems to be searching for something different.
The Bullet Train was the transport weapon of choice and bloody hell it’s good! Yes, the standard city trains are similar to London’s Central Line during rush hour. Choca-block, with human welded into every limb. But Japan’s Bullet train is spacious and luxurious and well fast, exactly as you’d imagine it should be with a name like that. I travelled from Osaka to Tokyo, via Kyosan, Hiroshima , Hakone and Kyoto. If you’re time-poor, then the bullet Train is a great way to cover big landmass.
Visiting Kyoto, the Geisha capital, is on nearly every Japan traveller’s list. Yes it is beautiful in places but also full of people. It’s one of those areas you wish you could experience without the crowds and really take in the quirky shops, houses and Geisha dorms. Rich with culture and history but also firmly on the well travelled path. The surrounding area is littered with temples and castles, even golden ones!
I watched a Maiko (trainee Geisha) perform in a tea house as part of a traditional ceremony. I left feeling uncomfortable. I’ve read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and although I was assured it was written by an ignorant foreigner who knows nothing, I’m still to be convinced. We got to ask questions, but there’s only so brave you can be without being insulting. I prefer not to go down the insulting route. National Geographic photographer, Jodi Cobb’s recent work in the Geisha community appears to support the negative perceptions.
The teenage Maiko’s give up their normal existence to train hard for many years in the art of dance and entertainment and clean in the gaps in between. They don’t have relationships, get married or have children – their sole purpose is to exist to perform for groups of men in the exclusive members clubs. Ok, perhaps that’s their life-choice but the flip-story is that impoverished parents sell their daughters into this trade and prostitution is rife. I have more questions than answers.
Moving on… Hiroshima. A city that feels like it lost its soul all those years ago. But, it’s also peaceful and serves as a reminder of the atrocities we’re capable of. The peace memorial is a shell of a building and only possible to understand when visiting the memorial museum. Cities have feelings don’t they? Hiroshima for me, is cloaked in sadness and loss, for obvious reasons. But, not all cities that have lost so much feel like this. Phnom Penh in Cambodia should feel like this too, with its very recent atrocities. But it doesn’t, there’s hope and spirit there.
It’s quick to escape Hiroshima’s bleakness, by taking a boat to Miyajima. An island filled with wild deer, thought to be messengers from the gods and home to the famous floating Torii Gate.
Mount Fuji is one of the most impressive mountains I’ve ever seen and during my Japan visit appeared to be floating due to the mist. Possible to spot from the bullet train but definitely worth a trip to Lake Ashino-ko, to get a little closer.
The venicular (cable-car) carries you up to a valley, that spurts hot gases and the tradition here is to eat an egg. Not just any egg, it has a black shell and is said to give you seven extra years of life.
Staying in a traditional Japanese Ryokan, a guest house is a must! Mine was a little fancy in the popular Japanese holiday destination of Hakone. But the ceremony of dinner, Kimono wearing and bathing in the hot springs is pretty unusual.
I doubt anyone takes a trip to Japan and doesn’t visit Tokyo. Open mined but conscious of my aversion to cities that don’t have nature intertwined I wasn’t expecting great things. I was so wrong! Tokyo has character and quirkiness, a blend of tradition and futurism. Does any other city in the world have a whole street dedicated to teenagers? Ok, hands-up I’m not a teenager but Harajuku is a bonkers blend of candy floss and crepes, tu-tus and punk. TV crews roamed, vox-poxing their way through the crowds. Up and coming boy bands hung out, kitted up in matching outfits, styled beyond belief (Lunar anyone? Nah me neither).
The red light district, Kabukicho in Shinjuku is full of teensy bars and is full of character. I’m not denying its dark side and I didn’t stay for a drink but it’s interesting. The Robot Cafe looks like hell on earth but watching the singing robots from the outside is strangely mesmerising too.
Tokyo by night and by day are astoundingly different. By night, the lights, billboards and gigantic tv screens light up the whole sky. Tokyo makes London’s Piccadilly Circus, or New York’s Times Square look like your nan’s front room in comparison. In the main areas it’s insanely busy but there’s order. People cross the roads only when they’re supposed to and there’s respect for personal space (mostly). By day, the cityscape views are stunning and there are plenty of tall buildings to climb and watch the ‘ants’ below going about their daily lives.
Would I go back? Yes, for sure! I’d travel differently though, maybe by bike if I suddenly get a huge burst of motivation. Probably not by scooter as Dave Cornthwaite did. I want to see more of the country and go off piste into the villages and learn more about the daily life. It’s always a successful trip when you leave wanting more.