Japan was the place of refuge for the ambitiously named ‘Reading Week’. Even after being back in Hong Kong a fair while, the gravity of the trip still hasn’t registered. Japan is somewhere I always imagined I might visit in about ten years time with my Colombian supermodel/astrophysicist wife and our beautiful children: Xavier Power Barter-Rodriguez and Matilda Fleur Barter-Rodriguez. It is the sort of “trip of a lifetime” that I envisaged spending months planning and saving for: drawing up military-standard itineraries; watching Anthony Bourdain, Keith Floyd and Michael Palin exploring the place on the travel channel; attending rudimentary Japanese evening classes etc etc. I think the fact that I popped over spontaneously with a few mates is mostly the reason why I’m struggling to feel as fulfilled and smug as I should, with the sheer pace and cultural bombardment of the trip making up the difference. These – coupled with chronic intoxication – are also responsible for the hazy mush that are my memories. As always, dear reader, I will try to relay my experiences in some sort of linear anecdotal fashion. However, if this blog was being analysed in a GCSE English class (which is, let’s face it, inevitable) I predict the words ‘unreliable narrator’ to be written in bold on whatever Touchboard iScreen Smartwank 5000 they use to educate kids nowadays.
I feel it would be unfair of me to make any sweeping generalisations about the city of Osaka – our first taste of Japan. I was only there for 2 half-days, the second of which I was in no fit state to be a constructive tourist. Not much time to see sites or soak up any culture, however plenty of time to get acquainted with the city’s nightlife. And by ‘get acquainted’ I actually mean ‘get bound, gagged and rogered senseless’. A cruel but irresistible mistress is Osaka. Hedonistic chaos was not on the agenda when we first strolled through the Dotonbori district, but almost immediately the lights, sounds and energy dragged me into a frenzy which chewed me up, swallowed me, digested me and regurgitated me 24 hours later – a costume of a man.
Dotonbori is centered around a bridge over and canal and is a well-established nightlife and entertainment district. Imagine someone plonked Las Vegas in the middle of Venice…the sort of place that wants to make you say juxtaposition. Video games and arcades are an institution in Japan, and were my first jaunt in Dotonbori. If you’re British, when I say arcade it probably conjures up images in your head of wee lads kicking the crap out of a teddy picker in some hell-hole seaside town like Bognor Regis or Selsey. Instead picture a suited man in his mid-forties nail the hardest setting on the dance machine without breaking a sweat, stone-faced like an amalgam of Michael Flatley and Dot Cotton. He wasn’t there out of enjoyment or leisure…he was there out of duty. Now picture for me a man of similar age, but this time dressed more casually. His poison was the drum game, a game which also became the object of my desires and involves beating on a couple of, what resembled timpani more than anything, in time with a catchy J-pop track. Now I’ve held my own at the kit from the jazz clubs of New Orleans to the punk basements of Soho, but this man made me look like Lars Ulrich. He breezed through track after track with an effortless grace, twirling, throwing and catching his sticks (which he brought from home) as he went. Watching him was like watching an old, Japanese Keith Moon. On the way to find a toilet I stumbled across a large room filled with nothing but rows of slot machines. The strobing lights of the pokies cut through the dark room and blinded anyone inside, the hardcore death metal that blared was deafening, and the players sat like zombies dropping coin after coin into the slots. It was like something out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I preferred the dancing management consultant.
