Japan Pt 1. An Introduction & Itinerary
Dave and I spent the first month and a half of 2014 in Japan. I have written this page with the dual purpose of being both a personal retrospective and hopefully an aid to prospective travellers. Over the coming weeks I will try and write in-depth overview of the cities and areas we visited. Most photos with date-stamps are from my camera, while those without are mostly Dave’s [including this cover photo].
It seems Japan is often overlooked as a travel destination. It isn’t, like Europe or America, considered a place of youthful pilgrimage, most probably because like Australia, the only way to hop across to adjacent countries is, un-ergonomically, via air. And although Japan’s culture is truly inimitable, it’s high standard of socio-economic development means you may not receive the same level of ‘culture shock’ as you would backpacking through a developing nation such as the in the Subcontinent. Coupled with the long-standing perception of being an expensive country to travel through, it nearly seems fair that it wouldn’t be at the top of one’s hedonistic to-travel list.
For me, Japan’s initial appeal as a travel destination was the near-mythical powder of Hokkaido- the drawcard for most Aussies these days. You read about the Siberian winds that collect moisture across Asia and the sea of Japan and kindly dumps some the lightest, driest and most plentiful snow in the world right on the northern quadrant of the country, and feel compelled to see it for yourself [because hey, lets face it, you’d never see it this side of Asia-pacific] More on the snow later. On a side note, Siberia is not a country like I thought, but is in fact the desolate three quarters of Russia that sits above China, Mongolia and part of Kazakhstan- knowledge…
Anyhow, with the travelling mantra of ‘do it right or don’t do it at all’, drafting a modest snow trip swiftly snowballed in a culturally immersive seven-week trip across the land of the rising sun.
Whenever I tell people I travelled to Japan, near incessantly I am asked: ‘Why Japan?’ Admittedly it wasn’t on the top of my list either but there were a couple of reasons why the country appealed to me and I had an interest to investigate further. Firstly, besides being the largest metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo is one of the great jazz cities- if not the most prolific outside of the States. Some of my favourite records were recorded live in Tokyo, including Keith Jarrett Trio, Art Blakey in 1960 and the Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart album- in fact the place seems to share a musical symbiosis with NY. All the biggest name make a point of touring Japan and so I was sure that even though I was missing Ambrose Akinmusire in Sydney [sigh, don’t remind me] that I’d catch one or two big names around Tokyo.
Even In Australia, the Sydney jazz community seems to have intrinsic links with Japan. The likes of Simon Barker and Andrew Dickenson frequent Japan and have many close links over there, and tenor legend Mike Rivett lived and gigged in Tokyo for some years and so around the Con it seems Japan is never too far from thought.
Music aside, another reason Japan appealed to me was that after high school I dipped my toes in the pool of eastern spirituality, namely Zen Buddhism, and although I’ve since retreated back to a more agnostic post, I’ve tried to incorporate some of their ideals into my daily life. I was interested to learn more about these teachings and ideals in flesh.
My third and most poignant reason was that, well, I really, really like ramen.
But, honestly, like mostly I just wanted to submerge myself in a juxtaposing culture- and Japan, with it’s long and proud national history- in direct antithesis to the brief-storied and at times culturally-confused Australia- coupled with Japan’s cultural idiosyncrasies that continue to mystify most of the West today, a trip to Japan seemed like a good idea as any.
In my mind, cultures across the world can be likened to the cycle of fifths [bear with me] that is, varying degrees of tension, because let’s face it, everything is tension or release when it comes down to it. If my home culture is the tonal centre C, for me, Japan would relatively speaking be the tonal centre E, which for the non-musician is five sevenths down the tonal spectrum, some heavy tension there. To give a comparison, I view the U.S. to be the tonal centre of D and Europe would be the tonal centre of A. Yes, I could of just used a spectrum, but where’s the fun in that and yes you probably disagree that’s just you playing right into tension’s hands.
