Homeward bound

Well. Somehow, the last day of my trip has appeared as if out of nowhere. Apparently I’ve been away for 24 days, although it feels like far longer. I have become used to travelling, and seeing a different place almost every day, and I am under no illusions that returning home will be bizarre and that the normality of everyday life will, conversely, seem quite alien at first. I will miss the sense of freedom, the proximity of the unknown and endless opportunity for exploration. But my God, I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again. And so to the last chapter in this little travel diary I’ve been keeping. I’ve found Kyoto fascinating, not least because when considered in tandem with Tokyo, it perfectly encapsulates those binary oppositions which so define Japan; namely, the constant conflict between nature and technology, and the past and the future. Here we have a nation which has Shintoism as its principle religion; an animistic faith which preaches above all the sancitity and importance of nature, yet is the world leader in electronics development. To the casual observer, Japan is a symbol of the future, yet it is a country utterly characterised by its history. These are dichotomies which permeate every aspect of Japanese culture, and nowhere are they more obvious than when comparing Japan’s past and present capitals.

I have already written about Tokyo, so to Kyoto. It is, of course, a busy city, but one which houses constant reminders of Japan’s cultural and political past, and the spirituality of its people. The geisha quarters (with the exception of Gion which seems to have become a red light district) have an air of understated elegance about them; lanterns hang from the doorways and the streets are narrow and quiet. Walking along them yesterday by myself (having ditched my tour group – I will elaborate in due course), there was a certain magic to the air, greatly contributed to by the fact that all I could hear was my footsteps and the occasional dripping of rainwater. Kyoto is also home to hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These are generally incredibly special places, but the circumstances of my visits to the first few meant that the experience was somewhat ruined for me. I absolutely despise tour groups, and I was part of one for my first two days in Kyoto. These religious sites are supposed to be places of reverance and contemplation, yet they had hoardes of bleating happy-snappers swarming all over them like God’s 11th plague. I apologise for my preciousness regarding this matter, and I am fully aware that I am a tourist with a camera myself, but I just find it absolutely impossible to draw any positives from the company of people who cannot compute the word ‘sacred’ and wouldn’t know a good photograph if it painted itself purple and set fire to their ankles. That’s not to say the entire group was like that, and there were several others who grew similarly weary of being herded into a coach and then siphoned back out at all the hotspots. And so it was that I made my escape yesterday lunchtime and found my way to Kyoto’s ancient geisha quarters.

Today was a rather more sombre affair, as I took the bullet train to Hiroshima. The first half of the trip was spent, of course, in tribute to the 1945 atomic bomb disaster. Although the centre of the city feels like any other, around the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb dome (a building which has been preserved in its ruined state, in order to serve as a reminder of the devastation of nuclear weapons) there is a peculiar, heavy air. It is completely intangible, as all these things are, and perhaps was something I experienced only because my impression of the place was being mediated through my consideration of the bombing. The memorial museum housed several affecting, distressing exhibitions and artefacts. Particularly strong in my memory is the sight of the lunchbox of a 12 year-old boy, which had been found at his school by his older brother the day after the bombing. The metal was ripped open by the blast, and through the distorted tears in the lid, you can see the blackened outlines of carbonised rice. They never found his body. The second half of the day was a tremendous experience; every bit as memorable, although far more uplifting. I spent the late afternoon walking up what I suppose could be called a mountain on the outskirts of Hiroshima. The roads were all tarmac, and densely populated with houses, but there wasn’t a Westerner in sight. The way was seriously steep, and wound around the mountain right up to the summit, where there stood a silver pagoda with a statue of Buddha inside. I could see Hiroshima in its entirety from up there, and sitting cross-legged on the first level of the pagoda, watching the sun set over the city, felt like a fitting end to my visit to the place.

Tomorrow will be a far less strenuous affair, although I will not have time to do any writing. Therefore, I believe I have come to the end of this blog. Huge thanks to everyone who left messages, it was so nice to hear from people while being so far away. See you all soon!

Pappa (as you have christened yourself!): “Gedatsu” means salvation. Rest assured I have not forgotten about Samurai William, although I can’t remember where exactly he landed. It may well have been near Edo/Yedo. We must visit his shrine when we go to Japan together. Tara: Yes of course I am coming to Japan with you, although on the condition that we drop into Tibet as well; after all, that is my next intended destination!