As we wandered beyond the arcades we came to the Dotonbori bridge, the Times Square of the district. As we stood in awe of the eccentric illuminations that stood over the canal we were collared by a group of Japanese lads about our age who had obviously sunk a few sakes, as had we. They slurred and shouted the few English words and phrases they knew, which were far superior to the limited Japanese words and phrases which we slurred and shouted back. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy this shouty cultural exchange and the feeling was mutual. We shook hands, hugged and high-fived. They bowed before one took out an unopened pack of cigarettes and gifted it to us. This set a precedent of hospitality and friendliness that was maintained and exceeded throughout my time in Japan. My inner English angst is always inflamed when I’m travelling and I always feel a bit of a tit, bumbling around aimlessly amongst the locals. But I can say with all honesty that I have never been made to feel more welcome and valued than in Japan. Osaka being the least touristy of my three destinations, and being a couple of 6ft+ very European guys with a seemingly unlimited supply of cigarettes that we were happy to give away, we were the subject of a fair amount of intrigue and novelty when we eventually stumbled into a canal-side club. Memories fade around this point and come back into focus when I awoke at 4pm (check-out is at 11am) the next day feeling like I’d been bludgeoned in the brain with a cosh made from shame. We had planned to cycle Osaka and see the sites, instead I vomited in a bush and we attempted unsuccessfully to hitchhike to Kyoto. I wouldn’t have picked me up. I looked like the lovechild of Keith Richards and Freddie Kruger. We accepted defeat and got the train.
If Osaka was the decadent, modern, hedonistic hub of Japan, Kyoto was its opposite and a welcome change of pace. Day 1 saw us explore the beautiful, spiritual and traditional Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine and Kiyomizu-dera temple. The latter was one of the 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World, but fell short. I’ve never seen what’s so special about that bloody Jesus statue anyway. Our presence seemed to cause quite a stir, especially amongst the large school-trip population at these sites. It’s funny to think that a meager Wessex-based mid-afternoon disk-jockey like myself might feature on a load of school kids’ Facegrams or Instaspaces. They must have thought I was Martin Clunes.
There’s nothing like a spot of karaoke to blow off some steam after a long day’s culturing. And nothing lubricates the inhibition blockers and vocal chords better than a non-stop flow of tuneful booze-houndary. Much like the exhibitionism of the interactive arcade games, making a complete helmet of yourself by singing karaoke is also an institution in Japan. A large group of us stumbled across a nirvana that gives you your own private room, kitted out with karaoke equipment years ahead of the antiquated tosh we have back home, and unlimited room-service booze. I practically stuffed my yen into the proprietor’s mouth with excitement. Let me tell you, you haven’t felt what happiness is until your pitch-perfect rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Unwritten’ has been interrupted by a sneaky Japanese man carrying in your fourth tray of gin and sixth jug of beer. I could have wept if I wasn’t so lost in Bedingfield’s verse. We adopted an elderly Japanese man who nearly died trying to keep up with the Lord of the Flies-esque horseplay that unfolded. When his family came to rescue him, they too were sucked into our black hole of Asahi and Bon Jovi, before heading back to their room for what seemed to be some sort of wake. After outstaying our welcome for about another hour we frolicked through the peaceful streets of Kyoto and finished out the night by storming a club and teaching the locals how to move.
Day 1 was merely a warm-up compared to Day 2, which was probably my favourite day of the lot. It began with a stroll through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama which culminated in some stunning views of the mountains and the river that carved through them. A hike of medium level treachery brought us to Iwatayama Monkey Park. Based at the top of a mountain the “park” is basically a small but open area where a troop of Japanese Macaques live freely. Accustomed to human visitors, they go about their daily business as if you weren’t there. At one point one basically walked through my legs whilst getting from A to B. Like the Natural History Museum or Spearmint Rhino, touching was forbidden, however there was a small, wooden building in which you could buy fruit and nuts, and feed the monkeys through a metal, grate-like barrier. Having the people enclosed whilst the monkeys roamed free outside was a far more rewarding experience than going to a zoo. Never before have I interacted with a non-domesticated animal as intimately as the macaques. The likeness of them to human beings is staggering, especially when observing the young and their relationship with their elders. Because of their personality, the empathetic connection you feel with them is truly awesome. I realised that it is not narrow-minded to not be concerned about conservation, because until you have these close encounters with nature, it’s near impossible to understand the importance of protecting it at any cost. Few people get the opportunity to have such a personal experience with wildlife, if we did we would certainly consider more often the wider implications of our lifestyle. This particular excursion highlighted the scale of opportunity in front of me and just how fortunate I am to be gallivanting round the opposite side of the planet. I will never forget Monkey Mountain.
