Y’know Buzzfeed? (‘Course y’know Buzzfeed). Well its site averages 460 million views a month. Coming in at a close second, this here blog of mine averages a smooth 800 a month. And I think to myself, what is it that needs to happen to push me that extra inch, to tip this blog just a few 459,999,200 viewers over into stardom territory? And then it hit me. Lists. Lists and clickbait titles.
What’s more, I’m planning to integrate this new style so seemlessly that not one of my regulars will even bat an eye. Clever, huh?
Now, without further adon’t: forget what you’ve read thus far, fire through the rest with your zombie eyes and drooling grin face on, share, like, follow, and make me a STAR, baby. A star.
In all seriousness, though. This week’s post is a list. It’s a list of my absolute favourite things about Japan – a country which feels like home to me. Feels like I could move here and learn the language and never look back. It has its problems with conservatism and these Yakuza fellows, sure, but by and large it just feels right to me. Thus, in no particular order…
1. The Food.
This seems, to me, the most obvious place to start. It’s where most of my money goes, after all. Not because the food here is particularly expensive – snacks $1-2, lunch is usually around $5, dinner maybe $8 – but because it’s so damned good, I can’t bring myself not to eat out, not to try everything in sight.
I should perhaps mention that at this point, 113 days into my travels, I am entirely un-vegetarian.
Waaaaait just a cactus-sucking minute, cowboy. Weren’t you like a month ago greetin’ yer eyes out over having to eat meat in Korea?
…Yyyeah, that might have been me.
Remember that name you all had for me when I was at Internal Affairs? What was it, Gordon? SAY IT. SAY IT.
Listen, I make no excuses. I reached a point where it made me happier to stop wrestling with Asian cuisine, and instead surrender to its meaty deliciousness.
Japanese food was not something I knew a whole lot about (except of course for expecting lots of sushi). I knew I was excited to get to a real ramen bar, put my first bill into the ticket/menu vending machine and wait in line for a bowl, but really aside from that I didn’t know what I was in for.
Let me tell you that I have not had one meal so far that I’ve been disappointed with. Far from it. Almost every time I head out for a bite to eat, my tastebuds are made love to. And not in a RomCom bursting-through-the-door-ripping-each-others-clothes-off kinda way; this food serenades you. Just waiting, watching it being prepared, it teases you. Flutters its eyelids from across the bar as you salibate. And then, finally – you’ve waited in line (this is the Japanese standard by the way) for a half hour – you’ve watched the chef prepare your ramen, or mix the batter fresh for your okonomiyaki, and finally it’s yours. And not once has it failed to roll my eyes back and make me exclaim ‘umai!‘ (‘yummy!’).
There is a variety to Japanese food I was not prepared for. It’s as far from being all sushi orientated as you could imagine. In fact, I’ve still not even had sushi yet. I’ve not had tempura. I’ve not had takoyaki. There’s a million thing I haven’t tried.
There’s okonomiyaki: a batter of eggs, milk, water and flour, with cabbage, veggies and meat (beef, chicken, octopus, you name it). It’s cooked in front of you, and served, on a big hot plate which you sit at – bar stool style. Once served, you douse it in a sticky soy-sauce glaze, and mayonaise (Japan is not so pretentious as to not realise that mayonaise makes everything taste better). The first okonomiyaki I had was octopus based, and since then I’ve had a couple beef types, and a street-style fast-food version. Every one of them has been sensational.
Unbeknownst to most, as famous as sushi is outside of Japan, curry is inside. But of course the curry served here is deemed truly Japanese. And it’s good. It’s often great, in fact, but it’s not really Japanese. It’s comfort food, the quality of which only surpasses microwave-meal curry by an inch or two. But sometimes a microwave curry meal is just the ticket, and Japan does it restaurant style. So who’s complaining?
Japanese sweet stuff too, is phenomenal. A convert to red bean paste whilst in Korea, the indulgence of the Japanese in this ever-so-slightly sweat, refried-bean-textured filling is a joy to me. You’ll find it in donuts, pastries, chocolate and sweets. But if red bean’s not your jam (pun intended), then I’d recommend getting your teeth round some tiyaki. Tiyaki is a waffle cake, shaped like a fish.