Climate change

This blog is being brought to you from Hakone national park, location of Mt. Fuji and, currently, staggering quantities of typhoon-induced cloud.

It has been less than 12 hours since I left, and already I am pining for my beloved Tokyo. It feels like finally getting together with someone you’ve been mad about for ages, and then discovering a few days later that they need to move to the other side of the world. Still, ’tis better to have loved and lost, and all that. I do not plan to wait too long before returning.

Unfortunately, for most of the duration of my stay in Tokyo, I had to endure a sub-tropical climate. And when I say sub-tropical, I mean wet. And when I say wet, I mean even Fred Astaire would have given up and beaten a hasty retreat into the nearest doorway, all attempts at musical optimism abandoned. At least it was reasonably warm, which made the water a lovely temperature.

This did nothing to mar my enjoyment of the city. Shibuya probably remains my favourite area although Harajuku is a very close second; a more understated place but no less intriguing, wacky or downright cool. My souvenir bag is swelling by the day, and it strikes me as I write that perhaps buying an actual bag to put everything in rather than relying on an arty paper museum one may have been the wise and pragmatic thing to do. Never mind.

I also visited the Studio Ghibli museum (Studio Ghibli is behind seminal anime films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro), which was a little like being in Never Never Land; my inner child was enraptured. I had plans to visit the Edo museum* afterwards, but they were scuppered as it was shut by the time I got there. Another one for next time.

Today I’ve been mostly observing the non-sights from the tops of mountains, rendered so by the above-mentioned clouds. It’s a pity as I’ve not been able to see Mt. Fuji properly. The weather did, however, produce one superbly atmospheric moment this afternoon. We took a ropeway car to the top of a mountain in Hakone (I forget the name) and passed through layers of low-level cloud on the way. When we arrived at the summit, the view was entirely obscured – it was similar to being in fog, except infinitely denser; in addition to this the wind was howling fiercely and whipping the mists around. It was kind of how I imagine purgatory to be, except without all the tourists.

I had better draw this to a close, as the internet is free in this hotel, on the condition that you don’t use it for a ‘long time’ – which is incredibly vague, but I don’t want to p*ss them off. Next and final destination: Kyoto.

*A little history lesson (see all these nuggets of information you get for free in return for frequenting my blog?) – before it was called Tokyo, and indeed before it was the capital of Japan, Tokyo was called ‘Edo’ – literally, ‘river door’. Previously, the capital had been Kyoto. However, when Japan was united for the first time in several hundred years under the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, he moved his base to Edo, although Kyoto continued to be the imperial capital. In 1868, the shogunate came to an end and shortly after the emperor of Japan moved to Edo, renaming it ‘Tokyo’, which simply means ‘eastern capital’.

Pilgrim’s progress

I’ve just spent the most magical, unforgettable evening at the New York bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (that’s the hotel where they filmed Lost in Translation, fact fans). The dim lighting, live band and superb cocktails contributed to an extraordinary atmosphere, and all the while the blinking red lights of the Nishi-Shinjuku skyscrapers were just about visible through the frosted windows. However, as with every dream, the time comes to wake up; as the band made its way from the stage, I made my way back down to earth and returned to the more modest surroundings of Shiba Park. I suppose the visit to that bar was something of a pilgrimage for me; I only hope that it’s not going to be the only time I set foot in it.

To rewind slightly – the day started with a tour of Tokyo, although it was really more of a flying visit to a few places of interest. This would have been fine, except we had the catastrophic misfortune to be accompanied by a tour guide who was repetitive to the point of excruciating aural distress. The good news was that the tour finished at 1, so I never reached the stage of clawing at the coach windows in order to be set free.

We were dropped off in Ginza, the main shopping district of Tokyo. It’s an interesting place, but doesn’t really house anything exclusive to Japan, so after a stroll up the main street I hopped on the subway and got off at Shibuya. All of a sudden, the Tokyo from my wildest dreams sprang into life. There are no words to do the place justice – the sights, the people, the clothes; imagine what Camden was like before it became a chav-infested flea pit, clean it up, improve the music and merchandise tenfold, and turn the insanity up to 11. Got all that? Ladies and gentleman, you are halfway towards picturing Shibuya. I managed to curtail most of my spending urges, as I have yet to visit Harajuku.

