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Japan 2000
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My Travels: Japan page: (one) (two)

I'd spent my first two weeks in Japan on the quiet northerly island of Hokkaido - and now it was time to hit the crowds. Having sailed south across the Sea of Japan for almost 24 hours I found myself in Osaka, a city of millions that was set to challenge my mountain-life mentality.

The Big City was a complete shock to my system having spent the previous six months in the quiet Alps, and so I often sought to find the places where one could relax and breathe again. The park surrounding Osaka Castle became a favourite haunt for me, as somewhere to enjoy nature away from the bustle of street life. I spent hours simply sitting in the sun writing. Writing letters, writing my journal - I also frequented an Internet café, and for the first time truly appreciated the benefits of Email. For a few days Email became my absolute lifeline, as daily I shared my experiences with friends and family on five continents. Without that outlet for my thoughts and feelings I felt that my head would simply no longer be able to cope with all the input I was receiving. It was also good to know that there were others around me, no matter how far away in reality, to give me support.

Osaka showed me for the first time the true extent of Japanese politeness in society.  Simply walking down the street, one couldn't fail to be greeted by someone or other.A lady creating a window display would nod and smile as you walked past. Outside a multi-storey car park (unlike any I've ever seen before, these seemed more like huge vending machines dispensing vehicles!) a worker would be stationed with a little flashing red baton to guide you across the narrow entrance, stopping all traffic and bowing for your benefit. Entering a restaurant you would be greeted by a chorus of enthusiastic voices calling "irasshaimase!é ('Welcome!') - When leaving all staff would thank you before saying goodbye. It was a pleasure to experience such manners, although looking back I do feel that there are many instances where the Japanese fall victim to their own culture: one of the most cherished ideas about the Japanese is that the group is more important than the individual. This manifests itself all over society, a good example being salaried workers spending long hours at the office, away from the families that they love. Here, ninjo (human feelings) are giving priority to giri (social obligations). People will not express their disagreement with others or their unhappiness with a situation as freely as we would in the west, for fear of creating disharmony or offending. Rather, they will hold their tongue, and try to subtlety express their dissatisfaction; they are very adept in "feelingé their way through difficult situations with others. Much of this is rooted in history. Until recent times, most Japanese lived in small rice-farming villages. In order to live a harmonious lifestyle and to ensure a successful crop, a high degree of co-operation was vital - freethinking individualists were not welcomed. Another reason for Japan's group-thinking is simply due to the fact that there are so many people living in such a small space, selfish attitudes would act as a spanner in the works.

At the end of my first week in Osaka, my new American friend Gerilynn and myself decided to take a trip to the nearby town of Arashiyama. It was staggeringly beautiful, with the autumn blooms of the bright red, orange and yellow Maple trees framed by a fantastic backdrop of temples, shrines and undulating wooded slopes. This was an incredible day; we laughed non-stop with one another as we were filled with delight at our situation and with our humour based on our wildly differing accents. We visited one of the oldest known Japanese gardens, which seemed to us to have been created in a dream world. The beauty made me physically shudder, my hair stand on end. The vigorous colours of the trees, the beautifully sculpted ponds and streams alive with giant ornamental Carp- all bordered by a huge bamboo forest. This was the first time that I'd seen "properé bamboo growing in the wild, and I was very surprised to see these single stem trees rising so high into the sky with such graceful strength. In the nearby street shops carried all manner of objects that had been skilfully crafted from the wood - my only souvenir from Japan other than a wealth of memories, photographs and scribblings is a bamboo cup with its origins in that area. We dodged the gleaming silver rickshaws that plied the narrow roads, we sampled the local Sake (fermented rice-beer, a lovely warming drink native to Japan) and I had the pleasure of eating a whole fish, head and all, skewered on a stick. As the day marched on so our heads began to spin; we could hardly walk for hysterics brought on by our humour that had been triggered by tiredness. It was a fantastic day, but we were only too pleased to be able to sleep on the train back home.

