Although thanks to Mazda, we were in Japan to see the latest offerings in the automotive world at the Tokyo Motor Show, we still had plenty of time to immerse ourselves into the spectacle that is Japan. And as we found out, it’s not all samurai swords and ninja’s
The island of Japan is located in the North West quadrant of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a country that is steeped in culture and history and yet has somehow managed to embrace modernism with open arms. Although its total population is around 127million and has a total landmass of 378,000km2, around half of them tightly squeeze themselves into the main 103 cities and 13million of those choose Tokyo as their home.
On the face of it, Japan is a complex country filled with mystery and intrigue. A facade possibly compounded by the fact that for around 220 years it isolated itself from the outside world (Sakoku), only to be forced open by the American Black ships (commanded by Matthew Perry – not the one from Friends) in 1853. Since then, their culture, food, creativity and overall their achievements have been revered the world over.
Both Pride and Respect (which I saw as conformity) are seemingly the backbones of Japanese culture and with the number of people that are crammed into the cities, they are traits that are well and truly needed. From stations to food halls the Japanese appear to be content (rather than resigned) to queue patiently and orderly for long periods of time to get what they want, and without a hint of line jumping.
The Pulse of Tokyo
As I said before, Tokyo/greater Tokyo has a population of around 14million and it shows. At peak rush hour times the streets (near places like the train station), are literally filled with a near endless flow of people, it’s simply amazing to watch and nigh-on impossible to battle against – think salmon heading upstream and you begin to get the picture.
To house and employ such a large concentration of people the Japanese inevitably needed to build upwards, and up they did. With around 150 skyscrapers (of 150m + tall), Tokyo’s skyline is a myriad of architectural goliaths, and a fair amount of ‘life’ takes place nowhere near the pavement – for example, like many Tokyo hotels, our reception in Strings by the Intercontinental, was nowhere near the ground, in fact, that was 26 floors away.
Time to get exploring. Up until 2010/11 the tallest structure in Japan was the Eiffel Tower inspired Tokyo Tower. Standing 332.9m tall, it is both a broadcasting hub and a tourist attraction, and a prominent feature on much of their promotional paraphernalia. However, we passed right by this orange and white icon to get to somewhere much taller, namely the Tokyo Skytree Tower.
At 634m it’s almost twice the size of its predecessor and nearly three times the height of our Skycity one. Again it doubles as a tourist attraction and a broadcasting tower but boasts a huge amount of stores, restaurants, and nightlife at its base.
Take the elevator to the 350th floor (Tembo Deck) and you find the view is ‘treemendous’. It offers a 360-degree vista of the city, its surroundings and beyond. We were told that on a clear day you can even see Mt Fuji, but despite the sky being virtually cloud-free, unfortunately, today was not that day. The Skytree Tower gives you more of a holistic perspective of Tokyo and how expansive Greater Tokyo is. On the subject of holistic, be sure and stand on the glass floor too – it’s an out of body experience for many.
Our next attraction took us back to the ground and way back in time. Japan has a history that dates back over thousands of years with religion playing a big part of its heritage and regardless of whether your faith is Shinto or Buddhist, there are quite literally hundreds of Temples and Shrines in Tokyo (thousands in Japan) to pray at. From small garden sized lots to impressively huge sites, these places of worship are guarded by Komainu (lion-dogs) and provide a place of calm, sanctuary even, from the contrasting noise of the outside world. Good luck and Good Karma rituals are abound and vary from ‘wishing well’ coin tosses to ‘what’s behind the door’ drawer openings.
As the Senso-Ji is Tokyo’s oldest and most visited temple (30 million per year), it was a must-see on our tour. The Senso-Ji is both a Temple (Sensoji Kannon) and a Shrine, it is dedicated to Guanyin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) and really is an impressive sight. Dramatic structures softened by ornate carvings. Bright gold and vivid colourings contrast boldly from the deep and symbolic safflower red dyed woods. Stern Japanese warriors beside fragile paper lanterns, visual conflicts seeming to reside peacefully together. Pretty deep huh?
For those keen to take away a piece of Japanese memorabilia, the Nakamise Dori is a 250m lane/street (running from Kaminarimon Gate to Hozomon Gate) and serves up arguably the biggest display of souvenirs and well worth a look.
If you’re in a shopping mood – Ginza is the place and pace to go. It is a brand lover’s paradise on a mammoth scale. We nose pressed the store windows of some of the world’s most desirable brands but resolutely held firm, opting for food over fashion.
