Sunday, 8 July 2012

A taste of Japan

We love Japan! I'm not even sure I can explain why. I didn't have any huge expectations really- I thought it would be interesting, but busy and crowded and, erm, full of Japanese tourists!

Water trickling in a zen garden, Kyoto
Our first day, wandering along the 'Path of Philosophy' in Kyoto, was one of my favourite days of the whole trip. In the very first temple we visited I was struck by a sense of calm. It was so quiet and peaceful, padding around barefoot on the wooden walkways that divide up gardens of gravel, moss and dwarf conifers. We sat on tatami mats drinking cups of green tea, with the sound of water trickling over bamboo, the smell of incense and cedar wood, and the view of maple leaves overlapping in a criss-cross starry pattern above us. The gardens were stunning- everything picture perfect, not a leaf out of place, the gravel immaculately raked, the trees pruned and the moss trimmed. I wouldn't have expected to like them so much (not exactly being a neat freak myself!) but there was something very affecting about it all. A zen like state remained with me all day, happily ambling from one beautiful temple and garden to another.

Sushi in Kyoto
All over the city everything was equally tidy and perfect. Not a piece of litter in sight, not a horn to be heard- it was just the tonic after two months in Indonesia! We loved the little family run cafes and noodle bars, where you order from a vending machine after looking at plastic immitations of the meals on offer in the window. One of our best food experiences was in a sushi restaurant where you could watch the chefs at work. Every time the door opened as a new customer came in they would all warmly cry out 'welcome' in unison, and when you left to more cries of 'thanks you and goodbye' one of the chefs would accompany you outside, bowing all the time.

Electric city in Tokyo
From Kyoto we sped to Tokyo by the bullet train- expensive, but something that we felt had to be done while in Japan. It was on time of course (trains run almost the length of the country between the cities about every 6 minutes!) and just as smooth as expected. We stared out of the window as countryside and towns passed in a blur. Like everything in Japan it was very quiet, and businessmen dozed beside us for the 140 minutes it took to cover 400 kilometres.

Tokyo itself has so many aspects to it that it's hard to get to grips with in just a few days. It's massive, more like a group of cities all merged together, but with plenty of green spaces as well. We tried to get a taste of some of the sub-cultures at work, from anime obsessed 'geek chic' teenagers in the electric city, to 'cosplay' (costume play) groups who meet up at weekends to dress as manga characters, to the gucci shopping 'ladies who lunch'. There's a bit of everything here, and it's all fascinating. The bright neon lights of Shinjuku were just how I imagined from 'Lost in Translation', with karaoke booths and huge TV screens everywhere. Just around the corner was an area of really cool little beer bars where a young after-work crowd spilled out onto the streets in the summer evening.

Neon lights of  Shinjuku in Tokyo
We visited the largest fish market in the world, marvelling at the size of the tuna on offer, rode an elevator up a glass shaft to the 47th floor of a skyscraper for a bird's eye view over the city (the only adrenaline rush I've ever got from riding a lift!), and visited a tranquil oasis right in the middle of the CBD. It's fun, safe, clean and easy- there's an awful lot the Japanese have got right. We kept thinking 'oh that's clever, why don't we do it that way at home?'! A one week visit might actually change the way I live my life! Just an inspiring destination, and one that has instantly moved onto our 'one to return to' list!


Japanese maple leaves

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