Geisha, Gerilynn & I
Maple tree in a bamboo forest
Rickshaw in Arashiyama

A few of days later I arranged to meet Gerilynn again with a couple of her friends, our plan was to visit the popular and historical city of Kyoto. Unfortunately, I'd spent the entire previous night out pubbing and clubbing, only returning at 8am. I awoke two hours later in a panic: I had to get from my sleeping bag to the other side of the city within 30 minutes. I was still very drunk, but somehow managed to navigate the subway system, and arrived at our meeting point just two minutes late. Gerilynn was nowhere to be seen, and I had to think fast. Perhaps, if I caught a Super Express train I could get to Kyoto before her, assuming she'd taken a local one. Once on my way, I thought that I should just check to see if she was on the same train as me, but when walking back down the carriages of strangers, someone caught my jumper and said hello. There were three women sitting together, none of whom I recognised, until the person who'd stopped me introduced herself as Sadako, the lady who we'd met in the Tourist Information Office in Osaka a couple of days earlier. I told them my story of drunkenly missing my friend, and so they offered to be my guides for the day. It turned out that they were going to Kyoto to carry out research on what foreigners thought of tourist information facilities, and what people really wanted to experience whilst in Japan. I couldn't believe my luck - I'd found the perfect guides to show me the city, and I had good company for the entire day. Over a lunch of Japanese noodles Sadako and myself discovered that we'd actually met, over 9000km away four months previously. On a trip to Switzerland she had stayed overnight in the "hostelé here at Kleine Scheidegg, and the following day had walked into our hotel and asked me if we sold postcards- small world!

I'd been reading the international bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, and so as the evening wore on I was delighted to be shown the incredibly narrow cobbled alleyways of the Gion district, hoping to catch a glimpse of a real geisha. Incredibly popular in the early 20th century, the numbers of geisha are now ever-decreasing.  It is estimated that in Kyoto, traditionally the stronghold of this ancient art, there are now only 80 maiko (geisha in training) and 100 geisha. These women of exquisite grace and refinement are there to entertain gentlemen of the higher classes, who will often pay more than $3000 to spend an evening in the company of two or three geisha. As we stood on an old arched bridge over a small stream, so the sound of wooden geta (sandles) on the cobblestones came drifting up the street. In hushed excitement we turned our heads, and sure enough, a geisha hurried by on her way to another appointment. The atmosphere was electric; we held our breaths and felt as if we had just seen an almost extinct mammal in a South American jungle!

Having feasted on a variety of interesting and delicious foods, many of which I had never seen or tasted before, the long day began to draw to a close. Feeling immensely relaxed and content we chose to take a more unusual route back to the station - a stroll along the narrow island that runs down the centre of the river Kamo-gawa. This, traditionally, is the place where young couples will sit together and while away the pleasant hours of dusk. And so it was that my first day in the beautiful city of Kyoto came to an end. 

