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Japan is strange. Famously insular – outside contact was banned between 1641 and 1853, on penalty of death – the country seems to struggle with the idea of inviting tourists in. They want the money – what Japanese doesn’t? – but there’s always the hint of a suggestion that are you sure you wouldn’t want to stay at home after all? A 7-day Japan rail pass is excellent value, but to buy one, you need to enter the country with a voucher which can be exchanged for the rail pass in Japan. For no reason that I can see, the rail pass cannot be bought in Japan. Instead, you have to buy a voucher, and not more than three months before its first use, so I couldn’t buy one before I left home. Alternatively, I could buy one in any of the six Japan Rail agents in New Zealand, all of which are located in Auckland.

Train travel in Japan is quite expensive – it’s the only country in the world with a profitable passenger rail service – so before I even reach the country, I’m already having to scale back my plans.

Japan does have surprises, of course. At the end of a 10-hour flight form Christchurch – during which the island of Saipan featured on the TV flightpath map for longer than I thought really necessary – we come in to land in Tokyo’s Narita airport, passing over farmland and open fields. This is slightly circular logic, of course – even in Japan, you’re not going to find skyscrapers beside the airport – but it’s an early indication that Japan mayn’t be as I expected.

In the terminal, security staff recline in their seats watching sumo on portable TVs while I spend the usual ten minutes trying to find an ATM – why no airport has these located right in the arrivals hall is a mystery. When I finally get my hand on some yen, the notes are a disappointment – bland, monotone, each with a large white empty circle in the middle. No more the smiling faces of the Fijian notes – money here is a purely functional thing, to be accumulated, not enjoyed.

There’s about 100 yen to the euro, so everything essentially priced in pennies. This is an improvement on times past though – after the Second World War, one of the American terms of punishment was that the yen be tied at 360¥ to the dollar for 25 years. This meant that while the Japanese economy was first recovering and then booming after the destruction of the war, the rest of the world (America in particular) could enjoy Japanese products on the cheap. Once the 25 years were up, the currency shot upwards like a rubber ball released underwater – doubling in value by 1978, doubling between 1984 and 1987 and almost doubling in value again since. In 2000, the 2000¥ note was introduced – the first denomination with a 2. It’s still treated as a bit of a novelty, and not taken seriously enough to be regularly used in shops. Loose change in Japan builds up fairly quickly.

Having landed amidst the farmlands of Narita, it’s immediately obvious that the trip to central Tokyo is going to take quite a while; 46 stops and 80 minutes in fact. We pass through what looks suspiciously like suburbia – two-storey houses with cars in the driveway next to village shops – before hitting the megalopolis of Tokyo. It’s impossible to tell where Tokyo really starts; a night-time map of Japan hints at one massive city of 80 million and including what – maybe quaintly – are still called the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and others.

On arriving at Minowa, my metro station, I find another problem facing the tourist in Japan. The address hasn’t really been invented here yet. What passes for the address of the central post office, for example, is “1-5-3 Yaesu, Chuo-ku, Tokyo”. Yaesu 1 is the name of the district, and there you want block 5, building (or flat, more usually) number 3. There’s no street name in the address; Japan doesn’t really do street names. My directions for the hostel are to head out of exit 2a at the metro station and it’s on the fifth left. If I get lost, I’m doubly screwed – very few Japanese speak English, so even asking for directions or getting in a taxi is going to be awkward.

In the morning, the Tokyo Museum is my first port of call. It’s in Ueno, an area of parkland containing numerous museums, a zoo, some temples and ponds. The museum is easily the second-best I’ve visited on the trip (it’d be pretty much impossible to top the Hermitage in St Petersburg). Around every corner is a little masterpiece of Japanese art. At the head of the first room, for example, excellently picked out by a hidden light source and against a plain black background, are these guys –

Hand-carved from wood about 400 years ago, each character represents one of the animals in the Chinese calendar. At first glance, it’s hard to see how any one character represents, say, the dragon or the rat, but each figurine’s head is topped with the respective animal’s head –

In the next room, cases hold a number of samurai swords. This one –

– is upwards of 700 years old and, in a scene out of Lord of the Rings, even has a name – Okada-giri (Okada slayer). In 1584 – with the sword already a couple of hundred years old – it was used by a samurai called Oda Nobukatsu to slay his vassal, Okada Sukesaburô Shigotaka.

The advantage of isolationism is that many of the artifacts in the museum are uniquely Japanese (with an underlying element of Chinese culture dating back millennia). Scrolls tell of Japanese history and Japanese history only. Even common items have a unique twist, like this bowl –

And yet, for all that, some of the items are instantly recognisable (although I’m not exactly recognising them for what they are!) So there’s Mr Wing from Gremlins –

– (actually an old acting mask), Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles –

– and even Roy Keane from 2002 –

Appropriately enough, Keane himself is nowhere to be seen.