Eugh, a fish flavoured waffle!?
No, no, no. Not fish flavoured. Fish shaped. Why? No fucking clue. But they’re everywhere, and insanely popular. Usually filled with sweet potato or red/white bean, but coming in all variations, with fillings from chocolate or custard, to curried sausage or ‘pizza’. They are the fucking bomb. And never more than like £1, despite being a substantial snack.
And no, the novelty of eating fish-shaped foods doesn’t wear off. Just like the novelty of eating Matsumoto’s famous turtle-melon-bread this morning had me as excited as a kid at Christmas.
Japanese noodles come in three standard forms, soba (made from buckwheat and served cold (as far as I’m aware), udon, and ramen. Usually served in a broth or soup, ramen is by far my favourite. The stuff is fucking catnip, dude. And from Fukuoka’s famous Hakata Ramen, through the ‘Fire Ramen’ of Kyoto, to Matsumoto’s infamously rich chicken stock ramen, I’ve got my gums round a whole heap of the stuff over the past few weeks.
From, as I said, the anticipation of waiting in line to get your vending machine ticket, to watching the chef prepare your meal, to slurping down the broth and noodles in a bid to satiate your ferocious hunger (always, always satiated by the end of each massive bowl), eating ramen at a restaurant is one of my favourite things to do in Japan.
Neither at university or school I was presented the opportunity to study Asian, nor indeed Japanese history. Nevertheless, it has always fascinated me, and to arrive here and discover how rich and accesible and abundant the history is, was a veritable gift from the gods.
From Japan’s more scarred and recent history, such as the sights of atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which you can read about here), to its ancient history of warring feudal states, Samurai shogunate rulers and soldiers, ninja experts in subterfuge, assassination, and sabotage (fact of the day: the ninja were chosen members of the Samurai class, and not – as movies and anime would have you believe – a seperate and antagonistic group), impressive castles, entertaining Geisha, rural agriculture and fishing village culture, Japan is packed full of places to visit and sights to see.
I’ve visited several of Japan’s castles so far. The magnificently white Himeji-jo, ‘the miracle castle’ – named so for its complete and intact survival amongst the post-war rubble of Himeji city; Osaka-jo, sight of numerous battles, gilded in turqouise and gold; and Matsumoto-jo, a gothic black and white against Matsumoto’s stark grey skies and towering Northern Alps.
Just this morning, actually, a friend from the hostel, Pete, and I were taken by Morio-san on a free guided tour of Matsumoto-jo. We were told how the feudal lords never inhabited the castle, how instead it housed only Samurai guards and lookouts, and was to act as a last defense against attack on the city. Morio-san explained that contrary to European use of boiling oil, Japanese garrisons used only stones to protect the castle from invasion, given Japanese castles were made solely from wood, and were thus vulnerable to fire and heat (many indeed have suffered fire damage and required subsequent renovation throughout their lifespans).
As did Himeji-jo, Matsumoto-jo smelled wonderfully of the old, original wooden beams and polished oak floors found throughout the castle. Moreover, it was entirely unfurnished but for a few weapons and armour on display, and the protective shrine placed in the eaves of the uppermost floor. Peculiar to Matsumoto-jo was a ‘moon-viewing terrace’. This terrace surrounded a smaller extension to the main tower, and was built solely so that the chief Samurai and their feudal master and his family could sit out in the evening, drinking saké, listening to music, and gazing up at the moon.
To incorporate into such a militaristic-building as a castle a room made for such peaceful, naturist intentions as drinking in the moonlight, is an entirely Japanese idea. And I love it.
Note to self: when back home, find flat with moon-viewing terrace.
