For many years, Japan had been top of my list of countries to visit. I have many books on Japanese art and culture, and Japanese paintings on the walls, and the first book my husband bought me was The Thirty-Six Immortal Women Poets (in medieval Japan). It is rumoured in my family that William Eaton, one of our ancestors, visited Japan with William Adams in 1600, and returned to Stoke-on-Trent with his Japanese concubine. I might therefore even have a trace of Japanese blood.
My first impression of Tokyo was of high-rises, a forest of neon signs, crowds of people on the move, hustlers calling outside their shops. Everyone rushing past radios thumping out bass rhythms and constant chatter everywhere. At 36 million people, Greater Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, and it holds 29% of Japan’s population (by way of comparison, London’s population stands at 8.67 million, 13% of that of Great Britain).
Space is at an expensive premium in Japan and a typical Japanese family, for example, would save space by using foldaway beds. In Tokyo, our four-star hotel bedroom had no wardrobe, but only three hooks for hanging clothes and three shelves. It was the hi-tech bathroom that made the deepest impression. The toilet had a warmed seat, built-in bidet, a choice of music, and flushed itself. The lavatories in shops, stations and cafés are similarly equipped. I now want one of these at home, and discover that the cost of the top-of-the-range model is nearly €1,300.
Each day that we spent in Japan contained elements of the high speed of modern life and the stillness of tradition. The contrast between the urban super-fast hi-tech life and the calm perfection of the parks and gardens is astonishing, and the effort which goes into their garden perfection, the beautiful flowers, trees trimmed to the perfect shape and lakes full of cream and red carp is well worth-while.
We spent our first Japanese morning at Tokyo’s Sunshine City. Built on the site of Sugamo Prison, where Japan’s war criminals were executed, this complex contains observatory, aquarium, shops and on the 60th floor there is a sky circus – lights, mirrors, virtual reality glasses creating a magical (or disorienting) experience.
In contrast, Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s oldest public parks, was established in 1873 as Japan in the Meiji period began to adopt western practices. Yellowstone National Park was established in the same year. Ueno is famous for its cherry-blossom and features in many wood block prints and short stories. The Park’s lakes are important for wintering ducks and it contains green space and most of Tokyo’s important museums, including the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). Within the TNM, we visited the Honkan Gallery (which offers a chronological arrangement of 12,000 years of Japanese art) and the Toyokan for its comprehensive collection of non-Japanese Eastern art.
The Imperial family still has private residences in The Imperial Palace which also contains impressive gardens. Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, began his castle here in 1590 and in the Edo period (1603-1868) under his shogun successors it became the world’s largest castle of which, sadly, only the inner circle survives.
These 265 years comprise the last period of traditional Japan, and the city we know now as Tokyo was then called Edo. During the boom of the 1980s, this area of 3.4sqkm had a higher value than all of the real estate in California. At the entrance to the grounds, four students offered to guide us in return for answers to their questions about life in England and a practical lesson in spoken English. This approach was the first of many such encounters. Their spoken English was already at a high standard, and spying their teachers in the background, we admired the charming use that Japanese were making of their tourist visitors.
Immediately outside the Imperial Palace Gardens is the Ginza area of Tokyo. As we took our coffee in a first-floor café, we observed a mesmerising number of people and cars, all under the control of one policeman, and were impressed by this aspect of Japanese life. It seemed that Japanese courtesy and respect for others invaded even the busiest streets of the city.
En route to the Tsukiji Hongwanji buddhist temple, we found a beautiful statue of a dog surrounded by five puppies. Chirori and her pups had been abandoned and were about to be put down. But she was so good natured that she was adopted by a hospital to become Japan’s first therapy dog. At medical institutions throughout Japan, she encouraged and supported elderly and disabled people with her gifted charm. Her example of the power of therapy dogs was influential in the re-drafting of the Japanese law for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The statue’s inscription reads Nothing but love to you, Chirori.
There was a service taking place as we arrived at the temple, complete with chants and drumming, and the smell of incense. In another example of Japanese helpfulness, one of the officials took time to explain what was happening and he made sure that we took our photographs before the front screen was closed. We learned that Buddhism and Shinto fit well together and Japanese are comfortable with both.
No trip to Japan would be complete without a journey on a bullet train. It is now hard to believe that the first bullet train was built in time for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964.
These Shinkansen trains can reach speeds of 320kph and the high-speed network now covers much of Japan. I am by no means a railway buff, but I found the trains themselves to be beautiful, and I was even more impressed to see a collection of bullet trains standing in their sidings. One was coloured pink and eau de nil.
Before arriving in Japan, I had been apprehensive about the language difficulty and I was relieved to find that travelling within Japan was very easy indeed. Buses, trains, the metro were all run efficiently with convenient re-chargeable passes, and instructions and directions were in clear English as well as Japanese. If we were ever in difficulty, there was always a polite Japanese stranger to offer his guidance.
By Lynne Booker
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