Japan is the ultimate Asian mystery. Unlike in the rest of East and South East Asia, conditions are distinctly first world, and the people are stereotyped as workaholic professionals; or ultra-hip, artistic, and self-consciously sexual. So much is familiar, yet there is a reserve and a coolness to its society that takes the best of the West whilst retaining traditions and typicalities that are not pan-Asian, but distinctly and resolutely Japanese.
At its epicenter is Tokyo, a city of subtle contrasts. Ultra-modern, but not jarringly so, traditional, but not uncomfortably so, the city carries off its unique status as coolly as its inhabitants stride through the humid concrete streets. ‘Lost in Translation’ portrays the city at night just as it is – beautiful, vast, and able to provoke a sense of alienation despite the 24-hour culture and the mass of people. Just wandering around Shinjuku or Shibuya, two of the ‘cities within the city’, a few of the many paradoxes of Japanese culture become apparent: they hate litter, but bins are scarce; they rely on cash, yet ATMs are only available in convenience stores (no holes-in-the-wall here). Strange, because innovation for expediency is their strong point: my hotel even had heated mirrors – stepping out of the shower only to be faced with an impenetrable sheet of condensation instead of a reflection became a thing of the past.
The old Tokyo is best discovered by frequenting the markets and visiting the Shinto and Buddhist shrines. But forget the popular Ameyoko market (mainly American style tat and numerous dried fish stalls) and don’t make Meiji Jingu shrine your main visit (grand though it may be). For the best experience of both, go to Senso-ji temple and the Namikase-dori market that lines the streets outside. Explore the quieter back streets, where, amongst dubious antiques and less salubrious looking stores, you can find second hand kimonos, antique seventeenth century coins and weighty Buddha figures. For the most genuine, but also one of the most beautiful shrine experiences, visit Gokoku-ji temple. Sitting cross-legged in front of the main altar, with only a few orange robed monks for company, the serenity that such a shrine should invoke is accessible here, amongst the drone of the cicadas, in a way that is absent amongst the drone of the crowds at the more popular sites. The less visited places are by far the most worthwhile: these shrines, the Tsukiji Fish Market (a 5am jaunt to see a commercial fish market in action, finished with a sublime sushi breakfast you will not top elsewhere in Japan, never mind back home), and the climb up Fuji-san for the dawn sunrise.
Despite a reputation for staunchness, the young Japanese I met were languid and expressive, the most welcoming of hosts. A party atmosphere, coupled with the ability to use chopsticks with native deftness, overcame the language barrier more than any phrasebook, even in a country infamous for its strict codes of etiquette. The jostle between Japanese tradition and American popular culture is most evident amongst the under 30s – at the engagement party I attended in the suburb of Minamidaira, the bride and groom keenly translated the English wedding vows we recited to them, and noted them down for use in their ceremony. The Western ‘white wedding’ is enthusiastically imitated here, fast replacing the ancient Shinto or Buddhist rituals. Baseball too is insanely popular: at a Tokyo Swallows match the crowds were dressed in a combination of kimonos and baseball kits, with many rows populated entirely by identically suited, and equally inebriated businessmen. Beer girls dressed in cheerleader style outfits that looked like something straight out of the ubiquitous manga porn comics ran up and down serving Asahi Superdry; whilst half the crowd ate sushi, the other half were enjoying a KFC.
Afflicted by its caricaturing in the media outside Japan, Harajuku isn’t the alternative street scene it was. Tourism has sanitized it, and I could only suspect that the real underground activity goes on elsewhere, in some backstreets the gaijin don’t know about; but the shops are staffed by some indisputably unconventional individuals: one woman didn’t have an inch of skin that wasn’t pierced: ‘snake-bites’ shaped her features, ran in rows down her neck, and studded the flesh above her knuckles. Perhaps it was the sweltering weather, or the hordes of tourists, but genuine coz-players were few and far between that Sunday. On the bridge between the station and the park a few gangs loitered, most little more than 14 years old. Their outfits ranged from the deeply gothic to the most candy coloured Lolita-esque fantasies, but the kids wearing them had clearly come to regard themselves as minor celebrities, and feigned disgust at requests for photos. A fascinating insight into the adolescent mind, apparently similarly conflicted the world over: both desperately seeking attention and forcibly rejecting it. Harajuku is worth visiting, though make sure it’s at the weekend when all the young coz-players are out – it’s more crowded, but you may as well avoid shopping there altogether – there’s little you couldn’t find back home in Camden. The outlandish looks of the coz-players are all about concept and how they put it together: like so much in Japan, whilst everything is for sale, their style can’t be bought. It’s innate.
What’s cheap: cigarettes and trains
What’s not: decent food and everything else – especially fruit (£100 for a square watermelon!)
Book your hotel online/thoroughly research accommodation deals before you go: I used agoda.com and stayed in a very nice hotel for a very reasonable price, by Tokyo standards.
Climb Fuji – but don’t go overnight if it’s cloudy, the sunrise won’t be visible. Do not underestimate this climb, the guidebooks make it sound simple but it’s only a few degrees of incline from requiring crampons and carabiners!