Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

Japan – Honshu I

– first part of my visit to Japan in September/October 2015 –

I stayed six weeks in Japan and left with the feeling that I never spend so much time in a country while understanding so little about it. Japan is fascinating but Japan felt very distant. Much of the fascination lies in the fact that Japan is the only country I can travel to that is of similar wealth than my own but with a totally different culture. I find it extremely interesting that Japan has often found very different solutions to very similar questions that arise in society. A few examples? Europe is full of highways, in some countries they are free (Germany e.g.), in others it costs a small amount to use the highways for a full year (Switzerland 40€ or 85€ in Austria). It gets more expensive in France where you pay for every trip you take. Prices vary but, on many highways, to go 100 kilometres will set you back only 6€. In Japan, the rate for 100km is close to 20€. I hitchhike with a guy I met at a hostel and he pays more as a toll fee than what the bus ticket would have been. I like the idea to charge drivers for the costs they cause, and it makes a lot of sense.

Road construction work is another example. Japanese construction sites are meticulously secured but that is not enough, some workers are always designated to ensure a smooth passage for passing cars or pedestrians. Often it is over the top, there is no danger at all but still two or three persons are guiding traffic (or pedestrians) with signalling sticks. At some point you notice they are usually older workers so maybe the main aim is to give them a task, find a job that is not physically challenging? A third example: Japan is not only full of convenience stores but also of vending machines. They can be found in towns, tourist sights, small villages or even on top of Mount Fuji (in season). Wherever the vending machines are, the prices are in the same range. In the rest of the world, we are totally accustomed to see pricing change with location. A vending machine inside a tourist attraction (and no competition) will be much more expensive than a vending machine outside (with other options to buy stuff). It does not have to be that way as Japan shows.  

Japan consist of five main islands. Honshu is by far the largest and most populous one. It separates the Sea of Japan, which lies to its north and west, from the North Pacific Ocean to the south and east. The cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto or Hiroshima are all on Honshu.

Tokyo

I spend seven nights in Tokyo but have only seen glimpses of this city. The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world, with about 38 million inhabitants. Tokyo’s urban sprawl is endless but, in many areas, does not even feel like a big city. Expansive neighbourhoods with two- and three storey houses and small streets. Live seems calm and tranquil.

I visit common tourist sites like the Tokyo Skytree, the National Museum, the Meiji shrine, the Imperial Palace East Garden, the Edo-Tokyo-Museum, Senso Temple or the National Art Centre. But I also try to have a look at more unusual things like the Nakagin Capsule Tower, the world’s first example of capsule architecture built for permanent and practical use. Completed in just 30 days, the 13-storey tower consists of 140 self-contained prefabricated capsules measuring 2,5 x 4 metres with a single round window. I head to Nikon house to worship my favourite camera manufacturer and visit Honda for their robotics show. Asimo is a 130-centimetre-tall humanoid robot and can walk (2.7 km/h), run (9 km/h), dance and hold things. You can take your picture with the robot. An interesting piece of basic research but it is obvious how limited this robot still is. It walks at half the speed a human does. Honda has seen the writing on the wall, they proudly show the robot off but have already diverted resources from the program. I have a look at one of the famous Japanese sex shops, have sushi and meet a Japanese friend from my days in Venezuela. Tokyo’s Metro System is super complicated, stretches to the end of the world and is operated by three different companies. I buy a smart card because otherwise you cannot easily change between the companies. This is how the metro originally developed, several companies were starting on their own and to this day, it has just never been reformed. Seems to be a Japanese trait sometimes.

I visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji at the end of the Boshin War (a Japanese civil war) it was supposed to commemorates those who died in the service of Japan. That tradition was upheld in further conflicts. The shrine lists the names, origins, birthdates, and places of death of 2,466,532 men, women and children. The controversy is about 1,618 men condemned after World War II as Class A, B or C war criminals. Initially, these were excluded from enshrinement but Class B and C were gradually enshrined after 1959. In 1978 fourteen Class A war criminals (involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) were enshrined in a secret ceremony. That became known a year later and created little controversy, times have changed though, nowadays every time a Japanese minister visits the shrine, Japan’s neighbours are up in arms.