Tomorrow, Nikko – a small town about an hour from Tokyo, and the site of the original ‘Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil’ monkeys.

Tokyo story

Yes, I’m finally in Japan, consummating my long-standing love affair with this country.

I had the fortune to arrive in Tokyo after sunset, meaning that my first glimpses of the city matched the romantic image of it I’ve had in my mind all this time – namely, columns of bright and flashing lights streaking into the night sky. It feels incredibly strange to be here at last, but it’s sinking in bit by bit. I’ve been here 5 hours and it’s already living up to expectations.

I ventured out to Roppongi (one of the more popular districts for nightlife in Tokyo) for supper, and spent the first 10 minutes after I exited the subway station staggering around gawping at the multi-coloured madness around me. Typical gaijin.* Much to my delight, both Roppongi and Shinjuku (like Roppongi but times 10) are on the same subway line as my hotel, only a few stops away.

The people here, as to be expected, are polite, helpful and respectful. It’s very refreshing after the stifling lack of etiquette and personal space in Beijing. I haven’t had much chance to practise my Japanese yet, as everyone I’ve come across speaks English, but my time will undoubtedly come.

Tomorrow I have a city tour, which finishes at 1pm in Ginza (shopping district), at which point I plan to run around frenetically throwing yen everywhere in a fit of consumerist ecstasy.

*A small language lesson – ‘gaijin’ is the Japanese word for foreigner, but when written in kanji it actually means ‘outside (gai) person (jin)’. However, this is a very literal translation, and what it really means is ‘barbarian’. Telling, no?

Eva (monkeyface): Don’t fret, I am currently still planning to return to England, if only to swat away the monkeys from your shoulder!

Government cash cow

Nee hao from China.

Only time for a brief entry, as I’m trying to milk every last second I have in this peculiar, phenomenal and entirely frustrating city.

China has been an absolute education. It’s my first time in a country with an autocratic government, and the tentacles reach further than you can possibly imagine. I believe the state views tourists simply as a source of money and provides tour companies in order to act as a financial lubricant whilst persuading naive foreigners to part with their cash. Although our tour of the city was in many ways fantastic, taking in the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, we spent a considerable chunk of our day being ushered into shops where they fish out pearls and make silk, and then told we can ‘look around’ afterwards. Except that ‘looking around’ took a good half hour each time. I understand the thinking behind all this, but I took it as a very inisidious way of being treated like a complete imbecile, and as I looked around at the other tourists gleefully throwing yuan around so they could take that delightful silk rug back home, my head was filled with the noises of cattle, oblivious to the real order of things as the state sheep dog runs around them snapping at their heels.

Here endeth the bitterness. Beijing really is a fantastic city, baffling in its enormity. But, of course, hugely different from anywhere I’ve been before. As I walked out of the station I was greeted by the usual city soundscape: car engines, hooting, shouting…accompanied by a symphony of spitting noises. First culture shock. I took an instant shine to the place, though – it’s hard to put my finger on, but there’s some intangible element to the city that just clicks with me. It’s difficult to get an overall feel for the place because it is so large, and the people vary greatly in their attitudes towards Westerners. Thankfully, though, there hasn’t been anywhere near the same level of myopic incomprehension that I encountered in Mongolia, insofar as I no longer have 95% of the people in any given area staring at me as soon as I happen to chance upon it. However, it has been incredibly hard work to try and make myself understood in just about any situation. The first problem, of course, is the difficulty in communicating. Chinese, or at least Mandarin, is an absolutely impenetrable language. Normally when I spend a little while listening to a language being spoken, I can get some feel for the intonation and pronunciation of it. Yet I’ve been here three days and I feel even more incompetent than I did before I arrived. Japanese is supposed to be one of the hardest languages in the world to learn; personally I think that Mandarin is infinitely more challenging.

It’s not all been a case of things getting lost in translation. There is just a completely different mindset towards everything here, and it’s been an intensely laborious process just to get simple things done. As I said before, however, it’s been a real education, and my eyes are wide open.

As ever, this blog is just one blade of grass in the insane, technicolour garden that is my trip. In Beijing alone I’ve seen live scorpions skewered on a kebab stick (yes, for consumption; no, I wouldn’t either), had a cab ride with a half-blind taxi driver, been treated like a criminal, a moron and a piggy bank, and laid eyes on the most superlative architecture imaginable.

