Eggly-peg and I made the decision to come to Japan during its spring break season, this was utterly not a problem in Kagoshima, but becomes more pronounced in Hiroshima and reaches its absolute apogee in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. The city was absolutely heaving with foreign and domestic tourists. We actually run down a bit on our trip here, as sandwiched between leaving Hiroshima and then departing for Tokyo, we have little time even to visit the old city.
Arashiyama, the Bamboo Grove
The Bamboo grove is a justifiably famous forest walk about the gentle slopes of Western Kyoto. We certainly didn’t have any trouble finding the place; there were a literal wall of day trippers pouring forth from Saga Arashiyama station like salmon in spawning season. We probably could have crowd surfed our way up the hill. Definitely worth the struggle though, as the grove itself is somewhat like walking through an undersea forest: pale light tinged green by the long stalks and a bizarrely pleasant sense of claustrophobia.
We conclude the walk with a visit to Okochi-Sanso, a mountainside villa constructed by an interesting old Japanese film star called Denjirō Ōkōchi, which has some impressive views across the breadth of Kyoto. The only thing it was missing was a before and after photo, the view we see now must have been wildly different to the one it was built for 70 or so years ago.
As I don’t have much more to add about Kyoto that doesn’t involve terrorizing Egglet (who sadly failed to be attacked or robbed by an animal here) I’d like to take the time to make some more general observations about our experience that stood out for us.
Shopping in Japan
Normally I loathe shopping and I mean loathe – the dentist’s chair holds a greater attraction than Westfield does for me. Shopping in Japan though, is a totally different ball game. Every store is just so crammed with the wildest tat imaginable that it’s almost surreal, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. They are simply light-years ahead of us when it comes to product presentation and branding.
This is particularly clear when it comes to character branding. Take Snoopy for example, you may remember him as the beagle from Charles Schultz’s old newspaper strip Peanuts. In Japan, snoopy isn’t a comic character, he’s an entire industry, with entire stores devoted to the beady-eyed beagle and ranging from flannels to drug boxes. There’s a whole street in Tokyo station dedicated specifically to these type of character stores.
Then there’s the actual employee/customer interaction. On entering any given store the employees will greet to with the phrase ‘welcome to my store,’ regardless of how many times you wander in or out. They’ll wrap your purchase up with loving care and then seal it in its bag with a strip of decorative sticky tape. It’s consumerist ritual elevated to the level of religious sacrament. It’s a rather jarring experience if you’re used the traditional London experience – a sharp glower of hostility and the unspoken understanding that they’re doing you a favour just by not having set the dogs on you.
Special mention here must go to Daiso. For those not in the know Daiso is basically a blueprint for the pound shops you’ll find in heaven. Absolutely crammed with the best quality tat you can buy for 108 yen. No one institution has done more as a positive cultural ambassador than Daiso.
Vegetarians in Japan
If you want to visit Japan on difficult mode you can either try to enter the country on a Russian passport, or alternatively try traveling across the country in the company of a vegetarian. It’s like Rocky offering to fight Drago with one hand tied behind his back. In Japan Vegetarian seems to translate as ‘I like Vegetables,’ not ‘I don’t eat meat,’ so you will have waitresses happily serving vegetables cooked in pork broth, or accompanied by shellfish miso. Which at least meant I got a lot of free food, even if it was soaked in Egglet tears.
Religion in Japan
Is sort of a 50/50 split between Buddhism and Shintoism and the religions seem to sit in exact harmony with one another. Of the two Shintoism is the native religion and is quite similar to old European pagan traditions. Shrines to various gods or spirits are everywhere, tucked behind residential streets or in the car parks of airports. There they sit untouched by developers as local infrastructure grows up around them until resembles something out of Stuart Little. Stumbling across a tiny shrine in the middle of a forest, it surrounded by offerings of coins or small bottles of alcohol is a very striking experience even for the atheistically inclined.
There’s something peculiarly raw and unrestrained about them, completely at odds with the European tradition and its closed off churches. By contrast, as I found on Miyajima, the larger shrines, despite being areas with special spiritual/historical significance e.g. famous tombs, site of famous holy relics, tend to be completely commercialized and divorced from these impressions, despite having priests actively attending them.
These may be just behind pickles as my favorite thing about Japan. Hundred’s of flavors, hot and cold beverages side-by-side, Ice-Cream, hot hot food, the vending machines here belong to a different generation, a future generation man was not yet meant to see.
Two or three adorn nearly every street and corner and you have to check them all out. Why? Because each is special in its own right and SOMETIMES THEY HAVE SECRET FLAVOURS. Japan’s relentless tapping into my collector’s psyche will be the sweet bubbly death of me.
Don’t get me started on the pickles.
And now! Onward to Tokyo! Shinkansen HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!