Another new country means that I need another plug adapter to keep my phone and camera charged, and there’s hardly a better place to be for that than Tokyo. Near Ueno Park is a proper Japanese electronics store. Taking up a mere eight floors (plus basement), it sells pretty much anything you could possibly want. TVs from 7″ to 70″, rows of headphones, mountains of batteries, a floor of the latest tablets and accessories, another devoted entirely to lights and light fittings and even, ironically, a section for board games and toys. I find a global adapter which will connect any plug to any socket and pay over two 500¥ coins. The salesman dumps these in a small slot by the side of the plasma-screen cash register, and out pop four 100¥ coins in change.

In the evening, I head into what passes for the city centre, to a small statue of a dog called Hachikō. It’s a common meeting place in Shibuya, one of the busiest areas of Tokyo, and in a way epitomises the Japanese mentality – Hachikō was a dog who met his owner at the station every day. One day, when Hachikō was only 2, his owner died in work (suffering a brain haemmorhage while giving a lecture), but Hachikō continued to be at the station every day for the next nine years, until he himself died, waiting in vain for his owner. Unflinching loyalty, bordering perhaps on the mindless, seems enough to get you immortalised in Japan.

I’m here to meet Martin, originally from Limerick but who has yet to return home after the 2002 World Cup. We head to a local bar which I’m promised is fairly typically Japanese, and it doesn’t disappoint. The inside is hugely compact, a series of snugs, a kind of capsule pub. The bar itself is noticeable by its absence. We sit down at a table just big enough for the two of us, Martin starts tapping at a touch-screen, and after a minute, a waiter comes bearing two beers. It’s a triumph of Japanese technology and space-saving. The screen is your barman; you cycle through the various drinks on offer, select the quantities, confirm that you’re neither under 18 nor driving and your drinks will be brought out to you in a minute or two. The first round even comes with a complimentary bowl of salted soy beans for the inevitable nibbles – far healthier than a chipper. And at 270¥ (E2.80) a beer, it’s cheap too.

Of course, to order the beer, it helps to be able to read Japanese. Japanese is Chinese characters with another two alphabets thrown in for good measure, each with another 51 letters. One of these alphabets – katakana – is used for transliterating foreign words; the two latter alphabets are the only letters Martin can read. It’s quite useful though – he orders two “birru”, and reads a sign on the wall noting 11:30 is “rastu ordasu”; despite more letters than you’d have thought necessary, Japanese has no “l” sound (or “v” for that matter; the ubiquitous Seven-Eleven mini-market chain is called “Sebun Erebun” here).

As the beers arrive, Martin asks if he minds if he smokes. This takes me somewhat by surprise, given I’d passed the following sign painted on the footpath earlier in the day –

(I had initially worried that I’d look stupid taking a photo of the ground, but then I remembered I was in Japan). Outdoor public areas like parks and the meeting place in Shibuya will have smoking areas – the logic goes that footpaths are public areas which everyone has to traverse, while it’s your choice if you want to go into a certain pub or not, so in Japan, there’s a smoking ban outdoors, but not indoors. By the time I get my head around that, Martin’s half-way through the smoke, and any objections seem pointless.

We talk Japan, from technology to racism. Mid-summer is coming up, when it’s traditional for people to gather at Yasukuni Shrine to honour those who died in the service of the Japanese emperor – even if they were the same people I’d seen so vilified in museums from Hong Kong to Sydney. Almost 2,500,000 souls “repose” here, including over 1,000 war criminals and 14 top class war criminals – being executed for war crimes counts as dying in the service of the emperor. Hideku Tōjō, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbour, is one example; he – along with five other army officials – was hanged in 1948 for unwarranted aggression against a number of countries (pretty much anywhere on my route so far). His granddaughter has recently been attempting to clear his name by arguing that Japanese acts in World War II were in self-defence; it’s probably fair to say that the general Japanese grasp of history isn’t the best. However, there’s a fairly even split between those who think that the war criminals should be honoured as heroes and those who recognise that maybe Japan has something to be ashamed of, and so less importance should be attached to the Yasukuni shrine. It’s quite a charged topic, and there’s not much middle ground. Politicians attending the ceremonies can be guaranteed some votes, while being guaranteed to lose others. When the Prime Minister visited recently, he tried to get around the issue by claiming to be there not in his capacity as Prime Minister, but as an ordinary citizen.