Tomorrow, finally, I fly to Japan. How do you prepare for a moment that’s been 15 years in the making?

Some more messages:
Eva F: Your message cracked me up! I will pass on your concerns to my ‘brat’. Hope you’re well and looking after yourself!
Raksha: St. Albans sounds great, but just going to have a quiet one in the Cork that Friday. Perhaps you gals could start off there for a quick drink before heading out?

Genghis, baby

Ta da! I’m in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, finally back in civilisation after nearly a week on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Express and then two days at the Elstei ger camp (staying in traditional Mongolian tents). The concrete, noise, grime, unfriendly people….wouldn’t swap it for the world.

So where to begin…Our stay in Russia ended and we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express (only becoming the Trans-Mongolian past Ulan-Ude), which whisked us away from Moscow and its taciturn, ursine inhabitants and plunged us into the heart of Asia. Watching an entire continent pass by your window is a pretty indescribable experience; I spent vast amounts of time poring over a map and marvelling at the distance we were covering. There are so many standout moments from that period, although perhaps my fondest memory is of counting down the miles until the Europe-Asian border in Russia, and everyone pogoing around like maniacs when we passed the magic 1777km from Moscow mark. It felt like New Year’s Eve, except this was once in a lifetime and not once a year.

Some points about the train, then: I felt like we were totally separate from the rest of the world; that time stood still while we were on there. It was mostly great fun, although the bit in the brochure about there being showers on the train is b*llocks. Foodwise, of course, it was a case of simply eating to stay alive. Having said that, the restaurant car was fabulous – literally, opening the carriage door and going in was like stepping into another world, or more specifically, a timewarp back to the 70s. As if that wasn’t entertainment enough, the waiter was essentially a Russian version of Lurch, with a shaved head. Frightening enough to look at, and he completed the impression by making a pointed show of wielding a cleaver approxiamately the size of Mars, which he used to slice……..bread. Riveting stuff.

There’s far too much to say about Mongolia, so I will attempt to sift through all the information and present you with just the tastiest bits (think of it as a journalistic version of delving through the bowl of Lucky Charms in order to find all the marshmallows).

Firstly, a health warning – the most important one and the one that all the guidebooks e.t.c. fail to provide, which runs thusly:

***Mongolians drive like utter lunatics***

Not least of all our bus driver, who in addition to this congenital national defect, also clearly had a screw loose. Whilst driving us to the camp, he decided to start driving halfway off the road and halfway on it, with the side of the bus about half a metre away from the ditch, which led down into the steppes. It wasn’t even because there was another vehicle approaching and he needed to give it room, he just seemed to suddenly be possessed by these homicidal urges. Imagine Nemesis at Alton Towers, except without seatbelts, and you will come close to knowing the abject terror I was feeling.

The camp itself was unbelievable; miles from anywhere, surrounded by the hills and basins of the Mongolian steppes. On the first afternoon we were there, I climbed up to one of the tallest points – hard work, but once I was there it felt like I was on the roof of the world. A truly unforgettable moment.

And so, to Ulaanbaatar. It’s a bizarre place; no homogeneousness to the look of it at all. It’s a mixture of Soviet buildings, crumbling apartment blocks, brand new offices and hotels and traditional buildings. It has a peculiar charm to it, however, although this is spoiled somewhat by the people in the city. Granted, hardly any Westerners come to Mongolia, but I was not prepared for quite how much people stare – and not just looking for a bit, but actually watching you until you’ve walked past, and half the time turning their heads so they can keep looking. People walking past in the street, passengers in cars – they all just gawp. When you walk into a restaurant, pretty much every eye is on you. It’s completely bizarre, and I oscillate between finding it amusing and unsettling.

Next stop: China, and the mysteries of the Forbidden City.

Another quote from Jeremy, said whilst looking through the Mongolian phrasebook for the word for ‘restaurant’: “Ah, here we are – ‘I challenge you for your daughter’ – no…”

Finally, a few personal messages:

Eva (monkeyface): Thanks for the contact details, hopefully won’t need them in an emergency but cheers for the thought! Miss you loads!
Tara: Stay strong, it’s only a couple of weeks 😉
Jenny – Shut it!