Following a much-needed 24 hours of relaxation, I met up with my friend Gerilynn. It was time for me to move on from Osaka where I had been based for two weeks, and having experienced a little of Kyoto we both felt that we could have nothing but fun if we stayed there for a night or two. How right we were! Like two little children being allowed to stay out for the night by our parents, we arrived in the early evening in great humour. My lonely Planet guidebook being our only friend in the city, we somehow managed to find the run-down wooden shack that advertised itself as a guesthouse with a "convenient central location and casual atmosphereé. Uno House, with it's higgledy-piggledy arrangement of rooms and resident cockroaches turned out to be the most fun, friendly and crazy place I had the pleasure to stay in whilst in Japan. On our arrival we were soon introduced to the other travellers there. Besides Gerilynn and myself, there was Sean from Switzerland, Andy from England, a crazy Dutch guy, a frustrated Belgian, Kae from Tokyo, and an angry Frenchman! The fact that we were all so far from home brought us together and in no time at all we had decided to have a wild party and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. It was a great night, and we began with a trip to the local convenience store, before heading out to the pubs and clubs. Being a Tuesday, everywhere was deserted, but our new-found friendships blossomed. We all became quite wild, and I recall causing a riot of laughter in a restaurant as I single-handedly ordered dish after dish of strange foods in my not-quite-fluent Japanese. Aahhh, they were the good times! As the evening wore on so I got to know Kae, and through spending time with her I began to understand the nations mentality a little better. She was quite unique amongst the many Japanese that I met in that she had travelled internationally quite extensively, and was therefore able to step back from her culture and offer a more open-minded insight into it. Over the next couple of days we spent many hours together, visiting the sights of the city which included some incredibly impressive temples, shrines, plus of course the ultra-modern railway station with it's towering views over the city. It was on the second day there that I became a superstar, being interviewed on the street by the local TV station for a slot in that evening's news. On my return to Uno House I was distraught to find that the television would not receive the channel that I would be starring on - would my moment of glory pass into oblivion unnoticed? No, all was not lost. It turned out that the television studios were not far from the hostel, and so off I ran to plead with the presenter to video it for me and send the copy on to an address in Tokyo. Several days later it arrived, and even now I am able to cringe with embarrassment at my 4-second slot whenever I wish.

The Uno House crew
Traditional temple in Kyoto

Following a few nights on a very comfortable futon, it was time to head on again. I'd decided to try my hand at hitching once more, having been so successful a couple of weeks previously. My destination was Nagoya, not far off at 130km east of Kyoto. Laden down with my rucksack that seemed to mysteriously grow heavier every time I repacked it, I caught a local bus to the city limits. There, I walked a few hundred metres to a suitable hitching spot, where, within 45 minutes a woman who I can best describe as being "a complete loonyé picked me up. For most of the journey I was "entertainedé by her telling me a story in Japanese, despite my constant repetition of the word "Wakarimasené ("I don't understandé) - I began to doubt the accuracy of my phrase book. Our journey along the motorway was punctuated with her pulling over onto the hard shoulder to draw me pictures of Mt. Fuji and rabbits, until I could take no more and feigned complete exhaustion, sitting back to sleep. Despite her rather unnerving customs, she was very kind and dropped me off in outer Nagoya at a bus stop, and once on what I thought might be the right bus, I was taken into the care of three schoolgirls who saw me to the city centre.

Nagoya, with its population of just over 2 million, is Japan's fourth largest city. As it is primarily a commercial and industrial centre, it didn't hold too much to excite me. Still, I did enjoy the live bands that appeared in the middle of parks and on the pavements (a common occurrence in many Japanese cities), and generally getting a further feel for the way of life. There I was fortunate to have a contact: whilst staying in Osaka with Kazumi she had leafed through her address book and called a few friends, one of whom was Mikiko. Despite never having heard of me before, she was only too happy to provide a futon in her living room and great English-style food, something I hadn't had the opportunity to indulge in in over eight months. It was this kind of spontaneous kindness that was so typical; I felt honoured and ever so grateful to be looked after by people who were (essentially) complete strangers. Foreigners are quite rare in Nagoya compared to many of the major cities, and I must admit that I absolutely loved the vast amount of attention that I got from the women as I walked down the street! I don't get that in the UK or Switzerland!

Two days later I headed for Tokyo. Unfortunately, my bid to hitch the 320km between the two cities was unsuccessful - this was not due to the drivers, but rather the anti-hitchhiker road layout in Nagoya. It was then that I opted to take the fastest, most comfortable (and the most expensive!) method of transport available in order to reach the capital. The Shinkansen or "bullet trainé as it is known in the west is one of the fastest trains in the world, second only to France's TGV. The ride was incredibly smooth, and reminded me of a Boeing 747 cruising a few miles up. Despite my best intentions to stay awake and enjoy the scenery, I was soon lulled into a gentle sleep, awoken only once as we stopped not far south of Mt. Fuji. It is no wonder that this dormant volcano has become such a media icon for Japan. It is a magnificent mountain, perfectly cone shaped - legend has it that it arose from the plain during a single night in 286BC- that's what the legend states in any case-

