Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Turning Japanese Part 2: where to go and what to do

Turning Japanese: I really thought so.

During my time in Japan, I learnt Japanese - had a lot of interesting friendships and travelled widely... here's where I would recommend:


Forget Tokyo (well you can't really miss it, and you'll probably have to escape it on your way through Narita Airport), but Osaka is a city alive. Osaka got all the character that Tokyo was missing. It's people are more approachable and are famed for their 'Kansai' sense of humour. This is a better city to base yourself from as there's a greater range of the core Japanese cities in range of Osaka, add to this the lack of radiation and the more relaxed sensibilities and it's where I'd choose.  It was the city in which 'Black Rain' is based and sits between Kobe (of 1995 earthquake fame) and Kyoto, which brings me to...


Kyoto is the old city and houses all the famous temples and castles. The asute will have already spotted that To-Kyo and Kyo-To are actually the same but reversed. Toyko took over from Kyoto as the major city just prior to the end of the samurai age (1868). The city only requires a day, but this is prime photo territory and some of those temples are exquisite.

I was taken around in a cramped bus (double decker bus squeezed into a single story to meet height restrictions), I'm 5'8" and I felt cramped!  That way you get to see 6+ temples in a day.  While in Kyoto, you may want to try out the Ofuro or hot pools, and maybe go for some Geisha action (except don't expect much action) ... that's if you have more money than God herself.

Either that, or stick to the tourist stuff and get your relaxation in another city!


One of my first film experiences of Japan (Manga only hit the UK in my early teens) was "You only Live Twice".  The whole concept of the story (outside the main characters of Bond, Kitty, Tiger and Blofelt) was entirely created and scripted by Roahl Dahl (yes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory blokey!)... which is pretty common knowledge, but to turn a fairly silly book (Garden of Death - pah!), with faintly racist stereotypes into such a tour-de-force was a masterpiece.

I don't know if super-villains camped in volcanoes before YoLT, but every mega-baddy from The Man from Uncle to the Incredibles has since. Lets be realistic, LEGO sold an awful lot of yellow, red and white spacemen based purely not the iconic visuals of that underground base and it was the first time I'd seen a NINJA as well (although they were dressed in grey and looked pretty ungainly really!)

Speaking of Ninja's, well remember the 'Secret Ninja training facility' in the film, well that's Himeji-Jo (Jo means castle or fort).  It's actually (in true bondy style) the most famous castle in Japan.  Unlike most castles though, it's actually fairly intact, very beautiful and appears in half the Japanese films as 'stock mighty fortress' - well worth a detour.


Further down the main island lies the beautiful town of Hiroshima. Unlike other Japanese cities Hiroshima was designed with a beautiful park (called the Heiwa Coen, or Peace Park) at it's centre. Natural greenery is largely missing from most Japanese cities and it brings a most London or New York-esque feel.
Oh yeah, and the Yanks dropped a huge bomb on it. Visiting Hiroshima is also about visiting the Peace museum, it takes about 4 hours to digest the sheer mass of human misery that one bomb did and it leaves you numb, shaken and not a little bit sympathetic to the people of Hiroshima. Luckily Hiroshimans are affable and very pleasent people. While they housed a dark history and deep wounds, they're city is beautiful and they have a very spiritual outlook.

While in Hiroshima, don't forget to cross the bay to the Miyajima and visit the enormous shrine in the bay. Stunning.


And that's it - short but sweet.  I travelled widely and off the beaten path, but these are the icons that stick in my head 15 years on.

Go to Japan someday, it is so worth it.
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