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Hacktreks in Japan - From Our Archives

Joys of Japan
Barry Dunstall

Disney and the Beatles?
Barry Dunstall finds out whether Tokyo is really so different after all.

Tokyo, halfway down the Japanese archipelago’s Pacific coastline at just the point where the land starts swinging to the west, almost seems to be the reluctant capital, backing away from the rest of the country. The city is, after all, too modern, too dynamic and frankly too Western to be the face of Japan’s traditional values. Japan began assimilating elements of Western civilization in the late 19th century and Tokyo continues to do so with vigour. There is still plenty of good old-fashioned sushi and sumo wrestling in Tokyo, of course, but only next door to hi-tech electronics stores, Beatles tribute bars and Disney. If you want a culture shock, go elsewhere.

Eating out in Tokyo is mercifully relaxed and inexpensive. Japanese fast food includes gyudon (rice topped with cooked beef and sautéed onions), tendon (rice topped with tempura) and soba or udon noodles. Sushi is generally cheap, especially at the famous ‘kaiten-zushi’ shops where the food is served in bite-sized chunks on small plates circling the room on conveyor belts. The most common ingredients are tuna, squid and prawn, often accompanied by cucumber, pickled radish and sweet egg omelette. And while we’re on the subject of eating, some words of advice on Japanese etiquette: it’s rude to point chopsticks at someone over dinner, pouring yourself a drink is also considered impolite and so is eating in the street.

For a glimpse of Tokyo’s automotive future, I visit Toyota’s Mega Web complex, ideal for those pitiful men who find carburettors more exciting than the thought of Jennifer Lopez naked in honey. You can test drive the latest models, try virtual reality motoring or wander among sports cars from the 1950's onwards. Like a car showroom crashing into a funfair, Mega Web is part of ‘Palette Town’, an amusement park opened in 1999 and including one of the world’s highest Ferris wheels. Take a whirl at night, when Tokyo spreads out below you in neon glory, like a permanent urban firework display. By day, there are spectacular views of the smog.

Cars are all very well, but Tokyo is really the city of the subway train. The vast underground system is quick, cheap, efficient and almost entirely bewildering. The problem is not getting from A to B within the city. The problem is getting from A to B within the labyrinthine stations. It can easily take 20 minutes to walk from one platform to another at Tokyo’s main subway station. One wrong turn and you may as well set up camp for the night. Luckily, the Japanese are extremely helpful. Stand around looking clueless for long enough and someone will come over to help you. They may not speak English but they will try to help you, even if they don’t know what they’re trying to help you to do.

The Japanese love a bit of retail therapy. Tokyo’s department stores are remarkable, among the biggest I have ever seen. The stock ranges from kimonos to wigs, as if the shops are obliged to sell every product on the planet. There are cameras the size of credit cards (and just as damaging to your bank balance). Of all the things I see, my favourite is a pair of remote-controlled electronic feet designed to carry cans of beer around the house. Fly out with a few spare suitcases so you can bring everything you buy back.

Evening falls, so I join a few friends at Abbey Road, one of the Beatles bars I mentioned earlier. Abbey Road may not be the classiest nightspot in Tokyo, but the all-Japanese tribute band are musically far superior to any group you’re likely to find playing in an English pub on a Friday night. They may not look much like the Fab Four and they may not be able to mimic Scouse accents, but they match the Beatles’ early musical style precisely. And, to be fair, the vocals aren’t entirely inaccurate. The Japanese Ringo can’t sing either.

In search of a more spiritual Japan one day, I leave Tokyo and head south for an hour by train to the ancient coastal town of Kamakura, once the seat of the feudal government. Kamakura’s most famous attraction today is the bronze Great Buddha, cast in 1252, over 13 metres high and weighing more than 120 tonnes. Buddhism arrived in Japan from mainland Asia in the sixth century, bringing lessons of enlightenment and salvation that have been embraced ever since. Many of the 118 temples and 41 shrines throughout Kamakura are surrounded by gardens that combine plants, sand, water and rock to celebrate the beauty of nature. My favourite of the temples is Hasedera, founded in the eighth century and graced with waterfalls idly wandering down the hillside. Standing around are tiny statues of the Buddha, many of which have been dressed, rather surprisingly but presumably with all due reverence, in woolly hats and raincoats. It’s impossible to leave Kamakura without a feeling of serenity.

If you fancy escaping from Tokyo for a while but Kamakura does not appeal, the elegant and iconic Mount Fuji can also be reached on a day trip. At 3,776 metres, the mountain is Japan’s highest peak and is particularly attractive to climbers in July and August. More leisurely types enjoy the nearby Fuji Five Lakes district, which offers opportunities for hiking, boating, fishing, camping and picnicking.

Anyone visiting Tokyo with children has no choice: you must by law go to Disneyland, the nation’s most popular theme park. Turning the Maihama district on the outskirts of the city into a destination in its own right, the hotel-surrounded park’s main attraction is perhaps the Disney Sea, complete with a volcano on Captain Nemo’s ‘Mysterious Island’ and a cruise liner, the SS Columbia. Nearly everything at Disneyland is moulded in the iconic shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, from the coasters on the restaurant tables to the exhaust pipes on the resort buses. The overall effect is rather unsettling, like a brainwashing experiment controlled by a dictatorship. You get the feeling that anyone found not having fun will be shot.

Over 37 million people live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including plenty of fat Romanian women offering you a ‘massage’ in an alleyway. To say the streets are buzzing would be one of the great understatements, but I’m sure this most accommodating of cities will always find room for one more tourist. Go east. Go now.* When flying is permitted again.

© Barry Dunstall April 2004

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