I stumble upon a demonstration. Demonstrators have assembled around the parliament.  Passions are running high but you wouldn’t notice. The demonstration is conducted with utmost orderliness. There is a lot of police and there is a clear demarcation where you are supposed to stand and where not. In every other country people would just swarm the streets and to get from A to B you would have to plough through the masses. Here, people stand orderly at the sides leaving space to walk along. It is all about Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which is worth quoting in full:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In truth Japan has armed forces but at least they are called Self-Defense Forces (SDF). They have participated in peacekeeping operations but have never, so far, seen active combat. Article 9 is sacrosanct to many Japanese and the government did not dare to amend the constitution. Instead, in 2014, they approved a reinterpretation of the article that should allow the SDF to defend other allies in case of war being declared upon them. In September 2015, this reinterpretation was being made official by enacting a series of laws to that effect. And people were up in arms (but unsuccessful).

Sumo

I visit Tokyo during the Autumn honbasho. Six such tournaments are held every year that determine the banzuke rankings for sumo wrestlers. Tickets are sold out well in advance but every morning a few hundred standing only tickets become available for the determined. I head to the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall and with a combination of luck and help from the rain (no one likes to wait if it’s raining cats and dogs), I secure a ticket.

The sumo hall holds 11,000 people arranged in a circle centred on the wrestling stage in the middle. A slightly raised, earthen platform that seems covered with fine sand, a circular ring of straw rope embedded into the platform gives some hold to the feet of the wrestlers and limits the wrestling area. A suspended Shinto-style roof is above the stage. Wrestling starts in the morning with the lower divisions. The hall is still fairly empty. It is all very ceremonial. Before wrestling and during breaks a finely dressed man in traditional clothing tidies up the sand with a brush. With every new division all the wrestlers enter, surround the ring and perform a ritual. They are still wearing an apron. For the fights, the fat men come back near naked. They stand in the stage, throw salt on it (for purification), crouch down, raise and stomp their feet before they go into position. A judge, also finely dressed in traditional attire gives the signal, the wrestlers push forward and lock into each other. In order to win you need to push your opponent out of the circular ring or get him to touch the ground with some other body part than the soles of his feet. Some bouts are short, some take longer, some end slowly and some violently by the wrestler(s) falling down from the stage. The fall is softened by the people sitting cross legged right next to the platform. The upper tier of the hall is equipped with chairs but the lower areas are all sit-on-the-floor style.

During a break I have a noodle soup on the other side of the street. A sumo wrestler enters after me and orders two soups right away. Back in the hall, I observe the fan base, many petite Japanese ladies, adoring the fat, ugly men. Some of them are just fat, some more muscular and size is not a good predictor of who will win. I find it all quite absurd but I love it. If tickets would have been easily available, I would have visited for a second day. There is a certain rhythm, there is a fight, new wrestlers coming, another pair of new wrestlers, sometimes a new division. In the afternoon, the hall is packed. The tournament lasts 15 days and the wrestlers fight every other wrestler from their division. If you win more fights than you lose you are promoted to the next division. The wrestler from the highest division with the most wins receives the Emperor’s Cup. Sumo is seen as the embodiment of Japan’s traditions. All is regulated by custom. To achieve the highest rank of Yokozuna, winning alone is not enough, you have to conduct yourself with dignity.  So, it is a bit of an insult that many of the top wrestlers are not Japanese, many are actually Mongolian.          

Mount Fuji

Japan is a rich country and standards are often high. The Station Inn in Kawaguchi-ko is the second hostel that has its own onsen. Separated by sex you can lounge (naked) in a pool of hot water. Before and after you take a shower but not in the “western” way standing but sitting on a stool and cleaning yourself by pouring water from a bucket over your head. Unfamiliar but quite enjoyable. Looking out of the window I can recognize the shape of Mount Fuji in the darkness. I will climb the mountain tomorrow but I need to climb fast. When I checked the timetables a week ago the climbing season was still ongoing and there were early and late buses to the departure point. Now, the season is over and the early and late buses are gone.

I stop at the visitors’ centre. I had heard that you should register before your hike. An older employee asks me where I am from and after my reply switches to German. I tell him that I want to climb Mount Fuji and ask for the best way. He tells me about one path but that path would be closed because the season is over. There is another path but that path is closed as well because the season is over. I ask for a third path, the one that will bring me to the summit. He replies that there are only these two paths. So how am I supposed to get on the mountain if all the paths are closed? “There is no police on the mountain,” he says with a smile.