At a gig only a couple of nights ago I ran into an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen or heard from in years. As it goes these days, it’s possible to keep updated on the happenings of those you see in flesh every once in a cerulean moon through social media; I knew she had visited Japan only couple of weeks before I did, and unsurprisingly she knew of my travels also. I asked her what she thought of the country and her response –to which I will paraphrase as precisely as my memory permit- more than adequately summarised both our travels to a tee: ‘It was never on the top of my list of places to go but I’m so incredibly glad I went, I fell in love with Japan, it’s the best place.”
Why is it the best place you may ask? Well, atop of a long list of pros are: the people. The Japanese are the most affable, altruistic, considerate and respectful people I’ve met. What more, after a month and a half of travel from the tip to toe of the country, from rural post towns to the megalopolis that is Tokyo, I hadn’t witness anything other than this unrelenting affability, not even a hint to tell me otherwise.
This national creed of respect, to the best of my knowledge, stems from Shintoism. Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion. Unlike Abrahamic religions, Shinto has no omnipotent deity or a sacred canon; in many ways, more than a religion, Shinto is considered a ‘philosophy of living.’ [a term taken from this interesting read] Shinto shares many of its values with Buddhism, which although today is commonly affiliated with Japan, originated from China [which I believe came from India] and was only brought across to Japan in the 6th Century. Although similar schools of thought, Shintoism and Buddhism locked horns early on [as opposing religions seem to do] but unlike so many spiritual battles they both came to realise they in fact complimented each other, and have in more recent years come to form a sort of homogenised system of spiritual thought in Japan, where a Buddhist may also believe in Shinto ideals and vice-versa. Although the country today nests an ever-growing agnostic demographic, the ideals of Shinto/Buddhism are still deeply rooted in the fabric of modern Japanese society.
Even before your first interaction with the Japanese, it’s not hard to see these ideals at work. You’ll notice the streets are eerily spotless. There are not even thoughts of littering, not even by the recalcitrant youth. In fact, one night I was walking home with a young Japanese local who just finished a cigarette after a long night of drinking and was shocked to see he kept the butt between his fingers the entire walk home, waiting for a bin to dispose of it properly. That sort of respect for your surrounding is unheard back home.
Beyond the cleanliness of their cities, there are the stories of those who leave their wallet on the train to find it sitting exactly where they left it, cash, cards and all left untouched. I read while away that some billion yen in cash is returned to owners annually. Basically, if you lose something in Japan, there is a good chance it will find its way back to you. The country has the lowest rates of crime in the developed world [and is on the decline still!] Intentional homicide rates in japan are 0.3 per 100 000 persons. By comparison Australia is 1 per 100 000 and the U.S. is 4.8 per 100 000, according to ye ol’ faithful Wikipedia. In fact, there is a growing stigma in Japan that much of the nation’s crime is committed by ‘white’ foreigners [known inauspiciously as gaijin.] which may just be true…
All these stories are confirmed once you make contact with the people who, like any culture, are a direct embodiment of their societal fabric- all without understanding a single word! Undoubtedly notice many conversations beginning and ending with a series of bows. Bowing in Japan is a critical part of their cultural etiquette and is one of the most explicit ways of conveying respect in Japan. The depth of bow translates, roughly, to the echelon- for example an employee would exchange a deeper bow than their employer. Compare this to the western handshake, where symbolic of the capitalist ideology, those of opposing classes momentarily meet as equals, the Japanese system of bowing only further highlights the deep respect ingrained in their national values.
As a foreigner, bowing is surprisingly easy to pick up. After your first few interactions with the locals end in you watching them bow to you, you quickly adopt the system to avoid awkwardness. Although I’m told they are brought up to expect no bow in return, I think it’s imperative visitors adopt the small but vital piece of etiquette. Much like speaking a few basic words of Japanese, bowing as a foreigner transcends it’s traditional message of respect and highlights to locals you as a well-meaning westerner. Admittedly, for the most part my bows were elongated nods of the head but even that was enough to show my good will and would more times than not elicit a deep bowed response.
