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Adventures in Japan

22nd May 2015

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Travelling to Japan is not for the weak. After three hours to London, five hours waiting for the connection flight and twelve hours to Narita, I and my friend set foot in Japan feeling like death warmed over. We were in no condition to appreciate the paperwork involved in trying to cross the border – who were we, where were we from, how long would we stay and where, how much money did we have?

There were no drugs in our bags. We would not stay longer than a few weeks. We had no illnesses. We would not steal jobs from Japanese citizens. Good. We were stamped in and allowed through.

Before making our way out of the airport, some policemen handed us packs of tissues. We were informed they were ‘Japanese police friendship gifts’. I felt vaguely alarmed and hoped we would stay as friends.

It took us some time to find the right subway station. The step-by-step directions to our hostel had seemed clear back home, but on the spot the paper had all the worth of kindling. Thankfully, the public transport in Japan is nothing short of excellent – trams arrive on time, the signs are written in English, and different routes are colour coded for extra convenience.

Despite our near pathological efforts at getting lost, we eventually found our way to the district of Asakusa. As we climbed to the surface, sunlight sliced through my head like a red-hot knife. Electric wires crossed the sky above like a messy spider net, and all signs were written in sprawling kanji. In the street corner, a man handed us a pack of tissues and welcomed us to Tokyo in thickly accented English.

Our hostel was a tiny, tidy thing – a testament to both Japanese reliability and the lack of living space in the city. Unfortunately, their dedication to cleanliness also meant we were in too early and our room was not ready. Tired as we were, we made the incredibly bright decision to wander out in the streets of Asakusa, where the sun was free to sauté our pasty, clammy skin.

One of the most iconic places in the district of Asakusa is Kaminarimon, literally “Thunder Gate”. It is a massive red gate that houses a great red lantern and two statues: FÅ«jin, the Shinto god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder. Behind the gate is a market street, where you can buy anything from slightly-dicey yukata and paper umbrellas to a variety of local snacks.

Not five minutes in the market we were ambushed by a group of schoolchildren, presumably on some sort of summer English assignments. As lily-white Europeans we stood out in the crowd, and, being young women, probably came across relatively harmless. It was an exercise in frustration on both sides – they were not very good at speaking English, and we still felt like wilted vegetables getting very slowly roasted by the sun.

Their teacher, a man with an impeccable suit and severely combed hair, seemed to take our patience as some sort of a personal favour and bowed to us in gratitude. Confused, we bowed back.

This may have broken some unspoken social conduct, because he bowed to us for a second time. We failed to take the hint and bowed back, again.

I can’t quite recall where it ended, but eventually we walked away from the exchange with very sobering hand-made cards where little cartoon characters implored us to consider the threat of nuclear weapons.

After sleeping for fifteen or so hours, we felt vaguely like human again and decided to venture further into the heart of Tokyo. Our first stop was Akihabara, the sprawling, confusing, deceptive haven of all sorts of electronics and anime-related goods.

Shopping there can be a transcendental experience, and if I could only give one piece of advice to whoever intends to visit, it would be: “don’t keep a lot of money with you”. I somehow purchased a weird little fan that came with a water sprinkler, from a shop that gave the general impression that its goods might have fallen off the back of a truck. Spinning toys and disorganised wires were crammed next to boxes of electrical parts and flashing lights and there was not an ounce of spare space. I felt an urge to dig my fingers through everything, just in case I might run across a lost treasure.

My friend, in turn, ended up with several anime-related sound eggs that got immediately lost in the depths of her suitcase for the rest of the trip and gifted us with a countless stream of “anpan, anpan, anpan”, whenever someone so much as nudged the bag.

Akihabara had staked its claim. We conceded defeat.

Altogether, the city of Tokyo is a peculiar mixture of old and new. In the midst of tall, sleek skyscrapers that reflect the blue of the sky are old temples that huddle in the streets as though wondering if they are still welcome there. Curiously, the same sort of dichotomy can be seen in the people. Six days of the week, the Japanese are model citizens. The streets are clean without a single discarded cigarette stump, and the only things that get stolen are, for whatever reason, umbrellas.

However, all of this changes when Sunday arrives. Suddenly, people are jaywalking. Tobacco butts make their debut on the pavement. Motorcycle gangs drive past in the roads. People stumble about in public, openly drunk.

Once Monday arrives again, the Japanese tuck in their shirts and iron their suits and go about their lives as though nothing happened. This took some time to get used to.

What I remember best is, however, the sun that ground down on us in an endless siege and made the summer of Japan a sweaty, exhausting experience. In Asakusa, people ran little stands where they variety of cool refreshments. I often bought shaved ice from an elderly woman wearing a striped shirt and a pink shawl on her shoulders. The shards of ice were shaved off a block right then and there, and made sweet by pouring in some flavour-syrup of your choice. Though the snack was just ice and artificial essence, eating it was like waking up after a truly restful night. I could have done anything. I was unbeatable.

Until the ice ran out, at least.

Most of the time, we were too exhausted from the heat to eat before sunset. Asakusa offers a variety of dinner options: different types of sushi, battered and deep-fried “tempura”, thin slices of raw fish (“sashimi”), octopus balls wrapped in dough and fried (“takoyaki”), and various noodle dishes.

