One of the recurring themes of this trip seems to be that whenever I go to a place with no or low expectations, I’ve ended up really enjoying it. Japan was one of these places.
Japan is different
Weird would be a less polite way of putting it. This much seemed clear as soon as I got of the Jetfoil ferry in Fukuoka after a 3 hour trip from Busan in Korea. It immediately looks different. Its shapes are distinctly Japanese. I would argue that 9 times out of 10, it would require only one look at a building, a car or a train in a photograph to be able to determine whether it was taken in Japan or not. I visited a Japanese Railway museum in Nagoya, which will be the subject of another post, but what struck me most about it (beyond the train geekyness) was just what an amazing museum of style it was. Everything looked Japanese.
And as I go through my photographs of the other places I visited, from the unreal greens of Japanese gardens to the ever-present neon glow of Japans shopping districts by night, labelling seems almost pointless. Theres no chance of me mistaking these in years to come, of thinking they were taken in Thailand, or Europe, or Korea or anywhere else.
This uniqueness does come with some issues. Japan has an independent streak running down its back a mile wide. Provisions for foreigners are improving – as with elsewhere in the world accelerated by plans to hold international events such as the Olympics in 2020 and it was nowhere near as difficult as some guides suggest to get by with no Japanese language skills. But it is certainly not always straight forward. Veer at all off the beaten track and English provision will go down hill. And whilst many Japanese people can speak some English, don’t rely on them to come to you for help if you are wandering the streets looking clearly lost. As my Japanese friend, Ade, told me, they have a very reserved and almost “shy” culture. More often than not they will want to help you, but are afraid that they may not have the English skills to be able to help you, and rather than risk this they will instead walk on by wishing this was not the case. However in most instances you should be able to find some English spoken and the old stand by of just pointing at things is a pretty universal language.
Japan is very different.
Very weird would be a less polite way of putting it. When in Tokyo, I met up with a Japanese guy I met in Slovenia way back towards the start of my trip and we talked about what people think of modern Japanese culture. He distanced himself from quite a lot of it, like manga style cartoons, preferring the more ancient aspects, but as after 6 months of travelling around Asia, and having paid visits to some of the major temples in Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan I was starting to rather tire of Temples and Buddhas so he took me to a Maid Cafe. Having of course first explained he wasn’t a fan of these either.
For those who have no idea what a Maid Cafe is, it can be described in one word as “weird.” Or in two words as “f$$$ing weird” It is essentially a cafe, serving the usual food and drinks etc. Except all of the wait staff are Japanese girls dressed in a manga cartoonists fantasy of what a French Maid would wear. They refer to all of their guests as Master and Mistress and will basically insist on doing everything for you, right down to bending a straw before putting it in your drink. If you order a cappuccino, they will come to your table with the drinks and proceed to draw whatever you want into the froth. I chose a cat, my Japanese friend rather sadistically requested a giraffe whilst giggling. He then decided, perhaps forgetting that he was claiming not to like Maid Cafes, that we would both have individual photos taken with one of the maids. This required the waitress to get out what can only be described as a “menu” of girls, from which I felt unable to make a choice without feeling like some Bernard Manning re-incarnation, so I let my friend choose on my behalf. (FAO my brother Philip. Bernard Manning is not the Turkey Twizzler guy…)
I can’t say I really knew quite what to expect when my name was read out and my friend pushed me off towards a “stage” area, but it wasn’t to asked if I prefered cat or rabbit ears. I chose Cat and after making a cat pose I now have the most bizarre photo of me that’s likely to be taken. When the bill arrived it arrived with a proclamation of my “Majesty” but despite this all sounding rather sexist the vast majority of the customers in the cafe were female. It seems a odd fantasy to want to escape to, but then I suppose actual real life “maids” are much more now a part of middle/upper class Asian culture as they are in Europe, so perhaps that explains it. If you get a chance to go to one, I would recommend it, as a one off thing it is at the very least guaranteed to reduce you to giggles.
Other weird things you can do in Japan would be a visit to a Rock Garden. Although god knows why. This is basically a few rocks set as islands within a field of pebbles, which are sometimes raked into “interesting” patterns. It is apparently very “zen” although personally I just thought it was very “rock and pebbly” The girl I was seeing in Japan was really into these, which perhaps confirms the suspicions some of you will have immediately had, upon reading the start of this very sentence, that she has questionable taste. Or, if visiting a Maid Cafe piques your interest in the weird sexual peccadilloes of Japanese businessmen, there is a nearby famous 7 story sex shop in Japan’s “Electric Town” which ranges from mundane cosplay gear (you apparently get a discount if you let the staff take a photo of you in it and put on the wall to be leered at by pervy men like me) to the stuff, frankly, of nightmares. It’s clientèle was actually a rather normal looking bunch of people, mostly couples, but it’s perhaps a bit ambitious as a “second date” location. It seems I have questionable judgement too. Still, it was always going to be tough to follow up on Kyoto’s Steam Train museum…
More bl$$dy noodles…
I should probably finally mention the food. First, having had them every few days since September, I hope to never again to have to eat noodles, (for a few months at least) but I must say that the Japanese examples went straight to the top of the noodle league, knocking off the laghmn of Central Asia and western China from the top spot. Second, I have had now sushi for the first time! People seem amazed that I haven’t had sushi before but as I have mentioned several times I have never felt the need to go too out of my way with food choices back in the UK, and good cheap sushi in the UK seemed a questionable concept. And having decided several years ago that I was actually going to go to Japan I had made a decision that I was going to avoid all opportunities to eat Sushi until I arrived in its homeland. And now I have and it was awesome. I’ll have to have some again sometime.
Maybe next time I’m back in Japan…