Big in Japan 1

In October and November last year, ‘er indoors and I travelled to Japan. We stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, and travelled to Hiroshima too. It was an absolutely fascinating trip, during which most of my preconceptions about the country were challenged, and I felt that I learned a lot, but also that there was so much more to learn. So, partly in order to debrief myself and try to make sense of what we experienced, I thought I would start a series of posts focusing on the country and our encounter with it.

Part of the preparation we did was to read a fascinating book by a Cambridge academic, Alan Macfarlane, which disarmingly starts with a confession that he feels he can never completely understand Japan, and that the “Alice in Wonderland” connotations of his title are intentional: “Japan is a one-way mirror out of which the Japanese can look, but which outsiders cannot look into. It also seems to be a world that even those inside the mirror find difficult to understand.”

That was quite encouraging in a way – if a distinguished anthropologist, who had visited Japan on numerous occasions over a twenty-year period felt like this, then the pressure was off: we just needed to enjoy the experience. And we did.

Our first stop was the Japan Rail office at Narita airport, where we were to pick up our rail passes. This was a valuable lesson in Japanese mores. First, we had ordered and paid for the two-week pass online. A courier had delivered two rather flimsy chitties, which we were to present at the office. We turned up, and were met by a charming woman, who asked us to fill in a form, in which we had to give all the information we had already given online. There seemed to be no point to this: our details were surely in the system, but here, as elsewhere, we found that Japan creates jobs for its people, and this woman’s job was to meet and greet, and sort out forms for tourists like us. This was our first taste of the Japanese fondness for bureaucracy and paperwork. Next, at the desk, another lovely young woman made, very deftly, the passes – stout card, with our details in ink – and then arranged, with astonishing speed and efficiency, a series of reservations for the Shinkansen bullet trains we were going to use to travel around, even making sure we had seats on the correct side to view Mount Fuji. More on the trains in a later post.

We travelled to our hotel in the business district of Tokyo, Shinjuku, and marvelled at the size of the station, and the huge numbers of people it contained – but also at the sense of calm that prevailed. In big stations in the UK, there’s always that sense of chaos just beneath the surface. Here, all was serene. At the hotel, another example of job creation: instead of just going to the desk, three or four people were employed to filter you to the next available desk clerk. Again, everything was done with a smile and with great efficiency. Our room was one with everything the modern traveller might need, but, because it was a ‘traditional’ room, with tatami matting, it felt as if we were staying in some old Samurai dwelling, rather than on the top floor of a chic hotel.

On the street outside the hotel, some work was being done on the road, so a section was coned off – except cones weren’t used. Instead, this:

Yes, the all-purpose Hello Kitty road traffic control device.

We spent just one day in Tokyo before visiting friends in Fussa, a small town to the west of the centre of the sprawling conurbation. But we returned at the end of the holiday, so more on Tokyo later. That weekend we travelled with our friends to see Mount Fuji. On a brilliant sunny day, we enjoyed some fantastic views, and also had our first temple experience. According to, “clouds and poor visibility often block the view of Mount Fuji, and you have to consider yourself lucky if you get a clear view of the mountain.” So we can count ourselves lucky to have seen it like this, from Lake Kawaguchiko:

At the foot of the climbing trails up the mountain stand a series of shrines. We visited the Kitaguchihongu shrine where we saw our first glimpse of traditional dress:

Very quickly, the ultra-modern world of Tokyo seemed to fade away, to be replaced by something much more rooted in the past. Though that, as we shall see, was something of an illusion as well.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Big in Japan 1 by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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