May 2016

Japan 10: Dos and Donts

Do go to Shinjuku Station to get lost. You can’t fail. Cross the mad road at Shibuya. It IS mad. Have an expensive drink at The New York Bar at the Hyatt Regency, Tokyo, enjoy the views and meet the ghosts of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Japan 9: Religion

I read in The Guardian the other day that the largest single group of people in the UK now describe themselves as having no religion. And this was the first time such a thing has happened. The proportion of the population who identify as having no religion – referred to as “nones” – reached 48.5% in 2014, almost double the figure of 25% in the 2011 census. So having no faith is the growth belief system.

Japan 8: The English Language

English is an assimilative, aggressive language. It is insidious in its hegemony of other languages. Think Starbucks. The French are trying to fight the good fight, but with the Internet, the march of English is implacable. Many languages are dying out but, in fairness, that’s mainly due to minorities, religious persecution and ethnic groups being assimilated and homogenised by dominant larger local societies, rather than the march of English.

Japan 7: Cleanliness is next to…

When I went to the toilet in the arrivals section of Narita Airport and noticed that the seat was heated, I knew things were going to be different. There was an array of button options beside the seat with a choice of in-built washing procedures (I think it has to do with front or back, women or men (I know, I know, sorry)).

Japan 6: Oku-no-in, the holiest place

The most spiritual place I’ve been is a small field in Brittany, where Merlin is buried with his wife, the fairy, Viviane. Outwardly it appears a fairly nondescript place. There are no signs, a small space for parking. There’s a little tree, like a whitethorn, in the corner of the field, where believers tie pieces of cloth as prayers, or votive offerings. Merlin is buried under this tree. I felt a great presence there which I cannot describe except that it was powerful, wonderful and otherly. And very real. Even thinking about it now, 26 years later, sends shivers down my spine.

Japan 5: Hiroshima, no words

Having been to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum I have no words*. These are the direct transcriptions of the information for three photos on display.

Japan 4: In search of the Geisha

We went on a walking tour of Kyoto last night. It was billed as a tour around Gion, an old and fascinating part of the city. In reality it was all about the geisha. Mari, our guide was very enthusiastic about this cultural quirk of the Japanese. ‘They are not plostitutes.’ She was adamant about that and poo pooed The Memoirs of a Geisha, which seems to indicate otherwise. I haven’t read it, I must admit.

Japan 3 – The Tokyo Metro

I have figured out the undergrounds in London, Paris and New York, but it took me a while. And I expected Tokyo to be more complex. About 7 million people use this network every day. 7. Million. People. So it’s fucking huge. Nine lines and 179 stations. But the information systems they apply make it really quick, intuitive and simple to understand. Which is some achievement.

Japan 2 – The woman on the train

The most impressive person I’ve seen in Japan is the woman on the train. And I’m not talking about an over-rated book here. I’m talking about the woman who cleaned carriage 7 of the Odakyu Romance Car during the five minute turnaround at Shinjuku Station. This was the train to bring us to Hakone. I was standing on the platform. 

Japan 1 – The Japanese

The Japanese are as polite as they are handsome. The politeness is taken to extremes. One of the first things we noticed at the airport was the incongruous sight of the four bus attendants bowing deeply (I suspect to us, the customers) as the bus left the station. When the attendant at the National Museum asked Ciara to put her bottle into her bag, he bowed as if in apology. I can’t imagine that at The Met or The Tate.