Next up, Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Temple. I honestly can’t think of two better words to describe it. The temple itself is pretty impressive but the gardens that surround it are what really got me going. Bonsai trees, koi ponds, wooden bridges, rock gardens, and not a condom or needle in sight. Kinkaku-ji beautifully encompasses the tranquility and traditionalism of Kyoto.
There’s no better way to wind down after a day of existential experience and Buddhist decadence than to sit in a bath whilst an elderly Japanese man’s todger stares you square in the face. I am, of course, talking about the Japanese tradition of the onsen. Due to Japan being so volcanically active, hot springs are a common theme and are utilized in public bath houses. These bath houses also exist in the absence of hot springs and are called sentos. In my arrogant opinion, the biggest question facing Western culture at this very moment is: ‘Why have we not adopted the onsen yet?’ Do you really think anyone would want to beat people up on a freezing cold football terrace or join the Islamic State when you can simmer away in a selection of beautiful indoor and outdoor jacuzzis? Edward de Bono once advised the UK Foreign Office to send Marmite (a product high in zinc) to the Middle East to ease Arab-Israeli tensions, believing that their low-zinc diet was causing their aggression. I say, save the Marmite for us, just get them all in a bath together. At first it was a tad surreal, but something about sharing a bath definitely triggered my inner Roman. All the lads down the onsen together, it’s a lot like going down the pub, except there’s no beer…and people in the pub tend to eat nuts, not shave them.
Feeling more relaxed than we’d ever felt, we took a night bus to Tokyo. Probably the comfiest and most pleasant long journey I’ve ever had. I expected to be crammed in between two sumo wrestlers who skipped the onsen. In fact, it was more like a business class setup and even included a pair of what looked like very comfortable slippers. Alas, they were no use to my gargantuan meat slabs. I might have just about got a toe in.
Much like London, Tokyo is a city that’s hard to generalise. Its 13,500 km² area is home to 38,000,000 people, and enough sites and activities to keep a man of my caliber occupied for several reading weeks. All I can say is that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Tokyo. Until now, every metropolis I’ve seen has been European, North American, or strongly influenced by the above. Tokyo is at least on a par with, if not more advanced than the likes of London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Hong Kong – but with a culture that resembles none of them. Of course, in this globalised world we live in you can still find a Big Mac or a skinny soy milk macchiato, but it is truly baffling to walk around in such a futuristic city that doesn’t rely on the West for its culture or economy.
I was lucky enough to be staying with one of my travel buddies’ relatives in a beautiful and typically Japanese house in the Ebisu area. This was a perfect location, close to the central locations of Tokyo, Shibuya and Shinjuku, but with it’s own independent identity and neighborhood feel. Hostels have many perks and I always enjoy my stays, but I sometimes feel that they force me into having a very touristy experience. There is nothing wrong with a tourist experience, but it’s great to be able to throw aside the sightseeing maps from time to time and experience some everyday Japan with local people. Unlike Kyoto, which seemed to maintain some sort of linear timeline in my brain, Tokyo is an awesome collage of flashing lights, skimpily dressed fantasy women and ramen. So instead of a play-by-play account, here are some highlights.
Maid cafés: I’ve tried copious times to explain this phenomenon to intrigued listeners. Every time I do I sound more and more like a 70s BBC television personality. So let’s get one thing straight, this is Japan I’m talking about. I’d never quite understood why the archetypal neck-bearded, basement dwelling troll had such an affinity for Japan and Japanese culture. Now I very much do. Japan celebrates all the traits that are seen as sad and pathetic in Europe and the U.S. There, a grown man that plays video games, watches anime and whose ideal woman is a half-elf, half-cat is just as acceptable as the football-watching, beer-drinking, BNP-voting man is in England. The maid café is the perfect manifestation of this. When we arrived at this café that looked like Polly Pocket’s bedroom, we were given a set of cat ears to wear by a waitress dressed in a full French maid’s outfit. We ordered drinks. After about 5 minutes a maid offered us a shot at the lucky dip for a small fee. With promises of big prizes capturing my imagination I paid my dues and plunged my hand into the box of tickets. I won a small badge with an anime maid on it. My lucky companion fared better and was able to chose a photo of a real-life maid – sort of like a pervy football sticker. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly jealous, nevertheless I pinned my badge over my heart with pride. When our drinks finally arrived we had to do a cute little dance before they were handed over. Picture that, two gigantic, disgustingly hungover Europeans, wearing cat ears, meowing and dancing with a little Japanese woman dressed as a French maid. Afterwards she got on stage and did a mental cartoon dance for about 40 minutes. I felt like someone had put peyote in my Coca Cola. Before you go thinking this is in someway seedy, let me inform you that the clientele were mainly girls, couples and families. I felt a little out of place, as I am only 2 of these.