Speaking of employers and employees, the work ethic in Japan is famous for being- for lack of a better word: serious. In Japan, one’s occupation is upheld with the utter most pride and passion. It was interesting to see first hand station cleaners showing the same commitment to their profession as station managers [who took their job very seriously]- it’s like there’s a perception that all jobs are a craft in their own right [which is a great way to consider your work]. For the salary man, this translates to an office culture were overtime is a given. At a bar in Hiroshima, Dave and I got talking to a middle-aged American man who was in Japan with his wife, visiting her family. He said he frequently visits Japan and at one time even worked over here for a six-month stint but had to return home as the white-collared work culture was overbearing. He described a working week where most nights you’d stay back till 10pm and be expected to go out drinking with your colleagues after. Note: I’m told the white-collar secret to no hangover are their gatorade equivalent.
In fact, it is not uncommon to see salarymen [as they are affectionately known in Japan] miss the last train [somehow tokyo doesn’t have a 24hr rail system] and to sleep on park benches. Incredible, hey?
Interestingly, he also told Dave and I that although he spoke fluent Japanese, through his tenure in Japan he was always treated as ‘foreigner’. It seems that Japanese society remains weary of the west. Although as short-staying tourists they were unrelenting respectful to the point of submission, but from what we have heard, as an ex-pat it seems to takes a lot both time and mutual trust to become an accepted member of their squeaky clean society.
Above is a screenshot of my itinerary from google. This was a guide mostly completed before we jet set although many of the days were spent doing alternative things e.g. a number of unplanned day trips, some of which I will tell below. Still, it provides a general idea on which cities to visit, how long to visit for, where to stay, where to day-trip and some general tourist attractions worth checking out- basically a lot of answers from little explanation.
It’s worth noting that we opted for a more slow to moderately paced trip, although I think deep down we could of both travelled at a faster pace. In retrospect I could of cut a day from one or two cities at no loss to the trip as some cities had more to offer than others. But hey, you won’t make the same mistakes will you?
In saying that, we found 10 days wasn’t enough to complete our to-do list in Tokyo. If time is of the essence I’d say to truly soak up the world’s largest city you need at least a week. Likewise we filled seven days in the culture capital Kyoto, although six would of been ok, too. In good time I plan to write guides for both those cities so keep your eyes peeled if that’s what you’re looking for.
One city we nailed day-wise was the heavily underrated Kanazawa. The city sits on the much neglected north coast and so doesn’t receive the tourist traffic that it deserves- although I’ve heard it’s started to garner the attention of tourists. Considering it’s size [an easy cycle around the city centre] there’s a good amount of things to see and do, so two days is a must. It’s a no brainer to stay at the newly opened Shaq’s Bighouse. Owner and single employee Shaq is a dead set great guy. He’s a young, well-meaning character who, originally from Kanazawa, did his dues over in LA before returning to his hometown to open a hostel. This means his English is great and he knows how to party. Not only can he point you in the right direction of what to do in the day but also he happy to lead by example when it comes to night, taking you on a pub crawls [and going drink for drink] through the city’s night spots. You’ll invariably end up at a tiny but vibing underground bar run by his best mate and the beautiful soul that is Ao [who after hearing I love ramen and Dave love gyoza brought both to the Shaq’s the next night], among other city characters. If you’re lucky Shaq even cook you a traditional Japanese home-style hot pot meal for some pocket change [and in our case, invite all his friends over for a hang]. Undoubtedly this is all part of Shaq’s business model as he tries to interact with as many guests as possible but regardless it was super generous of him to give us his time and provide an insider’s guide to Kanazawa that we never would of had otherwise.