Though potentially under threat from city expansion and intensive Japanese modernisation (see: Lost Japan by Alex Kerr), most cities retain a preserved ye olde timey district. The buildings will, invariably have been renovated to accomodate residential housing or shops, restaurants, etc., and yet, the feel of these places seems somehow to have remained untouched. Step into Gion, Kyoto, and you will feast your eyes on a million and one back alleys and winding side streets – tightly packed all black and mahogany, with bamboo screen doors and shutters, flags and softly lit lanterns. Shrines pop up out of the abundant greenery like sacred mole hills – always quiet, always respectful. Gion is perhaps most renowned as one of the few surviving Geisha districts of modern Japan.
Geishas, if you didn’t know (because I didn’t before getting here), are entertainers of the highest class. Women who have mastered several or all of the Japanese traditional arts, such as caligraphy, playing the Gottan, painting, dancing, and singing. They are also masterful servers, catering to a client’s every need during typically a meal and then show. To be entertained by a Geisha is a high honour, and not an opportunity afforded to street-urchin backpackers. If you got dat dollah though.
It’s not common to see Geisha, as typically they will use backdoors, side alleys, and private transport to move between clients. However should you stumble upon one of these side alleys – as it so happened I did – then holy cow. Minding my own business, taking in Gion’s atmosphere, I found myself round the back of the main theatre, and suddenly, from its back door emerge maybe six or seven Geisha. Instantly recognisable (and instantly mesmorising) in their sheet-white makeup, blackened teeth, red lipstick, perfectly pinned up hair, strikingly colourful kimono, these women were a beautiful sight to behold. I refrained from taking any photo’s, in part as a show of respect, in part because I was frozen to the spot, but nonetheless, I will not soon forget that moment.
I did, however, take a cheeky snap of some of the friends and couples strolling through Gion in their kimono and yukata, as is quite normal in Kyoto, the ancient capital.
Which brings me seamlessly (I’m getting better and better at these segues, huh?), onto another favourite aspect of this country: its fashion.
It’s odd, though. As I think I mentioned in a post from Korea, in Seoul you feel always underdressed. Coming to Japan then – the home of alternative and innovative fashion – I was prepared to feel like auld Artful Dodger musta when confronted wae Oli Twister all dolled up efter hei’s adopted by yon posho’s. But, naw. People dress nice as sin here, aye, but it feels all a whole lot more relaxed. And I think at the end of the day this comes down to the fact that people express some individuality here in Japan, whereas in Korea, people follow trends with military precision, and no one wants to stand out. In Japan, you can dress and look almost however you want.
There are kids who model themselves on anime, with mental spiked up hair, long trench coats and accessories you’d never think could work. There’re the middle-aged men all sharp in suits and boat shoes. There’s the skater kids in there baggy troos and flat caps. There’re the kids in Shibuya wearing Cyclops masks and knee high PVC leather boots, or maid uniforms, or violet hair with black contacts in. And then, of course – because as with China, Japan is a country of old meets new – there are the gorgeous, gorgeous kimono, yukata, slippers and two-toed socks, the umbrellas and the fans.
To a degree the latter is sometimes worn for novelty by Japanese tourists to Tokyo or Kyoto, but in older city districts, you’ll not have to wait long before you see your first member of the older generation buying their groceries or taking the train or smoking a ciggie in full kimono/yukata.
And then there’s me, in jeans and a tee, no fashion sense to speak of and yet, so what? You, I, fit in here despite it all. Because everyone is so differently dressed and made-up, you can be yourself and feel quite comfortable.
The art, oh my god, the art. I’ve said already how full this place is of art, and how varied its forms are. But briefly here I will mention my favourite form – the ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. These are prints on paper made by first carving an image into wood, before inking and pressing this to your chosen canvas. After which typically the ukiyo-e are coloured with paints. Traditionally ukiyo-e feature Geisha or Kabuki (Japanese drag theatre) actors, though other depictions can include daily life or landscapes. Ukiyo-e also form the basis for much of traditional Japanese tattooing (see: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng), and if you’ve ever spied one of these, you’ll know how intricate and majestic ukiyo-e can be.
Creating an ukiyo-e is a painstaking and highly skilled process, providing phenomenal outcomes. I’m absolutely in love with the prints, and have, I’m unashamed to say, been splashing out here and there on one or two reproductions, and one original. What’s more, I found these in the coolest, raddest locations.