Virtual reality: My penchant for leather trench coats, dark glasses and vacant expressions means I’ve always fancied myself in the Matrix. But when I stepped into the seven-story Sony building, strapped on the gear and plugged in, nothing could have prepared me for the extent of the madness I was about to experience. I’d never done VR prior to this and I always assumed it would be gimmicky and unsatisfying, much like 3D films. On the contrary, I was transported onto a futuristic space-station where I had a 360° field of view, could interact with my environment and shoot at swarms of alien zombies who seemed very cross with me indeed. Immersive is not the word. By the time I had vanquished the aforementioned attackers in the various environments the game offered I was a nervous, sweaty combat veteran. Never before had I been so unaware of the “real” world outside of the game. It struck me that it would not take long in a simulation like that before you completely lost track of the outside world, and the game became your reality. I’d always pooh-poohed conspiracy theories of computer simulations and matrices, but now I am convinced that the technology doesn’t have to get that much more advanced and readily available before people begin spending increasing amounts of time in a simulated world. I have seen through the looking glass…and I was a bad-ass, zombie-slaying muthafudger.
Dancing to disco whilst sipping a Moscow Mule and surveying the Shibuya Crossing from a 10th floor bar. The DJ dropped ‘Makeba’ and I nearly glassed someone out of excitement. But at 10 quid a drink you really do have to be conservative.
Golden Gai is an area of Shinjuku made up of narrow alleyways stuffed with tiny bars and taverns. As a group of ten we struggled to fit into any, but once we found one we basically ran the joint. The snug, quirky watering holes, each with their unique personality made a nice change from the charmless, sterile clubs I often find myself in. If you’re in the area I thoroughly recommend a stroll through Golden Gai. It’s the perfect way to loosen up before a big night of karaoke and getting your nipples fondled by a middle-aged, turkey-necked prostitute and her underwhelming 5’5, 9st. pimp. He didn’t even carry a cane or have a feather in his hat. I have, once again, been duped by Hollywood.
From Woburn to Whipsnade, I’ve had my fair share of zoological experiences. I was once reprimanded whilst on a school trip for feeding a Mini Cheddar biscuit to a Madagascan Lemur. It was fairly embarrassing because I was about 18 and there in an official capacity, gathering research for an A-Level biology project. Tokyo Zoo, however, granted me the unique opportunity of coming face-to-face with a panda. Pandamonium. There, it’s done and I feel just as dirty as you do. Pandas have never really been on my radar, but now I have observed them I feel we are kindred spirits. Pandas used to be carnivores. Because of this they evolved a very short digestive system which is not kitted out to break down the cellulose in bamboo. This means, due to their change in culinary preference, that they have to eat for 14 hours a day just to stay alive. On top of this, female pandas are only able to conceive for 3 days in the years – making reproduction rare. Any species that has such a nihilistic attitude to survival and existence has my admiration. They also have an other-worldly quality since they are so unique in appearance and behaviour. I was convinced that the “panda” I was observing was actually a man in an elaborate costume. By the way he laid around, scoffing his face and scratching his gonads, I suspect the man inside was former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Governments, Eric Pickles. Whilst observing these bumbling rock-potatoes it struck me that pandas, being both Black, White and Asian, are the perfect animals for the inclusive and diverse 21st Century. I also saw a tiger and it was Shere Khanage.
A week is not nearly long enough to get to know a place, especially one as intriguing as Japan. But, despite the brevity of our meeting, Japan will always hold a special place in my ramen-corroded heart. I will be back.