JAPAN IS A PUZZLE
Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world for two hundred years between 1641 and the 1853, and during that time the only foreigners allowed to remain were a handful of traders from the Dutch East India Company, who were confined to an island in Nagasaki harbour. Japan then was ruled by shoguns – generalissimo – the last of whom, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, abdicated in 1867 in favour of the emperor Meiji.
Now, was it something in the Japanese character, that induced the people to seal themselves off from outside influence or is their present caution and reserve towards foreigners the result of that episode in their history? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Here’s another thing. It is no secret that Japanese soldiers in World War II treated the enemy and especially prisoners of war with great harshness. Yet the nation’s art, architecture, design, performing arts, costume and dress display the utmost grace, the most delicate finesse, the most painstaking devotion to beauty and craftsmanship. How do these two facets of the Japanese character sit together?
It isn’t possible to answer these questions on a short visit to Japan, but you can get some fascinating clues as you travel the country, meeting people and seeing the glories not only of the landscape but of the culture as well.
Here are some must-sees.
Tokyo – of course. Ginza is the district of elegant boutiques, lush department stores and smart office buildings. You’ll be surprised at the wide streets and pavements and a general absence of congestion or over crowdedness.
A short walk away is an enormous park with, in the centre, the imperial palace. On the broad avenues in the park you will get a marvellous feeling of space and freedom, even though just beyond is the skyline of the city centre.
Asakusa is a bohemian area, with rows of market streets and shop-lined avenues, as well as a scattering of shrines and temples, including the oldest and most-visited in the city, Sensoji. Marvel at the architecture and the ornamentation of the buildings, but take time too to sit in front of a shrine, perhaps in the evening, and absorb the peaceful atmosphere.
In Shinjuku. walk from the Metro station to the Metropolitan government building, where from the 46th floor, you can be higher up than anywhere in the city and obtain the most splendid views, including, on a clear day, of Mt Fuji in the distance.
Visit the Tsukiji fish market, preferably before 6am, when the place is a-buzz and you can see freshly caught fish, octopus and shellfish and watch them being auctioned.
Kyoto, where the Kyoto Convention was signed, but forget that and head for the outskirts of the city to see:
* Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, set on a moss- and pine-covered slope;
* The Philosophers’ Walk, a delightful path alongside a carp-filled canal overhung by cherry trees that make a sensational display of blossoms in the spring;
* Kiyumizudera, a temple with a huge high balcony set on a hillside, offering wonderful views;
* Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a gold-leaf-covered mansion, built for the nobility;
* Ryoanji, a 14th-century dry garden, where fifteen moss-covered boulders of different sizes sit among gravel, creating an intriguing pattern that soothes the senses;
* Gion, where elegantly clad geisha still carry out their engagements.
Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and nearby (about 12 minutes by train) Ikaruga, site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world at the temple complex of Horyuji. Nara is also a city rich in temples and shrines, as well as site of at least three McDonald’s.
Don’t miss Todaiji, set in a park where tame deer wander freely. Todaiji cannot fail to impress: it is the largest wooden building in the world, housing an enormous statue of the Buddha, whose fingers are the height of a man. Note the wonderful arched structure over the entrance, reminiscent of a samurai’s helmet.
Sit and muse by Sarusawa Pond where dozens of small turtles swim and sun themselves on logs. Wander down through the narrow streets to the oldest part of town, Naramachi, with its traditional wooden houses and the occasional boutique. Walk too along the path, lined with a thousand lanterns, to Kasuga Shrine, established in 768.
There’s more, infinitely more, but this will be enough to give you a taste.
TRAVEL BY RAIL
If you’re planning to travel by rail, the Japan Rail Pass is a must and a boon. Buy the voucher for it before you get to Japan. Not only the shinkansen – the bullet train – but all trains are smooth and comfortable and their punctuality is such that you can set your watch by them. If a train is three minutes late, there’ll be a sign up at the station telling you so. The Metro and rail lines in Tokyo, though excruciatingly complicated to look at on the map, are actually almost idiot-proof: announcements and signs are in both Japanese and English and a colour-coding helps you to follow signs to the right platform. Ask people if they speak English and most will hold up an almost-touching thumb and forefinger and say ‘A little’, but you’ll find that that ‘little’ is usually enough to set you on your way.
You will note – coming back to our puzzles at the beginning – that Japan is a very ordered society and that the Japanese are extremely too courteous to one another and to visitors. There may be an undercurrent of wishing to throw off the constraints of that ethic of good behaviour and hard work, but as a visitor you’ll see little of it. You may be surprised at how homogeneous the society is: you can find yourself the only non-Japanese in a crowded Metro train in rush hour. But as a tourist, a smile, a hint of a bow and a word or two of Japanese go a long way.