After almost four weeks in Japan I finally arrived in Tokyo. As soon as I stepped from the train a few passengers waiting to board greeted me with a hearty Konnichi wa! -  I was welcome in the city. My first impression was "Wow, this really is a city of millions!é and that impression stuck! The number of people in Tokyo 'proper' is over 8 million, where the population density tops 13,000 per sq. km (that's about 20,800 per sq. mile). This compares with London where the density on average is approximately 4480 persons per sq. km (about 7170 per sq. mile). The reality of these figures was enough to make me feel dizzy as soon as I hit the vast complex of Tokyo Central Station. Amongst the madness however was a reassuring reminder of home - a huge poster of my village (Grindelwald) and it's surrounding mountains here in Switzerland.

Having taken a walk in the park that surrounds Japan's Imperial Palace (home to Emperor Akihito and his wife), I summed up the courage to face the rail network that is the heart of the cities transport system. Feeling very proud of myself for having managed to find the correct line, I was soon put in my place as the train I was on whizzed through the station I was heading for- Lesson one in Tokyo Transport: select your trains carefully as there are five different speeds to choose from, and only one will stop at every station! Doubling back, I finally found myself in Kichijoji, a suburb some 35 minutes west of the city centre. Here, once again, I was on the receiving end of some wonderful hospitality. Shinji & Niki Nakamura, my Japanese archery teacher and his wife (who had valiantly attempted to teach me French) had once lived in this area, and a friend of theirs who also had connections with my school had been their neighbour. John John as he is known by most, was the perfect host. In his small rented apartment (ironically named "Mansion Umenokié) I was finally able to relax in the company of an English Gentleman. He has lived in Kichijoji for many years, but partly due to the fact that he only ever has a tourist stamp in his passport he leaves every three months. To break the Tokyo rhythm he may head either for his bright red circus trailer in England, or perhaps some wild adventure such as camel trekking to Ayers Rock at Christmas. However, in the few days that I was with him we took it pretty easy - I couldn't cope with any additional excitement on top of the general Tokyo atmosphere. Great food, great videos, a jog in the park, more food, a late night bicycle excursion to see the local sights, fantastic documentaries giving a BBC perspective on the Japanese culture, a trip to a foot-massage park, oh, and of course more food; these things pretty much filled our schedule. It was a great way to settle into the city that would be my home for the next two weeks.

John John & Joseph
Kae and my rucksack!

Back in Kyoto, my great Japanese friend Kae had offered the use of her central Tokyo apartment should I need somewhere to stay. Since my arrival at John John's I hadn't ventured back into the central area, and so I was only too pleased when Kae met me at my local station and guided through the urban jungle to her home. It was soon after our arrival in Sugamo, a district in the heart of the city, that I was once again put under the spotlight as Tokyo TV realised that I was the Great Joseph Tame, and turned their cameras upon me outside a small temple. Unfortunately I only had a small cameo role as a fascinated foreigner admiring the skills of an old gypsy man; he was playing a violin with a book, a piece of ribbon and a spaghetti spoon. Still, I got a free pen for my efforts, and no doubt millions will recognise me when I make my return to Tokyo. That evening we took a trip down to the vast harbour, made almost entirely from huge man-made islands. The train that took us there was completely computer controlled. With no driver, we were able to sit right up by the front window, although it felt quite unnerving to be riding in such an intelligent creature that had no tracks, just a magnetic strip to guide it.