Arguably, these aspects of Japan are my absolute favourite. Perhaps a result of secular Shinto and religious Buddhism, there exists in Japan – as I spoke of briefly in my Hiroshima post – a deep love of and respect for nature, both floral and animal.
And thus, no matter where you are, you will find wonderful examples of both. To touch on the animal first, wildlife is abundant. Cats, wild and semi-domesticated, are everywhere; the Japanese love (and love to dress up in ridiculous outfits) their pet dogs; cicadas (crickets) in the bushes are the soundtrack to your evening strolls; birdsong brings to life the mornings and afternoons; in Nara and on Miyajima, deer amble freely, undisturbed by tourists and locals; in the mountains the native Macaque monkeys can be seen, heard, and fed; on Okunoshima island, you will find no people, instead it is inhabited solely by fluffy, multi-coloured bunny rabbits. Elsewhere there is a village of foxes. In the cities there are owl, sheep, cat, and hedgehog cafés. Truly wherever you find yourself, so too will you find some species or other of well-treated, usually wild, and beloved wildlife.
Here in Matsumoto, the old architecture is framed by wispy-cloud covered alpen mountains. From the top of Miyajima you are led to believe whole-heartedly that the islands you can see float on the surface of the ocean. In Kyoto you can take a walk through Arashiyama’s bamboo grove, as sunlight trickles through the densely packed canopy. And regardless of season, some flower or other is in full bloom wherever you are.
The temples and palaces and their gardens are, however, superior in beauty and zen (for me at least), to even the wildlife and landscapes of the countryside. As I’ve said, you can find temples and shrines of varying shapes, sizes and religious sects, scattered all throughout the country. From the winding orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari, or Miyajima’s floating torii, to the grand Golden Buddha of Nara’s Tōdai-Ji; their colours are rich, the scent of incense hangs on the air, the sense of calm is pervasive, and the architecture is sublime.
Japanese gardening could have come under the art section, the history section, or here, for it encompasses all. And trust me, visiting a Japanese garden is not at all like walking through the Glasgow Botanics, or helping yer ma’ out in the allotment. Both can be nice, sure, but I’m never super enthused to spend much time doing either, whereas I could spend all day just sitting in a Japanese garden. The workmanship required to create the perfectly raked sand or stones, to place islands of rocks, to plant and trim trees, flowers and bushes so that they frame a mountain or temple roof, to dig a pond or sculpt moss so as to provide the perfect viewpoint, is extraordinary. Extra-ordinary.
And to lie back and watch herons flying overhead, or hear a waterfall plunging to its depths, to walk among head-high colour or see whole landscapes take form in the shapes of a rock garden, is a wonderfully unique experience.
The Japanese are universally renowned for their politeness, kindness and sense of respect. Upon arrival, experiencing this first-hand can be overwhelming, and getting to grasp with the customs – taking off your shoes before entering a building, bowing, thanking and apologising profusely – can be hard. But once these things become familiar, it is a wonderul world to be a part of.
Enter a hostel, a restaurant, a bar, a shop, a 7 Eleven, and you will be loudly and warmly greeted by every resident or server there. Later, you’ll leave to a chorus of arigatou gozaimasu! Look a little lost or helpless on the street or purchasing subway tickets, and someone will, unprompted, go out of their way to not just point you in the right direction, but physically escort you every step of the way (whether they speak English or not). Such is the kindness of Japanese people, you are glad to adapt to their culture, and reciprocate the kindness shown to you, be it to locals or other tourists. It creates a very friendly, comfortable community and space in which to travel.
7. The Anime.
As my dear friend Rory puts it so poetically, I’m a massive geek for, and a lover of ‘tentacle porn’. (By which he means anime). I canni get enough of the stuff. And whilst, as a grown ass adult in the West this can sometimes appear immature to you norms, when you think about what Japan has given to our childhoods (especially my generation), aren’t we all?
Pokémon, Capcom, Sega, Super Mario, Street Fighter, Tekken, Final Fantasy, Yu Gi Oh. Need I say more?