The restaurant’s (food) is creative, colourful, vibrant and delicious. So much care is taken on the preparation and display and the pride that is taken on service is very noticeable. We ate a lot over the week, and pardon the pun, it’s a real takeaway experience from the tour. From expensive cuisine to food hall madness, the tastes still make my mouth water.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace I hear is a lovely place – we only got as far as the grounds, and not just because of the way we were dressed, visitors can only enter on the Emperor’s Birthday (23rd January) and the New Year’s Greeting (January 2nd). However, the cherry-blossom filled gardens are a green-fingered fan’s dream and the stonework on the Meganebashi (eyeglass bridge) is very photogenic.
With our exploration of Tokyo concluded (I know we barely scratched the surface) it was time to head off to Hiroshima for quite a different experience. Which meant taking the train, the Bullet Train to be exact.
Riding the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima is an event all by itself. It leaves and arrives as advertised on the ticket – you can set your watch on it. Again travelers stand orderly lines at appointed areas awaiting the train’s arrival and there seems to be the exact amount of time allotted for boarding and taking your seat before the train head out again. The carriages are clean, spacious and ‘tag’ free and food carts travel through the aisle to keep passengers fed and watered as the Shinkansen hits speeds of over 300kph. Even at that speed, we still managed to see Mt Fuji (at last) in all her snow-capped glory.
At Peace in Hiroshima
Hiroshima means white island and it’s also known as the City of Peace. With a population of 1.2million, it’s the 11th largest city in Japan and the oleander is its official flower (it was the first flower to bloom after the bomb). It has six rivers that flow through it with a whopping 2897 bridges and can be summed up with 5 B’s Bridges (as before), Busses (Efficient Public Transport), Bars (700 in one area), Baseball (Toyo Carp) and Business (with Mazda being the largest employer and economic contributor).
We stayed at the Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel next to the station. It’s a gloriously faceless and detached 5-star hotel, (and I mean this in a good way) with large bright rooms and good WiFi, in other words, a perfect base.
Travel top tip, when taking the JR Line ferry from Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima Island, stand on the right (starboard) side and have your camera ready. Because as the ferry approaches the dock, you will get a clear view of the Grand Torii Gate from the water.
Itsukushima/Miyajima is a World Heritage Site off the south-west side of Hiroshima and it’s chock full of temples, monuments, Shrines and the world’s second-biggest wooden spoon. It has lots of wild deer and is believed to be when God lives – so well worth the visit. The bright orange Grand Torii Gate stands partly submerged in Hiroshima bay and (in Shinto religion) acts as a passageway from the profane to the sacred. It leads you to the Itsukushima shrine and all the wonders that lay within.
The Shrine itself, (with origins dating back to the sixth century) is a series of one level buildings with a wooden walkway throughout. Every stage has a story to tell and although it is very well attended, you do get a sense of tranquillity as it is predominantly surrounded by water.
We took a walk through some of the native flora followed by a cable car ride up Mt Misen, unfortunately, our view was blighted by rain and cloud cover but it was still an amazing ‘gorillas in the mist’ experience.
From inner peace to Peace Park – I challenge you to go to the Peace Park in Hiroshima and not be touched.
We were dropped off at the base of Aioi (T-shaped bridge), the place known to be Enola Gay’s original target and quickly followed the river around to the Genbaku Dome. Like a living time capsule, the Atomic Bomb Dome is a monument and a permanent reminder of the horrific event that happened August 6th at 8.15am. Although in ghostly ruin, what remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall has been secured and made structurally sound, and stands tall in the UNESCO World Heritage site.
We rang the large Peace Bell, and then the smaller one at the Sadaku Sasaki Children’s Peace Monument, both symbolic and both thought-provoking.
A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum followed; a place that in no way shape or form, shy’s away from what happened to the city and its people. It’s factual and direct, shocking in many ways (of course) but what surprised me was that I found it to be as impartial as a professional news reporter. The before and after pictures, the relative size of the Fat Man and Little Boy to each other and to adult humans, the Hiroshima ‘Shadows’ imprints of people, following the ferocity of the blast. I felt informed and (thankfully) a little removed. The Peace Watch ticked, counting the hours since 8.15am August 6th and the hours since (thanks to North Korea) the last nuclear bomb blast.
That night, to lighten the mood we headed down to Nagarekawa, the nightlife district of Hiroshima, not that we were party people. We did, however, eat well, drink Sake and throw darts at an electronic dart board – thankfully no Karaoke was performed.
Obviously, one week in Japan was not enough time to explore a fraction of what this mystical country has to offer. But what it did give me was an insight into how modern and ancient cultures can work simultaneously. Even the seemingly shallow high tech buzz of Tokyo has an underlying depth to it, you just need to look beyond its tall buildings and bright neon lights.
With the contrast between pace and appearance, Tokyo and Hiroshima may on the face of it be very different cities, but in my opinion, when you get to their core and see their pride and respect, they are two hearts that beat as one.