Being surrounded by huge buildings every day, I began to feel quite lost. What I needed was a sense of perspective, and so the following morning we squeezed onto the Yamanote line and headed south for Sinjuku. This station serves as a real hub for Tokyo life, and with over 3 million people passing through it everyday it is one of the busiest in the world. White-gloved "pushers" are employed to patrol the platforms and shove riders inside jam-packed trains before doors close, which are often filled to more than double their capacity. Often, trains will depart with coats and handbags flapping from the closed doors: noses can be seen pressed up against the glass on all sides. A short walk from the station through the swarming crowds saw us arriving in a small area of Tokyo where there stands a cluster of skyscrapers, some rising over 243m from the ground. Our destination was the "Number One Buildingé - Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters. It stands out amongst its neighbours as approximately two-thirds of the way up it splits, to form two vast towers. From the 45th floor we had a fantastic view of the city, a great lake of buildings with the occasional park to break up the concrete landscape -on the far horizon rose the snow-capped Mount Fuji. As we descended in the supersonic elevator I once more felt the pressure of the masses. I was used to Kleine Scheidegg where the overnight population doesn't top sixty, this was just too much for me. Thankfully, just a short walk away lay Yoyogi Park, an oasis of green complete with the beautifully peaceful Meiji Shrine, and here it was easy to forget one was in the midst of a city. Exhausted, we soon returned home to a delicious supper of Chocolate Coated Fried Bananas (my own creation) followed by eggs and bacon on toast!

The following few days were spent simply relaxing. After four weeks in Japan I felt wiped out, and was only too happy to take it very easy, perhaps braving the crowds for half-an-hour a day. One afternoon we visited Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest shopping areas and the place to be if you're young and have any fashion sense at all. I was staggered, never before in my life have I come face to face with so many people. Only just holding on to my sanity, I spent 20 minutes with my camera photographing the many bizarre characters that added an edge of unreality to the area. Following that I felt in need of an ambulance to get me home, it was just too much for a country bumpkin like myself.

My last day in the city was spent on the outskirts, at the fantastic Tokyo Disneyland. Since they have become more commercial and less artistic, I have lost much of my admiration for this vast corporation, and yet the day that I spent in their park was one of the best days of my life. It was such fun to be a child again, and a big smile was plastered across my face from the moment we stepped through the sunny gates (under a Disneyfied blue sky complete with fluffy white clouds). I have never been anywhere like it before. In the UK the emphasis in theme parks is on short, shocking rides that ensure that you to have spend an hour looking for your stomach afterwards, yet here was something completely different. I felt like Charlie in the chocolate factory as we gently sailed down a little stream in our log boat, surrounded by all-singing-all-dancing crocodiles, rabbits and monkeys. Well, my mind was set after that, I loved Disneyland! 'Star Tours', a simulation ride in which you are a passenger on board a little space shuttle was one of the best. Even the queuing area resembled a hanger inside a huge spaceship straight out of the movies. By the time we'd strapped ourselves in and been introduced to our Japanese robot pilot, I had completely forgotten that I used to live on planet Earth - that was the Disney Magic. I also had the pleasure of meeting Snow White and the Prince Charming, who, surprisingly enough spoke with strong American accents. I couldn't figure out what nationality Grumpy the Dwarf was though as he refused point-blank to answer my questions.

Snow White, Prince Charming & Joseph
Walt and Mickey in Tokyo Disneyland

The day was soon punctuated with "Santa's Christmas Paradeé, in which all manner of Disney characters danced by, accompanied by twenty foot snowmen and roller-skating fairies. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Buzz Lightyear and Woody all had their parts to play, and I was surprised at my childish sadness to see the last character disappear from sight. Following this, it was time to head to the courtyard in front of the really unreal Disney castle for the evening's performance of "Once Upon A Christmas - A touching tale of how Mickey and his pals brought Christmas to a small villageé. As the fireworks went off above the floodlit castle towers, so we turned and headed for home, knowing that our fantastic day of fantasy was at a close.