As I get to the better path for the ascent, the path is indeed closed. A big sign blocks the path and a rope blocks the sides. It has been hung low enough to let people climb over effortlessly. My ascent starts on 2,300 metres so to reach the top is an altitude difference of nearly 1,500 metres. I have eight hours to get to the top and down again. Climbing Mount Fuji in these circumstances is a totally different experience than climbing it in season. In summer it must be full of people, the hiking path is lined with rest houses, restaurants and hostels. People stay the night along the way and hike up in early morning. All of them are closed now. At first it is foggy but higher up it clears up.

Mount Fuji is an active stratovolcano that last erupted from 1707 to 1708. It is a solitary mountain that rises commandingly over everything around it. It is a very beautiful mountain. The only problem is that while being on that beautiful mountain, you do not see that beautiful mountain you just look down onto the lands below (or the clouds in my case). I reach the top, but being a volcano, the top is actually a crater. To my disappointment I realize that the post office, the place I was looking forward to go to, is on the opposite side. To circle the crater will take another hour from my time. I move quickly but the post office is of course closed and all boarded up. Snow will come soon to the mountain. I only manage to get back down in time as the slopes of the mountain are covered in volcanic sand. Essentially, it is a one-way system, you walk up on the path and to get down, you slide through the sand.

Nikko & Kamakura

Nikko has many shrines and temples, and nearby Yumoto Onsen is known for its hot springs. I spend a day walking from Yumoto Onsen to Lake Chuzenji, passing smaller waterfalls along the way and ending at Kegon Waterfall. There are holidays in Japan and people are out to explore their country. Many are sporting expensive cameras, trying to catch good shots of the autumn leaves. Many hostels are fully booked, causing me to follow a crazy schedule of moving between places according to the availability of a cheap bed. From Nikko, north of Tokyo, I head straight to Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, arriving there late at night. I have run out of cash and need to find an ATM first. Not so easy.

Most Japanese ATMs, despite the high-tech identity of the country, do not accept international cards. Only the post bank ATMs being found at most 7-Eleven convenience stores are save bets. I love these convenience stores, such a great selection of tasty snacks. And if you need something more substantial there is a great range of ready to eat meals that can be prepared (microwave ovens) right at the store and also consumed at the usually provided tables. There are, in fact, too many convenience stores as I am always tempted to have a snack when passing one. 

Kamakura was Japan’s de facto capital (1185 – 1333) and its most populous settlement. It is located at the sea and rich in Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples.

Chūbu Region

Before my arrival I was worried about costs in Japan, I therefore planned flexible being able to leave sooner or later to South Korea. Japan is not a cheap country but can be travelled reasonably cheap. Hostels are around 20€ per night, soups like ramen can be found cheaply, shopping malls have good food courts and if that is too costly you can get ready to eat meals at convenience stores. Real restaurants are more expensive, a sashimi dinner turns out to be pricey and I once head with someone to a restaurant that had been recommended to him and end up eating nothing else than an appetizer while realizing the prices and what you get for your money. Entrance fees are reasonable. That leaves transportation as a headache. Many tourists buy a Japan Rail Pass that gives them unlimited access to the rail network and zip all over Japan with the Shinkansen high-speed trains. I did not and you need to buy the passes outside of Japan forcing me to find other cheap transportation modes and forcing me, thankfully, off the beaten path. I only head to Ishikawa prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan because I find a cheap overnight bus offer.   

The hostel is in a small village in the middle of nowhere. It’s run by a lady who speaks very good but very soft-spoken English. She gives me a bike to get to Ainokura and Suganuma. The UNESCO inscribed villages are famous for their traditional gasshō-zukuri houses. The next day I visit further-away Ogimachi Village.

Kanazawa is an interesting city with its impressive castle. Japanese wall construction follows the principle of fitting every stone perfectly into place. I enjoy the 21st Century Museum with the famous swimming pool by Leandro Ehrlich, the simpleness of the T. D. Suzuki Museum (a Buddhist philosopher) and the Kenroku-en garden. The Myōryū temple has been nicknamed Ninja Temple for its many deceptive defences. By chance, I meet Anna & Czarek, that I had first met in Malaysia months earlier.

I take a local train along the coast stopping in Tojinbo, sea cliffs that have become well-known because of the many suicides. A flower seller allows me to leave my big backpack while exploring the cliffs. I meet a friendly family that takes me to some hot spring foot bath and all the way to Eihei temple even as the temple is not on their way. I have to stop them from making their teenage daughter don her Kendo stick fighting costume for me.