Nevertheless, by some curious student alchemy we still tended to live on ramen, a noodle soup with more region-specific variations than there are fish in the sea. The Tokyo variant is made with clear soy and chicken broth, and yellow, thin noodles. The bowl is topped off with scallion, fermented bamboo shoots, egg, seaweed, processed fishcake and sliced pork.

The broth was salty and greasy enough to make me feel uneasy for my perfectly healthy heart, and the sort of delicious that turns off every gear in your mind so you can better appreciate the flavour. Part of it was probably the atmosphere of the restaurant.

Tourist establishments often make me feel like I’m part of a play. Every item in its place, a script to follow, actors with plastic faces. The restaurant of our choice couldn’t be more different: it was family-run and tiny, barely large enough to fit the kitchen and the counter, and our orders were cooked right there in front of us. There were plastic jugs filled with icy cold water, cheap wooden chopsticks and the smell of broth that drifted over the counter.

The owners were a married couple, and spoke very little English. You ordered food by paying coin to a vending machine and pressing a button. It would spit a little piece of paper at you, which you gave to the cook and sat to wait. The system was simple and easy for all involved, except when someone failed to understand the local customs. An elderly Italian man tried to explain his order in English to the middle-aged lady behind the counter. She couldn’t understand a word he said and waved her hand at the vending machine in increasing frustration.

We eventually interrupted the exchange and managed to explain the system to him. After he was done with the order, the lady leaned over the counter and thanked us. We know hardly any Japanese, so her words went over our heads.

But the bones and marrow of meaning managed to pass through. It felt like a connection, between people who lived half a world apart, and I will likely remember that moment for the rest of my life.

Though Tokyo is one of the great cities of the world and crammed full of people, there is still room for green areas. We visited the Ueno Park and found it to be a stage for various different performances to attract people. Competition was fierce, and not always fair. A Peruvian pan-flute band seemed to have an intense rivalry with a man who ran a little magic show on the other side of the plaza. Every time the aspiring magician stopped talking, the music would start playing. His offended expression didn’t seem to make an impression on the musicians.

Crows in Japan have a peculiar call: “Aho! Aho!” In Japanese, this word means “idiot”, which has made crows recurring guest stars in comedies. The birds swarmed the Ueno park, casually insulting passers-by, and I half-heartedly hoped they might have provided their unique commentary on the clash of wills between the magician and the musicians. Sadly, however, reality lacked consideration for proper dramatic timing. No crows flew past, and I was more disappointed than I should have been.

Once the magician managed to finish his act, he made an elaborate show of dropping his hat, ostensibly by accident, and acting embarrassed when someone put money in it. We couldn’t understand the words, but the general impression was: “well, if you insist, I won’t decline donations”.

His act might have been more convincing if we had not spotted the performer and the generous man talking with each other before the show.

If you wish to do traditional sight-seeing in Japan, you will inevitably end up seeing a lot of temples. During our brief excursion to Kyoto, we visited the famous Kinkaku-ji (“temple of the Golden Pavilion”), which sits overlooking a pond and reflects golden colours on its surface.

In what appears to be typical for Japan, the temple had no problems combining the spiritual with the mundane. There were multiple little stands that sold various good luck charms. I bought a little doll, known as “Daruma-san”. When Daruma are sold, their eyes are left as blank spaces. The custom is to paint in one, and make a wish or set a goal. Once your desire comes true, you are to paint in the other eye as acknowledgement and appreciation for his aid.

The temples of Japan are not merely tourist traps, however. Most of the visitors at Kinkaku-ji looked like local people: a sprightly grandma with her hair in a severe bun, a group of nervous-looking schoolgirls in identical uniforms and white knee-high socks, a businessman wearing a depressing grey suit and thinning hair, a family with a baby and a little girl with pigtails.

Young and old, rich and poor, they all fanned incense over their faces and rang the large bell for the gods to hear. I wondered what they all prayed for. Health, love, success, good luck in entrance exams? It was a snapshot of people’s lives, and I felt like an intruder.

On our final day in Kyoto, we were tired and exhausted and decided to just go see something that was relatively close by. We picked the Rashomon memorial site. Rashomon was one of two city gates built in Kyoto in year 789 of the Heian Period. Centuries later, it fell into disrepair and gained a reputation as a place for people of ill repute. A film by Akira Kurosawa used it as a name and a setting, and both of us recognised the word in the hostel-given map via pop culture osmosis.

However, it would be advisable to research the places you wish to visit beforehand.

We walked and walked, and eventually realised that something was wrong. We had walked right past the place the memorial was supposed to be. Confused, we backtracked. What we finally found was a children’s park. At the centre of it was the memorial: a solitary stone pillar, about the height of a tall man, carved with kanji and surrounded by a metal fence. Someone had forgotten a bike lock around the fence and a pigeon sat on top of the pillar. As we watched, it relieved itself on its perch and flew off.

On the bright side, I can’t quite remember the last time we had laughed so much. A middle-aged woman leaned out of one of the windows in the surrounding apartments and gave us a disapproving look, but we couldn’t stop. It was the sort of laughter that had to burn itself out. A crow flew past, and called: “Aho! Aho!

By the time we returned to Tokyo, summer was taking its last breaths. Shops had started to stock up on cheap umbrellas, and shaved-ice stands had disappeared off the streets. Elderly men in Asakusa sat on the stone fence of the temple, basking in the remaining warmth like wrinkly old lizards. Cicadas chirped an endless song in the trees, heralding the change of seasons. 

Autumn was coming, and our time in Japan ended with the summer.

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