Japanese technology is much more fun. The toilet in my hostel is the first example of Japanese ingenuity – when you flush, the cistern is filled by a tap pouring onto the cistern lid, which is bowl-shaped and has a small hole in the middle; he idea is that you wash your hands with the same water that will constitute the next flush. So simple, and yet ingenious at the same time. Attached to the side of the toilet is a panel with a number buttons – one for a bide jet spray, one for fragrance and one to make a flushing noise. Martin says that this is another water saver – women in particular apparently have a tendency to flush the toilet while they go to cover up any embarrassing noises. This button makes the desired noise without wasting water. Necessity is, we’re told, the mother of invention, and these buttons are apparently common-place…

We leave the pub before half-eleven; even in Tokyo, the transport system shuts down at midnight – taxis are expensive and distances can be far, so that it can be cheaper to ask to be taken to the nearest capsule hotel and get the train home in the morning. I make the last connection for Minowa – the train is still packed, though men in suits still find space to bow to each other repeatedly as one makes for the door – and head home with, among other things, a plan for the next day. Some googling has told me that there’s both a J-League game and a major sumo meet in Nagoya at the weekend, and Martin tells me there are plenty of ticket outlets in Tokyo. I find one – various event tickets fill the front window – and walk in. “Do you speak English?”, I ask the two girls at the counter. They look blankly at me, turn to each other, confirm neither understands what I’ve even said and shake their heads mutely at me. Just like the modern technology which has built the country, some things in Japan would probably work great if I only knew how to use them. I end up buying online, and paying an extra 100¥ to get the ticket printed in Seven Eleven.

Ticket safely tucked away, I head off to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – I had visions of walking around the set of Tomorrow’s World, but the robot has finished for the day and the rest seems to be generic “City of the Future” or “How the internet works” exhibits; it’s a bit like walking into the same museum in the 1980s.

Nearby – beside the Statue of Liberty for no apparent reason –

– is a shopping centre selling, among other things (mostly food), designer pets –

These are pure breds, going for a couple of grand each and more. Most of the stock – cats, dogs, rabbits, whatever you want – is locked away in display cabinets like this one, while information signs tell you when each animal was born and what its parentage is. To one side is a room where you can enter and play with the cats as they wander about, or maybe try to bond with an animal before deciding whether to purchase it.

As sunset falls, I head back outside to cross the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay –

A double-deck suspension bridge back to the mainland of Tokyo, it’s supposed to be lit up in a rainbow of colours at night. Maybe all the coloured lights are pointing at the same spot tonight. At the other end, I follow the sign for the metro, get completely lost, find an utterly unhelpful map with no street names on it and resort to walking wherever takes my fancy until I stumble on a station (which I manage in no more than 15 minutes). I’m headed for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, another sign that Japan hasn’t really thought the tourism thing through. My tourist book to the city lists a few places which offer good look-out points over the city – one is 800¥, one is 2000¥ and the TMG building undermines all those by being free. Lights sprawl out in all directions, though no instantly recognisable buildings jump out. It’s a cloudy evening, but the sky is still bright, lit up with the reflections of the millions of lights below.

I spent a lot of time in Tokyo wandering around slightly lost. Every day sees temperatures of mid 30s, so liquids are a must. The Sebun Erebuns help, although paying for anything involves a long routine where the teller bows to me as I approach, asks me in Japanese if (I assume) I want a bag, realises I’m clearly foreign and so gives me a bag anyway and points to the total due, and we bow again as I’m handed my change (notes always in two hands, as if it’s an offering) and I’m allowed on my way. It gets quite tedious having to do this every time I want an ice pop, so I’m grateful for the drinks machines which are everywhere in Tokyo –

Much of what’s for sale is unrecognisable, although I do end up with a mild addiction to grapefruit juice.

After three days in Tokyo, I head for Nagoya. The Shinkansen – the bullet trains – make the 220-mile journey between Tokyo and Nagoya every ten minutes or so; the trip takes 100 minutes and costs 11,000¥. (Plans are in place for a new route and a new train, which would reduce the journey time to 40 minutes. God knows what the fare would be). Like an aeroplane without wings on the outside –

– they’ve a similar layout inside as well – all individual seats facing forward, with a magazine in the back of the chair in front of you. A small window like a porthole lets you look out at the surrounding cityscape; I’m on the wrong side for Mount Fuji, though I do get a view of countryside once, as we ride along by sea cliffs for a few seconds before diving into a tunnel. The ride is remarkably smooth, and only when the track inclines slightly, and you get a feeling almost identical to a plane starting to take off, do you get a sense of the speed at which you’re travelling.

Bang on time – the Shinkansen is always on time; the average bullet train was six seconds late in 2003 – I arrive in Nagoya. A mere village of 2½ million, a corkscrew skyscraper outside the train station hints at a potential for more character than Tokyo –

We shall have to see!


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