We did pretty well with Hiroshima, too. One of my favourite cities in Japan, I think even the slow-paced traveller can see the main attractions of the Hiroshima in one day, although try and arrive as early as possible to make most of the day- especially in winter- as the hours fly by in the museum. If you just want to see the modestly sized Hiroshima then one day should be enough but we opted for three to make sure we made it to tiny, yet tourist-magnet island that is Miyajima and a spare day to take a day-trip to one of the lesser known coastal towns on the train line. We were unsure whether to visit Iwakuni and it’s famous wooden bridge or the port town of Onomichi; we opted for the later as we were told of this Seven Bridge bike track known as the Shimanami Kaido [plus the Onomichi ramen] and couldn’t pass that opportunity.
Those wanting to visit Kurashiki, a small city with a stunning canal post town at it’s centre, will need no more than a day to see the best the city has to offer- and realistically can be done as a day-trip for the fast paced traveller. Winter isn’t kind to the canal town, stripping the trees guarding the canal of their leaves and so to much business and vibe, leaving the place feeling some what desolate both by day and even more so by night. Even still, it was truly beautiful and I would highly recommend visiting, but maybe reconsider a night in if you are travelling in winter- and if you do decide to stay the night consider staying in a hostel as although we relished the dirt cheap Dormy Inn hotel and it’s bath house level, Kurashiki isn’t a town that opens itself easily and hostel staff could be a valuable asset.
Two cities that I felt we could of culled a day from were Osaka and Takayama. The metropolis of Osaka seems to be a city geared towards functionality and so for the short-staying visitor there isn’t as much to see as one would have first thought for a city of it’s size. We did four nights/three days with one day spent at Universal studios but skip USJ and you could do Osaka in two days, I’d say.
Takayama is much the antithesis of Osaka. It’s a petite, regional town that survives off its charm more than it’s utility. We had heard many a good things about Takayama and I kept reading that people wish they had stayed longer so I made the call to stay three days but Dave and I got a bit fidgety by the end if I’m honest. We spent a day and a half around the city –with an evening at the magical light-up festival in Shirakawa-go and an impulsive day trip to the Shin-Hotaka rope-away and it’s breath-taking views of snow-laced Japan’s Northen Alps, both top-notch day-trips but for the moderately paced traveller you could be done with the town itself in less than a day. Once again winter was not kind to us, with uninviting skies and rain our entire stay and so maybe we the city was wasn’t as inviting as it usually is. Although without the gloom we wouldn’t of taken refugee into one of Takayama’s family run sake breweries to find they were giving free tours. A real treat and highly recommend free or not!
For the time-conscious traveller two days is enough to see the best of the town and Shirakawa-go. Once again, peak season could be a different story so I warn: take with a grain of salt.
Although, even though days could of been shed, they allowed us to travel impulsively to places we hadn’t heard or read about- Shin-hotaka rope-away being one of them, and really isn’t that the true essence of travelling?
It seemed like some parts of the country, especially the smaller cities and regional areas of the country were in a state of hibernation through the winter, waiting for the warmth and beauty of spring to bloom; the larger cities exerting too much energy to be slowed by a drop in temperature. For the blissfully unaware, Japan has a distinct seasonal cycle. Their winters are bitter cold, with heavy snow fall throughout the middle and upper part of the island e.g. Kanazawa and Takayama; their summers sweltering hot, making autumn and spring, better known as cherry blossom, peak season. Winter, like each season, has it’s perks. Against your better judgement, the skies are generally clearer and rainfall is at it’s annual minimum. Also, if your snow-inclined [ah] then you’ll enjoy snow capped everything. Lastly, services aren’t as busy, which although great can be detrimental to the vibe and that is the real crux to winter in Japan I think.
I could continue this stream-of-consciousness blab but to save those reading the hassle of dissecting paragraphs for useful information I’ve decided to categorise my travel advice below into transport, accommodation, luggage, food and miscellaneous. I will also endeavour to write more detailed guides for cities worth discussing. In the meantime, happy researching!