The time for my return to Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland was fast approaching, and my eyes were forcibly made to look towards Sapporo, 1000km north from where my flight would leave. With very little money left in what must be the most expensive country to ever sail the Sea of Japan, I decided to travel with a combination of bus and hitchhiking. Late on a Wednesday night, I sadly said goodbye to my friend, and boarded the night bus that was to take me on a six-hour voyage north to the coastal city of Niigata. From there, I set out to hitch the remaining distance, and within thirty minutes I was happily settled into a comfortable passenger seat. My next lift turned out to from an incredibly generous man, who, having driven me almost 200km, apologised profusely as he could take me no further. I insisted that he had been only too kind to take me so far, but this wasn't enough for him. Instead, he bought me a three course lunch, before giving me a train ticket that would take me all of the way to the northern island. Moments later, he was gone, never to be seen again. His generosity was entirely selfless - or perhaps he had shares in the Japanese tourist industry?

Before finally heading for the airport, I stopped for two nights in Hirosaki Youth Hostel, situated in the lovely little 'Apple Town' that rests at the foot of a snow capped volcano. There I was greeted with traditional kindness by a little old lady; on the table lay a bundle of salmon sandwiches and a huge sliced apple ("so that's why they call it 'Apple Town'-é). This was accompanied by the free tea and hot chocolate- just the kind of hostel we need more of back home. My time there was very relaxed and peaceful. I spent my day enjoying the deserted park around the castle, building a snowman, sampling some wildly exotic cinnamon rolls and sleeping.

The next day was to be a tough one. I had to get to the airport by nightfall, but my train ticket had expired and I was down to my last one thousand Yen (six pounds). Hitching seemed the only option, despite the lack of long distance traffic. When three young women stopped to pick me up I wasn't sure if they'd got the right person, but within a minute we were off north. Unfortunately, they were only going to the next town, but I was grateful to move at all. Once there, the driver took a diversion down a small road, and stopped the car in a strange village. I wondered where on Earth I was, but did as I was told when asked  to get out. Thankfully, they all got out as well, took me into a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and treated me to a huge plate of noodles and strange sea creatures. I must admit, it was delicious! Although I couldn't understand what they were saying, I gathered that they were going to take me a little further despite the fact that it would be completely out of their way. 100km later they dropped me off at a small railway station, where, with the last of my money I bought a ticket for the airport.

Unfortunately, my flight wasn't until the next afternoon. I was penniless and the entire airport was to close at 10pm. So, once the international terminal was almost deserted, I found a row of chairs against a wall. Behind these I could comfortably lay down my inflatable mattress, climb into my sleeping bag and drift off into a world of Japanese dreams - despite the frequent security checks. The following day I boarded the 747, upon which the air hostess offered me the three front-row seats as the plane was under-capacity- the most comfortable flight of my life!

Before stopping at Amsterdam - and a stomach-churning flight to Zurich in a storm - I arrived back home in Switzerland. Six weeks after my departure, what did I now think about Japan and it's population? So many things come to mind, too many to record here, but there are a few that stand out. It has more people per square metre than many countries, more concrete per acre of land than who knows where, and more vending machines per street corner than a vending machine factory - over 4.5 million of them and counting! Generosity, friendliness, helpfulness and a Work hard Play hard ethic can be found everywhere. Japan has a complex set of unspoken social rules - these can be traced back to events of the past fairly easily. The group comes before the individual - in some cases this has far reaching effects and the results can be seen in all manner of customs. Japan also has a vast array of beautiful monuments, shrines and temples, incredible volcanoes, beautiful national parks and of course those wonderful onsens! I found myself feeling that, on reflection, it is a very similar place to Kleine Scheidegg in that it has many contradictions both physical and throughout society.

To really sum it up, I'd say that those six weeks were some of the best six weeks of my life. I'll certainly be returning there one day, to be greeted by my thousands of fans who once saw me for four seconds on Kyoto and Tokyo TV-

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who supported me during my time in Japan, whether it was to provide me with somewhere to live, a ride in a car, advice, friendship or emotional support - you all know who you are.

Arigato gozaimasu!!!

See you soon!!!

To see over 130 photographs of my friends and I in Japan (2000), click here.

© Joseph Tame 2000~2009 | Contact Joseph