Thursday, 13 September 2018

A week in Tokyo and Kyoto

My time in Japan has come to an end.  I'm sitting in a Kimono in an airport hotel with only a pseudo Japanese breakfast left of my trip before I catch a flight to Moscow.

In my last blog I went over my time in Tokyo and a bit of my early impressions of Japan as a country.  Having now seen more of Tokyo and Kyoto as well I can definitely conclude there is a lot to love about Japan.

First of all, let's look at Kyoto.  Starting with the trip there;
The Japan Rail Pass that tourists can get costs about AU$450 and gets you on most trains and some buses, including the high speed trains (Shinkansen) to Kyoto.  Technically it doesn't include the fastest train type, but from what I can see the main difference is number of stops rather than top speed.

According to my phone, we hit a max of 277.3kph in the short distance I was recording.
The train ride was perfectly smooth, so much so that you could have unsecured large suitcases on shelves above the chairs without concern.

I was curious how these trains can possibly work, as in Australia trains can barely cross 80kph and tracks seem to bend and warp every time the temperature reaches mildly above average.  So I looked into it and it turns out the only difference between the design of our train tracks in Australia and those here are that they don't suck here.  It's not some amazing technology, or some super feat of engineering the Japanese managed.  They just secure the tracks firmly to heavy slabs so that through sheer force, changes in temperature aren't enough to warp the tracks dangerous.  In some snowy areas they use sprinklers to melt the snow.

What I can't figure out is how they manage to be on time, all the time and how they manage to pull up exactly to the right spot on the platform every time.  In Melbourne sometimes trains literally miss the station and have to back up a bit.  Here, if the train is more than a couple of feet off, it messes with all the boarding queues and I certainly didn't see that happen.

The first thing I did in Kyoto, was fully indulge in cultural appropriation.

I then proceeded to watch Your Name, in Japanese (admittedly with English subtitles... I'm not that hardcore).

The place I stayed was Nishikiro, a traditional Japanese Inn, with tatami floors (the straw like matts you can see in the image above), a small onsen and the nice garden pond at the entrance.

There were only a few rooms and it was owned by a family who lived there as well.  There was even a midnight curfew for guests, when they shut the front doors.  You took off shoes at the front and put on slippers, then took those off when entering your actual room, and had separate bathroom slippers as well.

The lady who runs the place was very helpful and recommended a lot of good places for us to see and eat at.  The range of pricing for food in Japan is quite surprising.  There are plenty of places that will charge around AU$6-9 for a coffee.  But then you find a smaller, local place and you get a full meal like below for about AU$5.

I even tried adding some "natto", which is meant to be horrible, smelly and disgusting... But frankly was just like ordinary beans, but stickier.

I also had to try eating this octopus, with hard boiled egg in its head.  It was actually quite delicious and not that different from Greek style octopus.

Moving on from food, there were plenty of great sites to see, as you'd expect from Kyoto's reputation.  Though the first thing that struck me, is that Kyoto is actually a big city!  I'd always heard about it in regards to all its temples and gardens, I didn't realise it was also a large, modern city in itself.

But there were indeed temples and gardens, and I made sure to visit some of the best:
The picture doesn't quite do the size of that Buddha justice.

Small deer roaming the streets near the temple.

A nice Japanese garden.

The famous Golden Temple!

A popular street with various shops in Naga, a bit away from Kyoto.

Japanese architecture is obviously very unique.  I find it is generally much smaller in scale than European historical buildings, but very intricate and with a lot of focus on the gardens and the natural element, rather than just the buildings themselves.  Being made largely of wood though has the unfortunate effect that many of the places we visited were actually rebuilt replicas of the original (or replicas of replicas of the original), as wooden buildings of course are a lot easier to destroy than stonework.

That being said, traditional Japanese wooden architecture is famous for being able to withstand insanely large earthquakes due to their unique design.  It's interesting to consider if Japanese architecture is so different due to the need to design buildings that can survive frequent Earthquakes, or it worked out that way for other reasons.  Here's a good short video I found about it.

Back through Tokyo:
As the final but vital stop of my trip, I had to visit one particular shrine that has personal meaning to me!  The Suga Shrine, back in Tokyo.

I'm not a huge anime fan in general, though I have enjoyed some here and there.  But the movie "Your Name", or "Kimi No Na Wa " is in my top three favourite movies of all time.  If you haven't seen it, don't look up anything about it and risk spoilers, just go watch it on Netflix right now!

One of the most iconic scenes of the movie occurs at the steps near the Suga Shrine, and so on the way from Kyoto back through Tokyo to the Narita airport, I made a diversion to see them  in person.

The two people near the bottom of the steps in that photo were also taking photos of themselves posing up and down the steps and from a quick Google search, apparently it's not at all uncommon.

The shrine itself is also nice, but I think it is now more known for the movie than its original purpose.

I'm not sure what it says about me that in a lot of ways, visiting those steps was a more meaningful experience than visiting any of the other locations throughout Japan.  But the fact is, the movie is something that is special to me personally, whereas as much as I like seeing new and interesting things and places, there is no personal connection to those, so it isn't the same.

Goes to show that the value of something really does come more from what it represents to people, than just what it physically is.

Japan as a whole:
I've only had a week to experience Japan, but it's certainly a place I'll want to visit again.  I've travelled to quite a number of countries in my life, 23 I believe, though some when I was only 6 or 7, through I remember them quite well.

If someone were to ask what my overall view of Japan is, I would say that it simply appears to be a more civilised country than any I've visited before.  In much of Europe, there's garbage on the streets and graffiti, people are generally far less courteous and you need to watch your wallet and passport everywhere you go, between gypsy kids and pickpockets seemingly around every corner.  I don't think my family has yet been on a trip to Europe yet where one of us or a friend hasn't had a wallet stolen.

In Japan, it's so relaxing, because you just don't have those kinds of concerns.  Of course crimes occur everywhere, even here, but it is so much better here than anywhere I've visited.  One interesting example is that I went into a pachinko parlour one evening, to see what this supposed craze is all about.  Pachinko is a game that's hugely popular in Japan, where basically you use a lever or dial to throw lots of little balls through a kind of maze to try and win more balls... 

It is basically a gambling game, like pokies.  You exchange the balls for money.

So I figured I'd give it a go and went to a fairly dodgy looking place near my hotel.  It was as loud as the video says it is and had plenty of people smoking inside.  I went to the counter and a woman handed me an English guide to playing the game.  So I went over, sat at a random machine and put in 1000 yen (about AU$12)

I was utterly confused even after reading the instructions.  I won some balls, lost some balls, someone who worked there gave me some suggestions which seems to win me a few more balls and after a few minutes, that was that.

I get up, return the manual and walk out.  As I'm walking away a worker from inside runs out to get me.  He doesn't speak any English, but is bowing and hands me a card that says nothing I can understand on it and indicates I should go back in.  I was pretty sure he was trying to convince me to come back and try some other game or go to the bar with a voucher or something.  I went back in though and he led me down some stairs to a woman who waved at me to come down.

At the bottom of the stairs were signed clearly leading to a bar with more games and what looked like some kind of strip show (not sure if that's legal in Japan, or what exactly it was, but there were lots of posters of attractive girls in costumes).  At this point I figured they were trying to get me into a bar or stripshow to spend some money, so I was about to turn and leave, when the woman asked for the card I was given, walked over to a machine and put it in for me and 500 yen in coins came out.  She smiled and bowed, I took the money and she said goodbye, thank you and so on in Japanese, and that was it.

So basically what in my foreigner mind of expecting to be ripped off or scammed, turned out to be them just wanting me to get my prize money back, they didn't even try and sell me on anything else.

The other thing that was very clear is how proud Japanese people generally seem to be about their country.  Even asking random people on the streets for directions, many of them are excited to see foreigners visiting Japan and being interesting in seeing local sights and trying local things.  One woman I met in a coffee shop spoke nearly fluent English and we talked a bit.  She thought it was hilarious and great that my sister and I actually were willing to try a traditional onsen in the nude, she didn't think Westerners would do that.

And I think that actually answers my question of why Japan is such a clean country, despite basically not having bins anywhere.  People here actually have pride in their nation and so of course wouldn't want to defile it.  Then you go to Western countries where we are taught to hate ourselves, our culture and everything about our nation and it makes sense that we'd throw litter about like it's nothing.  I suspect it is a similar reason why the crime rate is so low here.  There's something to be said for a bit of pride!

This shows particularly well in this video of a Japanese man reacting to the whole "Westerners wearing kimonos" nonsense controversy.

I love how he is actually confused about what the hell people are even thinking when it comes to being offended, and that is very much the attitude I've seen throughout my (admittedly short) trip.

The dark side?
Japan largely has a good international reputation these days, and is known as one of the lowest crime nations on Earth.  But there are two negative things that I've had come up when discussing Japan, the high suicide rate, and the reputation for perversion, whether in porn or with sexual assault on trains.

I've read a bit about the high suicide rate and insane work hours of the Tokyo "salaryman" (a typical office worker).  It's something I'd be curious to learn more about, as it's not something you get to see really as a tourist.  There must be a lot of interesting facets of living in such a big city with such a disciplined work culture that aren't immediately observable to a visitor.

One aspect that is observable I touched on in my last blog.  Being a computer geek myself and always into the latest technology, when deciding where to stay in Japan, my first and only thought was "Akihabara"!  Basically the electronics capital of the world.  Turns out it is also one of the seediest places in Tokyo.

Looking into the history of the development of Akihabara, it first became well known as a hotbed of piracy, a place to get cheap, pirated CDs and games, and then it started attracting more anime and manga (Japanese animated cartoons and basically comics respectively), eventually become home of the "otaku" which is basically a Japanese word for a "geek", someone who is obsessed with things like computer games and anime; and then of course the schoolgirls, maids and porn that come with that.  So it doesn't exactly have a pristine pedigree.  Apparently "Shinjuku" is even more notorious, but I didn't see much of that except the Robot Restaurant (which was awesome!)

There tends to be a connection between the overworked "salaryman", the "otaku" and high suicide rates, at least according to articles I've read, and exploring around Akihabara, it does make sense.  I think it is really best described as a city sized toy store for adults who need a toy store.  Long hours, no time or space for a family, leading to a need for quick and easy forms of entertainment and distraction, that stay open late through the night.  And maids and other forms of kind of pseudo-sexual services in lieu of actual relationships (apparently you can pay to sleep in the same bed as a girl, literally, not touch her, just sleep next to her, or for some extra, she will look deeply into your eyes for a minute - okay then).

At street level, you have mostly electronics, gaming areas and anime toy stores suitable for kids (well, maybe teenagers).  Then you move around the stores a little bit and there's massive areas of trains, robots and all kinds of cool things that would excite any geek.  Then around another corner, or behind a sheet, or up or down a flight of stairs and you are suddenly into a shall we say "next level" adult store.  The fact they are all part of the same shop shows that the shops are clearly designed for a target audience that is interested in all the above.

Now I know I'm supposed to be a pristine, angelic, holy, good example for all mankind to follow.  But I'm not.  So I had a look around and what I saw was just so out of kilter with everything else in Japan, it was jarring.  Japanese people in public are always dressed modestly, helpful, polite, you'd think they go home each night, have tea, pray at a shrine and meditate, levitating their bodies from the ground rather than sleep.  Then you see this other side of Japanese culture and its hard to reconcile how it fits in.

Conversely, in Australia you'll see drunk, half naked girls rolling on each other making out in public, and that wouldn't occasion any response beyond maybe cheering them on.  But if someone makes an inappropriate joke on the radio or you get a nipple slip on a live show (like that one from the US a couple of years ago) it's the end of the world and everyone has to be fired, or lynched, or eaten, whatever the current social justice trend is.  In Japan you wouldn't be likely to see a couple even holding hands on the street, but then that couple goes together to an adult store (yep, couples do go together) and what gets fantasised about after certainly wouldn't pass through customs to Australia.  Hell I wouldn't want to try bringing some of the stuff in the non adult areas through customs.

A similar comparison is in Australia saying "Hi" to a girl without consent these days is getting dangerously close to being called rape, whereas in Tokyo, sexual assault on trains is common (though less so these days after recent crackdowns), but rape rates (along with assault, murder and so on) in Japan are far lower than Australia and most of the rest of the world.

It's a very strange situation that I'd love to fully understand.  But really, I think Japan's reputation for perversion is actually a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

One easy statistic is the marriage rate, only 41% of Australian adults are married, in Japan that rate is 58%.  Now many young Australians would probably say that it's because marriage is dead, and it's just great to raise kids as a single, unemployed parent.  But that is a perfect example of Australian style perversion.  We are horrified to say the wrong thing or to see the wrong thing, but we are okay with just throwing the family unit out like a used condom.  In Japan it's perfectly legal (and somewhat culturally acceptable) to have porn that would make an Australian censor eat their own tongue, but they still value families and taking care of children (and children in turn taking care of parents).  And bear in mind while these things may be accepted in broader society socially and legally, it doesn't mean they particularly permeate the society, with the "otaku culture" still being considered a small and weird, but tolerated group.

In Japan it's normal to have young schoolgirls as part of large bands on stage in skimpy outfits, where men trade cards with photos of them in public (there's a big shop for one of the most popular bands in Akihabara, the AKB48 Cafe).  In Australia it's normal for similar aged kids to smoke weed and attend sex education classes where they practice putting condoms on dildos ("Safe Schools" program).

So the reality of it is that really every country is messed up in its own way, and the way each country is bad, may seem so much worse to people in another country used to their own problems.  But really, it's just different kinds of bad.  And I don't see that Japan's kind of bad is any worse than ours.

As for the suicide rate.  Well as is usual, that just comes down to psychiatric drugging.

Ultimately, Japan has been an amazing place to visit, with everything good I've heard being entirely true and everything bad I've heard also being true, but also misrepresented, or misunderstood.

Next time I visit, it will have to be during the cherry blossom season, when the weather is much more suited to my tastes, and I get to see one of the most quintessentially Japanese things.  Not to mention trying out skiing in Japan!  Apparently January/February are ideal for both.  Maybe 2020?

An aside about overpopulation:
Seriously, 127 million people live in Japan, in a country smaller than New South Wales, and most of the country is beautiful, open countryside.  And even in Tokyo there are a lot of open spaces and parks.  So when people talk about overpopulation being a big problem in the world... No.

Now to Russia!
And after all that, onward to Russia!  Another country I've been really keen to check out, for it's unique culture, architecture and no doubt amazing food!

I'd also love to see Putin if he gives a speech or something.  No matter what anyone says, every time I've heard him talk, he makes sense and his actions consistently work toward improving the quality of life in Russia and trying to improve relations with the rest of the world (despite other nations trying their best to keep Russia as an enemy, 1984 style).

Downside, I know even fewer Russian words than Japanese and I expect there'll be a lot less English writing over there.  Will find out soon enough!  Better cram a bit on the plane...

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