Being in the land that gave me all this and more, then, I’m nerding out (like blacking out drunk, but on cartoons) erry damn day. And what’s more, I can do so loud and proud. Without fail, almost every traveller I meet out here is a fan of anime, Studio Ghibli (my jam), or manga – at least to a small degree, if not a life-long fan.
And, as I’m sure you can imagine, animation is freaking everywhere. It monopolises advertising, street signs, and posters. It decorates iPhones, trains, cars, and clothing. It’s as much a part of Japanese culture as all the old stuff is – which I love; the fact that the old and the new can exist in such harmony is fantastic.
Tokyo is anime Mecca. Head to Akihabara (the ‘Electric Town’), and you’ll be confronted with multi-storey shopping mall after multi-storey shopping mall packed to the brim with manga bookstores, trading card playing and purchasing shops, toys and figurine stores, capsule toy machines (way too addictive), purikura photo booths, and (if it’s your thing – Rory, you’ll be glad to hear) horrendously explicit anime porn. To take a break from the bustle of these malls, you can duck into one of a hundred and twenty billion Taito Stations, to play any game under the sun for 100¥ a pop (60p). Most recently I discovered Pokken – a crossover between Pokémon and Tekken. Aye. Ah ken. Or, if your in the mood for a weirder, potentially quite uncomfortable experience, you can grab a coffee and a bite to eat at one of Akihabara’s maid cafés, where, as it says on the tin, you’ll be served and entertained by Japanese gals dressed as sexy maids. Weird as fuck, and no, I haven’t been.
It’s all a chaotic, geeky, nerdy, beautiful mess, and it suits me to a T.
So I went to the fucking Studio Ghibli Museum. I have dreamt of going to this place for years. I had written it off as an impossibility due to the demand for tickets and the necessity to advance book from within Japan. And yet, by some luck of the fates (and more so my dad’s Tokyo-based colleague Shoko), I got a ticket, and I freaking got to go.
Since it’s forbidden to take photo’s in there – in an endeavour to make us arsehole modern kids actually use our eyes rather than our eyePhones (shit this guy’s a fucking wordsmith) – I feel it would be improper to describe in detail what the museum houses. You’ll just have to buy a flight to Japan and see for yourself.
What I will say is this. The ticket you receive in exchange for your ticket you bought is a small framed negative strip randomly selected from any one of Ghibli’s movies. I got a scene from Laputa: Castle in the Sky (fuck yes). I got to watch a short Miyazaki film created for sole use within the museum. I fed the wonder and amazement of my inner child whilst wandering, weaving, ducking and diving through myriad tiny doors, stained-glass windows and garden paths. I took a selfie with the Laputa robot stood guard on the garden roof (kosher to take photo’s there, happily). And I came away with a whole new newfound respect for Miyazaki and his troops – whose painstaking dedication to learning, educating, and creating beautiful worlds, should be an inspiration to us all.
I also spent way too much money on Ghibli merch made for purchase only in the museum.
Best. Day. Ever.
Hopefully unlike those shitty albums that have ten minutes of shitty silence before four shitty chords of shitty ‘hidden track’, these added extras might help to fill in the gaps, like mortar in brickwork, as to just why Japan makes me giddy and swoonish.
- The way the sunlight comes down through the maple leaves.
- Zero jay-walking. Waiting at every single pedestrian light, at first finding it frustrating, but soon thankful for its making you take a breather once in a while.
- Trains so punctual you could set your watch by them (and should, by the way). Trains so comfortable and spacious you set up camp. Trains so fast you’re at your destination before you have time to finish setting up camp.
- Tatami mats and futons. The goddamned comfiest sleep you’ll have in yer life.
*There, Mr. J. *There. We. Go. Don’t confuse the people. We’re done. It’s over. No more list.
We have, you have, I have come to the end of my list compiling my absolute fave fave fave parts of Japan. It’s a wonderful country, and I know for sure I’ll be back.
Here’s a Hayao Miyazaki quote to end. With love to mi familia, mi amigos, y el mejor pais del mundo, Japón.
The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart. What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable.